I have argued before in these pages that on balance, the world is a better place because of U.N. contributions to normative advancement, preventive diplomacy, peace operations, peacemaking and humanitarian relief and assistance missions.

The balance could tip in the other direction in the foreseeable future because the organization has been leaking legitimacy through long-festering sores. For example, sexual abuses by peacekeepers preying for more than a decade on the very civilians they were meant to protect has undermined the moral authority of the United Nations as the organization deploying and supervising peacekeeping operations. It is respected today as much for what it symbolizes as for what it actually does.

The gulf between law and legitimacy is a more serious crisis-in-the-making for the United Nations than is commonly realized. It is the site where power should be moderated by lawful authority. The greater the gap between power and authority, the closer we are to anarchy, to the law of the jungle where might equals right. The greater the gap between power and justice in world affairs, the greater the international legitimacy deficit. The bases of U.N. legitimacy include its credentials for representing the international community, agreed procedures for making decisions on behalf of international society and political impartiality.

The U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly are the geopolitical and normative centers of gravity, respectively. The clash of corporate interests between them intersects with the sometimes bitter North-South divide and goes to the heart of the debate between law versus legitimacy. International law was a product mainly of the European states system, and international humanitarian law also has its roots essentially in Europe. Developing countries are the objects but not the authors of supposedly international norms and laws. Thus the very universality from which the United Nations draws its legitimacy is in some crucial respects more token than real.

The Security Council's legal competence to impose sanctions is spelled out in the U.N. Charter. But sanctions became discredited for their harsh humanitarian consequences on the civilian population. Instead of the U.N. legitimizing sanctions, the latter erode the United Nations' legitimacy.

With respect to the use of international force to avert or halt atrocity crimes inside state borders, the consensus is shifting away from the norm of nonintervention to the new norm of the responsibility to protect. But the sad fact is that while the doctrine has gained rapid acceptance normatively, it is yet to be translated into action operationally. The rhetoric-action gap is not due to an absence of fit cases for urgent international action.

There is deep skepticism among developing countries about the motive for intervention being disinterested humanitarianism and not self-serving commercial and geopolitical calculations. They also resent the double standards. In effect, the West is saying to the rest: The force you may use to quell internal dissent, insurgency and terrorism is not solely a matter of your judgment and discretion. The era of sovereign immunity from international accountability for internal use of force is gone. However, our use of force internationally is not subject to any international authorization, oversight or accountability. We will decide, solely as a matter of our judgment and discretion, when, where and how much force to use, and for how long.

Repeated U.S. assaults on U.N.-centered law governing the international use of force have undermined the norm of a world of laws, the efficacy of international law, and the United Nations' legitimacy as the authoritative validator of international behavior.

The most lethal force known to man is nuclear weapons. The biggest tension on this subject is between nonproliferation and disarmament. The five permanent members of the Security Council, collectively called the P-5, preach nonproliferation but practice consenting deterrence. If nuclear weapons did not exist, they could not proliferate. Because they do, they will. For the P-5 to insist that nonproliferation is an enforceable obligation while disarmament can be postponed indefinitely seriously compromises the authority of the Security Council as the enforcer of antinuclear norms.

With respect to the process for selecting the U.N. secretary general, the P-5 determine the short list. After several rounds of indicative balloting, Ban Ki Moon was the only one to escape the threat of a P-5 veto, and his choice was then ratified by the General Assembly by acclamation. He is the legally elected head of the organization. But does he command legitimacy? Having been given neither voice nor vote in his selection, why should the "international community" (countries and people) accept him as "their" leader and spokesman?

All the above examples involve the Security Council as the key decision-making body. It suffers from a fourfold legitimacy deficit. Its performance legitimacy suffers from an uneven and a selective record. It is unrepresentative from almost any point of view, including a failure to recognize Japan's enormous financial weight and contributions. Its procedural legitimacy is suspect on grounds of lack of democratization and transparency in decision-making. It is unanswerable to the General Assembly, the World Court, the nations or the peoples of the world. Author and columnist George Monbiot argued recently that "Global governance is a tyranny speaking the language of democracy" (The Guardian, April 24). Some believe that the only solution to its twin democratic deficit (representation and accountability) is an elected Peoples' Assembly.

The United Nations' legitimacy has suffered also because of the oil-for-food scandal. But, in the total sweep of the scandal, U.N. lapses were minor. There were three really important lessons. First, the United Nations lacks the capacity and expertise to manage such a complex program and should firmly refuse such tasks in future. Second, U.N. officials did in fact raise queries about potential shenanigans with the Security Council, but were ignored. The council's main members had other priorities. Third, the real money was changing hands between business firms and executives and government ministers and officials, not U.N. officials. The biggest dubious payment, 300 million Australian dollars (U.S.254 million dollars), concerned the Australian Wheat Board's dealings with then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and showed remarkable lapses of oversight and memory by Australian officials and ministers. Also, after the U.S.-led invasion, the Coalition Provisional Authority lost 9 billion dollars handed over to it by the United Nations.

Before, the only protection against aggression was countervailing power that increased both the cost of victory and the risk of failure. Since 1945, the United Nations has spawned a corpus of law to stigmatize aggression and create a robust norm against it. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a United States that was already over-armed has militarized its foreign policy to frightening levels. Dare one suggest that U.S. irritation at the United Nations is due as much to U.N. effectiveness in constraining U.S. international behavior as alleged U.N. ineffectiveness against others?

The administration of President George W. Bush has rejected former President Harry Truman's counsel that the United States must deny itself the license to do always as it pleases, ignored former President John F. Kennedy's wisdom that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and ridden roughshod over four decades of tradition of enlightened self-interest and liberal internationalism as the guiding normative template of U.S. foreign policy. As my colleague Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former U.N. ambassador, notes, the distance from delusion to hubris is short; the administration covered it in a sprint.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.