For the past fifteen summers, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching some of the brightest graduate students from the new democracies of central and eastern Europe (along with some equally bright North American counterparts) in the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, a three-week intensive introduction to Catholic social thought that’s held annually in Cracow. Each year, the topics of debate and conversation shift in light of whatever curve balls history has recently thrown us. This year, for example, I was struck by the insistence of some of my European students — especially the law students — that states which sign the U.N. Charter thereby hand over core attributes of national sovereignty to the United Nations. They went on to argue that, because of this hand-off, the U.N. itself exercised a kind of supranational sovereignty, and that this supranational sovereignty of the U.N. had been recognized as such by the Catholic Church.
None of this stands up to close examination — as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made clear, wittingly or not, in a recent off-the-cuff comment during the scramble to put together a U.N.-authorized multinational peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon. “We will take the best peacekeepers where we can find them,” Annan said. “We don’t have pools sitting in barracks you can choose and pick from.”
But if you don’t have that — if you don’t have a military force capable of giving effect to your sovereign will, a capability you can deploy promptly and over which you can exercise effective command-and-control — how can you be said to exercise “sovereignty” in any meaningful political or moral sense of the term?
I say “moral,” because defining the attributes of legitimate sovereign authority is the first, and arguably the most important, contribution that the just war tradition makes to the world’s reflection on morality and world politics. And in the mainstream just war tradition, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find any definition of “sovereignty” that would cover Mr. Annan’s unhappy circumstances: finding a military force “where we can find them.” And this is before we get to the question of whether the U.N. exercises effective command-and-control over its peacekeepers, a difficult case to make given U.N. peacekeepers’ generally sorry record in the field as well as their involvement in (among other bits of nastiness) the sex-trafficking of young girls.
The claim that signing the Charter means assigning core attributes of sovereignty to the U.N. also fails the test of empirical evidence. Take, for example, the sovereign capacity to wage war. Whatever the 191 signatories of the U.N. Charter thought they were doing when they signed and ratified it, and whatever the Charter itself may claim (and I don’t think you can make a persuasive legal case that the Charter claims all legitimate war-making power for the U.N.), the fact is that, in recent decades, U.N. members have engaged in more than one hundred unauthorized wars in which millions of people have been killed.
That blunt fact suggests that the nations of the world have most certainly not assigned the core sovereign attribute of war-making to the U.N. alone.
As for the claim that the U.N.’s supranational sovereignty has been recognized as such by the Catholic Church, that, too, is an unsupportable proposition. Whatever the comments of senior churchmen at various (unguarded?) moments, the Church’s magisterium has simply not made the claims for the U.N. that my students believe it has.
Why, then, did these young scholarly all-stars insist that the U.N. is something that it clearly is not?
Part of the answer has to do with very different concepts of “law” in continental Europe and in the Anglosphere. On the continent, black-letter law is what counts: the law is what the law says it is, period. In the common-law tradition of the English-speaking world, law has to have some tether to reality. Thus one crucial question for Catholic social thought in the 21st century is to help define more precisely the meaning, and limits, of that slippery concept, “international law” — and to do so precisely for the sake of advancing the rule of law in the world.