The Multilateralist

Margaret Thatcher and the limits of the United Nations

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the West suddenly had to decide how to confront what was in many respects the first great challenge of the nascent post-Cold War. Much has been made of the role that Margaret Thatcher played in "stiffening the spine" of George H.W. Bush and ecouraging a firm ...

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the West suddenly had to decide how to confront what was in many respects the first great challenge of the nascent post-Cold War. Much has been made of the role that Margaret Thatcher played in "stiffening the spine" of George H.W. Bush and ecouraging a firm line against the aggression. Less noticed was her doubts about the United Nations as a vehicle for the campaign against Saddam. As I recounted in my book on the Security Council, she wanted the United States to secure U.N. resolutions condemning the invasion and noting the right of other states to aid Kuwait — and not much more than that. As she wrote in her memoirs:

I did not like unnecessary resort to the UN, because it suggested that sovereign states lacked the moral authority to act on their own behalf. If it became accepted that force could only be used — even in self-defence — when the United Nations approved, neither Britain’s interests nor those of international justice and order would be served. The U.N. was a useful — for some matters vital — forum. But it was hardly the nucleus of a new world order. And there was still no substitute for the leadership of the United States.

President Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, disagreed. They instead made the Security Council the center of their Gulf War diplomacy, securing a string of resolutions setting up a naval blockade, imposing sanctions, authorizing force, and ultimately requiring Iraq’s disarmament. America’s U.N. ambassador at the time, Thomas Pickering, recalled "it became my strategy never to let the Council have a day without focusing on Iraq." That frenetic diplomacy vaulted the Security Council from the periphery back to the center of world politics. In many respects, it stayed there. And in 2003, George W. Bush faced a world where military action without council approval was seen as almost inherently illegitimate. He may have wished that his father had taken Thatcher’s counsel more seriously.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the West suddenly had to decide how to confront what was in many respects the first great challenge of the nascent post-Cold War. Much has been made of the role that Margaret Thatcher played in "stiffening the spine" of George H.W. Bush and ecouraging a firm line against the aggression. Less noticed was her doubts about the United Nations as a vehicle for the campaign against Saddam. As I recounted in my book on the Security Council, she wanted the United States to secure U.N. resolutions condemning the invasion and noting the right of other states to aid Kuwait — and not much more than that. As she wrote in her memoirs:

I did not like unnecessary resort to the UN, because it suggested that sovereign states lacked the moral authority to act on their own behalf. If it became accepted that force could only be used — even in self-defence — when the United Nations approved, neither Britain’s interests nor those of international justice and order would be served. The U.N. was a useful — for some matters vital — forum. But it was hardly the nucleus of a new world order. And there was still no substitute for the leadership of the United States.

President Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, disagreed. They instead made the Security Council the center of their Gulf War diplomacy, securing a string of resolutions setting up a naval blockade, imposing sanctions, authorizing force, and ultimately requiring Iraq’s disarmament. America’s U.N. ambassador at the time, Thomas Pickering, recalled "it became my strategy never to let the Council have a day without focusing on Iraq." That frenetic diplomacy vaulted the Security Council from the periphery back to the center of world politics. In many respects, it stayed there. And in 2003, George W. Bush faced a world where military action without council approval was seen as almost inherently illegitimate. He may have wished that his father had taken Thatcher’s counsel more seriously.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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