Politics & Policy

U.N. Ain’t The World

United Nations defenders are unconvincing.

Is the United Nations an odious institution?

Like a billion other columnists, I recently wrote a column considering the allegation made by a U.N. administrator that the United States is a “stingy” nation. It is “obvious,” I interjected by way of counterpoint, that the United Nations is an “odious institution.” Ever since, my e-mail box has been groaning to contain the angry protests.

The United Nations really is an amazing cultural fault line. On one side are those who believe that it is the last, best hope for mankind. On the other are those who think that title still belongs to America. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but I think it captures the essence of the debate about the U.N.

Of course, the institution’s defenders will object to this. They will agree that, yes, sure, anti-U.N. right-wingers are raging ideologues terrified of “black helicopters” and “world government.” But to support the United Nations, they demur, is an act of benevolent pragmatism. They are decent folks trying to stick up for a decent organization trying to make a better world. In fact, one typical e-mailer summarized this position succinctly: “You conservatives don’t want a better world. Period.”

(Sigh.) It seems lost on these anti-ideologues that assuming your opponents are hoping for a worse world is about as ideological as you can get.

If the issue is helping suffering people, why did the United Nations crowd–led by Clare Short, the former head of U.N. international development–scream bloody murder when it was announced that India, Japan, Australia, and the United States would coordinate aid efforts? Short declared that any efforts to help the suffering tsunami victims outside U.N. authority would “undermine” the world body.

So much for pragmatism. Who cares who helps the needy, and under what flag, as long as it gets done?

As it happens, the U.N.’s most ardent supporters are anything but pragmatists. They hope passionately that the organization might become what Tennyson called the “Parliament of Man, the Federation of the world.” Or they hope with equal fervor that it may serve as an idealistic alternative to American hegemony. Or they wish for both. And that’s where I start having problems.

I don’t have any objection to the U.N.’s technocratic functions. As a practical matter, if it makes sense to have a central clearinghouse to organize the building of water treatment plants in the third world, OK, fine. Most of us agree that helping victims of natural disasters, inoculating children, feeding the starving, and so forth are good things–just as we all agree it’s a good thing for our garbage to be collected.

But it is a huge intellectual leap to go from saying garbage should be collected to saying that the government should collect it. Similarly, you need to demonstrate that United Nations noble efforts cannot be carried out by someone else.

More to the point, it’s an even grosser intellectual stolen base to claim or suggest that because the United Nations does good things in Somalia or Sri Lanka that we should assume its political motives are just as pure. The Nazis were brilliant at delivering social services. Hamas’s “political wing” builds hospitals and inoculates babies, but that doesn’t make it any less of a terrorist organization.

Now, the United Nations isn’t a hotbed of Nazis and terrorists, by any stretch. But it’s not a democratic, representative body either. Absolute power resides in the Security Council, whose core members originally included two brutal totalitarian regimes, China and the Soviet Union–both of which remain (in altered form) authoritarian regimes to varying degrees. Meanwhile, the larger General Assembly is chockablock with kleptocratic lickspittles working on orders from their dictatorial paymasters in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

This is why I find it so infuriating when people talk about how the “nations of the world” voted on this or that in some U.N. resolution. No they didn’t. Some nations voted through their representatives, other nations had one criminal cabal or another vote in their name. And if you believe–as so many opponents of the Iraq war did–that barbaric dictators are legitimate rulers because international law says so, then international law upholds the logic of the Fuehrer.

As for the other argument–that America needs the United Nations to check and thwart its ambitions–I have even less patience. Usually such arguments are made by non-Americans who fear or hate the United States (France, call your office). Right or wrong, it’s perfectly legitimate for foreigners to make this case. Germany defines its interests differently than America does. But when Americans make this argument, my eyes roll. Yes, you can think it’s in America’s interest to have bureaucratic Lilliputians from the “international community” tying America down and giving a megaphone to our enemies. But that strikes me as an odious case for an odious institution.

(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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