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The Political Origins of the UN Security Council's Ability to Legitimize the Use of Force

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 August 2005

Erik Voeten
Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.,
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Since, at least, the Persian Gulf War, states have behaved “as if” it is costly to be unsuccessful in acquiring the legitimacy the UN Security Council confers on uses of force. This observation is puzzling for theories that seek the origins of modern institutional legitimacy in legalities or moral values. I argue that when governments and citizens look for an authority to legitimize the use of force, they generally do not seek an independent judgment on the appropriateness of an intervention but political reassurance about the consequences of proposed military adventures. Council decisions legitimize or delegitimize uses of force in the sense that they form widely accepted political judgments on whether uses of force transgress a limit that should be defended. These judgments become focal points in the collaboration and coordination dilemmas states face in enforcing limits to U.S. power while preserving mutually beneficial cooperation. In this article, I discuss the implications for the Council's legitimacy and theories of international legitimacy.Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2003 International Studies Association Conference, Portland, Ore., 1 March; the 2003 Annual Meetings of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, 29 August; Columbia University International Politics Series, New York, 29 September 2003; and the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, Cambridge, 6 October 2003. I thank the participants in these seminars, the editor, and anonymous referees of International Organization; and I also thank Bob Axelrod, Bruce Cronin, Michael Dark, Monica Duffy Toft, Nisha Fazal, Jim Fearon, Martha Finnemore, Page Fortna, Stacy Goddard, Macartan Humphries, Ian Hurd, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Andrew Kydd, Edward Miller, Katia Papagianni, Rita Parhad, Holger Schmidt, Arturo Sotomayor, and Joel Westra for useful comments, suggestions, and corrections. As usual, remaining errors are the sole responsibility of the author.

Research Article
© 2005 The IO Foundation and Cambridge University Press

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