• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Is the UN Doomed?

The United Nations is a curiously contentious topic. Mention it in the United States (especially in Washington) and you will likely be referred to “scandal,” “waste,” and “failure”; to the popular image of an expensive international excrescence, a breeding ground for inertia, sinecures, and time-servers, an impediment to the efficient pursuit and prosecution of American national interest. In these circles, the UN is at best a good idea gone badly “wrong.”

Elsewhere, however, you are just as likely to be reminded of the astonishing reach of the UN: through its various agencies in the fields of population, environment, agriculture, development, education, medicine, refugee care, and much else besides, the United Nations addresses humanitarian crises and challenges that most people in the West cannot begin to imagine. And then there is peacekeeping: between its blue-helmeted soldiers, its border observers, police trainers, election monitors, weapons inspectors, and the rest, the UN mounts an international peacemaking and peacekeeping force not much smaller than the entire US military complement in Iraq. Seen from this angle the world would be a decidedly nastier place if the United Nations didn’t exist.1

That the United Nations should be so controversial might have surprised its founders—especially the many Americans among them. Back in 1945 there was great enthusiasm for the project, whose justification and purposes appeared self-evident. The very scale of the catastrophe that the nation-states of the world had brought upon themselves suggested grounds for optimism: governments and peoples would surely know better than to let that happen again. The United Nations, its charter, and its agencies would be their chosen means of prevention. The inadequacies of the League of Nations would be addressed and powerful sovereign states would work through the United Nations rather than around or against it.

Six decades later, the UN certainly has problems. One of these was present from the start. In the aftermath of Nazism, whose surviving leaders were being tried at Nuremberg for, among other things, the crime of “planning, preparing, initiating and waging a war of aggression,” the UN’s founders emphasized the right of sovereign states to be secure from foreign interference—including, except in very unusual circumstances, interference from the UN itself. Article II, Part 7 reads, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”

But the UN was also intended to be far more proactive than the League when it came to preventing rulers and governments from abusing citizens and others within their own borders. Over time it has established demanding expectations with respect to human rights and the treatment of minorities—whose abuse might legitimately trigger international intervention. This apparent contradiction between sovereignty and internationalism has been steadily exacerbated by the expansion in member states,2 many of whom abuse their subjects as a matter of course; but also by the rise in the number of failed states, where the nature of sovereignty itself becomes unclear.

In the 1990s in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, or Rwanda, and today in Iraq and Sudan, with whom should the UN in practice deal? The local criminal chieftain? The very regime responsible for the crisis in the first place? In the era of globalization, with the rise of multinational corporations and other economic agents that are not even states at all but far exceed many of them in wealth and influence, and when the worst abuses are often the work of nonstate actors, the core functions of the classic state have come quite unglued and it is unclear who should now undertake them, and how.3 What, in such times, is the role of the United Nations, an idea and an institution rooted, as its very name suggests, in the era of nation-states?

Compared with these urgent dilemmas, you might suppose that the problems that the UN (like any huge bureaucracy) faces and has always faced in operating efficiently and eliminating cronyism and graft would not dominate debate about the organization’s role in the world. But you would be wrong. Ever since Joe McCarthy condemned the United Nations as an agent of Communist influence there have been American commentators only too glad to smear the institution. The latest and nastiest in a long line of attacks comes from Eric Shawn, a self-styled “newsman.”4

Shawn, like many implacable critics of the UN, purports to wish the place well: “I join countless others in profound disillusionment that a noble ideal has morphed into a bastion of arrogance and, too often, inaction.” But this emollient humbug is soon displaced by a breathless “investigation” of the UN’s catalog of crimes. The UN is “rife with abject incompetence.” “UN ambassadors and staff enjoy luxurious and tax-free Manhattan lifestyles and other perks.” There is much prurient attention to reports of “peacekeepers…raping and having sex with twelve-year-old girls”—summarized on the dust jacket as “how UN workers have repeatedly turned children into their sexual prey”—and a tone of dripping contempt in every reference to Kofi Annan, the “ringleader of UN World.”

Behind this screed—whose tone and prejudices faithfully reproduce those of Fox News, Mr. Shawn’s employer—there is, however, a serious purpose. What Shawn and his fellows despise about the United Nations is the impediment it has presented to American goals, the invasion of Iraq above all. That any country or combination of countries should have had the temerity to dissent from America’s drive to war infuriates Mr. Shawn. That one Security Council member in particular—France—should have vetoed Washington’s efforts to railroad the international community renders him apoplectic: the refusal of France and others to send an additional 100,000 troops “to help Iraq achieve full stability” is a “continued double-cross of the Iraqi people,” the most “blatant example of the moral and political irrelevance of what the UN stands for.”

It isn’t just the French, of course. In Shawn’s account, the entire UN organization is geared to taking American money while supporting America’s enemies and hurting her interests. The senior staff are viscerally anti-American. Supporting evidence offered in the case of the Englishman Mark Malloch Brown, UN deputy secretary-general, nicely illustrates the author’s method. In 1983 Malloch Brown stood (unsuccessfully) as a parliamentary candidate for the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Twenty years later, in 2003, Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party—successor to the now-defunct SDP—voted against Tony Blair’s decision to send troops to Iraq. QED. And the place is full of Malloch Browns with comparably tainted pasts:

The UN should not be forgiven for its role in the war simply because democratic elections have finally been held in Iraq. Americans deserve answers from the occupants of that rectangular building overlooking New York City’s East River.

Shawn’s tract comes with a patina of respectability: it is published by a subsidiary of Penguin Books and has a blurb from Rudolph Giuliani.5 And the author is proud to cite his links to men like Charles Hill, a retired diplomat-in-residence at Yale and source of some of Shawn’s meaner-spirited one-liners. But The UN Exposed is in truth just an exercise in character assassination and chauvinist bile dressed up as journalism. Had Eric Shawn been serious about investigating the problems of the United Nations, he would have employed himself rather more usefully while visiting New Haven by speaking instead to Paul Kennedy.

The Parliament of Man, Professor Kennedy’s latest book, is a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the history, tasks, and dilemmas of the United Nations. It is an appealing and serious essay by a scholar who, for all his careful cataloging of the organization’s woes, never loses sight of the larger truth encapsulated in his closing sentences: “The UN,” he writes,

has brought great benefits to our generation and, with civic resolution and generosity by all of us who can contribute further to its work, will bring benefits to our children’s and grandchildren’s generations as well.

The first impression one gets from Kennedy, as too from James Traub’s excellent account of Kofi Annan’s last years in office, is that the UN is distinctly well served by its senior staff. In recent years the caliber of high-ranking civil service and diplomatic appointees in many Western countries has declined, as salaries and opportunities in the private sector seduce young men and women away from a career in public service. The United Nations, however, has continued to draw upon unusually talented and dedicated public servants. This was true in its early days, when it was run by statesmen like Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche and attracted idealists like Brian Urquhart (the first British officer to enter Bergen-Belsen) and René Cassin (the French jurist who drafted the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

It is still true today. The secretary-generals themselves are international political appointees of varying caliber (neither Kurt Waldheim nor Boutros Boutros-Ghali covered himself with glory6 ). But any government that could boast the services of Lakhdar Brahimi (head of the UN mission in Afghanistan from October 2001 to January 2005), Mohamed ElBaradei (director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency since 1997), Mary Robinson (UN high commissioner for human rights, 1997–2002), Louise Arbour (her successor and former chief prosecutor for the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda), the late Sergio Vieira de Mello or Jean-Marie Guéhenno (head of UN Peacekeeping Operations since October 2000)—or indeed Kofi Annan himself, the most impressive secretary-general since Hammarskjöld—would consider itself quite extraordinarily fortunate.7

What has the UN achieved? In the first place, it has survived. The idea of an international conflict-resolving and problem-addressing agency is an old one, with its roots in eighteenth-century Kantian dreams of Perpetual Peace. Early and partial incarnations—the International Red Cross (founded in 1864), the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Conventions to which they gave rise, the League of Nations itself—lacked legitimacy and above all enforcement power in a world of warring nation-states. The United Nations, by contrast, profited from the great power standoff of the cold war decades and the era of decolonization, both of which made it a natural agora and forum for debating international issues; and it was blessed, from the beginning until recently, with the backing of the United States.

The UN also benefited, if that is the word, from the steady accretion of international responsibilities that no one else wanted to take on, “foundlings dropped off at the UN’s door in the middle of the night,” in Kennedy’s words: from the Congo in 1960, through Somalia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia in the Nineties to East Timor, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia-Eritrea, and the Congo (again) today. Many of these missions failed, and all cost lots of money. But they are a sobering reminder of why we need an international organization of some sort. And they represent just the most visible of UN undertakings.

For there are actually many UNs, of which the political and military branches (General Assembly, Security Council, Peacekeeping Operations) are only the best known. To name but a few: UNESCO (the Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, founded in 1945); UNICEF (the International Children’s Emergency Fund, 1946); WHO (the World Health Organization, 1948), UNRWA (the Relief and Works Agency, 1949), UNHCR (the High Commissioner for Refugees, 1950), UNCTAD (the Conference on Trade and Development, 1963), and ICTY (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, 1993). Such transnational units don’t include intergovernmental programs administered under the UN’s aegis; nor do they cover the many field agencies established to address particular crises. These include UNGOMAP (the good offices mission to Afghanistan and Pakistan that successfully oversaw the Soviet withdrawal there), UNAMSIL (the Mission in Sierra Leone, 1999), UNMIK (the Mission in Kosovo, 1999) and many others before and since.

  1. 1

    See, generally, Michael W. Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis, Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations (Princeton University Press, 2006).

  2. 2

    There were fifty founding members in 1945; there are now 191.

  3. 3

    For some implications of the modern state’s loss of control of its core functions, see Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Duke University Press, 2006).

  4. 4

    Shawn’s self-promoting Web site can be found at www.ericshawnnewsman.com.

  5. 5

    Other blurbs are from Ann Coulter, Jesse Helms, and Christopher Hitchens (“The United Nations organization has become like one of the banana republics which dominate so many of its sessions and committees”).

  6. 6

    Kennedy, generous to a fault, is altogether too kind to Boutros-Ghali, who conspicuously failed to take seriously the crisis in Bosnia, and whose representative there—Yasushi Akashi—was utterly inadequate to his task.

  7. 7

    On Annan, and in addition to the book by James Traub reviewed here, see the new biography by Stanley Meisler, Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War (Wiley, 2007). In an address to the UN Security Council on December 12, Annan pressed the case for an urgent settlement of the Israel–Palestine crisis. The dispassionate cogency of his reasoning quite puts to shame the clichés (or, worse, silence) of the rest of today’s world “leaders.” An excerpt from his address appears on page 48 of this issue.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print