Sink the U.N.?

Published November 1, 1987

Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist of The New Republic, would have been a tough prosecutor had his agile mind turned to the practice of law rather than the practice of commentary. Writing in the flagship journal of American liberalism, Krauthammer has brought a powerful indictment against the United Nations that ought to be pondered by anyone concerned with peace, freedom, and security.

Such minimal attention as has been paid recently to U.N. reform has focused on budgetary matters and the modest alterations in the U.N. budget process that the threat of withholding the U.S. assessment managed to accomplish. Charles Krauthammer is not impressed, however. “The U.N. problem is not an accounting problem,” he writes, “though it is an American propensity to see life’s failures that way. The problem is political. The real issue with the U.N. is not its excessive budget, but its core budget. What is the U.N. doing when it is not wasting money?” There follow the particulars of the Krauthammer indictment:

1. The U.N. is not only not keeping the peace; its failures as a peacekeeping instrument are weakening those international norms that are supposed to act as buttresses against mass violence for political ends.

When a great power (e.g., the U.S.) goes to a paper institution (e.g., the U.N.) and demands the impossible (e.g., that it enforce international norms, such as freedom of shipping in international waters like the Persian Gulf), the norms themselves suffer. Neglect of the law, like neglect of the muscles, inevitably leads to atrophy and, eventually, death.

2. The U.N. has shown itself “utterly dispensable” in its last remaining “peacekeeping” role, the interposition of U.N. troops in a conflict zone.

When Nasser ordered the U.N. peacekeeping forces out of the Sinai in 1967, they left. “Belligerents that want to make war can get rid of the U.N. And belligerents that want to make peace do not need it.” The chronic chaos of Lebanon demonstrates that there can be war amidst U.N. peacekeeping forces; the current situation in the Sinai shows that there can be peace without them.

3. The U.N. as a kind of badge-of-sovereignty for small, Third World member states adds to, rather than subtracts from, the sum total of international conflict.

This “playpen” theory of the U.N.’s purpose requires that micro-states and mini-powers “develop a position on the Persian Gulf, Central America, and parking slots for satellites in geosynchronous orbit.” Then the bloc politics of the U.N. takes over, and conflicts are exacerbated rather than solved.

4. The U.N. further intensifies international conflict by its fondness for, and official approbation of, all manner of “liberation movements,” including the PLO and SWAPO.

Thus, in the case of the Middle East, “the U.N. rejects not only the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, but any other compromise that does not satisfy the most extreme Palestinian irredentists. The U.N. role in the intractable Mideast conflict is thus modest but unmistakable: it is a warkeeping function.”

5. When there is no crisis at hand, the U.N. system tends to create one.

For example, the U.N. General Assembly has called for an end to the current Antarctica treaty, which disarms the bottom of the world and supervises the scientific explorations of the 18 countries that actually work there. Antarctica should become, in U.N.-ese, “the common heritage of mankind,” and the pursuit of science and minerals in the Antarctic would be the business of everyone-“most particularly those countries that have never set foot on Antarctica, have never invested an ounce of effort into its exploration or development, but have mastered the machinery of the U.N.”

6. The U.N.’s “most insidious” function is to debase the currency of moral discourse about international affairs.

Liberal democratic language and the concepts that underlie it-world political community, human rights, democracy, the rule of law-were the foundation of the United Nations system; but they are now blatantly abused with impunity in the odd world of the U.N. Given the political character of the vast majority of member states, the U.N.’s claims to speak for the “world community” are just as spurious as would be the claims of the U.S. Senate to represent the American people, were the Senate to be populated by “self-appointed warlords.” Then there is the U.N.’s relentless campaign against Israel: “Israel’s alleged crimes fill so many volumes that a student of U.N. documents would have to conclude that Israel is a Nazi state the size of Eurasia.” But the double standard is applied far beyond the confines of the Middle East. The U.N. has a “special rapporteur on human rights” for El Salvador, but none for Nicaragua. Chile is regularly bludgeoned; Cuba is never discussed. No U.N. body investigates Ethiopia’s forced resettlement program, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents; instead, the General Assembly votes $73.5 million dollars for a conference center in Addis Ababa. There is more. Cambodia is “Democratic” Kampuchea on the U.N. roster and tote-board, as is “Democratic” Yemen. “Rights” language and claims proliferate, but little or no attention is paid to the abuse of such basic human rights as free speech, religious liberty, or habeas corpus. “Freedom,” in UNESCO’s Orwellian “New World Information Order,” turns out to mean censorship, or in U.N.-speak “regulation of the right to information by preventing abuses of the right of access” (by the government of Democratic Kampuchea, no doubt). The International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) charter mandates the agency to ensure the safe and orderly growth of international air transportation; but ICAO has given special observer status to the PLO, “inventor of the political airline highjacking.”

Given these manifold and undeniable corruptions- and the list could be multiplied tenfold-Krauthammer argues that “the issue is not improving U.N. efficiency.” Rather, “the United States should make the very deliberate decision that the U.N. serves neither its original purposes nor ours.” Therefore, the U.S. should leave the U.N. and “devote the money instead to worthy, non-politicized, U.N.-affiliated organizations, such as the World Health Organization, and to bilateral aid, which the United States, not a bloc of hostile countries, will control.”

Why not stay and fight? Because, according to Krauthammer, it is corrupting (permanent minority status leads to strategies of damage limitation, which mean compromise of principles). Because it is wasteful (bilateral aid makes more sense, in both humanitarian and strategic terms, than investing resources in buying our own bloc at the U.N.). And because it is self-defeating (the U.S. presence gives even the corrupted U.N. a degree of legitimacy; “take away the United States and the U.N. collapses completely or retreats to Harare”).

Thus the Krauthammer indictment and verdict.

The indictment has got to be considered soberly by anyone who truly cares about the future of international public life and the prospects for a world in which law and politics slowly replace mass violence as the means for settling arguments and resolving conflicts. The U.N.’s organized advocates in the United States, such as the United Nations Association, have traditionally avoided or tried to deflect a critique such as Krauthammer’s. That luxury ought no longer be indulged, especially since Charles Krauthammer is not from that part of the U.S. political spectrum that once put “Impeach Earl Warren” and “U.S. out of the U.N.” billboards side-by-side on the interstates. Krauthammer’s indictment ought to be taken most seriously precisely by those who want to bring a measure of civil and political order to international public life.

His verdict-“Let it sink”-is surely more controversial than his indictment. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes, and Ambassador Vernon Walters (to name three figures presently or recently involved in U.S. affairs at the

U.N. who can hardly be accused of starry-eyed utopianism) all reject Krauthammer’s “get out” prescription. One need not accept Krauthammer’s policy conclusion to welcome so forthright a statement of it, and from one who has worked hard to resuscitate the liberal internationalist vision that once underlay the U.N. Krauthammer’s verdict ought to be in play as this debate continues, which it undoubtedly will. Leaving is, in theory and in practice, an option. Perhaps acknowledging it as such will, as Doctor Johnson said of hanging, concentrate impressionable minds.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that one were to accept both the Krauthammer indictment and the “Let it sink” verdict. Then what?

Charles Krauthammer himself knows that this is hardly the end of the policy road. There are worthy, U.N.-related agencies that ought to be supported, financially and politically. The World Health Organization, which has ended smallpox and seems on the way to doing the same for such scourges as “river blindness” in West Africa, is the paradigm case here. Strengthening bilateral aid programs also makes sense, with or (perhaps especially) without the U.N. The political task of getting the Congress on board such a reform is another, and more difficult, task that Krauthammer does not address.

But there is surely more to do than this. There is the task of reforming those international agencies that ought to serve important functions, and don’t because of their gross politicization. If UNESCO wishes to corrupt its charter, then why not do more than leave? Why not establish a new organization, open to democracies and to pre-democratic states willing to take seriously freedom of the press, of scientific inquiry, and of culture? If the ICAO wants to give the PLO observer status, then perhaps we should leave the ICAO-but then establish a new organization to serve ICAO’s important functions. Do we really want an international air transport system that is completely fractionated and unregulated? The same course could be followed for refugee affairs, weather, postal service, and all the other myriad functional tasks now performed by the U.N. system.

Beyond this, the U.S. should consider, whether or not it leaves the U.N. and especially if it leaves, the creation of an Association of Democracies. The world’s democrats need more than bilateral instruments for common strategic, political, and functional tasks. If the U.N. has failed to live up to the bright promise of its charter, then perhaps the time has come to establish an organization that would meet those standards.

Morton Kaplan of the University of Chicago has proposed such an association. It would include the advanced democracies, each of which would have equal voting rights. Mini-states, such as the Caribbean island democracies, could hold associate membership. The new organization “would have a secretariat that each year would assess the policies of the organization and the member states on democracy worldwide. A parliament and a small executive branch would legislate with respect to human and political rights and control small military and police forces. A charter of human and political rights and a court would adjudicate violations of the charter by or within member states. … If the Central American states joined-and a condition of associate membership probably would include vast reductions in armed forces, national guards, militia, and police forces-membership would be the guarantee against violation of human rights by either right-wing or left-wing governments. Membership would also give protection against non-members.”

Kaplan’s proposals are not without their own problems, but they at least take a cut at addressing a crucial fact of international life today: namely, that the world is being organized, culturally, economically, technologically, and politically. Thus the really urgent questions have to do with the nature, purpose, and effects of that process of organization, which will continue with or without the U.N., and with or without the United States in the U.N. Charles Krauthammer has made a powerful case that the present U.N. system is an obstacle, not an aid, to the task of organizing the world so that peace, freedom, and security are enhanced. Perhaps we should “let it sink”; perhaps not. But the larger issue that Morton Kaplan raises will remain, in either circumstance. One hopes that Charles Krauthammer will turn his energetic intellect toward addressing it.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today