Ethics & Public Policy Center

A Tower of Babel?

Published in The Washington Times on December 7, 2005


Wednesday’s Page One story “U.S. firm on U.N. budget threat” is one more reminder that the United Nations is a many-splintered thing.

First, there is the United Nations of aspiration enshrined in its charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Noble documents both, but they are about as effective as the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 in stopping tyranny or predatory war.

The Security Council, the institutional manifestation of these aspirations, cannot prevent war or make peace. It played no role in ending the Cold War and has not prevented the 30 small armed conflicts that ravage the world each year. It cannot effectively combat terrorism.

Second, the sprawling General Assembly has even less influence on the behavior of states than the Security Council. With its 120 members, the assembly resembles the ancient Tower of Babel, whose builders were determined to escape earthly strife by erecting a monument that would reach to the heavens. Spurred by their utopian dream, they started assembling foundation stones, but their lofty enterprise was doomed quickly when they realized they could not speak the same language.

Throughout history, idealistic men have reached to the heavens to escape the problem of evil, to end conflict and war. In his 1842 poem “Locksley Hall,” Alfred Lord Tennyson dipped “into the future” and saw “the heavens fill with commerce” until “the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d/ In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”

A century later, in 1943, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, assessing the embryonic United Nations, rhapsodized: “There will no longer be any need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power … by which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests.” Mr. Hull received the Nobel Peace Prize just as we were entering the dangerous 40-year Cold War.

The United Nations cannot prevent tyranny, war or aggression because throughout history, decisions on these fateful issues have always been made by the prime actors in the world drama — sovereign states and, more especially, the great powers. This has been true since the armies of the ancient empires of Rome, Babylon and Persia determined the destiny, however long, of millions of human beings.

Then, third, there are the multitude of specialized U.N. agencies, committees, conferences and missions that carry on functions that, in most cases, could be better addressed were there no U.N. Secretariat brooding over them. The essential agencies, such as the Universal Postal Union, the U.N. Refugee Agency and the World Health Organization, need no overlordship.

World peace is possible only when the powerful states succeed in achieving a balance of power among themselves and maintain sufficient military assets to deter and, if necessary, throw back any aggressor. Britain and the United States failed to act soon enough against Mussolini and Hitler. With the shock of Pearl Harbor, the United States saw its responsibility only in the nick of time to throw back Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

ERNEST W. LEFEVER

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