This chapter makes the case that selectivity has been part of the UN framework, ever since the UN Charter was drawn up in 1945, and has been an unavoidable feature of the actions of the UN Security Council and of all UN member states.

The UN Charter system provides a much more robust framework for collective action than any previous attempt at global order. It differs hugely from all its predecessors, including the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century and the League of Nations in the interwar years. As a result, it has often been asserted that the Charter represents a scheme for collective security. However, we question whether the Charter, even in theory, provides the basis for such a system, at least if defined in the classical sense.

The term ‘collective security’, in its classical sense, refers to a system, regional or global, in which each state in the system accepts that the security of one is the concern of all, and agrees to join in a collective response to threats to, and breaches of, the peace. This is the meaning followed here. The assumption is that the threats to be addressed may arise from one or more states within the system. Collective security as defined here is distinct from, and more ambitious than, systems of alliance security or collective defence, in which groups of states ally with each other, principally against possible external threats.

There is a long history of the armed forces of many different states being used in a common cause. There is also a distinguished pedigree of leaders who have sought to establish a system of collective security, viewing it as superior to the balance of power as a basis for international order. Cardinal Richelieu of France proposed such a scheme in 1629, and his ideas were partially reflected in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Sadly, the history of proposals for collective security is a long record of failure.

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Adam Roberts is a senior research fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University and Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. He was Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford University from 1986 to 2007. His books include United Nations, Divided World: The UN’s Roles in International Relations, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1993, editor with Benedict Kingsbury) and Documents on the Laws of War, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2000, editor with Richard Guelff).

Dominik Zaum is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Reading. He was previously a research fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Author of The Sovereignty Paradox: The Norms and Politics of International Statebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2007), he has published articles in Review of International Studies, International Peacekeeping and other journals.

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