The UN: Instrumental or Normative?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 26 Mar 2018
21 Mar 2018 – A greatly modified version of this post was published in Middle East Eye on March 12, 2018, under the title, “The UN: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”
A Renewed Crisis of Confidence
During the Cold War, the UN frequently disappointed even its most ardent followers because it seemed paralyzed by the rivalry between East and West whenever a political crisis threatened world peace. Giving the veto power to the five permanent members of the Security Council almost assured that when ideological and geopolitical views clashed, which was virtually all the time, during the first 40 years after 1945, the UN would watch unfolding war-threatening events and violent encounters between ideological adversaries from the sidelines.
Then in 1989-1991 the Cold War abruptly ended, and the UN seemed to function for a short while as a Western-led alliance, dramatized by the Security Council support for the First Iraq War that restored Kuwaiti sovereignty in 1992 after Iraq’s aggression the prior year with a show of high technology American military power. Such a use of the UN was hailed at the time by the U.S. Government as signaling the birth of ‘a new world order’ based on the implementation of the UN Charter, and making use of the Security Council as the bastion of world order, which was at last made possible by the Soviet collapse and its acceptance of a Westernized spin on global policy issues. Yet this image of the convergence of the geopolitical agenda and the UN Charter was soon criticized as ‘hegemonic’ and began to be questioned by Russia and China. Even an independent minded UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, let it be known that the unconditional mandate given to allied powers in the Gulf War was not in keeping with the role envisioned for the UN as keeping a watchful eye on any use of force that the Security Council had authorized. The Secretary General at the time, Perez de Cuellar went further, suggesting the Iraq was ready to withdraw from Kuwait prior to being attacked if only given an assurance that it would not in any event , which was never given, suggesting that even this supposed triumph of UN peace diplomacy was a sham, disguising a geopolitical war of choice.
The misleading plea at the Security Council in 2011 for a strictly limited humanitarian intervention in Libya under the auspices of NATO to protect the people of Benghazi from an onslaught was used as a blatant pretext to achieve regime change in Libya by an all out military attack. It succeeded in ridding the country of Qaddafi, replacing his brutal dictatorship with an undeliverable promise to instill a democratic political order. Instead of order what NATO brought to Libya, with Obama’s White House ‘leading from behind,’ was prolonged chaos and strife, and a set of actions that far the initial, quite ambivalent (five absentions, including Russia, China, and Germany) Security Council mandate, the West eventually paid a heavy price, and the UN an even heavier one. The Libyan deception undermined the trust of Russia and China, and others, in the good faith of the West, incapacitating the UN in future crisis situations where it might have played a constructive humanitarian role, most notably Syria, and also Yemen.
Arguably, the tragic ordeal of Syria epitomizes the inability of the UN to uphold even the most minimal interests of humanity, saving civilians from deliberate slaughter and atrocity. Even when ceasefires were belatedly agreed upon, they were almost immediately ignored, making a sad mockery of UN authority, and leaving for the world public to witness a gory spectacle of the most inhumane warfare that went on and on without the will or capacity of the UN to do anything about it. For this reason it is not surprising that the UN is currently belittled and widely seen as irrelevant to the deeper challenges facing the world, whether in combat zones, climate change, human rights, or even threats of nuclear conflagration.
Such a dismissive view of the UN is understandable, in view of these recent developments, but it is clearly mistaken, and even dangerously wrong. The world needs, more even than in 1945 when governments established the UN as a global problem-solving mechanism with the overriding objective of avoiding future major wars, an objective given urgent poignancy by the atomic bombings of Japanese cities. The UN despite failing badly in the context of war/peace has reinvented itself, providing a variety of vital services to the world community, especially valuable for the less developed, smaller, and poorer countries. The UN retains the potential to do more, really much more, but in the end the UN role and contributions are dependent upon the political will of its five permanent members, the so-called p-5, which amount to requiring a geopolitical consensus, which in the current world setting seems almost as elusive as during the Cold War, although for somewhat different reasons.
Four Ways of Looking at the UN
Since its origins there have been four main attitudes toward the UN. When considered together these four overlapping viewpoints help explain why the UN remains controversial in achievement even after more than 70 years of existence. The fact that the Organization is still there, and it is notable that every sovereign state, without exception, values the benefits of membership even if the target of censure or sanctions. This should tell us something about the degree to which governments value participation in the UN and the services that it provides. These four attitudes are not distinct, and do overlap to varying degrees, yet each captures an aspect of the overall debate that has swirled about appraisals of the UN ever since its founding.
First, there are the idealists who want to believe the stirring pledge of the Preamble to the UN Charter “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Such persons believe that a new era of law-based global security was launched when the UN was established in 1945, thinking that the Organization would be ready and able to prevent the recurrence of major war as even leading governments had become scared of future warfare, and it was shown during the anti-Fascist war that ideological and geopolitical adversaries could cooperate when their interests converged. These idealists, although disappointed over the years, continue to hope that at some point the leaders of the big states will strengthen the capabilities of the UN so that it can fulfill this original lofty aspiration of securing a peaceful and just world order and stand ready to meet whatever global challenges arise in the future. In some helpful sense we can think of these UN idealists as ‘incurable optimists,’ given the accumulated experience since 1945.
Then there are the realists who dominate governments and think tanks, and were worried in the immediate aftermath of World War II that the idealists would lead the world astray by raising expectations of great power restraint and cooperation beyond reason and the lessons of history. The realists believe that international history was, and always will be a narrative of military power and powerlessness, with war, war making, and coercive diplomacy a permanent part of the global setting regardless of drastc changes in technology and global power balances. For realists the UN can be of occaisonal use to its dominant members in shaping global policy, provided its limitations are properly understood. The UN offers world leaders a talk shop in a complex world and discussion can sometimes be helpful in swaying international public opinion in the direction being advocated by a government or even in uncovering common ground. Realists adopt an essentially instrumental and marginalizing view of the UN, in effect believing that major political action on security and economic matters will always be shaped in venues under the discretionary control of sovereign states represented by governments that make security policy with blinders that ignore, or at lest minimize, non-military approaches to conflict resolutions. In essence, realists embrace a tragic sense of life, and can be regarded as ‘incurable pessimists,’ who however catastrophic the costs, continue to rely on war and threats to keep the peace.
A third set of attitudes is that of cynics who regard the UN as a hypocritical and dangerous distraction from serious global problem-solving. The UN has neither power nor authority to take action to keep the peace except in the rare instances when major players agree on what to do. In effect, the UN was always irrelevant and worthless from the perspective of shaping a peaceful and just world, and to believe otherwise is to be naïve about the workings of world politics in a state-centric system. From this cynical perspective the UN is a wasteful and misleading public relations stunt that diverts energy and clear thought from prudent present behavior, and even more so, from the kind of radical political action that would be needed to make the world secure and just. The UN cynics are essentially the gadflies who remind the public that it is foolish, or worse, to invest hope in the UN on the big challenges facing humanity.
Finally, there are the opponents, who oppose the whole idea of the UN as a world organization, and fear that it poses a threat to the primacy of national sovereignty and the pursuit of national interests and grand strategy. Opponents are hostile to the UN, often susceptible to conspiracy theories warning that there are social forces plotting to turn the UN into a world government, which they consider a prelude to global tyranny. The paranoia of the opponents is the furthest removed from reality among these four viewpoints, but remains influential as shaping populist attitudes toward the UN and internationalism generally in the present era where democratic forms of governance are giving way to a variety of autocracies that have in common a refusal to meet global challenges by reliance on the UN or other cooperative mechanisms, including even in the domain of trade, investment, and environmental protection. Trump’s ‘America First’ chant is emblematic of this outlook, which exerts political pressures, using funding as leverage, on the UN to serve the national interests of its leading members. It is illustrative of this atmosphere that the UN is being attacked as an Israel-bashing organization rather than being criticized for its failure to respond to well-grounded Palestinian grievances. These opponents are not reality-based, but rather are faith-based, and can be considered as ‘rejectionists’ when it comes to respect for the authority of the UN, or for that matter, of international law in general.
If we ask who has gotten the better of the implicit argument between these four ways of perceiving the UN, it is hard to avoid giving the prize to the realists. In a way this is not surprising. As realists dominate all public and private institutions, their dominant tendency is to treat the UN as a site of struggle that can be most useful in all out efforts to mobilize support for a controversial policy—for instance, sanctions against North Korea or Iran. Yet the most effective realists do not wish to appear as cynics or rejectionists, and so often hide their instrumental moves behind idealistic rhetoric. The realists are able to impose their view of the UN role on the operations of the Organization, but at the same time, realists are at a loss as to the nature of ‘the real,’ and thus seem oblivious to the need for a stronger UN to address global challenges, including climate change, nuclear crises, humanitarian catastrophes, and natural disasters.
In contrast, the cynics want to pierce illusions, not only of the idealists, but also of the realists, especially when their voices seek to cloak power moves in the sweeter language of human rights, democracy, and peace. Idealists also struggle to gain relevance by claiming that their views are more realistic than those of the realists, pointing to the looming urgencies of nuclear war and climate change. And, of course, opponents see these differences about the UN role as a dangerous smokescreen hiding the never ending plot to hijack the UN to establish a world government or to serve the nefarious interests of global adversaries.
What the UN Contributes
These perspectives, while illuminating general attitudes, are too crude to tell the whole story of what the UN can and cannot accomplish First of all, there is the question of organizational complexity. The UN is composed of many institutions with very different agendas and budgets, many of which are either technical or removed from the everyday scrutiny of diplomats and experts. Most people when they think of the UN are mainly concerned with what the Security Council does with respect to the main war/peace issues of the day, maybe a bit attentive to action taken by the General Assembly, especially if it collides with geopolitical priorities, and sometimes responsive to what the UN Secretary General says or does.
There is only interest, for instance, in the Human Rights Council in Geneva when it reinforces or thwarts some kind of foreign policy consensus of big powers or issues a report critical of Israel. In the early 1970s countries from the Global South wanted to reform trade and investment patterns, mounting a campaign in the General Assembly, which led them to be slapped down by the West that wanted above all to insulate the operations of the world economy from any reforms that would diminish their advantageous positions in global trading and investment contexts.
The UN is exceedingly valuable, especially for poorer countries, as a source of information and guidance on crucial matters of health, food policy, environment, human rights, protection of children and refugees, and preservation of cultural heritage. Its specialized agencies provide reliable policy guidance and offer governments help in promoting economic development, and set humane policy targets for the world in the form of Sustainable Development Goals. In effect, the UN quietly performs a wide array of service functions that enable governments to pursue their national policies in a more effective and humane manner, and operates within a normative setting that is best characterized as ‘global humanism.’
Perhaps even more significantly, the UN has greater authority than any political actor in determining whether certain claims by states or peoples are legitimate or not. UN responses to the legitimacy of a national struggle is an important expression of soft power that often contributes to shaping the political outcome of conflicts. In effect, the UN is influential in the waging of Legitimacy Wars that are fought on the symbolic battlefields of such principal UN organs as the Security Council and General Assembly. Contrary to what realists profess, most international conflicts since 1945 have been resolved in favor of the side that prevails in a Legitimacy War rather than the winner of hard power struggles on the battlefield. The UN played a crucial role in supporting the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles, as well as setting forth normative standards supportive of the Right to Development and Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, and also in promoting public order of the oceans and Antarctica. Despite its shortcomings in directly upholding peace and promoting justice, the UN remains, on balance, a vital presence in international life even with respect to conflict and peacekeeping, its potential to do much more remains as great as the day it was established.
The UN has been disappointing in implementing its Charter in relation to the P-5, and has not overcome the double standards that apply to upholding international law. The weak are held potentially accountable, while the strong enjoy impunity almost without exception. Nevertheless, the UN is indispensable as a soft power actor that helps the weaker side prevail in Legitimacy Wars. The UN seems helpless to stop the carnage in Syria or Yemen yet it can identify wrongdoing and frequently mobilize public opinion on behalf of the victims of abusive behavior. We can hope for more, but we should not overlook, or fail to appreciate, the significant positive accomplishments of the UN over the years.
If we seek a stronger more effective UN, the path is clear. Make the Organization more detached from geopolitics, abolish the veto, establish independent funding by a global tax, and elect a Secretary General without P-5 vetting. There was a golden opportunity to do this in the decade of the 1990s was never acted upon. American global leadership failed, being focused on a triumphalist reading of the end of the Cold War, and directed its attention to maximizing neoliberal globalization and liberal forms of democratic governance around the world, believing that states so organized do not wage war against one another. This refusal to adopt a normative approach based on shared values, goals, and challenges has marginalized the UN that continues to be dominated by the instrumental tactics of its main members.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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