Published December 30, 2004
Shaken by the United Nations’ multibillion-dollar Oil-for-Food scandal, several U.S. senators have called for the scalp of Kofi Annan. They miss the point.
The quiet-spoken secretary general is not the problem, but only a symptom of it: the U.N. system itself which is simply unable to cope with the assignments of its 1945 Charter.
The United Nations is a many-splintered thing. Its Carter created the Security Council to keep the peace, the General Assembly to help solve disputes among member states, the specialized agencies to address transnational technical and economic problems, and the office of the secretary general to keep this vast machinery running with the help of his well-paid multinational staff. Of course, the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights is a noble document, but no U.N. agency can compel states to respect its citizens’ basic political or religious rights.
To be sure, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the High Commissioner for Refugees, and other U.N. agencies have provided valuable humanitarian services. But they could operate equally well, perhaps better, without the cumbersome U.N. bureaucracy breathing down their neck.
The root problem is the United Nations itself, specifically the Security Council, the raison d’etre of the world organization, whose mandate is to keep the peace. This the council has not done. Though it has legal “authority” to curb conflict, it can act only with the unanimous consent of its permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. Rarely, if ever, have these powers agreed on how to meet any serious threat to world peace.
During the protracted Cold War, the U.N. played no role. America, aided by its NATO allies, finally faced down the “Evil Empire” without firing a shot. The Security Council was totally irrelevant. Ronald Reagan combined power and morality with compelling words: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Throughout history, as today, the key actors in the world drama are sovereign states pursuing their interests, some more wisely and morally sensitive than others. Even in this era of nonstate-sponsored terrorism, the territorial state is the primary actor in the global drama.
The U.N. Security Council has no army, no territory, no economy, no citizens. It has no farms or factories, universities or cathedrals. And most important, it has no historical memory. The Security Council, like the U.N. itself, it is at root an artifice of the liberal imagination.
Like its failed predecessor, the League of Nations, the United Nations has played no discernible role in defeating the worst enemies of freedom and human rights in the 20th century. That task fell to the United States, Britain, and their smaller Western allies who fought and defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and later with peace-through-strength faced down the Soviet imperium.
Despite the current wave of anti-Americanism abroad, for more than 225 years the United States — with all its virtues and its faults — has been the chief inspiration for and guarantor of freedom and justice in the world.
In 1978, after his firsthand experience as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan prophetically called the United Nations “a dangerous place.”
President Bush probably recognizes this, but has gingerly backed Kofi Annan for now, eagerly awaiting the report of Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, who heads Mr. Annan’s “independent” commission looking into the Iraqi scandal, already dubbed the 20th century’s greatest fraud.
The United Nations has promised so much and has accomplished so little. Perhaps it is time for the United States to consider withdrawing from the U.N. system, which it subsidizes to approximately 25 percent.
—Ernest W. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. America’s Imperial Burden: Is the Past Prologue? is his most recent book.