After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council

After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council
April 07, 2013  Ian Hurd

politics-of-legitimacy-after-anarchyThe politics of legitimacy is central to international relations. When states perceive an international organization as legitimate, they defer to it, associate themselves with it, and invoke its symbols. Examining the United Nations Security Council, Ian Hurd demonstrates how legitimacy is created, used, and contested in international relations. The Council’s authority depends on its legitimacy, and therefore its legitimation and delegitimation are of the highest importance to states.

Through an examination of the politics of the Security Council, including the Iraq invasion and the negotiating history of the United Nations Charter, Hurd shows that when states use the Council’s legitimacy for their own purposes, they reaffirm its stature and find themselves contributing to its authority. Case studies of the Libyan sanctions, peacekeeping efforts, and the symbolic politics of the Council demonstrate how the legitimacy of the Council shapes world politics and how legitimated authority can be transferred from states to international organizations. With authority shared between states and other institutions, the interstate system is not a realm of anarchy. Sovereignty is distributed among institutions that have power because they are perceived as legitimate.

This book explores these issues through the practical workings of the Security Council. It examines how the members of the United Nations approach the Council and how the Council responds in its daily operations. The practical role of the Council in international relations is not well understood, despite the great deal of reporting and analysis on its actions since 1945.

Even simple questions about the behavior of the Council and its effects on states and on the international system have complicated answers. This complexity, I suggest, is due in part to an underappreciation of the role of legitimacy and legitimation in the routine business of the Council. Without understanding the peculiar nature of power based on legitimacy, one cannot understand the behavior and effects of the Council.


The Council is potentially the most powerful international organization ever known to the world of states, which makes it a crucial test case for the operation of legitimacy in the international system: its peculiar combination of extensive powers and political limitations means that its effectiveness depends on its legitimation. This section gives a brief overview of the Security Council and explains why the institution is a useful place to see behavioral consequences from strategies of legitimation in international relations.

The Council is composed of fifteen member states, five of them permanent members and specified by name in the Charter. These are the United States, Russia (replacing the Soviet Union in 1991), China, the United Kingdom, and France. The rest are elected for two-year terms out of the general population of the UN General Assembly under a formula that ensures representation to five “regions” of the world

This book’s innovative approach to international organizations and international relations theory lends new insight into interactions between sovereign states and the United Nations, and between legitimacy and the exercise of power in international relations. Book Review

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Bomb Syria, Even if It Is Illegal
August 27, 2013 By IAN HURD

Special tribunals for Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia reflect a growing consensus that perpetrators of atrocities should be punished.

Arguably, the key legal obligation of nations in the post-1945 world is adherence to the United Nations Charter. It demands that states refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” The use of force is permitted when authorized by the Security Council or for self-defense (and countries like Jordan and Turkey are considering this route to justify joining an anti-Assad coalition) — but not purely on humanitarian grounds.

Of course ethics, not only laws, should guide policy decisions. Since the Rwandan genocide and the Balkan mass killings of the 1990s, a movement has emerged in support of adding humanitarian intervention as a third category of lawful war, under the concept of the “responsibility to protect.” It is widely accepted by the United Nations and most governments. It is not, however, in the charter, and it lacks the force of law.

This was evident in Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia without United Nations authorization. Then, as now, Russia and China were unwilling to grant Security Council approval.

America and its allies went ahead with what the Independent International Commission on Kosovo later called an “illegal but legitimate” use of force. In that case, NATO accepted implicitly that its act was illegal. It defended it in moral and political language rather than legal terms.

Norms and institutions of international criminal law, including 11 years of experience with the International Criminal Court, have strengthened since then. Special tribunals for Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia reflect a growing consensus that perpetrators of atrocities should be punished. Full Text


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