Americans frequently express dissatisfaction with the United Nations. Their reasons are numerous: dragging its feet on Darfur; the corrupt practices exposed in the Oil-for-Food scandal; refusing to accept meaningful management and financial reforms; electing Iran as vice-chair of the Disarmament Committee and placing Cuba on the Human Rights Council, among numberless other foibles and failures.
All of these complaints are justified, but they confuse the symptoms with the disease. The problem is not what the UN does but what it is, or, more accurately, what it is not. It remains based on the premise that there is such a thing as an “international community,” when, in fact, there is no such thing, certainly not in any meaningful sense.
Born in the wake of WWII, the UN possessed fatal defects from birth. The popular assumption among Western elites that the failed League of Nations could be revived in a new and improved version was shown to be utopian when Joseph Stalin conditioned his participation on the Soviet Union having three members: itself, Belarus, and Ukraine, the latter two being provinces of the Soviet empire.
There followed the charade of five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, the declining imperial powers Britain and France, the rising one led by Stalin, and the irrelevant China of Chiang Kai-shek. What was the moral, political and legal unity of those five, not to mention other founding “powers” like Guatemala or Saudi Arabia that supposedly constituted the “community of nations”?
With respect to the structure of the organization, there has always been a complete disjunction between the members’ rights, benefits, and responsibilities, beginning with funding.
The finances of the United Nations are the only concrete application of Karl Marx’s description of communist Utopia: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Thus, the United States foots 22 percent of the UN bill, Japan 19.63 percent, Germany 9.82 percent, France 6.50 percent, the United Kingdom 5.57 percent, Italy 5.09 percent, Canada 2.57 percent, Spain 2.53 percent, and Brazil 2.39 percent—which is to say that 9 countries, constituting 4.7 percent of total membership, pay 76 percent of the UN budget. The U.S and Japan (the latter not even a permanent member of the Security Council) pay over 40 percent of the costs. (If you are a New Yorker, the people who work at the UN owe the city nineteen millions in parking fines.) China and Russia, incidentally, pay 2.053 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. Ultimately, the entire UN financing system is nothing but a global form of wealth redistribution that entails, as one observer said, taking money from the poor in the richest countries to give it to the richest in poor countries.
Nor it is just wealth that is transferred but influence as well, with the General Assembly, International Criminal Court, and all other UN agencies being strongly influenced, if not controlled, by those who have the least to contribute and most to benefit. That this trend continues, and indeed grows, is yet another real life manifestation of Dr. Johnson's definition of second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience.
With the decolonization of Africa in the early 1960s, a new wave of weak, artificial states dependent on international welfare arose – the Sierra Leones and Somalias of today, all subsisting on the dubious legitimacy provided by UN membership, and the funds coming from it, all of whom found power in the General Assembly, where they established the so-called Non Aligned bloc (meaning non-aligned with the Western money providers), now the Group of 77 (in fact over 120). It was a process easily manipulated during the Cold War by Moscow and paid for by the West.
Nowhere are the UN’s defects more obvious than on security issues, the domain of the Security Council. There the interests of the US, China and Russia and the idiosyncrasies of Paris are supposed to mix in a brotherhood seeking world peace, which of course they do not.
Hence the inevitable results: if an issue is sufficiently marginal, a decision is made, money is wasted in fixing it, usually temporarily and in terms of PR more than reality, and we get Cambodia in 1993 (I was there – the election losers, with guns, stayed in power), or East Timor later.
If the issue is of regional importance, and UN “solutions” have failed, a way is found outside the system – and we have Kosovo and Bosnia, where NATO rather than New York imposed a still shaky outcome. And when the issue is obviously serious and does threaten world peace, no solution is found – and we have Iran, North Korea, Saddam Hussein, all attended by innumerable meaningless resolutions, presidential statements, and expressions of the “international community’s” opinions.
The problem is that, beyond the rhetorical and ritualistic banalities of global bureaucrats, there is no substance in the “international community” – and so we have the spectacle of repeated UN condemnations of terrorism matched only by the organization’s longstanding inability to even define the term.
Given these realities, known to all, it remains a mystery that so many are still disappointed in the UN’s performance, or, worse, blame the United States, George Bush or the “neocons.” Worse still, the same elites, and far less well-intentioned Third World anti-Western regimes, persist in proclaiming the UN as the source of international law, which led Kofi Annan inevitably to declare the war in Iraq “illegal.”
Like the institution it bases its legitimacy on, “international law” is “evolving” – human rights fundamentalists à la Amnesty International really love the word – further and further away from real life and common sense. As a result, we end up with bans on landmines, attempts to ban small arms, a nuclear non-proliferation treaty openly flaunted, and so on.
All of this is furthered by the little-noticed fact that “progressive” UN-recognized Non-Governmental Organizations, especially their “human rights” and environmentalist versions, not only participate in decision making but, given their financial power and government support, have more influence than most member states.
True, there is a World Health Organization, a Universal Postal Union, and a few other organizations in the UN system that either do a commendable job or cannot realistically be replaced by anything better, and are needed and deserve support. But on all security and economic matters the United Nations proves, on a daily basis, that it is nothing but the reflection of a violent and disordered international system, no different from its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations. To expect it to “work” is to forget Albert Einstein’s definition of stupidity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.
Does that mean that the United States should give up on the UN? That is a tempting notion, albeit advocated far too often by the wrong people for the wrong reasons, such as isolationists like Pat Buchanan, and, one suspects, by a majority of Americans. However, the fact is that the United Nations Organization has long become a “cultural habit” – and not just on the East Side of Manhattan or, more understandably, in Malabo, Port Vila and Antanarivo, but also, indeed more so, in Brussels, Paris, Berlin and London and, let us be honest, Washington, D.C. So we are stuck with it -- so far.
Stuck with it does not, however, mean subject to its whims. Congress should examine in detail exactly what we taxpayers are paying for. We should do a much better job in educating the public on the real nature of the UN – wherein the non–working recipient decides the amount of his allowance from the hardworking parent. Would any American parents accept those terms in dealing with their teenagers?
Blaming Kofi Annan for being true to the UN is unfair to him and avoids our own responsibility for taking seriously the people on the United Nations Plaza, New York. We should just treat them as unpleasant guests that, for now, we have to pay for, and nothing more.
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