Center for Strategic Decision Research


The Pillars of International Security: Challenging Traditions

Dr. Andrey A. Piontkovskiy
Director of the Strategic Studies Center, Moscow

The Iraqi crisis has shown the fragility of the modern-day international security architecture and the inability of existing international organizations to adequately react to challenges that the world community is now facing. It is possible that the time has come to strengthen international security by altering the existing world order. 


The widely held opinion that, from Yalta until March 20, 2003, there existed a certain international security architecture consecrated by international law and effective international institutions is a profound delusion. The bipolar world that existed since Yalta until the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, was based on the currently popular phrase "the law of the fist" involving the two top-ranked players: the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. The U.N. and the Security Council were a kind of stage on which the world's top stars, together with a crowd of extras, competed with each other in propaganda-filled declamations and ideological arguments. The real issues of security, war and peace, were resolved in a different place-in the two superpowers' dialogue. 

Let's remember, for example, the most dramatic conflict of the superpowers' half-century of confrontation: the Cuban missile crisis. The Security Council session during which Adlai Stevenson displayed photographs of Soviet missiles in Cuba was quite spectacular and turbulent. However, the actual process of resolving this conflict, the hourly record of which we now have at hand, had nothing to do with the Security Council. 

The two nuclear superpowers learned a lot from the Cuban crisis. The result of that event was the development of a series of bilateral nuclear agreements-the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, SALT-1, and SALT-2 (never ratified, yet observed by both parties)-as well as the creation of permanent institutions to support them. 

The goal of these agreements was the codification of the fundamentally hostile relations between the two entities and preventing tensions between them from escalating into military, and potentially even nuclear, conflict. War became impossible because both parties accepted the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD); while it was not voiced openly, this agreement was implicit. Both parties developed their strategic forces so that both maintained the ability to damage their adversary to an unacceptable degree through a retaliatory strike. Hence, the launching of a nuclear war (a first strike on enemy territory) would have automatically meant mutual self-annihilation. 

The MAD concept (and not the U.N. Charter) was the true cornerstone of the international security system during the Cold War period. This system prevented a direct superpower clash that would have been fatal for the world, yet it failed to avert dozens of local conflicts and wars throughout the world that destroyed millions of lives. In many of these conflicts, directly or through intermediaries, either the U.S.S.R. or the U.S.-or both-were involved. 

The nostalgic refrain about the inviolability of national sovereignty, which supposedly was in effect in those happy days of post-Yalta international security, certainly sounds strange to our ears. National sovereignty was violated to the left and to the right, including by the Soviet Union. It should suffice to remember the ventures in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. 

It is important to note, though, that there were circumstances in which the breach of sovereignty was clearly a good thing in the eyes of the world. The Vietnamese troops' invasion of Cambodia was a clear breach of the latter's sovereignty, but it saved a third of the Cambodian population from annihilation by an insane regime. 


The collapse of the bipolar world generated a number of illusions regarding security, the extreme manifestation of which was the Fukuyama concept-"the end of history." But very soon it turned out that it was not the end of history but the beginning of many new and unpleasant histories: the painful disintegration of Yugoslavia, conflicts on the former territory of the U.S.S.R., conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, and East Timor, and so on. The events of September 11 demonstrated a new all-out challenge to civilization by international terrorism. 

The world community found itself unprepared for all these challenges, both institutionally and conceptually. The illusion about security institutions such as the U.N. and the Security Council has already been discussed. Another widespread fallacy was the belief in certain norms of international law-standards that would guide all nations. If such norms existed, all the world's problems would have been boiled down to defining an action as being legitimate or illegitimate. If only it could be that simple. 

The Need to Abandon Outdated Principles of Law

To consider the point further, let's review a few commonly recognized principles of international law, recorded in dozens of declarations, charters, and treaties: 

  • The sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations; 
  • The right of nations to self-determination; 
  • The human rights formulated in the U.N. declaration and reiterated in the laws of the majority of nations, including Russia; 
  • The right of states to self-defense. 

If we now look at any serious international problem, at any of the several dozen smoldering or flaring local conflicts, we will see how wildly contradictory those principles are. Actually, all conflicts and problems are generated by these contradictions. And anyone who took at least an elementary course in logic would know that if a system of axiomatic statements contains mutually conflicting assertions, A and non-A, any arbitrary conclusion can be derived. Contemporary international law represents exactly such a system, and, because of that, practically any action of a state in the international arena (as well as its opposite) may find validation in one of the norms of international law. 

Most leading politicians understand this very well. During his press conference at the closure of the St. Petersburg summit, on April 12, 2003, RF President Vladimir Putin said, ".in recent times many imperfections in the structure of international law have revealed themselves, as well as inherent inconsistencies in which, in my view, a serious potential for conflict is concealed." He continued, "Politicians and state leaders rely on effective legal mechanisms. The inadequacy of those mechanisms may be fraught with serious implications. I am convinced that if clearly functioning legal mechanisms for crisis resolution were set up in time, far more effective solutions to the most complex world problems could be found." 

Let's now dwell in greater detail on this principle and the specifics of its application in the world after September 11. As mentioned above, nuclear security during the Cold War was based on a principle of containment, where each party was aware that its potential adversary was not suicidal. How can this principle operate now when we are dealing with suicide bombers? The containment principle does not work with the new potential menace that has appeared in the world: terrorists with access to WMD. Only preventive measures can counter this menace. 

The principle of the inviolability of national sovereignty has never been absolute, even more so in the contemporary world. The declaration by the U.S., in the "New U.S. National Security Doctrine" published in September 2002, setting forth the right to conduct preventive strikes as an intrinsic extension of the right of a nation to self-defense, has been repeatedly criticized in the Russian press. 

Yet, here are two quotes: 

If anyone tries to use weapons commensurate with weapons of mass destruction against our country, we will respond with measures adequate to the threat, in all locations where the terrorists, or organizers of the crime, or their ideological or financial sponsors are. I underline "no matter where they are." 

In such cases, and I officially confirm this, we will strike. This includes preventive strikes. 

Which hawks spoke these lines, preaching a concept of preventive strikes violating the sacred principle of national state sovereignty? Donald Rumsfeld? Paul Wolfowitz? Dick Cheney? Condoleeza Rice? 

The first quote was made by President Vladimir Putin in his speech at the October 28, 2002, session of the government. His declaration was an official order by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief to the appropriate government agencies to develop a new Russian military doctrine that would include the concept of preventive strikes in response to threats against which the traditional deterrence concept proved ineffective. The second quote is a statement made by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, spoken even earlier than President Putin's statement, on September 22, 2002. 

It looks as if both Russia and the U.S., on their own, would adopt for themselves, with ease and enthusiasm, the concept of preventive strike, derived from the principle of the right to self-defense. Yet each would be rather critical of the readiness of other nations to adopt a similar concept. 

Who will say whether or not the preventive strike is legitimate, and the extent of its validity in regards to the actual threat? The Security Council? Has the Security Council ever defined anything? During the Cold War, when its uselessness was obvious? Or in the subsequent decade, when it demonstrated its helplessness, unable to prevent or stop any of the conflicts that mowed down hundreds of thousands of lives in the former Yugoslavia, the former U.S.S.R., Rwanda, Somalia, and Afghanistan? 


The increasingly chaotic character of the modern world and the challenges of radicalism, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction generate an objective demand for some form of non-fictitious (U.N., Security Council) but real-world government. Demand gives rise to supply. After September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been attempting to play this role. However, this situation does not seem to satisfy anyone, including Americans themselves. 

Confrontation with the U.S. and the formation of various anti-American axes will only lead the U.S. government to become more intransigent and, at the same time, less efficient (with negative implications for the world at large) the more its isolation increases. 

Pleas to return to a certain "system of international security," allegedly destroyed by the Iraqi crisis, are totally in vain, be they sincere or false. There never was such system; there weren't even conceptual approaches adequate to the challenges of the contemporary world. 

The world community, therefore, should focus on the development of both the concept and the institutions for a new world order. This should begin by turning to the problem of the conflicting principles of international law and by trying to develop some reasonable rules of balance among them. 

Yet there should also be awareness of the fact that, even with improvement to the norms of international law, the solution to the problem is not purely legalistic. It will always be political. It is impossible to invent an abstract scheme suitable for the resolution of any emerging conflict in which democratic nations and totalitarian regimes bent on obtaining nuclear arms will be equal actors. Only an alliance of responsible world powers, united by a common vision of the problems and challenges facing the modern world, sharing common values, and having the resources-political, economic, and military-to implement their joint policy can perform the role of efficient world government. 

This is not the United Nations, with its enormous bureaucratic structure. However, the United Nations will not disappear, and could act the role of organizer of joint decisions made by the leading powers. 

The alliance best able to meet the necessary requirements is the Group of Eight. Russia, now a full member of this framework, has an objective interest in having the G8 expand its area of responsibility into the sphere of international security. 

Because of the traditionally informal and confidential nature of discussions within the G8, it is the most useful forum for the realization of joint decisions on key issues of world politics. The U.S. will remain a leader within the eight (and in the future, perhaps, nine or ten), yet constructive and open discussion of current key policy issues will allow the leading powers to develop a culture of consensus. It is in the common interest of the world community not to alienate the U.S. but to convert it into a responsible leader aware of the interests and concerns of its partners.  

Transforming the G8 into a leading international security institution will be impossible without Russia's participation, and full participation in the G8 is a very important political resource for my country. In my opinion, it is much more important than Russia's permanent membership on the Security Council-a position based on inertia and the exaggeration of our diplomatic attributes and inherited after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. superpower. The G8, as an institution for global security, would simply be ineffective without Russia, which is geographically adjacent to the sphere of instability that poses the worst potential threat to the world. For the same reason, Russia will not be able to maintain its security outside an alliance with the leading industrial nations. 


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