Collective Security

views updated May 21 2018

Collective Security

Roland N. Stromberg

Collective security may be defined as a plan for maintaining peace through an organization of sovereign states, whose members pledge themselves to defend each other against attack. The idea emerged in 1914, was extensively discussed during World War I, and took shape rather imperfectly in the 1919 Covenant of the League of Nations and again in the Charter of the United Nations after World War II. The term has subsequently been applied to less idealistic and narrower arrangements for joint defense such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The shorthand term "collective security," not used until the 1930s, is more accurately "security for individual nations by collective means," that is, by membership in an international organization made up of all or most of the states of the world pledged to defend each other from attack. "Collective security" is a handier term, and it entered deeply into the international vocabulary whenfrom about 1931 to 1939many hoped, in vain, that the League of Nations through its machinery for collective action might avert war by checking the "aggression" of the revisionist powersGermany, Italy, and Japan.


Although the modern idea of collective security was born in 1914, it has roots in the distant past. Elements of collective security were present in some of the leagues of ancient Greek states, and likewise in the experiment of the Holy League in Renaissance Italy (1495). China saw some unsuccessful experiments in cooperative leagues of independent states in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c. prior to a period of bitter warfare ending in the victory of one state that imposed unity. In his De recuperatione sanctae terrae (ca. 1306), Pierre Dubois produced a plan of this sort in Europe, and in the seventeenth century, Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, produced a more famous plan, which proposed keeping the peace by general pledges to defend the territorial status quo. Similar schemes flourished in the eighteenth century, when such philosophers as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham were among the authors of "plans for perpetual peace." Among the romantic utopians of the earlier nineteenth century was Comte Henri de Saint-Simon. The little world of Swiss independent cantons proved an interesting laboratory for such experiments. Although it seldom worked effectively, collective security as a "universal alliance" of all the states within a given international system (which in former times could embrace a particular area such as China, Greece, Italy, or Switzerland) is a basic, archetypal mode of international relations, lying somewhere between total state egoism (in which states may be allied with each other in hostile or "balance of power" groupings subject to alteration) and a federated or unitary superstate that has managed to absorb the lesser sovereignties.

In the nineteenth century, the classic era of nationalism, Europe found little room for collective security. The nineteenth-century "peace movement" looked mainly in other directions. Quite vigorous in the decades preceding the out-break of war in 1914, this world peace movement put its emphasis on arbitration, disarmament, and the growth of international law by voluntary agreement. In accordance with the spirit of the times, people felt that progress toward peace would come gradually and voluntarily. The long era of European peace embracing most of the period from 1815 to 1914, and especially from 1871 to 1914, was not favorable to the consideration of drastic plans. Most people complacently assumed that the Western world had set its feet firmly on a path that led slowly but inevitably to the extinction of war. The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 reflected this outlook. Leading spokesmen of the pre-1914 period rejected a "league of force" as impracticable and too extreme, although in the early 1900s there was some discussion of a European "league of peace" pledged to nonaggression and arbitration of disputes. Thus, for example, the French socialist Jean Jaurès suggested such a league in 1900.

In the realm of practical statecraft, the "concert of Europe" invoked from time to time was a nebulous conception without any permanent organization or specific constitution. A general congress of all the European powers might be assembled to deal with a particular crisis, as happened in 1856 and 1878, but this was really only an extension of the methods of traditional diplomacy, in which states negotiated with each other through their appointed agents of foreign policy. Multistate conferences of a more restricted membership, including the signatories to a particular treaty or convention, might also be held on an ad hoc basis, as, for example, the Algeciras Conference of 1906 that dealt with the Moroccan crisis. In such meetings of the powers there was at most a faint foreshadowing of a permanent and regularized international league or society.


The shock of August 1914 forced total reconsideration. The old ways of diplomacyrival alliances and balances of powerappeared to have failed. One could no longer believe in the path of steady progress toward international order. Bolder remedies were needed if civilization was not to be destroyed by devastating wars. Numerous schemes soon proposed basic reorganization to end the "international anarchy" that, a consensus held, had been responsible for the coming of the war. The most important of these plans, beginning with Sir James Bryce's proposals in 1914 and including the American-based League to Enforce Peace, as well as the Fabian Society plan, asked the nations of the world to join a league or association of nations, and in so doing to agree to submit their disputes to arbitration or mediation before going to war and to apply penalties or sanctions to any member state that resorted to war without so doing. As Bryce put it, "The League shall under-take to defend any one of its members who may be attacked by any other State who has refused to accept Arbitration or Conciliation."

These theorists assumed realistically that the hour was not ripe for a world state and that sovereign states cannot be coerced, but they hoped that states would voluntarily accept and honor such a pledge in the cause of peace. Some critics thought that these collective security proposals did not go far enough, since states could still in the end resort to war; others felt they went too far, since no great power could or would bind itself in advance in any significant way.

Uncertainty also existed about who should belong to the league, especially with reference to the enemy powers in the ongoing war; about the mode of representation; and about the method of identifying aggression and responding to it. This far-ranging discussion tended to expose as many difficulties as it resolved. Underlying it was the urgent feeling that somehow the scourge of war had to be eliminated, under pain of the extinction of civilization, and that the old idea of "selfish nationalism" was bankrupt. Yet informed people also knew that nationalism was far from a spent force and that no chance then existed to set up a world superstate. Collective security hoped to establish a halfway house on the road to true world government. Its advocates frequently cited the analogy of a vigilante stage of law enforcement, one in which, prior to the arrival of formal government, settlers suppressed crime by forming a posse or voluntary citizens' organization.

During World War I, many organizations and individuals contributed to the formulation of plans for a league of nations. In the United States, the League to Enforce Peace included former president William Howard Taft, Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, and a host of other prominent citizens. Lord Bryce or his colleague G. Lowes Dickinson may best be given credit for initiating the entire discussion, but an extensive British debate also featured books by Leonard Woolf and H. N. Brailsford, among others; a committee headed by Sir Walter Phillimore eventually produced an official British plan. The numerous plans varied in details, but all sought to unite the major states of the world in a permanent organization, in which they would be represented as states and which would have power to deal with their disputes and prevent war. The broad concept of a "league to enforce peace" was endorsed "not only by pacifists and thinkers, but by practical statesmen." It was the great idea of the years from 1914 to 1918, although skeptical criticism was not lacking even then.

Although there was some interest in collective security in France and in the neutral countries (the Netherlands, for example), the ideas that were to be incorporated into the League of Nations came mainly from Anglo-American sources. It is a mistake to attribute these ideas preeminently to President Woodrow Wilson, as is frequently done. Wilson showed relatively little interest in any explicit plan for a league based on collective security principles until quite late. At Paris he played a part in framing the Covenant of the League of Nations but received assistance from his aide, Colonel Edward M. House, U.S. adviser David Hunter Miller, British advisers Lord Robert Cecil and Sir Cecil Hurst, and South African leader General Jan C. Smuts. Wilson did of course become an earnest and tireless advocate of the League of Nations Covenant.

This covenant, drawn up at Paris in 1919 and made part of the Treaty of Versailles imposed on a defeated Germany, was an incongruous amalgamation of the various ideas discussed during the war and was destined to have a disappointing life. Article 10, the most controversial and debated provision, seemed to demand of member states an obligation to "preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the League." But, in fact, the league, through its council (upper chamber), could only request them to act, not force them to do so. Some of the issues that were to plague collective security thus arose early: Is it possible to get binding commitments from states to suppress any future forcible alteration of the status quo? Is this even desirable, since the status quo may not be just or reasonable, at least not to everybody?

Although the French (for obvious reasons) asked for the creation of an international army under control of the League of Nations, this idea received no serious support. Frightened by the specter of American soldiers being summoned to fight on foreign soil at the behest of an alien organization, the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Thus, the United States did not become a member of the league, nor was the new, outcast Russian socialist state a member. Also excluded at first were the defeated powers of World War I. The league thus began life with serious, if not fatal, handicaps. In 1924 and 1925 the security-conscious statessuch as Poland and Czechoslovakia, which had profited by the peace settlement, or France, which most feared any revision of itunsuccessfully tried to clarify and tighten the security obligations of members.

It thus became evident that the league would have to function in ways other than as an agent of collective security standing guard against revision of boundaries. In the 1920s, Geneva became instead a place of diplomacy and conciliation, along with more modest forms of functional international cooperation. Germany's entrance into the league in 1926 signaled this change of perspective. For a number of years little was heard about plans to suppress war by joint military action; much was said of the uses of the league to help cultivate habits of negotiation and peaceful settlement of disputes between nations. "Collective security" lay dormant. The events of the 1930s revived it.

American opinion in the 1920s strongly opposed any political involvement in the quarrels of Europe and was all but unanimous in rejecting an obligation to act as policeman in areas outside the Western Hemisphere. The treaties of peace executed after the war had become unpopular, and many regarded them as unjust and unlikely to last. The United States participated in most of the nonpolitical activities of the League of Nations and also played a leading part in the movement to "outlaw war" by voluntary renunciation, which culminated in the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), but it exhibited an almost pathological fear of any commitment that might entail the possible use of armed force in some "foreign quarrel." (Intervention in the small Caribbean countries lying at the doorstep of the United States might be another matter, although there was also a reaction against this sort of "imperialism.") This fear of repeating what a large majority of Americans now regarded as the terrible mistake of having entered World War I receded only slowly in the 1930s under the threat of a renewal of war in Europe and Asia. Initial American reaction to rumblings of conflict from 1931 on was to reaffirm vows not to be duped again by appeals to "save the world" by marching off to fight in Europe. The Great Depression intensified these feelings by intruding much more urgent questions of domestic recovery and reform. Isolationism reached its peak from 1934 to 1936, when legislation attempted to cut ties between the United States and all belligerent countries in the event of war, without discriminating between aggressor and victim.


The international disturbances of the troubled 1930s began with the Japanese extension of military control over Manchuria in 1931. This was followed by the Italian campaign in Ethiopia in 1935 and Adolf Hitler's demands that the "fetters of Versailles" be smashed and that the German nation be allowed lebensraum (living space) for expansion. In 1936, Germany reoccupied the Rhineland (where, by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, it was not supposed to have armed forces) and in 1938 annexed Austria. Czechoslovakia followed in 1939. Faced with this determined assault on the postWorld War I boundaries, diplomats in western Europe and in the Soviet Union, which joined the league in 1934, sought to make the machinery of the league an effective tool of war prevention by means of collective action against "aggression."

The attempt was not successful. Although Japan received a verbal rebuke from the league in 1933 for its behavior in Manchuria, it simply resigned from the league and did not end its forward policies in China, which may even have been stimulated by what was construed in Japan as a hypocritical insult. Following the eloquent appeal of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie for aid, the league, under British leadership, tried to organize economic sanctions against Italy in 1935, but that did not prevent the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and probably helped move Benito Mussolini closer to Hitler's side. The embargo was not sufficiently enforceable to be effective. This fiasco, which ended in a British-French retreat from high principles to offer Italy a compromise deal (the Hoare-Laval proposals), did much to diminish enthusiasm for collective security through the League of Nations. Direct negotiations between the major European powers during the tense crises of 1938 and 1939 bypassed the machinery of the league.

But many came to believe that a more vigorous and less selfish support of the league might have checked the aggressions of Japan, Italy, and Germany and prevented World War II. In much of the literature on the origins of the war, collective security appeared as the opposite of "appeasement," which had gambled on winning the goodwill of Germany by yielding to its demands. The lesson that one should never appease (yield to) the demands of an aggressive "criminal" nation became deeply engraved in the public mind during the grim years when Hitler's appetite only grew with eating. And the dishonor of the 1938 Munich "appeasement" did not prevent war the following year. Popular, too, was a similar thesis applied to Japan's expansion in the Pacific. Between 1938 and 1941, American opinion shifted dramatically toward the view that isolationism, or the avoidance of American responsibility to keep the world secure from aggression, had been a fearful blunder. To this was added the widespread belief that the United States should have followed Wilson's vision, joined the League of Nations, upheld collective security, and thus prevented World War II.

Critics were to cast doubt on this interpretation insofar as it involved the assumption that the league represented anything more than the sum of its parts. The league obviously commanded no military power of its own. If Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States could not see their way to thwarting Hitler's goals at the risk of war, as a matter of national interest, the league could not help them. If they would not help the league, it was impotent. The league might at most supply convenient machinery or a meeting place, but what really mattered was the will to resist, which was notably lacking in the democracies in these years. Some argued that the idea of collective security was even an obstacle to a firm policy, because public opinion at times, as in England in the mid-1930s, tended to look upon collective security and the league as a substitute for national power. Evidently, some people thought that if only the problem of stopping the dictators could be turned over to Geneva, nothing need be done by the separate nations. This clearly was a dangerous illusion.


World War II brought a surge of hope that a revised League of Nations, now supported by the United States and the Soviet Union and profiting from the lessons of the 1930s, might serve as the basis for a new international order. Because the League of Nations had become discredited, especially in the eyes of the Soviet Union, which was expelled from the league in 1940 for attacking Finland, it was necessary to create a new world organization. With strong support from American public opinion, the United Nations was officially established in 1945 after earlier conferences and discussions. It differed in some particulars from the League of Nations but reflected the same basic philosophy of collective security. In order to make it more effective, the United Nations Charter placed more power in the hands of the five major states, which were given veto powers and permanent representation in the upper chamber, the Security Council, which had exclusive jurisdiction in security matters. Initially, the Security Council also had six nonpermanent members. (This was later expanded to ten.) Based according to the charter on "the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members," all of which pledged themselves to "refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state," the United Nations endowed the Security Council with "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," charging other members with a duty to "accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council." Seven of the eleven votes were declared necessary to decide substantive issues, including the votes of all the permanent membersthe United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and the United Kingdom. The Security Council "shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" and decide what to do, including taking "such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security." The idea of the "four policemen" (China, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States), each maintaining peace in its area of the globe, was one popular formulation of this big-power conception of collective security, which encountered some criticism from the smaller countries but appeared practicable as a continuation of the wartime alliance against the Axis.

Once the war was over, amity dissolved in quarrels between the United States and the Soviet Union. Their continued goodwill and cooperation was a condition for United Nations success. The spreading post-1945 Cold War between the Soviet (and soon Chinese) and U.S.west European blocs ensured the failure of collective security and rendered the United Nations increasingly irrelevant except as one more arena for the power struggle between the blocs.

Critics of collective security pointed out at this time that as a plan of war prevention it suffers from the defect of assuming the problem already solved. It assumes that the great majority of the world powers are naturally peace loving, and that war is caused only by the occasional transgressions of a bad nation, led into wickedness by unusual circumstances. If this is true, the problem of war is not so great in any case. Put concretely, if the superpowers could keep on friendly terms and cooperate for world peace, all would be reasonably well; if they could not, then no collective security plan could work. Under Cold War conditions, collective security's inclination to use force to defend peacealways something of a paradoxbecame a positive menace.

In 1950 the United States took the lead in persuading the United Nations Security Council to condemn the aggression of North Korea against South Korea, in a land left divided by the post-1945 Soviet-American rift. The apparently fortuitous absence from the Security Council at that time of the Soviet Union, which otherwise could have vetoed the resolution, facilitated this decision. A major war ensued in Korea, as United Nations forces, of which the great majority were American, turned back the North Korean "aggressors" and then invaded the north, only to encounter Chinese intervention. The paradox of calling war on this scale a peaceable "police action" struck home forcibly. Not everyone was then persuaded that North Korea was the aggressor, although, subsequently, clear evidence emerged that, encouraged by China and the USSR, it did launch an overt attack in 1950. Border incidents and provocations in an unnaturally divided land had been going on for several years, and the UN forces, commanded by an American general, Douglas MacArthur, seemed less those of the United Nations than of the United States. The armistice negotiated in 1953, which left the north-south border in Korea not far from where it had originally been, underscored the futility of the enterprise, if one thought of it as "punishing the aggressor." Although initially it was hailed as a successful application of collective security, and many continued to believe in resisting the expansion of communist power, the Korean War tended to discredit collective security.


United Nations forces went into the Congo in some strength in 1961 under conditions of chaos and strife in that recently liberated former Belgian colony, as leaders spoke of "putting out a brush fire" before it became a major conflagration. The UN force in the Congo suffered from divided counsel, reflecting the divergent aims of the various interests involved: East, West, and Third World. The action was hardly a success and resulted in fresh disillusionment with use of the United Nations as a military force. From this time on, "crisis management" took the form of direct negotiations between the powers concerned, or special conferences, with the United Nations usually playing a peripheral role as supplier of truce-observing teams.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization paved the way for thinking of regional resistance to communist expansion as "collective security." Created in 1949 as an alliance between states of noncommunist Europe with Canada and the United States, it was a reaction to the Soviet threat to Europe (real or imagined). American ideologists justified it as something more than an oldfashioned military alliance based as of yore on the realities of power in a world of hostile blocs. During the 1950s, it became a means of persuading the American people that they might, against all their ancestral instincts, take part in the tangled and violent affairs of the world without sullying their innocence; they would have many allies and act jointly against the forces of evil. The Cold War converted the term into a commitment to check, "contain," if not suppress the USSR and communism. Called "collective security," it was somewhat uneasily squared with the United Nations Charter by an appeal to Articles 51 and 52, which referred to the validity of "collective self-defense" via "regional arrangements." It was argued that the paralysis of the United Nations, resulting from Soviet noncooperation, forced recourse to such arrangements. In the wake of NATO's apparent success in "containing" Soviet expansion in Europe, American policy sought, with little success, to create other regional security groupings, including the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in the Middle East.

The most traumatic international conflict of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, also had an anticollective security fallout. The motives for American entry into Indochina initially included a feeling, derived from the collective security complex of ideas, that aggression was being checked in the spirit, if not exactly the letter, of the United Nations Charter. Behind the designs of North Vietnam to unite a war-divided country under its leadership, many saw the expansion of a monolithic Asiatic communism centered in China, and they invoked the lesson of the Hitler years: Draw the line and fight rather than allow "appeasement" to erode your position. Collective security as a factor in the crucial decisions of the Cold War is often understressed if not overlooked. It is forgotten that in Korea, then in Vietnam, the fighting was not just to check communism but to defend world order by punishing "aggression." Leaders like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson might not have taken their agonizingly close decisions to send U.S. troops to far places without the reassuring motive of war prevention; the naked idea of simple American self-interest was not enough.

The initially small U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, joined by some forces from other SEATO members, swelled into the nightmare of major war as the conflict steadily escalated, creating a formidable backlash of public opinion against the war in the United States and elsewhere. Some of the key themes of collective security suffered severe damage in the revolution of opinion resulting from the Vietnam War (19571975). The so-called Nixon Doctrine announced an American withdrawal from unlimited commitments to serve as policeman in remote places. It may be added that during the Vietnam War, the United Nations was almost altogether excluded from important negotiations. At various times each side brought complaints of "aggression" before the Security CouncilLaos in 1959 against Hanoi, Cambodia in 1964 against the United States and South Vietnam, the United States later the same year against Hanoibut these resulted in no action and were employed chiefly for propaganda purposes. Both the Geneva Accords of 1954 and the Paris Conference peace settlement of 1973 completely ignored the United Nations. This was unquestionably a blow to the prestige of the United Nations, although optimists might point out that the admission of Communist China to the United Nations in 1971 made it a more ecumenical body. Exclusion of mainland China from the United Nations had prevented use of that organization in matters involving Chinese interests.

The assumption of the classical collective security doctrine that "aggressors" were always wicked, rogue nations that ought to be resisted and punished, was contradicted in the notable case of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. However justified on grounds of ancient possession, redress of recent injustices elsewhere, or superior civilization, Jewish incursions into Palestine from the 1948 takeover surely constituted an aggression rarely equaled in modern history. But in the Arab-Israeli conflict the United States and most of its European allies supported the latter, making the Jewish nation virtually an ally and the recipient of lavish support, from motives of sentiment and interest. In 1956, President Eisenhower (to the amazement of the Soviet leaders) was indeed so shocked by the case of planned aggression against Egypt of France and Britain along with Israel that a rift in the NATO alliance temporarily appeared. But thereafter the United States reverted to almost uncritical support of Israel, often voting in the United Nations with a tiny minority against any condemnation of the Jewish state.

"Collective security" is still frequently used to describe the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In this usage it merely means military cooperation between allied states or having allies for defense against a common enemy. Needless to say, "security" and "cooperation for security" are common terms. But, in its original sense, of a new plan for world peace based on a "universal alliance" and pledges to suppress war by joint action of all its members against aggression, collective security seems to have become a casualty of history. "The growing tendency for States to revert to a reliance on force as a means of resolving their international differences," as former UN Secretary General U Thant said in 1970, might be blamed on the United Nations itself or more often on the "selfishness" of powers that do not give it necessary support.

Revision of the UN charter as a means to improvement no longer arouses much enthusiasm; the roots of the problem are recognized as going deeper. Changes in the charter included enlarging the Security Council, but the five permanent members and the veto power remain the same. Paralyzed by the vetoes of the superpowers, the Security Council diminished in importance during the Cold War. Its concept of a dictatorship of a few big powers became outmoded in view of the flood of new, smaller states that has more than doubled United Nations membership since 1960. In the 1950s the General Assembly asserted its own right to recommend action in support of peace and security (the Uniting for Peace Resolution), but it can only recommend.

"Peacekeeping" is increasingly distinguished and dissociated from collective security, the stress being placed not on a large UN army capable of crushing an aggressor, but on small, noncombat units, serving only with permission of the host country and acting as observers of truces or as buffers along sensitive frontiers. Disputes and financial problems plagued even these forces, though they served useful functions in Cyprus and New Guinea, and on the Israeli-Egyptian border (intermittently). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than 40,000 UN peace-keepers were stationed around the world, at rather randomly chosen trouble spots such as East Timor and Sierra Leone, butill trained and forbidden anything but "neutral" actionsthey were often pathetic. In November 2000, Indian and Moroccan soldiers of the UN force in Sierra Leone were withdrawn because they were not safe; assaulted and kidnapped, they had to be rescued by British troops (who did not plan to stay). Vows to improve this performance periodically came from UN headquarters but had little effect. Some private organizations like Oxfam, Green-peace, and Amnesty International provided as much help. The outmoded UN membership structure allowed no place as permanent member of the Security Council for such important countries as Japan, India, and Brazil. Its own claims to internationalism were thus rather dubious.


In the last decades of the twentieth century, military interventions took a different form and were justified in different ways. Peace broke out among the major powers of Europe that had waged war against each other in the past so many times, for reasons that had little to do with collective action against aggression. The Cold War standoff between two great blocs that characterized the decades after 1945 also ended with the collapse of the Soviet communist side in the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. In other parts of the world, and indeed in southeastern Europe, the problem was less about armed aggression across borders than about upholding order within collapsing states. In her New and Old Wars (1999), Mary Kaldor described the new kind of violence as a "mixture of war, organized crime, and massive violations of human rights." Ethnic feuds that crossed boundaries, civil wars, guerrilla movements, and private armies appeared in states that were breaking up or, as in much of Africa, not clearly defined. For example, guerrilla warfare in Colombia, anarchy in Bosnia, and ethnic massacres in Burundi did not involve repelling an invasion of one nation by another. It was even hard to find an "aggressor": though blame might be placed on Serb wickedness in Bosnia and Kosovo, or on the Hutus of Rwanda and Burundi for unleashing the latest round of genocide in 1994, in fact these were ancient feuds in which both sides had been guilty many times. This did not prevent brutal punishment of the Serbs for committing savagery in Kosovo, but this NATO action, not approved by the UN Security Council, was hardly a "collective security" success, leaving as it did the problem in Kosovo, as in Bosnia, still unresolved. When the United States and NATO decided in 1999 to condemn and then bomb Serbia for its atrocious actions in Kosovo, they chose a shocking episode of violence and genocide ("ethnic cleansing") that did not at all fit the collective security model, for here was no case of one nation assaulting another: Kosovo, like Bosnia, was a part of the Yugoslav state that Serbia headed. This was a civil war resulting from the dissolution of the Yugoslavia created in 1919.

Huge losses of life, dwarfing even those of the two great European or World Wars of the first half of the twentieth century, occurred in these new wars outside the Western world or on its fringes. A true holocaust took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, barely noticed at the time, conducted by a regime that Western governments recognized and evidently approved of. No one knows quite how many millions were slain, not by nuclear bombs or even guns but hacked to pieces by knives. In Algeria, a ferocious internal war took an estimated 100,000 lives, in massacres first by terrorist rebels and then by government death squads.

There were literally millions of killings in Rwanda and Burundi. So many other instances of deadly internal conflict throughout the world came into view that the public mind became saturated with them. They were usually in places formerly remote, but now very much a part of the international society, such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, many parts of Africa from Angola and Sierra Leone to the Sudan, and so on. But they also appeared in southeastern Europe.

"Security" was not a factor in the new interventionism. Nobody thought of Serbia, much less Sierra Leone, as a threat to the security of the United States or Great Britain or the NATO powers, or indeed to anybody to any serious degree except themselves. In British Prime Minister Tony Blair's words, this was "a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated," an internationalism defined by intervention to prevent or punish "massive violation of human rights" or "crimes against humanity," committed usually by a government against its own people, or by one segment of its people against another. In the case of Bosnia, the motive for intervention was partly to limit and punish ethnic massacres, partly just to end the chaos and confusion of a region left stranded by the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

The trouble with this doctrine was that its application was selective to the point of whimsy, and thus subject to the criticism of being hypocritical, even cynical. Russia did things in Chechnya similar to what Serbia did in Kosovo, but there was no thought of intervention, and only the mildest of protests, because Russia was, well, Russia, a great power still and a nuclear one. There were worse massacres in several places in Africa but no intervention. "Why do British troops help to bring peace to Bosnia and Kosovo but not to Angola and Sudan?" asked Douglas Hurd. The other problem was that where such humanitarian interventions did take place, they did little good and had to be prolonged into something like permanent occupations. (NATO and international forces entered Bosnia in 1996 promising to stay only a year; five years later they were still there with the situation almost as bad as before. Only the continued presence of UN forces prevented more bloodbaths; no legal system was in effect, and murder and gangsterism were prevalent. The punitive bombing of Belgrade left the economy not only of Serbia but also of much of the adjoining region a shambles.) British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook argued that a few such interventions might "deter future perpetrators of crimes against humanity," but this seemed to the highest degree improbable.

The Soviet Union's massive invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and 1980 elicited from the United States only the response of a boycott of the Olympic Games being held in Moscow, though subsequently much aid was given to the Afghan resistance. But in 1991, Iraq's attempt to seize its small neighbor Kuwait resulted in the Persian Gulf War, which repelled this invasion. Here was a classic case of aggression. The United Nations approved the response, which was overwhelmingly an American military action, although other NATO powers contributed. The Soviet Union was then in the process of dissolution, and its total disarray precluded any Russian veto. But many Middle Eastern countries remained aloof or disapproved, and the outcome was not very satisfactory. While Iraqi forces were defeated and expelled from Kuwait, the Iraqi regime that had launched the attack remained in power and the issue of how to handle Saddam Hussein became a headache and a source of divisions within the West for the next ten years.


In brief, the world seemed to be back in that state of international anarchy, in which power alone counted, from which it was to have been rescued by collective security. To sum up the analysis, collective security failed to find a compromise between national and world sovereignty because sovereignty is inherently indivisible. In the last analysis, sovereign states cannot be fully bound by pledges to act in some hypothetical future case, especially where such pledges involve the risk of war. Plans for collective security demand such ironclad commitments, or the system decays into just another instrument of national policy (as the United Nations has tended to become). United Nations actions do not supersede politics among nations; they become a branch of these politics. The United Nations only mirrors the existing international society. National sovereignties remain the basis of world politics, and in the last analysis these sovereignties will agree to cooperate only so far as that serves their interests. Such cooperation may indeed accord with their interests at times, but there is no assurance that it will. The larger powers (who, after all, must bear the major burdens of enforcing peace under a collective security system) have never been willing to give an unconditional commitment to carry out the commands of the world organization; they have always reserved for themselves some escape hatch. They have never been willing to set up an international army of any significant strength, under direct control of the League of Nations or the United Nations without strings attached. This is to say that it still is a world of nationalism and national states. If a world superstate could somehow be set up, this would obviate and supersede collective security, which in theory is a hypothetical stage somewhere in between. In the terminology of the German sociologist Karl Mannheim, collective security is a "relative utopia"one that tries to be realistic but retains elements of fantasy.

An army under the direct control of the international organization, one that could be used without asking permission of the various member states, seems necessary to collective security; otherwise, as has been the case, it must make ad hoc requests for military contingents, which the various governments may or may not choose to honor, depending on their interests. If it had its own army, the United Nations would already be a world government, possessing sovereign powers over the subordinate member units.

One of the illusions of collective security, as was observed, seems to be that conflict is relatively rare, is a product of criminality, and can readily be recognized as "aggression" and as such suppressed by the great majority of law-abiding, peace-loving peoples. But conflict is both much more endemic in the world and much less possible to categorize as good and evil than this theory concedes. Aggression has proved much more difficult to identify and to define than collective security plans foresaw. In such clashes as those between Israel and the Arab states, North and South Vietnam, North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, and perhaps most others, there is great difficulty in ascertaining who in fact struck the first blow, as well as a certain aridity in making this the crux of the matter. Does aggression include indirect attacks such as subversion and propaganda? How far back in time should one carry the feud? What states were ever at war and did not each charge the other with the aggression? Historians still debate the responsibility for World War I and most other wars. In this respect, Hitler's unashamed Realpolitik from 1936 to 1941 was a rarity in the history of wars.

Although some have argued that any "breach of the peace" ought to be a signal for a "police action" by the world organization, regardless of who is responsible, or have suggested formal tests such as willingness to submit the dispute to an arbitrator or mediator, in fact the validity of the theory seems to depend on clear criteria of aggression. But attempts to reach a satisfactory definition of aggression failed in long years of debate, first in the League of Nations and then in the United Nations. Some argued that a definition is undesirable, because it could not cover all the contingencies and would be "a signpost for the guilty and a trap for the innocent." States might find themselves in the position of having to act against a friend or defend a foe. The reality of international relations in a world of particular sovereignties thus again confuses and thwarts the ideal of a pure collective security system. (After twenty-four years of effort, the United Nations Special Committee in 1974 did finally agree on a tortuous definition of aggression, but one too full of exceptions to be very helpful.)

There is also the argument of redundancy. A workable collective security order is one in which most of the powers are in harmony, and which has enough unity to agree on basic definitions, for example, of justice and aggression. It is significant that the idea has come into play in state systems marked by considerable underlying cultural unity, as in ancient China or modern Europe. But if there is this much unity, there is hardly any need to install a system of collective security, for the problem will virtually solve itself. To create the formal institution of a League of Nations or United Nations does not alter the existing order of power and international relations.

Insofar as collective security is based on a firm defense of existing borders, it is open to criticism on the ground that this freezes the status quo. This raises the problem of justice. Many states will not accept the justice of existing boundaries, which probably reflect the results of recent war and may contain arrangements clearly unacceptable to the losers. Many groups fervently advance claims for the revision of frontiers at all times, as, for example, at the beginning of the twenty-first century with the Arabs and Pakistanis. Collective security thus was in danger of being labeled the selfish policy of satiated or victor states. (Germany consistently viewed it in that light between the world wars.) One must allow for some method of revising existing boundaries or one has condemned a dynamic world to immobility, which clearly is impossible. Proponents of collective security may urge "peaceful change," but how is this to come about? Their theory contains no specific answer. In a world without a single government possessing laws and courts that are binding on and acceptable to all, war must remain a possible last-resort remedy for injustice. Here we impinge upon arguments against pure pacifism and confront again the nonexistence of world government. It may be noted that support for wars of revolution and "liberation" runs counter to collective security's immobilism. Those who believe that there is indeed a "just war" for national independence, recovery of a region forcibly seized in the past by another state, overthrow of an oppressive government, or some other such compelling cause will defend the right to resort to it rather than submit indefinitely to an unjust peace. (In the late 1960s and early 1970s the United Nations General Assembly, with a Third World majority, voted that nations should wage war on the "racist" government of Rhodesia, not for violating any frontier, but for being unjust.)

Insofar as it is based on guaranteeing frontiers, collective security assumes not only that these frontiers are just but also that they are well-defined. Collective security was more suited to the classical European state system than to much of the world today, where boundaries are ill defined or even nonexistent, and where civil wars, wars of secession, and wars of "liberation"sometimes with outside aidare the most usual types of violent conflict.

Finally, the basic dilemma of collective security isassuming its efficacythat of waging of war to prevent war. War by any other name, including "police action," is still war. Of course, the advocates of collective security hoped that vigilant international police work performed in time would nip a potential war in the budstamp out the brush fire before it became a raging inferno. But experiences such as Vietnam suggest that well-intentioned interventions of this sort may result not in diminishing war but intensifying it. Intervention by outside powers, even if acting in the name of an international organization, is, after all, not usually apt to reduce a conflict. In principle, collective security abolishes neutrality; no state may stand aside and observe, all must become involved to stop a war. (The 1930s saw a considerable debate on the implications of the new doctrine for traditional neutrality.) But the venerable principle of neutrality may be valuable in confining the scope of a war. To abandon it may involve the risk of widening wars.

In this connection, "limited war" theorists and strategists advise accepting the inevitability of war while seeking to keep it as confined and limited as possible, rather than trying vainly to abolish it. Collective security has been accused of unrealistically demanding the total suppression of war, and in its anxiety to achieve that goal, blowing up every skirmish into an international crisis.

The criticisms have called seriously into question the workability of collective security, perhaps the chief idea of the twentieth century addressed to the problem of war. It was born of the shock of 1914 and nourished by the further horror of World War II. Its goal was to bring an end to the "international anarchy" of blindly competing states, acknowledging no limitations on their powers except those of brute force. Recognizing the existence of nationalism as a powerful fact not likely soon to be extinguished, followers of collective security conceded to realism that dreams of a world state are as yet wholly premature; they tried to build on the foundation of independent sovereignties a society or league of nations to which these sovereign powers would offer their voluntary cooperation, in the common interest of suppressing war. In the last analysis such a compromise between national and international sovereignty seems impossiblethe gulf is unbridgeable. Those who are unprepared to accept continuing prospects of rivalry between nations and peoples, mitigated only by diplomacy and leading intermittently to war, must face the formidable task of creating a world community able to support a world government.


Bassett, Reginald. Democracy and Foreign Policy: A Case History, the Sino-Japanese Dispute, 19311933. London and New York, 1968.

Bloomfield, Lincoln Palmer. The United Nations and U.S. Foreign Policy. Boston, 1960.

. The U.N. and Vietnam. New York, 1968.

Bowie, Robert R., and Richard H. Immerman. Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy. New York, 1998.

Claude, Inis L. The United Nations and the Use of Force. New York, 1961.

Current, Richard N. "The United States and 'Collective Security': Notes on the History of an Idea." In Alexander DeConde, ed. Isolation and Security: Ideas and Interests in Twentieth-Century American Foreign Policy. Durham, N.C., 1957. Semantically helpful.

Finkelstein, Marina S., and Lawrence S. Finkel-stein, comps. and eds. Collective Security. San Francisco, 1966. A handy collection of readings.

Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York and Oxford, 1982.

Goldstein, Avery. Deterrence and Security in the Twenty-first Century: China, Britain, France, and the Enduring Legacy of the Nuclear Revolution. Stanford, Calif., 2000.

Haas, Ernst B. Collective Security and the Future International System. Denver, Colo., 1968.

Hatton, Ragnhild, and J. S. Bromley, eds. William III and Louis XIV: Essays 16801720, by and for Mark A. Thomson. Toronto and Liverpool, 1968. A useful case study.

Hemleben, Sylvester John. Plans for World Peace through Six Centuries. Chicago, 1943. Early history of the idea of collective security.

Howard, Michael Eliot. The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order. New Haven, Conn., 2001.

James, Alan. The Politics of Peace-keeping. London and New York, 1969.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. The United States and NATO: The Formative Years. Lexington, Ky., 1984.

Kuehl, Warren F. Seeking World Order: The United States and International Organization to 1920. Nashville, Tenn., 1969. A history of the American approach to international organizations to 1920.

Lefever, Ernest W. Uncertain Mandate: Politics of the U.N. Congo Operation. Baltimore, 1967.

McNamara, Robert S., et al. Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. New York, 1999.

Rappard, William E. Collective Security in Swiss Experience, 12911948. London, 1948. A case study of interest.

Stromberg, Roland N. Collective Security and American Foreign Policy: From the League of Nations to NATO. New York, 1963.

. "Uncertainties and Obscurities about the League of Nations." Journal of the History of Ideas. 23 (JanuaryMarch 1972): 139154. Mixes analysis with history.

Williams, Bruce Stockton. State Security and the League of Nations. Baltimore, 1927.

See also Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes; Arbitration, Mediation, and Conciliation; Globalization; Internationalism; International Organization; Intervention and Nonintervention; Peace Movements .

Collective Security

views updated May 29 2018

Collective Security

Development of the concept

Basic problems



Collective security is a method of managing the power relations of nation states through a partially centralized system of security arrangements. While the ultimate power remains diffused among independent sovereign states, authority in the specifically defined spheres of maintenance and enforcement of peace is vested in an international body.

Collective security is not wholly novel in the history of statecraft. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nations sought to localize their neighbors’ conflict and limit its spread. After World War I, however, it was widely recognized that the modern state system was entering a new era, in which not all warring powers were entitled to equally impartial and neutral treatment by the rest of society. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson, for example, said in 1932 that in future conflicts one or more of the combatants must be designated as wrongdoer; he added that we no longer “draw a circle about them and treat them with the punctilios of the duelist’s code. Instead we denounce them as lawbreakers” (Stimson & Bundy 1948, p. 259). This view—that nations may legally be held accountable for starting wars—became the cornerstone of the concept of collective security to which most statesmen have professed loyalty in the post–1945 period.

Development of the concept

Three far-reaching historical trends account for the rise of the new form of international relations and hence for the development of the concept of collective security. The first is the evolving sense of practical morality, according to which neither war nor poverty is any longer accepted as inevitable and foreordained. A succession of grand designs and peace plans originating in the philosophical concepts of the Enlightenment culminated in the League of Nations and the United Nations. The second far-reaching historical trend stems from a revolution in technology and in the world economy. Industrialization has caused the nations of the world to become interdependent. The activities and production of one region are increasingly required to gear and mesh with the functions of others. Industrialism has some of the qualities of a pro-found ecumenical movement drawing the world together. Third, the revolution in technology and the transformation of beliefs have accented the need for, and the trend toward, more rational and extensive international institutions. Organization and controls must be world-wide to manage world-wide relations and problems. A universalized system of collective security is intended to meet the demand for resistance to aggression and the maintenance of peace on a global scale.

The fundamental principle upon which collective security is founded provides that an attack on any one state will be regarded as an attack on all states. This principle was recognized by the League of Nations, whose Covenant implied that war any-where is the concern of every state (art. 11). Neutral states are impartial when conflict breaks out, give their blessings to combatants to fight it out, and defer judgment regarding the justice or injustice of the cause involved.

This simple picture of the idea of collective security hardly furnishes a useful and realistic perspective on the way such a system operates in post-1945 practice. Nor are we helped by comparing the structure of the two historic experiments in collective security, the League of Nations and the United Nations. The formal agencies for collective security after World War I were, in several important respects, unimpressive. Article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations provided that any member resorting to war contrary to the Covenant had committed ipso facto an act of aggression against all other members. It was intended that first economic measures and then overt force be applied against any offender. But there was no clear provision for the organization or implementation of these measures by a central enforcement agency. Each nation had full freedom to provide what troops it saw fit. The Council of the League could then advise on additional measures. In contrast, article 39 of the Charter of the United Nations commissions the Security Council to determine the existence of a threat to the peace or an act of aggression, and articles 43-47 obligate the members, upon the completion of agreements, to supply troops to the Military Staff Committee. The agencies for partial collective security, as can be seen from the constitutional provisions of regional organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, are even more impressive and formidable.

From the beginning, however, the real issue concerning collective security has had little to do with charters or compacts. The real issue is the question of why the implementation of a system that is logically so flawless and enjoys such impressive official devotion and popular support should have been accompanied by a period of virtually unprecedented collective insecurity. It is a sobering fact that the nineteenth century, with its old-fashioned balance of power system, was perhaps the most peaceful in modern times; the twentieth, by contrast, has been an epoch of unparalleled bloodshed. There were only 18 months in the nineteenth century when France, Russia, Austria, Prussia, England, and Spain found themselves at war with one another (excluding the Crimean War, which was essentially a colonial struggle). Our experience thus far with the novel machinery of collective security has hardly warranted the unqualifiedly optimistic postwar belief that with the creation of a new international organization power politics and war are being left far behind in our progress toward Utopia.

Basic problems

Four basic problems are responsible for the predicament of collective security: the problem of preconditions, the problem of conflicting national interests, the psychological problem, and the problem of peaceful change.


The first problem is, from one standpoint, the most basic, for the preconditions of collective security, being frequently misunderstood, have presented the most stubborn obstacle to the maintenance of international peace. Collective enforcement assumes a status quo, or situation of peace, that the nations with predominant strength agree to maintain. In practical terms, the peace that a collective system must defend is the territorial status quo at the time the system is brought into being. There is nothing in past experience to indicate that all nations, or even a combination sufficiently powerful to defy the rest, will agree on the nature of a particular status quo. Following every war, the defeated powers, and even some of the victors, come to oppose the established status quo. No practical arrangement has been worked out that is acceptable to the major powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, and on which the post-World War II status quo can be founded. The unresolved conflict between East and West has prevented the establishment of peace. Consequently, the latest experiment in collective security presents us with the anomalous picture of a system created to defend a status quo that has not yet been brought into being.

Collective security also demands that nations subscribing to the status quo be willing and able at all times to muster overwhelming strength for collective defense at successive points of conflict. The supporters of the status quo might, in theory, be capable of mobilizing effective and decisive power against any single aggressor who sought to defy them. Or by a pooling of the resources of all the nations in a permanently organized international force, collective enforcement could be made automatic, instantaneous, and preponderant. The first condition, however, is practically impossible of fulfillment, inasmuch as the threat to the status quo comes historically from more than one dissatisfied power or aggressor. The second condition would call for the unprecedented practice of having international contingents operate under an international agency empowered to decide conclusively when and how they should be used.

The United Nations Charter seems to take a long step toward this objective by providing that all members “make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities” (art. 43, paragraph 1). Through this provision, the incurable weakness of decentralized enforcement, by which past international systems have been rendered impotent, is ostensibly overcome. In the earlier experiments separate nations retained the right to determine whether or not military forces would be made available to meet particular crises. Yet in practice the provision in article 43 has, with two exceptions, remained a dead letter. The stalemate in the Military Staff Committee is fundamentally a symptom of the struggles between the two great powers and between supporters and opponents of the undefined status quo. The realization of the second condition of overwhelming strength for collective enforcement has constantly run afoul of special national demands for military security and supremacy.

The final prerequisite of collective security in a world of unequal powers is that at least the major powers enjoy a minimum of political solidarity and moral community. Such solidarity has never been realized between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Conflicting national interests

The chief practical obstacle to collective security is the political problem deriving from the conflict of independent national interests. The loyalties and interests of nations participating in international organizations and collective security systems are of a different order from those of individuals taking part in the more intimate communities of the family and the nation. There are institutions in integrated societies that provide common standards under which the individual can realize his aspirations. There need be no inherent conflict between an individual’s private interests and his national loyalties, for the latter can often promote the realization of the former. On the other hand, conflicts are frequently inevitable between national and supranational loyalties.

The psychological problem

The third problem is psychological. Collective security sometimes breaks down because of collective resentments or hatreds and reactions that express certain features of a particular national character. In 1931 the Japanese spilled over into Manchuria. Why was it that more positive action was not taken? Economically, the world was deep in a painful depression; politically, Manchuria seemed far away and of little immediate interest to Western nations. There was, in addition, a psychological factor. Certain groups in the West harbored deep resentments against these victims of Japanese imperialism. In particular, certain elements within the British trading community remembered private scores that had not been settled and the recent ingratitude of the Chinese toward the West. This sector of Western public opinion took a kind of vicarious pleasure in the punishment the Japanese were inflicting upon China and viewed the Japanese action as a retaliation against the whole anti-European movement that was sweeping Asia.

Peaceful change

The fourth problem relates to international change. Peaceful change involves the whole of society, with its orderly machinery through which social groups seek support for their claims, which must be compatible with the society’s fundamental values to be successful. It is the whole of domestic society, and not the legislature in isolation, that brings about social change. The role of legislatures is essentially to ratify the choices at which unorganized society has already arrived. This is made possible by the generally accepted framework of justice within which disputes can be settled.

It is obvious that the conditions and institutions that exist within domestic societies are not present or are greatly weakened in international society. Legislative bodies with lawmaking powers are conspicuously absent from the international scene. The United Nations General Assembly has the power to “make recommendations” on matters prescribed in the Charter; the Security Council may “decide” on measures to be taken and may “call upon” members to act. But although these powers appear to mark an advance, in practice they have not resulted in decisive steps toward international lawmaking or facilitated peaceful change.


Yet, despite the inherent limitations, a relatively successful system of collective security evolved after World War II. The United Nations has provided machinery—a United Nations “presence”—for preserving peace in areas threatened by possible aggression. An emergency force was formed, drawing on national contingents, to maintain a truce following the 1956 conflict over the Suez Canal. The most ambitious program of collective security was the one undertaken to preserve the peace and maintain order in the Congo.

These efforts are noteworthy because they serve to prevent direct confrontation between the two great powers on issues that are not primarily bilateral in character. When the area in dispute lies outside the authority of either great power, policing by the United Nations is sometimes accepted by both as the smallest evil among available alternatives. In the Congo, for example, a United Nations presence was more acceptable to the Soviets than a U.S. presence and more acceptable to the Ameri-cans than a Soviet presence.

Thus, collective security, as it affects the areas lying outside the immediate zones of interest of great powers, can be relatively effective. The new system applied pragmatically and with restraint may not function precisely as its architects intended, but it does serve in useful and constructive ways.

Kenneth W. Thompson

[Directly related are the entriesBalance of power; International conflict resolution; National security. Other relevant material may be found in the articlesAggression; International organization.]


Bartlett, Ruhl J. 1944 The League to Enforce Peace. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Carr, Edward H. (1939) 1946 The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Mitrany, David1925 The Problem of International Sanctions. Oxford Univ. Press.

Royal Institute of International Affairs 1938 International Sanctions: A Report by a Group of Members of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Oxford Univ. Press.

Stimson, Henry L.; and Bundy, McGeorge 1948 On Active Service in Peace and War. 2 vols. New York: Harper.

Thompson, Kenneth W. 1960 Political Realism and the Crisis of World Politics: An American Approach to Foreign Policy. Princeton Univ. Press.

Wolfers, Arnold (editor) 1959 Alliance Policy in the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Collective Security

views updated May 23 2018

Collective Security. The term collective security was coined in the 1930s, but the concept that each nation's security depended upon that of all other nations, that peace was universal and indivisible, was not new. Earlier advocates, especially President Woodrow Wilson, had affirmed this concept during World War I. The victorious Allies had institutionalized it in the postwar League of Nations. Despite the Senate's rejection of the League, and the League's failures to stop aggression during the 1930s, Wilson's legacy—his vision of a “new world order”—continued to shape U.S. foreign policy throughout the twentieth century. As one of the world's great powers, the United States by midcentury abandoned its earlier policy of neutrality in favor of collective security.

Wilsonian collective security presupposed U.S. hegemony. Drafting the Covenant for the postwar League at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Wilson ensured that it would conform to his vision of world order. He viewed the League as the worldwide extension of the Monroe Doctrine. He expected the United States to control the League so that it would extend U.S. influence abroad without jeopardizing U.S. independence. A veto over potentially unacceptable decisions by the League Council would guarantee that its actions would coincide with U.S. preferences.

Rejecting Wilson's globalism, Republican senators doubted that the United States could control the League. Led by Henry Cabot Lodge, they feared that the League would endanger U.S. independence and entangle the United States indiscriminately in foreign wars. They did not want Wilson or any president to use the League to involve the United States in foreign wars without congressional approval. Although most had supported war against Germany in 1917, these senators repudiated the Wilsonian vision of collective security.

After World War I, Republican presidents largely shunned the League in Geneva, Switzerland. The closest they came to global collective security was the Kellogg‐Briand Pact of 1928 and the Hoover‐Stimson Doctrine of 1932. President Calvin Coolidge approved the multilateral treaty that Secretary of State Frank Kellogg had negotiated with French foreign minister Aristide Briand to renounce war except for self‐defense. The Kellogg‐Briand Pact did not, however, prevent Japanese aggression against China in Manchuria in 1931. In response, Secretary of State Henry Stimson announced his and President Herbert Hoover's doctrine of nonrecognition. The United States rejected forceful changes in the territorial and political independence of nations, but it also eschewed both unilateral and collective action to enforce the avowed right of national self‐determination.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt revived the Wilsonian idea of collective security. In the 1930s, the United States had attempted neutrality while Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan committed aggression against their neighbors in Europe, Africa, and Asia. After the 1938 Munich Agreement failed to preserve peace, Roosevelt and other U.S. policymakers concluded that the nation could not protect its security alone. In 1939–41, the United States formed an alliance with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, and also China. This alliance served as FDR's model for a postwar United Nations to replace the discredited League. Like Wilson earlier, he expected the victorious powers—the world's policemen—to dominate world affairs. Five nations, eventually including France, would each have the right to veto the UN Security Council's decisions.

The United Nations failed to fulfill its Wilsonian promise. FDR's secretaries of state, first Cordell Hull at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944 and then Edward Stettinius at Yalta in 1945, helped to draft the new UN Charter. Their efforts culminated in 1945 at the San Francisco Conference, where President Harry S. Truman, after FDR's death, reaffirmed Wilson's legacy. However, this revived concept of global collective security, involving cooperation among the great powers, soon succumbed to the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States divided the world into competing spheres of influence, creating a new balance of power rather than universal collective security.

Only once during the Cold War did the United Nations provide collective security as FDR and Truman had hoped. In 1950, after North Korea attacked South Korea, the United Nations responded with collective defense against aggression. Because the Soviets were temporarily absent, the United States obtained the Security Council's approval for the use of military force to defend South Korea from aggression. From the Korean War to the end of the Cold War, the United Nations served as an international forum for U.S.‐Soviet rivalry rather than as an organization for collective security. U.S. presidents, frustrated by their lack of control over the United Nations, routinely criticized it for failing to fulfill its original intent.

As an alternative throughout the Cold War, the United States pursued regional collective security, which the UN Charter permitted. Under the 1947 Inter‐American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, the United States committed itself to defend Latin American nations. The 1949 North Atlantic Treaty ended American isolationism by involving the United States in a long‐term military alliance with western European states (NATO). Other mutual security treaties extended the U.S. network of alliances to the Pacific and Asia, including Australia and New Zealand in 1951 (ANZUS), Southeast Asia in 1954 (SEATO), and bilateral treaties with the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Claiming authorization under these mutual security treaties, the United States intervened in various countries to sustain allies and prevent Communist victory, most notably in Vietnam from the 1950s to 1975. This unilateral form of regional collective security epitomized U.S. involvement in the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War opened another opportunity for the United States to use the United Nations for collective security. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, President George Bush organized a broad coalition, including the Soviet Union, to stop this aggression and restore Kuwait's sovereignty. For the first time since the Korean War, now that the United States was the world's only superpower, it could provide leadership in the United Nations to use military force in the Persian Gulf. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Bush proclaimed a “new world order” of global collective security. Thus the Wilsonian legacy still influenced U.S. foreign policy in the post‐Cold War world.

President Bill Clinton extended collective security into the Balkans, involving both the United Nations and NATO in conflicts arising from the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Crisis. In 1995, the United States and its NATO allies retaliated with air attacks against Serbia to enforce UN resolutions calling for the end of Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia‐Herzegovina. NATO intervention enabled the United States and its UN partners to negotiate the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which established an international peacekeeping regime in Bosnia‐Herzegovina and ended most fighting in the region. Three years later, after Serbia resorted to ethnic cleansing of Albanians in its province of Kosovo, the United States and its NATO allies threatened military reprisal against Serbia to force it to comply with UN demands. This collective action curtailed Serbia's attacks and facilitated the negotiation of the 1998 Kosovo Accords, which required Serbia to remove some armed forces and accept international supervision in Kosovo, even within its own province. This was enforced in the Kosovo Crisis (1999). Thus the United States, along with its partners in the United Nations and NATO, continued to pursue collective security in the post‐Cold War world.
[See also Peacekeeping.]


Roland N. Stromberg , Collective Security and American Foreign Policy: From the League of Nations to NATO, 1963.
Lloyd E. Ambrosius , Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective, 1987.
Lawrence S. Kaplan , NATO and the United States: The Enduring Alliance, 1988.
Robert C. Hilderbrand , Dumbarton Oaks: The Origins of the United Nations and the Search for Postwar Security, 1990.
Robert W. Tucker and and David C. Hendrickson , The Imperial Temptation: The New World Order and America's Purpose, 1992.
Thomas G. Weiss,, David P. Forsythe,, and and Roger A. Coate , The United Nations and Changing World Politics, 1994.
Townsend Hoopes and and Douglas Brinkley , FDR and the Creation of the UN, 1997.

Lloyd E. Ambrosius

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International security