A shoe banged on a table, a Chomsky book waved in the air — while the props may change over the decades, the vaudeville acts that count as debate at the U.N. General Assembly continue, convincing many conservatives that the U.N. remains the world’s greatest forum for anti-Americanism, as bombastic and supercilious as it is ineffective and corrupt.
Yet a certain confluence has made the United Nations worthy of conservatives’ attention: a decade of monumental and ever-expanding ambitions coupled with a decade of monumental failures. In fact, the U.N. is now one of the most scintillating places for conservatives to be, with real opportunities to challenge liberal orthodoxies, and to do so on a grand scale.
Beyond the usual monotony of U.N. incompetence — the fact that it is an institution reforming, but never reformed, assisting nations that are developing, but never developed — lies the enormous scandals of recent history, and tied to U.N. chief Kofi Annan. Annan was in charge of the peacekeeping forces that failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda. He was then promoted to Secretary General, a post from which he presided over history’s largest financial scandal — Oil-for-Food.
At the same time, Annan oversaw the evolution of the U.N. into something akin to a standing constitutional convention, debating big questions and proposing, even sometimes attempting to implement, big — universal — answers. Much of this work has nothing at all to do with international affairs, and instead consists in setting standards on what used to be considered purely domestic matters. The United Nations has so-called “compliance committees” that tell the nations of the world how to rear children, how to organize elections, how to establish gender equality, and on and on.
In short, this expansion of aspirations accompanied by diminishing levels of institutional legitimacy offers conservatives an unprecedented chance to influence important debates, debates in which they have thus far taken no part. There is nothing stopping conservatives but their natural repugnance for all things multilateral.
Here are some of the questions now in play: What actions foster true development? How do we end famines, reduce infant mortality, promote economic growth, provide clean water, eradicate epidemics, etc.? Since its founding, the U.N. has followed what can be called “the temptation of the central-planners,” the notion that some experts possess a god’s-eye wisdom of how complex societies are organized, and therefore how they can be manipulated for good outcomes. But at least a trillion dollars has been pumped into the developing world since the end of World War II, with very little to show for it, and so it is becoming an increasingly questionable as to whether the level of knowledge necessary for such planning could ever exist.
One notion about development that flourished in the 1990s already appears near extinction — namely, the “rights based approach” espoused by former UNICEF head Carol Bellamy. According to Bellamy, all children’s issues had to be addressed through a human rights framework, and so, during her tenure, it got to the point that it seemed improper to save a child from malaria without first establishing that the child had a right to be saved from malaria.
The British medical journal Lancet finally concluded that Bellamy’s “preoccupation with rights ignores the fact that children will have no opportunity for development at all unless they survive. The language of rights means little to a child stillborn, an infant dying in pain from pneumonia, or a child desiccated by famine. The most fundamental right of all is the right to survive. Child survival must sit at the core of UNICEF’s advocacy and country work. Currently, and shamefully, it does not.”
The ideologies underpinning various development strategies matter greatly. The Bush administration has dared to suggest that aid money should be tied to substantive economic and political reforms, and such commonsense is a start. But how much more could be done by conservative theorists, not hampered by suspicions of globalization or free markets, or alarmism over pollution or population growth?
Many more questions involve political philosophy. The European Union now looks to the United Nations as the international extension of its continental ideals. Both institutions seem to have embraced a form of democracy bereft of real people who are the inheritors of particular cultures and histories. Both institutions endorse government without politics, choosing the consensus of experts over the compromises of politicians. In this view, the highest caste of cosmopolitan elites are the burgeoning number of international human rights experts who populate U.N. committees, non-governmental organizations, and the courts, culminating, of course, in the International Criminal Court. Conservative political theorists and legal scholars need to examine what all of this means for notions of national sovereignty and representative democracy, and whether there is any compelling reason to abandon the nation-state as the primary form of political organization.
Another issue involves public health. According to the United Nations, those who want a reduction in things such as maternal mortality and morbidity and infant mortality must accept the good with the bad. Or, even more radically, the good can only come with the bad: to reduce maternal mortality, the public health sector must increase access to contraceptives and to safe (legal) abortion services. So the World Health Organization is busy developing new abortion procedures, setting abortion standards, and training health-care workers how to perform abortions, all in the name of public health. In the name of AIDS prevention, the United Nations claims that adolescents require sexual and reproductive autonomy from their parents, as well as complete reproductive “services.” In light of the United Nations’ failures on these fronts — it has been unable to reduce maternal mortality, even as it makes abortions “safe” around the world, and it has been unable to control AIDS infection rates, even as it has tried to swath every African in latex — there is certainly a role here for conservative doctors and public health experts.
In short, there is so much for conservatives to do — there is an opportunity to promote a conservative multilateralism, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Near the conclusion of his recent ravings in front of the General Assembly, Hugo Chavez said “we want ideas to save our planet.” It is time for conservatives to take him up on his offer, and to join the debate of ideas at the United Nations.
– Douglas A. Sylva, senior fellow, Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute.