Happy United Nations Day! It is October 24, the anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Charter. Since 1947, with varying levels of observance, this day has been officially recognized as a day on which we should celebrate the creation of the United Nations and the fact that we are citizens of the world as well as Americans. Although it will be completely ignored by the American media and probably merit nothing beyond a short written statement by President Obama, today is as good a day as any for us to reflect on the importance of the UN. More importantly, we should take this opportunity to consider how the United States might take the lead in reforming the UN and turning into a force that can reach its full potential to do good in the world.
The United Nations rose out of the ashes of the Second World War, which had killed tens of millions of people and left much of the planet in ruins. The vision that sparked the organization was a world in which war was relegated to the history books, as the various nations would resolve their disputes peacefully and work together on matters of common interest. When one reads the letters and diaries of the diplomats who labored together to create the UN in 1945, it is easy to feel the excitement and idealism that inspired them in their work.
Unfortunately, it didn't take many years before the beautiful vision of the UN ran into ugly reality. The ideological rivalry between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union during the Cold War largely paralyzed the organization for many decades. As happens in any large organization, incompetence and corruption were exposed at many levels within the UN. Action on serious issues became rare, and the General Assembly seemed to spend most of its time on purely symbolic votes, often over issues that seem petty and ridiculous to most people (such as whether or not "Zionism" constituted racism). UN operations in Somalia turned into a bloody fiasco, and disgraceful lack of action in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur made a mockery of the organization.
Those are the lights in which the American media likes to portray the UN. Yet, at times, the UN has been an astonishingly successful organization. Agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and others have saved countless lives over the past several decades and raised the quality of life for millions more. Despite many well-publicized failures when it comes to peacekeeping, the UN has helped end or contain conflicts in the Middle East, Cyprus, the Indian Subcontinent, Central America, and Sub-Saharan Africa. During the 1990-91 crisis that led to the First Gulf War, the UN Security Council worked exactly as it was supposed to, resulting in the defeat of Iraqi aggression and the liberation of Kuwait.
Americans have had an odd relationship with the UN over the years. It should never be forgotten, of course, that the UN was the brainchild of President Franklin Roosevelt and was essentially an American invention. Despite this, the United States seemed to sour on the UN as the decades passed. In the 1980s, it became common for Republicans in Congress to block appropriations for UN funding, and some influential groups began calling for the United States to withdraw from the UN altogether.
Calls for our country to withdraw from the UN are simply ridiculous, but only a fool would deny that the UN is in desperate need of reform. Rather than continue complaining, the United States should instead take the lead in in pushing for comprehensive and fundamental reform at the UN. Because it remains the single biggest source of UN funding, and because of its position on the Security Council, our country is uniquely well suited to take on this task.
In doing this, the United States would not only be doing the world a favor, but serving its own interests. After all, a stronger and more capable UN means a more stable world, and a more a stable world is obviously in the best interests of the United States. Global stability facilitates foreign trade and thus benefits the United States economically, and global stability also minimizes the possibilities of military conflicts into which the United States might otherwise be dragged. Even if we didn't have a moral bone in our body and were governed entirely by selfishness, working for a stronger and more capable UN would make perfect sense.
There are several areas in which UN reform is badly needed, chief among them being the revitalization of the Security Council, which is tasked under international law with the maintenance of peace and security. The makeup of the Security Council is more reflective of the geopolitical situation as it was in 1945 than it is in 2011. It is a concession to common sense that major and emerging powers like Japan, India, Brazil, and perhaps others need to be brought into the Security Council in order to give it the credibility and legitimacy it needs to properly fulfill its role as the keeper of the peace in the world.
As a corollary to this, the virtually defunct Military Staff Committee might be ratcheted up once again, to draw up contingency plans for potentially necessary peacekeeping operations and to coordinate actions against pirates such as those which prey on shipping in the Arabian Sea. A permanent United Nations rapid reaction force of light infantry has also been proposed, perhaps recruited in the same manner as the French Foreign Legion, which would eliminate the need for the UN to beg for troops from member nations every time a decision is made to launch a peacekeeping operation of some kind.
The UN also requires "democratization" in a major way. The General Assembly maintains a one-state-one-vote, in which little Tuvalu (population: 10,500) has the same voting power as China (population: 1.3 billion), and in which tyrannical governments has the same voice as democratic ones. The United States should push aggressively for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, in which the representatives are directly elected by the people of the nations they represent, which would have the beneficial side effect of promoting democracy in countries where free and fair elections have been rare or nonexistent.
Until these reforms take place, the UN in general will lack remain a lackluster force in world affairs.
For the last several decades, there has been a widespread belief within the United States that the country should not act as the "world's policeman". This opinion is correct. Even if acting as the world's policeman were morally justifiable, which it is not, it is simply unsustainable from a fiscal point of view. As we have mentioned before in this blog, the United States must begin drawing down its immense military-industrial complex and dismantling the global "empire of bases" it has created since the Second World War. Doing this will be much easier if the UN were empowered sufficiently to do the job its founders envisioned it doing.
Although some administrations have been more supportive of the UN than others, no administration has yet had the gumption to step up to the plate and lead a serious campaign for comprehensive reform at the UN. For both the betterment of the world and to serve American interests, the Obama administration should begin to do so now.