A Meditation on the United Nations
The recent abstention by the United States to a United Nations resolution to stop Israel from building new settlements in the West Bank, has thrown the UN back onto the front pages. President elect Trump condemned the act and stated, “it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
Well, I doubt that the people at the UN are there to have a good time but I do think it is time we reflect on the role that the United Nations plays as part of the post World War Two institutions established by the United States and the other victorious allies that have defined the global financial and political structure for the last 70 years. The institutions, most notable of which are the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International court of Justice, created a framework within which the world has seen an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.
However, as it is with all institutions created by man (and woman), these institutions are inherently flawed and subject to capture by powerful interest groups or nations and to diversion from its original goal or purpose. In addition, large human institutions tend to become bureaucratized and sclerotic over time. Along with rethinking the future course for America as outlined in my books, we should also consider rethinking the form and function of these US backed institutions and how they serve US and global interests.
The purpose of this essay is not to discuss the rights or wrongs of this most recent UN action. UN resolutions are most notable in their breach. People and countries with no respect for the rule of law routinely ignore UN resolutions. While many resolutions are well intentioned, the UN has little enforcement powers and must rely on its members to enforce any resolutions. What I want to do in this essay is to analyze the essential nature of the United Nations and to determine its role in preserving the “Pax Americana” that has existed since the end of WWII.
In the dark days of the world war, the United States and its allies began to think about how they wanted to reshape the world after the defeat of the Axis Powers so that such conflicts could be avoided in the future. One of the first institutions to come out of this process was that of the United Nations. The UN Charter, which was signed in June of 1945, is an aspirational document based on western Enlightenment philosophy.
The charter advocates for fundamental human rights and for respect for the rule of international law. Membership is open to every country in the world that is peace loving and willing to accept the obligations outlined in the charter. Each country gets one vote in the General Assembly (except for the Soviet Union which got three but that’s another story). The only exception to this rule is that all votes in the all-important Security Council must have the unanimous approval of the permanent members (United States, United Kingdom, France, Peoples Republic of China and Russia).
But the truth of the matter is that countries that have nothing but contempt for the Enlightenment principles of the UN Charter are members of this international body. This includes countries that wage war on their neighbors (Russia, North Korea, for example), countries that discriminate on the basis of race, gender or religion (most of the Middle East) and countries that deny their citizens fundamental human rights (China and others too numerous to mention). These countries are all members in good standing and have never been sanctioned or suspended by the UN.
The UN Human Rights Council has members from such human rights violators as Cuba, Venezuela, China, Saudi Arabia and the Congo. Since its formation in 2006 (replacing the Human Rights Commission) it has filed more resolutions condemning Israel than the rest of the entire world. Currently Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates sit on the council but Israel has never been on the council.
So the United Nations has been captured by non-democratic countries that despise western values and diverted from its original purpose. It is true that the UN tries to maintain peace in some of the failed states and in minor territorial squabbles but, with the sole super power (the US) and the contenders for great power status (Russia and China) as permanent members of the Security Council, nothing meaningful that ever affects these powers will ever pass (the Soviet Union learned that lesson when it boycotted the UN at the time of the Korean War vote).
So Mr. Trump is more or less correct that the United Nations is little more than a public platform for every tinhorn dictator that wants to visit New York City (witness Hugo Chavez’ speech at the general assembly meeting in 2006). But that doesn’t mean that the world does not need an international democratic institution that can provide world leadership and the promotion of peace and prosperity. It’s just that the United Nations isn’t it.
Mr. Trump has also been very disparaging about North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is true that the NATO allies have been delinquent in their defense spending and that this puts a greater burden on the US, but NATO has been an effective force for good initially in Europe and more recently around the world.
And while NATO is primarily a military alliance, I believe that the countries of the NATO alliance share western democratic values. This alliance, expanded to allow other democratic countries around the world who share the same values, could be an effective base on which we could build a truly effective democratic international body under US leadership.
The problem with the UN is that the United States, by being true to our western values, has allowed that institution to be captured by forces inimical to those values. Even bloody North Korea is a member in good standing. What we, and the rest of the world (even the bad actors although they won't admit it) need is a democratic institution that can provide true leadership during these troubled times.
To understand the global role that the United States plays from the perspective of other western countries, I recommend that you read, The Will to Lead: America's Indispensable Role in the Global Fight for Freedom by Anders Fogh Rasmussen who also happens to have been Secretary General of NATO. He truly understands the role of America in the world and the need for American leadership.
It would be foolish to sacrifice NATO in order to balance the budget by having our allies pony up their share. It is true that they need to do more. And it is also true that they have gained disproportionately by the existence of NATO (because they would not exist without NATO). But we have also gained enormously from the existence of NATO. Some things you just can’t put a price on (I know this may be difficult for you, Mr. Trump).
This conversion would give us an international democratic institution with some teeth (unlike the toothless and spineless Organization of American States). In the coming years, extending beyond the Trump administration, the world will face some enormous challenges; militarily, economically, politically and philosophically. The moral equivalence espoused by the progressive left has allowed forces inimical to our way of life to expand globally without opposition. The future of our way of life depends on our ability maintain the continuance of western civilization as a force for good in the world.