13 February 2005

Institutional Dotage (2)

[Part One]

Although the United Nations and its scandals-du-jour have been in the mainstream and blogosphere news on a du jour basis lately, the one item which most prompted me to write was John Hinderaker's recent post on Power Line ("Moral Guidance from the U.N."), which noted that:
A basic assumption of American liberalism is that the United Nations occupies a higher moral plane than the United States. Thus, actions taken under the U.N.'s auspices are automatically vested with more moral authority than those taken unilaterally by the U.S.
The reasoning behind this assumption escapes me completely. Is it a legacy of the past good works of the U.N.? Is it a remnant of the international hope and will which created the institution after World War II? Is it not grounded in any current reality? Hinderaker would think not: "[T]his belief rests on no evident empirical foundation." As much as it may perplex me, I've come to the conclusion that this assumption is a curiousity and a red herring which distracts from the real issue-- whether the United Nations can and should be saved.

Since the U.N.'s founding, the number of nations worldwide has exploded; the body's membership reflects this, expanding from 51 states in 1945 to 191 in 2002. In large part, the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the subsequent spread of basic democracy has driven this proliferation. In many areas, natural ethnic divisions which were suppressed into totalitarian states fragmented into smaller, ethnicity-dominated states (Yugoslavia's division is an instructive example); each of these new states has a voice in the United Nations, which is both consistent with the U.N.'s founding principles and with democratic principles generally. Notwithstanding, the proliferation of states creates a louder cacaphony of voices and self-interested players, each seeking a place in the international dialogue and a place in the U.N.'s operations. The U.N.'s structure attempts both to cater to these developing states' idiosyncratic demands and to channel or control them to ensure the smooth operation of the instution as a whole. Where this structure falls apart is in failing to reconcile the two competing functions satisfactorily.

Whereas the rank-and-file of the U.N.'s membership (the General Assembly) and the bulk of its agenda are focused in the developing world, the permanent membership of the Security Council is undisputably an old boys' club of the immediately post-WWII developed (and amongst the developed, triumphant) world nations (comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, France, and China). If the U.N. were geared toward reconciling the specific interests of the developing world with the specific interests of the developed nations, it would possess far less authority but would be vested with much greater integrity. Perhaps the American liberals Hinderaker observes are on the right track in recognizing (at least implicitly) that political authority and moral authority are competing measures; forced to choose between the two, I for one would tend to agree that the latter would be of more modern value than the former. But the U.N.'s structure was not established to reconcile the new world with the establishment; the permanent members' veto power demonstrates that. These nations (or more properly and usually, a subset of one or two of them) act paternalistically as a check on the will of the General Council and the other members of the Security Council.

Is that democracy? Whatever the original reasoning behind that structuring, be it pragmatism (recognizing the U.N.'s limited resources without the ongoing, voluntary cooperation of the great powers), bribery (allowing supervotes to the superpowers to entice them to continue in an organization arrayed at various times against each of them), or something else entirely, is that democracy? While the residents of
Animal Farm, like their counterparts in the United Nations, ended up with the dysfunctional "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others", at least the animals started off as idealists proclaiming compete equality. Built on institutional inequity, perhaps the U.N. was built to last in an undemocratic world. As we seek now to build stronger democracies in an increasingly democratic world, it may be that true progress at the U.N. may be possible only by abandoning its legacy structures; that "cure" would likely kill the patient.

More later . . . .

[Part Three]

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