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Collective Security Essay

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Updated: Mar 14th, 2020

Collective security is an arrangement or a policy that brings together countries agreeing to a regional or global stand that security was a tremendously pertinent issue requiring fanatical attention. As such, these countries agree to get into a collective role of responding to security threats and breaches of the peace.

These countries would defend each other against invasion from others. The countries under collective security do not attack each other. The main assumption here is that attacking one of their own was like attacking all of them. Collective security seeks to unite regional and global perspectives.

This idea has a long history. Over time, its implementation has been a problem. This has been so because there are some prerequisites that needed to make collective security work.

Collective Security Concept

Those in support of collective security idea consider it a more effective approach to ensuring peace than when individual nations act independently (Walters 1952, p. 817). The weaker states cannot possibly defend themselves. However, the pooling together of many nations for this goal causes competition and conflict; hence attaining the goal becomes problematic (Brierly 1958, p. 47).

There is also a possible distraction by states that like the never-ending arms competition. The main advantage of the theme of an organization is that international cooperation is easier to achieve.

Problem Facing Collective Security

To many countries in the world, the United Nations has served to embody the accomplishment of a highly venerable vision: which was to replace a dubious and dangerous system of balances by setting up an organization that could foster peace. There were some emerging leaders whose interests and schemes of devious ambitions did not care for their subjects’ welfare.

Philosopher Woodrow Wilson instigated the formation of a body that could offer security. The collective security concept effected as a reality in the League of Nations (Manning 1970, p. 107). The goal of the collective security was to institute peace and stability whereas the system of balance of power helped to maintain the status quo particularly that of the superpowers (Brierly 1958, p.47).

Rationally, people saw the concept of collective security as perpetrating the eighteenth-century perception when the idea of progress was dominant while they viewed the balance of powers as unsatisfactory and old. The United Nations was born just in time when people were losing faith in the idea of progress because of the first and second world wars (Armstrong, Lloyd, & Redmond 2004, p.67).

The current structure of the UN, especially the Security Council, supports the idea that the UN resulted following the failure of the rationalistic viewpoint. The League of Nations had exemplified this stance (Manning 1970, p. 109). The US, Russia and other permanent members of the UN’s Security Council still exercised politics of balance of powers while still serving the newly formed UN.

This was even though the UN’s Maison d’être was specifically designed to end those practices. Currently, countries often refuse to defend each other when there is a threat simply because the act is not in their best interests yet they pledged to do so. At times, they turn down because the act could be too costly or too risky.

Following the many numbers of countries that are drawn into a conflict, sometimes, small struggles are turned into large conflicts. Therefore, non-violent problem-solving strategies cannot apply (Nicholas 1970, p.89). Countries resort to military confrontation, which is more expensive. If there is an act requiring the intervention of collective security, alliances often emerge.

Sometimes, they serve as the basis for the aggressive coalition. The failure of the UN and the League of Nations is not because of the notion that modern politics are remarkably different from the 1945 politics (Manning 1970, p. 115). Besides, one cannot argue that the UN has failed to adapt to the new world but rather, the dice were already set with UN’s fate determined.

Also, one could argue that The UN had adapted more strongly in 2008/9, as it has been able to sidestep decisions of superpowers from America and Europe (Armstrong, Lloyd, & Redmond 2004, p.67).

Using the League to enforce peace

Veale characterized civilized warfare as an outcome of overdue common sense. Humanity then came to understand that probably; warfare could benefit all people if it were to happen under tacit rules (Walters 1952, p. 816). As such, it is possible to reduce human sufferings, losses and damaging of property, which is inevitable during the war, can be reduced as much as possible.

However, this was not the case in the First World War as the powers, which supported the idea of civilized war departed from it. There was British starvation, blockade of Germany, use poison gases, genocide on the western front and air strike experimentations. The League of Nations targeted at enforcing peace and use military force when necessary (Abbott, & Snidal 1998, p.7).

The league’s formation based itself on lessons learned from the First World War. However, when the Second World War came, the hope of using the league surged down. The Soviet Union discredited the league, which had suffered expulsion in 1940 after attacking Finland (Northedge 1986, p.27). There was a need to have a strong organization.

With America’s support, the United Nations saw its official dawn in 1945 after several conferences. To make it effective, the UN gave more powers to five key countries. These powers (US, China, UK, France, and Russia) had “veto powers and permanent representation in the upper chamber – the Security Council” (David 2004, p.8).

The council had exclusive jurisdiction in matters pertaining to security. The SC had a primary role in maintaining international peace and security and, therefore, could charge other members with the duty to accept and execute council decisions.

Problems in Implementing Peace

The Security Council was accused of some failures in the implementation of collective security. They assume that many countries are naturally peaceful. According to them, war only comes up because of occasional misunderstandings. In 1950, the US was exceedingly active lobbying other members of the UN security council to condemn the aggression of North Korea on its neighbor South Korea (Johnson, & Niemeyer 1954, p. 23).

The SC was not in place then. Therefore, the vetoing of resolutions was not possible. The UN forces mostly Americans backed North Korea only to run into Chinese militia. This was not a straightforward policing action. Not all the nations in the UN were convinced that N. Korea was aggressive against S. Korea. China and Russia were of the contrary opinion.

The US has been extremely active and dominant in such provocations that it appears it has more interest than that of the United Nations. This war profoundly discredited the goal of collective security even after the armistice of 1953 negotiations (Johnson, & Niemeyer 1954, p. 33).

The league’s problem in implementing peace heightened during the Ethiopian crisis. Collective security failed hence exposing some weaknesses (Miller 1999, p. 308). One was the lack of trust as the formidable powers appeared to support the new ideas but still believed in old ways of the balance of power (Parsons 1993, p.187).

During the crisis, France and Britain did not oppose Italy’s invasion strongly because they felt they would need Italy’s support as an ally in future conflicts, like fighting Germany. However, France and Britain’s hope to secure Italy’s back-up was in vain as Germany and Italy fought as allies in the Second World War.

As a result, Italy was an enemy rather than a supporter of Britain and France. In a Manchurian crisis, preparation of defense against Germany was of particular interest to Britain and France than for the abstract principle of collective security by the league. Since their peace was threatened, the states had to fall back and use the strategies of the balance of powers, which the league wanted to leave abort (Nicholas 1970, p.89).

Another serious problem of implementing collective security has been the circumstances in which the league had to operate in – The Versailles peace deal and ambiguous definitions in the charter (Gareis, Bernhard, & Varwick 2005, p.87). The definition of ‘aggression’ was ambiguous and vague criteria for action. This was almost the same as the balance of powers concept where mere suspicion of intent to attack was justifiable for initiating preventive war (Miller 1999, p. 317).

Legal definition caused the collective security to focus on overt actions like when a country sends uniformed troops over a demarcated border. This was the case in 1935 even as Haile Selassie was aware of Italian preparation to invade he could not call the league to intervene as had not violated the covenant of the league.

Similarly, collective security could have prevented the second world war if it had acted upon German rearmament which begun in 1935. However, then, any league action could have been interference in the internal activities of a sovereign country. Therefore, as the league adhered to legal definitions wars erupted in ways that are more violent and with stronger aggressors (Miller 1999, p. 328).

With states unable to find the unambiguous definition of aggression, the criterion that focuses on violation of territorial integrity and encroachment of political independence is not sufficient. Such loopholes allowed Hitler to occupy the demilitarized zone in Rhineland in 1936, even though it violated Versailles and Locarno treaties. Rhineland was still German territory.

Hitler also annexed Austria in 1938 hence breaching its political independence. However, that was a request by Austria government itself (Stromberg 1956, p. 254). Recent incidences of security problems have been even more ambiguous. For instance, in 1967, Egypt blocked the Strait of Tiran; hence ships going to port Elat in Israel could not pass.

Israel’s trade with Asia was impeded (Stromberg 1956, p. 254). In reaction, Israel attacked Egypt. Defining which country was aggressor became tricky. A blockade of the waterway is traditionally an act of war. Nonetheless, Egypt claims were that it was simply prohibiting ships from using its territorial waters, which, on the other hand, is not an act of war (Stromberg 1956, p. 254).

The first criterion means Egypt begun the war while the second, it was not aggression since the Strait of Tiran was Egypt’s territorial waters. For years, the definition has gone through some improvements to include many types of bombardments of territory, port blockade, attacking military forces, and supporting terrorism. There are still some serious loopholes.

The acts listed are not exhaustible hence; the Security Council can determine that other acts are aggression where the charter states that aggression is what the SC says it is (Stromberg 1956, p. 258). The second loophole is a contradiction of the first.

This states that the definition cannot discriminate the right of self-determination, freedom, and autonomy of people deprived of their right by force especially those under colonial rule, racist government or other types of alien domination (Abbott, & Snidal 1998, p.9). One cannot violate the rights of these people to struggle and find support according to the charter.

The Indian troops crossed a demarcated frontier in 1961 into Goa. Based on the above definition, they were into violating the charter or committing an act of war. The people lost their self-determination rights by force. As a result, they were in search of support and struggle. This definition could as well justify the actions of North Korea in 1950 as being of self-determination and not aggression.

Another problem has been that all other states have to participate in an action against the aggressor. Even if two minor states refuse in action against the aggressor, it does not matter, as only substantial states are taken seriously (Abbott, & Snidal 1998, p.9).

Refusal by one or two principal states because of unevenly distributed power in collective security could doom the operation. In 1935, Albania was not ready to oppose Italy since it was its powerful protector. In the same way, the Soviet Union could not oppose North Korea, as they are ideological allies (Stromberg 1956, p. 259).


Theory and practice have proven that collective security cannot work on an international level. However, it could have a chance in limited geographical locations where there are not so many differences in ideologies. Some analysts advocate for the organization with limited members in certain regional blocks. These smaller security systems would be able to preserve peace with ease because of a few memberships.


Abbott, K., & Snidal, D., 1998. Why States Act Through Formal International Organizations. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 42(1), pp. 3-32

Armstrong, P., Lloyd, D., & Redmond, J., 2004. International Organization in World Politics. London: Palgrave.

Brierly, J.,1958. The Covenant and the Charter’ In Brierly: The Basis of Obligation in International Law and Other Papers. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

David, M., 2004. The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. Boulder: Lynne Reinner.

Gareis, P., Bernhard, S., & Varwick, J., 2005. The United Nations. An Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Johnson, H., & Niemeyer, G., 1954. Collective Security: The Validity of an Ideal? International Organization, 8(1), pp. 19-35.

Manning, C., 1970. The Failure of the League of Nations (1942). London: MacMillan.

Miller, L., 1999. The Idea and the Reality of Collective Security. Global Governance, 5(3), pp. 303-32.

Nicholas, H., 1970. From League to UN. International Affairs, 46(5), pp. 88‑100.

Northedge, F., 1986. The League of Nations, Its Life and Times 1920‑1946. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Parsons, A., 1993. The United Nations And The National Interests Of States In Adam Roberts & Benedict Kingsbury, United Nations, Divided World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stromberg, R., 1956. The Idea of Collective Security. Journal of the History of Ideas, 27(2), pp. 250‑63

Walters, F., 1952. A History of the League of Nations, Death and Rebirth. London: Oxford University Press.

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