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Cumulative Legitimation, Prudential Restraint, and the Maintenance of International Order: A Re-examination of the UN Charter System1


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    Author’s note: Earlier versions of this article were presented at the ISA Comparative Interdisciplinary Studies Conference in The Hague on July 3, 2006 and at the APSA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on September 1, 2006. For helpful comments, I thank the participants at these conferences as well as Robert DeVries, Simona Goi, Robert Pape, Duncan Snidal, William Stevenson, Erik Voeten, and especially Lora Viola, Alexander Thompson, and the three anonymous reviewers from ISQ. For financial support I thank the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University, and for Interim Study Leave, I thank Calvin College.


Much of the existing literature has accorded the Security Council with collective authority to confer legitimacy on actions involving the use of armed force. However, because of the veto, scholars have been able to point to relatively few instances in which the Charter has functioned thusly to legitimate or to restrain the actions of powerful states. This article provides an alternative conceptualization, treating the Charter as the basis of a broader system of international order in which legitimacy is conferred cumulatively, by both states within the Security Council and those outside of it, based on the extent of actions’ congruence with Charter rules that serve states’ shared interests. States’ expressions of acceptance confer legitimacy, while their expressions (and acts) of resistance withhold legitimacy, evoking prudential restraint from major powers attempting to signal their continuing commitment to the existing, postwar international order. The article applies this conceptualization to a case study of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.