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12 September 2005

The UN: scrap it or mend it?

The United Nations is in deep trouble. Now an unprecedented summit in New York must decide what to d

By Dan Plesch

Scrap it says Tariq Ali

An unredeemable tool of American policy

The agenda for the super-summit of world leaders in New York should contain just one item: the UN’s funeral rites. All talk of reform should be abandoned, because the real choice on the table today is not between the present mess and a genuinely democratic body but between this mess and an interventionist agency that can serve as the military instrument of the new world order, just as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation are used on the economic front. That is what the United States and Britain want. Far better, in such circumstances, that the UN be given a decent burial and the “humanitarian interventionists” be left to find some other structure to wage their wars.

The rot at the UN is in the head. The conference meets at a time when the secretary general has been neutered by a corruption scandal. Any hope that Paul Volcker’s report might end doubts about the Iraqi oil-for-food affair has been dashed. Two of Volcker’s investigators resigned, accusing him of a whitewash, while others whisper that the US has exploited Volcker to weaken Kofi Annan. Even after publication of the report on 7 September questions remain: how was it so easy for Annan’s son, Kojo, to use his father’s position to gain from the private sale of oil from Iraq through the UN, profiting, in effect, from Iraqis’ suffering? And how come his father acted so weakly? Annan Sr’s suggestion of a vendetta, “a witch-hunt . . . as part of a broader Republican political agenda”, may be as true as the charges of corruption.

But what of the organisation he heads? All agree that reforms are essential, but there is no agreement on what these should be. The elite group that runs the Security Council is clearly a case for treatment. Should it be abolished or enlarged? The promise of expansion has led to unseemly competition.

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Germany wants to be a permanent member, but Italy (encouraged by the US) says no, and has even exposed German bribery of some African states for support. Others say that the EU should have a single rotating representative on the Security Council. France and Britain say no. The US wants Japan to be a permanent member but China says no, that it would merely be another vote for the US, because Japan has not been permitted an independent foreign policy since 1945. India wants a permanent seat, but Pakistan says, “We’re a nuclear power, too.” Brazil and South Africa want to join. What makes all this more pathetic is the servility of the Germans, Brazilians, Japanese and Indians. So desperate are they to be there that they are happy to accept a veto-less, subordinate status. And so the growling power struggles carry on, obscuring some of the real issues at stake.

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What are they? It is impossible to understand the reform process today without looking back at the founding of the organisation. The charter and structure were agreed as the Second World War was ending; an excellent account of what happened can be found in Stephen Schlesinger’s racy history Act of Creation: the founding of the United Nations, which I strongly recommend as an antidote to those who still believe that this was a matter of idealism. Schlesinger, a professor at the New School University in New York, makes it clear that the UN was an American creation and that Roosevelt and Truman got their own way on virtually every issue. Churchill grumbled, Stalin bargained, but Truman won.

The League of Nations, the unhappy forerunner of the UN, should have been designated the League of Imperial Nations, given that most of the world at the time was occupied or controlled by imperial powers. The aim of the League’s founders was to prevent inter-imperial disputes over colonies from erupting into wars that would damage imperial trade. It failed. The League was unable to prevent the pre-emptive strikes of the Italians against Albania and Abyssinia, or those of Hitler against the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

This history explains why the UN Charter rejected pre-emptive strikes and, in an increasingly post-imperial world, stressed the sanctity of national sovereignty. Article 51 made clear that self-defence could be the only basis for offensive action. During the cold war the UN was thus a bystander when the United States invaded Vietnam and the Soviet Union crushed uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Nor could it defend the human rights of the citizens of Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Pakistan or Turkey. When members of the Security Council unleashed wars of occupations, the UN was powerless.

The US and Britain did not invoke the right to self-defence in going to war against Iraq in 2003, but the fake dossiers, lies and vindictiveness towards journalists who exposed them in the run-up to war were all designed to frighten people into believing that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a threat. (Remember the 45-minute warning, John Scarlett and Tony Blair’s special contribution to the war effort?) Again, as the fighting began, the UN did nothing.

Once Baghdad was occupied the Security Council accepted the situation and recognised the puppet regime. Yet when Pol Pot was toppled by a clement neighbour (Vietnam), it took 12 years to remove Pol Pot’s man from the UN. The dominant state then, as now, was the US. What it wants usually happens.

In the war of “good against evil”, as George W Bush characterises it, what role can the UN play? How can US power (or, in the phrase of Blair’s speechwriter, “the doctrine of international community”) be legitimated through a set of new cosmopolitan norms? Should Article 51 and the charter be amended to override national sovereignty and save lives in the case of “humanitarian disasters” (not applicable, of course, in New Orleans, where uniformed humanitarians have already imposed a shoot-to-kill policy). Who will decide where “democracy” will strike next to bring recalcitrant states into the prosperity zone? Certainly not the current UN Commission on Human Rights, packed with dissidents, some of whom believe that new panic measures in Britain breach the UN code against torture.

This commission will have to be ditched and replaced with a Human Rights Council, whose composition will be determined by . . . yes, the Security Council, backed by US and British legal teams. Oh, what a gravy train this could be for the legal profession and (dare we think it?) for our Prime Minister after his retirement.

No, the only reforms of the UN that would be meaningful would be to abolish the Security Council and give all power (especially on questions of when to go to war) to the General Assembly. We should also move the headquarters to Caracas or Kuala Lumpur or Cape Town, as the bulk of the world supposedly represented by the UN lives in the south. This will not happen. Otherwise we could revert to an amended version of an old suggestion: a regional structure with a Council of the Americas, a Council of Europe, a Council of East Asia and so on. This would not reduce US power immediately, but at least it would provide a strong regional voting structure, balanced on the basis of population.

No real reform of this kind could possibly happen, however, unless precipitated by a genuine crisis – unless, for example, several important states of the south announced that there must be fundamental change or they would withdraw altogether from the UN. Could that happen? Remember this: most of the leaders attending the conference come not as equals, but as supplicants or clients. There are 191 member states and there is a US military presence in 121 of them. Do we really want a United Nations of America? No. Better for everyone if we just bury the whole thing.

Mend it says Dan Plesch

Still our best hope, whatever Bush says

”The United Nations is the only hope of the world,” said Winston Churchill back in 1944. Now, with the UN in crisis, we should heed his words and send reinforcements rather than watch hope die.

The UN certainly has failings: the most obvious flaws are inadequate response to humanitarian crises, veto power in the hands of the victors of the Second World War and poor administration. A reform package was painstakingly put together by Kofi Annan but it has now been gleefully picked apart by the US ambassador, John Bolton, President Bush’s agent destructeur for the international system. Bush’s man argues that international law simply does not exist as far as the US is concerned, so his attack on the UN is part of something much broader. Faced with such problems, it may be tempting to say we should just get rid of the UN altogether, but that is like saying that the House of Commons should be abolished because parliament didn’t stop Tony Blair invading Iraq. Instead, we need to restate why the UN matters and why we need it – particularly as this month’s World Summit is unlikely to provide grounds for hope.

The reason Churchill said what he did was that the leaders who defeated Hitler realised that an international system was essential to keeping the peace. Although the founding of the UN is usually associated with the end of the Second World War, the original UN Declaration came just three weeks after Pearl Harbor. As early as 1941, the Allies began to plan the postwar security system and they committed scarce financial and human resources to the project. They did so as realists, not as idealists. They understood that the industrial revolution gave war the ability to destroy civilisation. And this was before the invention of nuclear weapons.

With thousands of nuclear weapons still ready to fire, stopping a third world war remains a top priority, and the UN has helped prevent it by providing a political system to manage confrontation, together with a growing web of rules and norms to restrain the worst excesses of the powerful. This is why the Bushites want to destroy it. The anarchic world that the Bush administration would see us return to is the one that created two global wars.

Those who attack the UN today like to dwell on its failure to prevent the disasters of Vietnam or Bosnia, the Soviet domination of eastern Europe or massacres in Africa. They forget how bad things would have been without any arms control and disarmament, without human rights norms and without the UN role in development. Thanks to the UN, we do have the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and a ban on nuclear weapons testing.

In 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill created the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which operated across Europe and Asia; the UN Interim Commission on Food and Agriculture (forerunner of the Food and Agriculture Organisation); the UN War Crimes Commission, and then the UN conferences that created both the World Bank and the United Nations Organisation at San Francisco. In this context, today’s Millennium Goals should be regarded as implementing commitments made by the original members to wartime aims of freedom from want, social security and labour rights, along with free trade and elections.

The great failure of modern international relations has been to allow this history to be forgotten and with it the lesson learned in two world wars: that attention to the military, economic and social causes of war is a practical necessity, not some liberal accessory. Blair and Bush wrap themselves in the aura of D-Day and the Blitz and think they can do without the UN, yet the UN was created to secure that very victory. We have forgotten that in 1945 the Church of England order of service for VE Day marked “the victory in Europe of the arms of the United Nations”. Nowadays we are expected to believe that it is harder to deal with Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin than it was with de Gaulle and Stalin.

In today’s political climate, efforts to strengthen the UN that rely on consensus are unlikely to succeed. The need is to develop actions that individual countries and regional organisations can take to strengthen the UN system and fend off Washington’s assault.

Soon, for example, the UN will again be attacked as irrelevant because it will refuse to sanction an armed response to Iran’s nuclear weapons. The appropriate answer to this will be to argue for a return to the inclusive arms-control processes that were effective in the cold war, rather than accept Washington’s latest obsession while ignoring the nuclear arsenals of India, Pakistan, Israel and the US itself.

One long-term problem for the UN is the perceived lack of legitimacy of a remote organisation. A remedy that cannot be prevented by John Bolton is to democratise national representation at the UN. If democratic states began to elect their representatives to the UN as part of their national government elections, the UN would evolve into a de facto elected representative assembly with the characteristics of a political rather than bureaucratic body. In Yes, Minister terms, the UN and the other international institutions are all Sir Humphrey and no Jim Hacker. In practice, reversing this position, putting elected people in the chamber, would make it far harder for the US or other states to ignore the voice of other members of the Security Council, be they Germany or Chile. A General Assembly where ever more states sent directly elected representatives would enjoy greater authority. This sort of evolutionary reform offers a practical route to a more effective UN over the coming decade, rather than waiting for consensus to turn up.

The role of the UN in humanitarian intervention can also be developed despite the present logjam in New York. States such as Britain, which talk a lot about UN reform, should assign substantial military forces on standby to the UN, as they do already to Nato and the EU. The EU itself should create forces available to the UN secretary general.

Greater changes require a revitalised international politics. There are three foundations that can be built on. First, that the Second World War was fought for social-democratic war aims; second, that the rejection of international law championed by President Bush is a betrayal of the efforts of the wartime generation; and, third, that promotion of universal, totalitarian capitalism is a direct threat to the foundations of peace that have served us this past half-century. The fundamental concept of equality before the law has been subverted by allowing the owners of corporations to be above the law, through the domination of the limited-liability clause in company law.

Finally, history aside, it is absurd to conceive of a 21st century in which communications, industry and culture are interdependent and yet there is no global governance. In an interconnected world, if the UN did not exist, it would have to be invented.

Dan Plesch is the author of The Beauty Queen’s Guide to World Peace.