Sunday, January 07, 2007

"United It Wobbles"

Read the full review by Samantha Power, subtitled "Should we blame the U.N. for its shortcomings, or the countries that make up the world body?" in the Washington Post Book World (January 7, 2007).

This is a review of two books:
* THE BEST INTENTIONS: Kofi Annan and the UN In the Era of American World Power By James Traub, and
* COMPLICITY WITH EVIL: The United Nations in the Age Of Modern Genocide By Adam LeBor
I quote:
Since the United States helped found the United Nations in 1945, American ties with the organization have often been strained. Because the last six decades have coincided with an epoch of U.S. hegemony -- first as the stronger of two superpowers, then as the lone post-Cold War "hyperpower," now as an economic powerhouse that has been politically neutered by the catastrophic invasion of Iraq -- Americans have generally seen the United Nations as a body more likely to curb U.S. power than to enhance it.

But something appears to be changing in the United States. Poll data show that Americans are at last grasping that the major 21st-century threats -- transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming, public health calamities, large-scale refugee flows -- cannot be met by individual nations. For all their frustrations with international organizations, Americans have also come to understand that U.S. policies with international backing are more likely to succeed than those advanced solo.

Because the United States needs help, and because the United Nations is the lone body that gathers all of the world's countries in one place, reflections on the organization -- how to live with it and how to reform it -- seem suddenly urgent.


gary said...

The key to making the United Nations a more effective organization is to change it's base structure. It needs to be based in the principle of democracy and less vulnerable to the whims of dictatorships. Here's one proposal:

While this structure might at first seem to lessen the influence of the US, if it succeeds, it will be a great benefit to the US and everyone else.


John Daly said...

The proposal to create a multinational organization limited to democracies is interesting. Of course multilateral organizations like the OECD and EU already represent many or most democratic governments.

The United Nations is and always has been an organization designed to allow governments of many kinds to discuss issues. I think it is important that there be such an organization, even tho it doesn't always solve the problems brought to it.

gary said...


The problem is that the guy behind the "CHINA" nameplate doesn't represent anyone but the dictators in power. Pretending that he represents the Chinese people is a disservice to a billion people and a slap in the face of democracy. So it's not just a case of "it doesn't always solve the problems brought to it" as you's actually a serious obstacle to the cause of world peace.


John Daly said...

I don't pretend that the guy behind the nameplate at a UN session says what the majority of the people of his country want him to say (indeed, I wonder how often John Bolton said what the majority of Americans wanted him to say).

But that person does generally say what his government wants him to say, in the same way that the country's army invades when the government wants it to, or the country's international economic policy reflects it government's economic policy.

It seems to me that out government's representatives have to talk to other governments' representatives about many matters and concerns. Thus we have to talk to the representatives of the government of North Korea about nuclear proliferation whether or not they democratically represent the people of North Korea.

There are I think many issues that can be worked out in the club of democratic nations, such as a unified position for the negotiations with dictatorships. But some negotiations have to be conducted with those who actually hold power, not those that one might wish to hold that power.

gary said...

The example of North Korea is a good one, so I'll focus on it. I'm not proposing that no conversation should occur with Kim Jung Il, but rather that his organization is treated in the same way that the police would treat a group of hostage takers:

Always keep the lines of communication open as isolation does not work. Bargain with his dictatorship, but only where it benefits the process of eliminating his dictatorship. If the hostages are sick or hungry, food or aid can be sent in. Contain the not allow more hostages to be taken or more weapons to be obtained. And finally, as with any hostage situation it is sometimes necessary to take force, to shoot the hostage takers. This is typically done with sharpshooters, not by attacking the entire country such as was done with Iraq.

Hostage negotiation is a highly refined procedure with well established rules. The key is to apply this same logic to dictators who hold an entire people hostage. In the end, hostage takers are ultimately criminals and the rule of law dictates that they must ultimately be prosecuted for their crimes against humanity.

While discussion with Korea is acceptable, even necessary, it's also important that Korea does NOT have a seat alongside the legitimate democracies. This sends the wrong message to the world. The UDN will provide a long wooden bench in the front row for visiting dictatorship representatives to sit together. The nameplate will be a piece of paper folded lengthwise.

You mentioned John Bolton. I would never compare him to the man behind the CHINA nameplate. While the United States has it faults, the comparison is not fair.

(John, I've been carrying on a dozen conversations on various blogs on the UDN concept. Of those conversations, I appreciate yours the most. Thank you.)


John Daly said...

You are right, the comment about Bolton was a cheap shot, and unfair. I apologize.

Gary seems to suggest that negotiating with the representatives of a dictatorship in a multilateral forum (or indeed bilaterally) sends the wrong message to the rest of the world. Participation of representatives of our government in multinational fora with representatives of repressive governments does not imply, and should not be taken to imply, that we approve of those governments, much less of their repressive measures, nor that we relinquish the responsibility to act for human rights and against repression.

One of the reasons that Kofi Annan received the Nobel Prize is that he helped clarify that the community of nations has responsibilities for acting thru the United Nations in order to prevent human rights abuses of governments against their own citizens. That effort alone strengthened multilateral fora as a vehicle for U.S. foreign policy.

It may be that Gary simply misunderstands the message that is being sent. Perhaps the State Department needs to clarify the message so that others do not misjudge us. But perhaps Gary simply needs to clarify his understanding of that message. I think the message is simply that negotiation is a necessary part of diplomacy, and multilateral fora are better for some purposes than bilateral fora or no discussions at all.

UNESCO has provided an important forum for communication among scientists during the cold war, and among Islamic, Jewish and Christian scientists during the whole of its existance. That communication among scientists was an important aspect of cultural diplomacy during the cold war, and is an important aspect of cultural diplomacy regarding the Middle East today.

UNESCO, as a result of U.S. pressure, took communication and information as one of its core program areas when it was founded. It provided a forum for discussion of communications with the Communist Block during the cold war, and today serves as an instrument promoting the global free press, very much in consort with U.S. bilateral foreign policy efforts.

I think UNESCO has also helped the United States understand the position of developing nations, many with governments I don't like at all, that the mass media have a role in social and economic development that requires civil society and government action as well as commercial action. USAID and other agencies now support community radio and a stronger communications regulatory role for governments in developing nations than they might have in the absence of UNESCO. Indeed, I would love to see the United States join in extra-budgetary support of some of UNESCO's communications programs, so that we could have a larger voice in their direction.

By the way, I think Gary for his kind words about this interchange, and would make the point that I am speaking only for myself in these comments. JAD

gary said...

John, at the heart of the problem with the UN is the fact that it's so damn undemocratic. France is a permanent member of the Security Council and thus wield huge influence over world policy, yet it is only 20th in population ranking. India is the 2nd most populous country, yet holds no such position. This is a BIG DEAL. How can such an illogical and worse, undemocratic, structure be allowed to exist? It works against any sort of real progress on matters such as nuclear proliferation and greatly diminishes the legitimacy of the UN in the eyes of billions of people.


John Daly said...

Voltaire said that the ideal is the enemy of the good. After World War II, a great step was taken to avoid future wars. The effort was perhaps not ideal, but it was a workable compromise, and it was better than nothing. It has made a difference.

A lot of people smarter than you and I worked for the last couple of years trying to figure out a reform, and they may have made it a little better than it was. We will find out in historical time if they succeeded.

But beware of unintended consequences. A truly democratic organization might not be possible, and an effort to create one might destroy something that works sometimes.

There is no way that the United States government would participate in any future I can see in an international organization that gave every person an equal vote, any more than the founding fathers of the United States Constitution could figure out a way to provide a U.S. government that didn't give small states more power than their population deserved, and did not enfranchise women, nor free the slaves.

gary said...


I don't mean to say that the UN has made no progress. The effort is admirable with many admirable people. But surely you would agree that the world is in a very dangerous place these days. Nuclear proliferation is out of control. The Middle East conflict is no where near resolved. Iraq is a mess, the Sudan is beyond imagination, and the Ivory Coast is at a stalemate, even with full UN attention. So even if you're a real fan of the UN, the organization clearly needs to be MUCH more effective. I'm convinced we can do better. Actually, we've GOT to do better if we want to avoid events that will make 9/11 pale in comparison.

Fortunately there are more democracies than ever before. And these countries are very aware of just how UN-democratic the UN is. So why not adapt to the times? If the UN were more democratic, it would force the world as a whole to be more responsible in these global issues. Allowing the United States to play the role of "global cop" isn't only not working, it's counter-productive and actually distracts from the real issues.

>"A lot of people smarter than you and I worked for the
> last couple of years trying to figure out a reform, and
> they may have made it a little better than it was.

What exactly have they done to reform the process? Last I checked, throwing out the whole elitist Security Council approach isn't even on the table.

> We will find out in historical time if they succeeded.

Do you really think we have that long?

> But beware of unintended consequences.

I'm willing to risk the consequences with a system that I believe - democracy. But I'm not willing to risk the status quo.


John Daly said...

I agree that the situation is now very dangerous. I am especially worried about Muslim countries, with open war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a government in turmoil in Bangladesh, problems in the Northwestern territories and Baluchistan in Pakistan, not to mention Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, or Iran. I agree with the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommendation that this is a time to talk with not only our friends and allies, but with the representatives of all the governments that are concerned with the stability of a broad region.

Check out Wikipedia on the Reform of the United Nations Security Council. I hope and assume that a lot of diplomatic effort is going on out of the public view to get an agreement on expansion of the Security Council, and that S-G Ban will be taking up the matter early in his administration. But it won't happen unless a compromise will be worked out that probably will not look very democratic to the outsiders.