The UN: Relevant?

There’s been a lot of talk about the UN (both pro and con) in the Iraq threads. One thing that really stood out to me was someone’s comment along the lines of “Of course the UN is never going to agree on anything, because it’s composed of nations that have completely divergent interests and look at the world in totally different ways (compare America to somewhere like Libya or the Sudan).”

How relevant or important is the UN nowadays? What is its purpose? Is it there just so there will be some forum for people to try and negotiate their differences, or is it supposed to have a more binding power to make decisions? If the latter, isn’t it rendered kind of useless by depending so heavily on America’s military? And the flip side of that coin: if the UN decides they want to keep the invasion force on standby and have the inspections go on, isn’t America justified in saying “Look, that’s too expensive for us to do”? Which is not to say that therefore we must go to war, but just that the UN needs to make a choice between the realistic alternatives: invasion, or letting Iraq do whatever it wants. Because the US will no longer shoulder the bill for pressuring Iraq into compliance.

Also, what do people think about the fact that the UN often fails to enforce its mandates? Not just 1441, but all the Iraq sanctions, which I think everyone can agree are nearly worthless at this point and have been for some time.

Is the UN supposed to look out for the greater good of the world, or is it just supposed to be the net result of adding up all the members’ national interests? One thing that I think bothers many Americans is this: on the one hand, countries like France or Russia are willing to ignore violations of UN mandates, and politic on Iraq’s behalf, presumably because France and Russia are getting a significant amount of money from Iraq. In other words, they use their power at the UN to further their own interests rather than trying to do what is best for all the member nations. When the US floats the idea of doing the same thing–that is, invading Iraq because it is in our national interests regardless of whether it hurts France or Russia or China–everyone goes off about how we’re being nationalistic and short-sighted. Is that just because we’re a superpower?

Because the thing is, it almost seems like there’s no point to having the UN at all if it’s just the sum total of everyone’s interests, because you’d have that with or without the UN. It seems like the only way the UN adds anything to the equation or does much good is if the member nations are willing to consider kind of the overriding world interest ahead of their own national interests. But nobody is doing that (including America, I freely admit).

So what’s it for? It seems like it’s mostly just a convenient place to get everyone together so they can express their views and try to negotiate. But if that’s the case, what difference does it make if the US goes against what the UN wants? Okay, we talked. We tried to negotiate. We obviously just don’t agree with France and Russia and China and Germany, and we’re never going to agree. There is no more point to doing anything at the UN.

I understand that many countries don’t (or say they don’t) want Iraq invaded. Well, some countries do. Now where are we?

A resolution of U.N. condemnation didn’t stop the Soviet Union from invading Afghanistan in 1979. The Korean War only had U.N. authorization because the USSR was boycotting it and the Chinese seat was in the hands of Chiang Kai-shek’s government-in-exile. The simple and ugly truth is that the U.N. is and always has been a bazaar of realpolitik – that is to say, the place nations come to haggle over issues of individual national self-interest.

(For a nauseating current example of this, one need look no further than the current effort by both the U.S. and France to beg/buy Security Council votes vis-a-vis a second Iraq resolution… As a representative of Cameroon put it oh-so-succinctly to the New York Times, “We are in a very tantalizing position.”)

At its best, the U.N. offers the world an elegant opportunity for reaching international consensus. At its routine, well – Iraq is currently the nation chairing the U.N. Committee on Human Rights, by way of simple rotation.

The problem is that U.N. has no teeth and probably never will. Nations are not willingly going to transfer any soverignity to the U.N.

The only way we’ll ever see a “world government” is if one country conquers the world.

Still, the U.N. is better than nothing.

The UN has teeth. 250,000 of them are arrayed around Iraq right now. The Gulf War in 1991 was waged by the United Nations – by a military coalition that included over 30 nations as disparate as Denmark, Brazil, and and Syria.

(Interestingly, while recent days have seen many proposals from France, Germany, and Russia about ongoing UN inspection alternatives, none of the proposals suggest each of those countries contribute 50,000 troops to the suffocating military noose that has made possible whatever gains have come from the current UN inspections.)

I can think of significantly more real problems than a lack of “teeth.” Why don’t we start with the problem that quite a few UN votes do not reflect anything other than the wills of dictators? Look no further than the current Security Council, where two of the fifteen votes are issued by Bashar al-Assad and Pervez Musharraf, with what I’m sure is minimal consultation with the will of their respective peoples.

Sure, the U.N. has some teeth when dealing with minor powers. Let’s see it impose its will on the U.S. or Russia or China. It will never happen.

If the U.N. has 250,000 teeth around Iraq right now, will those teeth obey the U.N.? Only if the U.S. says so. In other words, those aren’t really U.N. troops because the U.N. doesn’t really control them and never will. Those are U.S. troops, Great Britain troops, etc. To pretend otherwise is silly.

Dan, as usual, is exactly right. Except on the Human Rights Commission bit, which is chaired by Lybia. Unless I missed something.

It’s good and important to have something like the UN for purposes of diplomacy. But no one should have the illusion that the UN is or should be a strong governing body. It’s a place for deals to get made, not the ultimate global democracy. If the Iraq situation demonstrates anything, it’s that we wouldn’t want the United Nations making policy out of whole cloth.

On the general relevance question, I’m proud of our President for framing the Iraq issue as, partially, a challenge to the UN to start upholding its own resolutions. Unfortunately, it looks to be miserably failing that charge. The Iraqi report was just the first of multiple clear violations of 1441, but the Security Council doesn’t want to actually carry out any consequences. Ironically, it’s those nations that depend the most on the UN to make them effective powers on the global scene – France, Germany, etc. – who are in danger of tearing the whole thing down. Kofi Annan certainly feels the pressure:

If the UN can’t find a way out of this self-imposed mess – or even if it does, just barely – I would hope that free democratic nations around the world will realize that we need a better forum for gaining “international approval.” It should be made up of only those self-same democratic nations, and it should express the exact values that underlie those states. Maybe this is NATO’s role in the post-Cold-War era; I dunno. Obviously, such an organization wouldn’t necessarily find smooth sailing through a question like Iraq – it’s democracies that are at loggerheads now in the UN – but at least there would be an understanding of shared values and interests.

I’ve said before that I think the best reason for us to attack Iraq is because it’s the right thing to do, despite all the fearful consequences and side effects. That kind of reasoning can’t exist in a forum like the UN. It’s time to get an international body where moral reasoning is valid, and that can only be in one where dictators don’t get to share the stage equally with freely elected leaders.

You didn’t miss something, Chris. Iraq emphatically is NOT heading the committee of Human Rights. It is heading the [size=6][color=red] [b][u]UN Committee on Disarmament[/color][/b][/u][/size]. I’ll wait for a moment for your head to stop spinning and making high-pitched kazoo noises.

In the current crisis, it really seems like all the UN has done is magnify the importance of some countries who would have no relevance to this issue if there weren’t a UN. France, for example. And someone, here or in another thread, mentioned how Camaroon, of all places, has essentially put their vote up for the highest bidder. I had forgotten there even WAS a Camaroon, and now apparently it’s become important to the US to bribe Camaroon to support war in Iraq. All because of the UN.

Why bother? Every year the UN looks more and more like a place where opportunisitic nations try to capitalize on the system to advance their own interests at the expense of everyone else’s. The UN as a whole has less and less relevance every year. Every time the UN flip-flops on its commitments or refuses to enforce it’s own mandates, every time some nation uses the process of the UN to try and cash in or exaggerate its own importance beyond what is rational, I (and I think many Americans) find myself thinking “Why do we do this?”

If the US starts completely ignoring the UN, I expect the whole thing is going to fall to pieces. I think most nations care about the UN primarily because it can check the US. But that’s only because we let it. What happens if we don’t? Do people just think that would never happen?

Also, I notice France making some conciliatory noises all of the sudden. Is this the start of their changing sides, because they feel like they’ve milked it for all they can (since the US is now moving all of its forces to ready positions and is gonig to invade shortly)? Are they too late? I have a feeling France and Turkey are going to find themselves largely frozen out of the rebuilding of Iraq…

Sorry about the factual mistake in my post. Iraq is currently chairing the U.N. Committee on Disarmament. I got it confused for a second with Libya, which is chairing the human right committee.

It’s an understandable mistake. Both appointments are patently absurd.

“If the UN can’t find a way out of this self-imposed mess – or even if it does, just barely – I would hope that free democratic nations around the world will realize that we need a better forum for gaining “international approval.””

We can’t even get all the NATO members to go along with the invasion, much less the U.N. This Iraq mess is to wacky to hold the U.N. to task over it. It’s ill-conceived and executed.

Man, you people are naive. The United Nations were set up by the victors of World War 2, as evidenced by the identity of the permanent members of the “Security Council”. They are not the congregation of the free peoples of Middle Earth or something. The UN serve three purposes:

  1. Keep a check on powerful nations (which today means America) so that they don’t do whatever the hell they want. That’s why medium powers contribute a disproportionately large share of the UN budget compared to the USA, and unlike America pay their dues on time.

(The usual American excuse is “but we contribute SO MANY TROOPS!!!”, ignoring of course that America is the one country that refuses to put its troops under UN command, and only ever “contributes” significant forces to its own wars…)

  1. Keep a check on the Third World so that it doesn’t spin out of control into mass migrations, or perhaps even an alliance against the rich countries. That’s why local thugs who pose as presidents keep getting bribed with “aid” and prestigious posts.

  2. Give powerful nations (again, today this means America) a forum to organise international support for their wars. Cf. Alexander the Great and the Corinthian League.

Anything else is just tacked on to make the UN look grander. Unicef etc. could be housed by the International Red Cross and its sister organisations just as easily.

On the other hand, we did pay up. Also, we host these guys in their very own special building in New York. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

As for the rest, I’m in agreement.

Perhaps because the members of the U.N. doesn’t agree on what “the right thing to do” is?

Well, then you don’t have international approval, you have a consensus among democratic nations. Which is fine, mind you, but no substitute. Also, why do you suppose democratic nations automatically share a similar sense of morality?

How, exactly, does the UN constrain the U.S in any meaningful way?

Are you insane? Do you think the US Army would still be sitting in Kuwait if the UN had approved an invasion two months ago?

The UN constrains the US in a very meaningful way: people in the US think that UN approval is equivalent to something being the right thing to do. I don’t know what the latest poll numbers are, but when I checked last there was a huge group of Americans who thought invading Iraq was good if the UN said it was good–sort of the “I don’t know, what does everyone else think?” vote.

  1. Keep a check on powerful nations

This is not the purpose of the UN. I don’t think FDR would have set it up if its purpose was to have been to keep a check on his nation.

They think it’s good not just because the UN approves it, but because actions done with UN support are unlikely to piss off everyone in the world, like we are now.

Interesting. Maybe you’re right, but the cynical side of me still thinks that it’s just people trying to dodge the responsibility of standing by a decision. I have way, way, way more respect for the intelligent anti-war crowd than I do for the “I want to do whatever Camaroon wants to do” crowd.

I guess one could poo-poo a democratic union as “incomplete.” But from my perspective, it’s approval actually would mean MORE than the opinion of a forum that admits the input countries with no stable government, regimes that starve their populace, and dictators who feel no need to respect the rights of their citizens.

As others have pointed out, getting the “international approval” you refer to from the UN is certainly not a matter of proving the validity of a policy on moral grounds. It’s a matter of bribery and threat. Don’t get me wrong – all of this can serve the world better than going straight to World War III, but it’s not like getting the UN’s approval amounts to having the moral high ground, despite what the common people of Western Europe might think.

The fact is, stable true democracies by definition share a common set of values. They won’t always agree (obviously, NATO is just as shaken up by the Iraq question), but on the most important matters of politics they have a common bond.

I’m not poo-pooing, I’m saying it’s not an international consensus. Western countries have a long history of respecting their own citizens, but not do not usually feel the need to respect the citizens of other countries; foreign-policy wise, we’re not much better than many dictatorships.

As if the consensus of democratic nations makes something moral? Are you saying that once a country is democratic, it can do no wrong, all it does is automatically moral?

All nations share a common set of values, though smaller than that of democracies. What are these values we share? Who determines what a true democracy is, anyway? Why don’t we agree on something as fundamental as a war?