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Romanticism, Realism and Critical Idealism

This volume traces the United Nations use of force in peace and security, from collective security-which it never really was-to intervention with responsibility to protect (RTP) as a key criterion for authorization of the use of force. It reads like a personal stocktaking of the author's decade with the United Nations, but more than that it is a closely argued and informative account of the major issues at and the systemic development of the Organization over that same period, coincidentally with Kofi Annan's tenure as UN Secretary-General.

Ramesh Thakur is prolific and his interests wide. He has written about 20 UN-related books and many academic articles, including a stream of newspaper articles and op-eds for international audiences published in, among others, the International Herald Tribune, The Hindu and The Japan Times. His final op-ed as a UN official, in The Hindu (3 March 2007), advocated the reciprocal exchange of columns by the major newspapers of the East and West to offset a perceived cultural imbalance in the latter's favour. In his new guise, he wrote in The Canberra Times (23 March 2007) on domestic Australian politics. Thakur made a start in his adventure with the United Nations in April 1998, becoming Vice-Rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo (later as Senior Vice-Rector in 2003). He has been an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) Commissioner, producing The Responsibility to Protect report in December 2001,1 and the principal writer of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's second reform report in September 2002.2 His hope of becoming Rector unfulfilled, he is now a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.

The book under review is a new creation only in part, bringing together some chapters already published and revisions (all acknowledged). We have here a semi-valedictory pause, as the author's writing continues, summing up as "in part ... dispassionate analysis, in part intellectual reflections, in part a personal memoir ...[which] reflects ... personal and professional identity at the intersection of West and East, North and South, and of international relations scholarship and the international policy community." Thakur's method is to set out the aims and conclusions of each chapter, taking us through the arguments and presentations methodically. He draws on a wide range of academic and media sources, all usefully footnoted. The style is sometimes dense, but the personal feeling and experience, the wealth of information and sternly argued positions are neatly balanced between the North of his academic background and the East Asian from instinct, and a sense of global fairness across that divide. The interspersed passages of prescription (on the reasons for terrorism), sermonizing (on impunity) and advocacy (for RTP), and praise for the United Nations astonishing and varied global outreach and the excellence of its staff carry the readers along.

Overall, Ramesh sets out five main themes. The central theme-the UN and the international use of force- drawing on especially the 1999 Kosovo war (as a possible precursor for Iraq in 2003). The second defines the distinction and relative importance between and of legality and legitimacy in the activities and decisions of the United Nations and, above all, its Member States. The third is about the United States-United Nations relationship, not least seen through the deployment of force and the extent to which this should lie in the hands of the UN Security Council. Then he examines the shape and form of debate within the Organization in the context of relations between States essentially in the industrial North and developing South. The final theme is the importance of the rule of law.

Thakur applauds Mr. Annan's tenure of office, but not without critical comment of individual aspects of the UN operations, from peacekeeping to human rights, its specialized agencies and its own internal housekeeping and organization, including reform, pursuing corruption and the selection and appointment process of senior officials. He deplores the underachievement of Asians in the UN system. Ban Ki-moon was not on board yet as UN Secretary-General when Thakur made the latest updates in the book in September 2005, but some aspects of Mr. Annan's reform legacy, such as the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council, were in the early stages of institutional development. This is in line with the author's view that the UN needs to achieve more than mere survival. He supports the reform and in some ways stands closer to the school that says the UN survival has stemmed from its being able to adapt rather than reform radically. But he maintains that the UN should not try to do everything, but rather do what it does best more effectively. The political role of the Secretary-General, whose office is neatly defined as "one with little power but considerable influence", is vital.

Many of Thakur's conclusions are interlinked. The decision to use force effectively is tied closely to its legitimacy and effective mandates. His thinking has been shaped by ICISS and RTP and the thesis of holding a Government to be more responsible towards the human rights of its citizens and humanitarian issues. He can be fiercely critical of the rules and regulations that could and should be followed to keep within legal boundaries of morals. He grasps that the realism of circumstances makes their following not always attainable. At the centre of his sights in the last decade, he has the United States role in mind. In other words, there is a smooth move from use of force to legality and legitimacy which if, in the context of the invasion of Iraq, certain political links with the UN had been retained, the UN standing would have emerged less damaged.

The troubled North-South dialogue and strains come out most in political infighting, and relations are perhaps more bitter now than ever. The perceived historical context is of the North as having set the UN intellectual agenda, guidance and structures. As a result, the South feels, with apartheid and decolonization in the past, still left behind in trade, debts and peacekeeping and terms of democracy and human rights. Thakur presents a view not wholly in support of the South, but definitely arguing that their interests must be further pursued and followed.

Finally, he emphasizes that it is the rule of law that perhaps underlines the authority of the United Nations and is at the heart of its standing as a universally acting legal entity. The UN, he writes, "lies at the centre and indeed symbolizes the rules-based order". The South's view of where the Security Council guidance lies, for example, differ considerably from what the North sees as its purpose. The result is often a fractured confusion with the five permanent members of the Security Council at the heart of negotiations and where the United States tries to be paramount. Thakur castigates the United States exceptional approach, the Organization's major paymaster and marvels at its fall from grace and sympathy post 9/11. But the realism is there, as he traces the centrality of United States multilateralism in the UN, from which it has gradually retreated, but acknowledges that the both of them, in peacekeeping in all its forms, depend much on how much they need each other. Iraq was a crucial illustration of this point.

In his first article for the UN Chronicle in 1999,3 Thakur wrote about the different attitudes of romantics, cynics and idealists towards the United Nations. He drew on but did not quote directly the Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold's remark about the UN being an organization "not created in order to bring us heaven, but in order to save us from hell."4 As his last words in this book, Thakur quotes the original, adding that "the concept of hell is incomplete without the concept of heaven". His position has rarely been close to cynicism and, while some romanticism lingers, he has reached a crossroad of ideals and critical reality. It is a formidably strong and personal account of the United Nations evolution in the last decade or so. It is at the same time a sternly structured compilation and practical source.


The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Ottawa, 2001.

Strengthening of the United Nations: An agenda for further change. Report of the Secretary-General (A/57/387, 9 September 2002).

UN Chronicle, Volume XXXVI, No. 4, 1999.

UN document, SG/382, 13 May 1954.

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