Monday, December 11, 2006

Why America needs the UN

Kevin Drum links to this review of The Best Intentions, a book about Kofi Annan's years at the UN, especially the time since 2002-03, when the US explicitly rejected international law and the UN process and attacked a sovereign state that posed no threat to America.

It's telling that all of the criticisms of the US come from it's strength - the overweening pride of wealth, the cavalier militarism of the well-armed - while all the criticisms of the UN come from it's weaknesses - unable to stop the genocide in Rwanda or the atrocities in Bosnia, unable even to control the corruption of the oil-for-food program (which was dramatically overplayed, but real.)

The solution to both is as simple as it is unrealistic: the UN, or it's successor, needs several degrees of independence from it's strongest member states. We've already accepted this in principle, with the Korean War: The UN intervened against an ally of the Soviet Union to uphold the UN Charter. I'm under no illusions as to the Cold War power plays involved in 1950, but the principled argument hold up nevertheless.

Imagine, for a moment, that in the early winter of 2003, Kofi Annan was head of the UN, but instead of being powerless to stop the US invasion of Iraq, he was able to place tens of thousands of peacekeepers on the Kuwait-Iraq border. Impossible in the real world, of course. But if it had worked, wouldn't the US be better off today?

This is the point about building an independent multilateral organ of global governance - whether it be the UN or some new body. Even in the worst-case scenario for the Americans (such as the above hypothetical) America is still better off with the UN than without one.

Matthew Yglesias is one of the few writers I've seen who truly understands this, which is why I tend to link to him rather copiously. The point of the UN is not to be some kind of super-NATO. It's not to ensure that the US gets its own way in the world, every time. The UN is there to ensure that, even when America doesn't get it's way in the world, the world (including America) is still better off.

The corollary to all this is that people who complain that, yes, undemocratic regimes in the UN have just as much say as democratic regimes are missing the point, inadvertently or otherwise. The UN's role is not to represent the people we like. It's there to govern the world, and the reality of global politics means that the UN gets all of the toughest, least forgiving jobs (Darfur, Rwanda, AIDS, etc.)

The US could, if it liked, be like Japan in the 1930s and leave the UN and go it's own way, but the disaster would not be for the UN alone. Ask the Japanese how well it worked for them.


Anonymous said...

Your post certainly attests to the virtues of the United Nations, or at least how an omnipotent, US-concerned UN could have prevented one of the greatest disasters in US history. You do not seem to, however, why America needs the UN.
Further, your indication that the US would end up like WWII Japan from withdrawing from the UN seems to be a non sequitur.

john said...

I would think that if a strong UN could prevent the US from making a disastrous decision like invading Iraq, that's the best possible reason why the US needs the UN to be independent. Even the minor embarrassment at being forced to back down by Kofi Annan would be cheaper than this war, by far.

And the point about Japan is simply that no country can reasonably expect to defy international opinion for too long without courting disaster for itself as well as the international community.

Anonymous said...

As I said, an omnipotent, albeit Ameri-friendly UN would certainly have stopped our (well, not yours) government from the calamity that is Iraq.

However, the US never joined the League of Nations and it remained a generally peaceful (at least isolationist) nation until Japan attacked it.

Also, the comments seem broken on your blog. It said "1 comment" despite the fact that you posted. When I clicked on comments, it said there were none. The only way I saw your response was because I clicked on "post comment". Any idea whats up without? Perhaps just a problem with Blogger?

john said...

"However, the US never joined the League of Nations and it remained a generally peaceful (at least isolationist) nation until Japan attacked it."

I'm not sure if there's a disagreement here. I'm comparing the US today to Japan in the 1930s - two very powerful militaries being used on the offensive, against international law. Japan publicly broke with the League over criticisms of the Chinese invasion.

I'm saying America could, if it wants to keep using it's military aggressively and gets sick of the UN, leave entirely (though I imagine the UN would need to find a new home) but that would be a disaster for the US eventually, as it was a disaster for Japan by the end.

As for comments, I have no idea.

Anonymous said...

Still, I'm not sure whether Japan's imperialistic adventures (the cause of their disasters) would have been altered had they remained in the League of Nations, while simultaniously telling the League to fuck off. (Sort of similar to America's role in the UN today.)
Should the US continue its experiments of regime change, catastrophe surely awaits--whether or not the US stays in the United Nations. If by "needs the UN", you mean weshould have a non-insane foreign policy that at least understands (if not respects) foreign views, I agree.

Additonally, I apologize if my comments sound dickish. I've read and enjoyed your posts for a while at Ezra's place and decided to check out your blog. I do agree that the United Nations is an important and generally positive force in the world today, I'm just not so sure that I completely agree with your reasoning for US need of the organization. However, you did address my comments quickly and competently, which I appreciate. You may see me around here more often.

Anonymous said...

My previous wording sounded a bit odd at the end. I DO think the US should stay in the UN, I just found part of your reasoning faulty.

john said...

No worries about the tone of the comments.

Now that you repeat it I get your point. (They think I'm slow, but I'm Canadian, eh.) Obviously, if the US decides to ignore the UN, or sane policy making in general, it doesn't matter whether it's in the UN or not. (Am I finally getting it right?)

Ideally, we'd have a strong, independent UN and a US eager to contribute, and willing to obey. I realize that's probably impossible, but I see it as the standard to hold things to account.

And please, stick around until you get bored of the joint.