Politics & Policy


It's time to reform international institutions and alliances.

Five things that grownups should no longer believe in: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Tinker Bell, the United Nations, and the “international community.”

Let’s dispense with the first three and begin with the U.N. It may not be unfair to say that belief in the U.N. was the first casualty of the 2003 edition of the Gulf War.

The U.N. was born just after World War II. Its prewar predecessor, the League of Nations, died after it failed to stand up to German Nazism, Italian Fascism, and Japanese Militarism. The U.N. was supposed to do better.

It didn’t happen. The U.N. never lived up to the hope and expectations of its more idealistic founders. According to the U.N. Charter, among its central purposes was to “maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.”

But when Mao’s Cultural Revolution killed millions, the U.N. did nothing. When the Khmer Rouge was slaughtering the population of Cambodia, the U.N. was silent. When genocide was carried out in Rwanda, the U.N. sat on its hands. When mass murder was waged against the people of Bosnia and Kosovo, the U.N. made the situation worse. (And, of course, when President Clinton finally intervened militarily in Bosnia and Kosovo, it was without U.N. authorization).

The U.N. turned a blind eye when Afghanistan was hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists. It snoozed while Somalia collapsed into anarchy. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya currently heads its human-rights commission — and if Kofi Annan or any other U.N. official thinks that an outrage, he’s kept his opinion to himself.

Have there been any exceptions, any successes? Well, in 1967, when Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and other Arab countries were mobilizing for a war to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, the U.N. did do something: It removed its “peacekeepers” so they would not get in the way. (It was as a result of winning that war, you’ll recall, that Israel came into possession of both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories over which fighting continues till this day — with no constructive role ever played by the U.N.)

The U.N. never became a maker of international law or a source of moral authority — though through a clever combination of wishful thinking and public relations many people were misled to believe otherwise.

Instead, the U.N. has been a cozy retreat for transnational bureaucrats. Leave aside such lofty goals as peace-making, peace-keeping, and the spread of human rights. The U.N. also has been a failure at contributing to economic development. Name one country — just one — more prosperous now than a generation ago due to U.N. economic assistance.

Nor has the U.N. even been an efficient provider of relief (which is what you administer when development fails and famine strikes). As a New York Times correspondent in Africa, I saw first-hand how much superior were the relief efforts of such faith-based organizations as World Vision and Catholic Relief Services.

As for the “International Community,” a term often bandied about in recent days, here’s a bulletin: It doesn’t exist. The word “community” implies common traditions and values. What traditions and values unite the people of the United States with the dictators of North Korea and Syria, or with the mullahs of Iran?

But, yes, with Britain and Australia, we do share traditions and values. The newly freed nations of East Europe understand in their bones why Americans say no to appeasing tyrants. Every day of its life, Israel fights blind hatred and terrorism of precisely the sort now being directed at the U.S. And in the not-too-distant future, we may find that a liberated Iraq values freedom as highly as Americans do.

The kickoff of the 21st century is very different from the era that began in 1945. It is not an exaggeration to say that our way of life and perhaps our very existence are now threatened by a witch’s brew of rogue dictators, terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.

To cope with this danger, we’ll need to take a hard look at old institutions and old alliances. We’ll need to make tough calls about which to preserve, which to reform and which to simply toss away.

NRO Contributor Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism formed immediately after 9/11.

Clifford D. MayClifford D. May is an American journalist and editor. He is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute created shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ...


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