A bill introduced in Congress would allow the United States—which pays 22 percent of the United Nations’ core budget and 25 percent of its peacekeeping expenses—to keep better track of how the money is spent and make sure that spending serves policies and programs consistent with American interests and principles. Yet tinkering with the United Nations’ funding mechanisms will never correct the fatal flaw with the organization itself. To think otherwise is to assume that glasnost and perestroika could have saved the Soviet Union.
That flaw is the lack of consistent, unifying moral and political principles shared by member nations that can justify U.N. policies or legitimize the use of force to deter and punish aggression. Because of that absence, authoritarian, totalitarian, and even gangster regimes have seats in the U.N. General Assembly and its various councils and commissions. Of course, lip service is paid to Western ideals like universal human rights, political freedom, and liberal democracy, but these are nominally recognized not because all other nations believe in them but because of the West’s economic and military dominance.
As a result, these ideals are simply redefined beyond recognition by non-Western cultures. In the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, for example, pleasing lists of “human rights” are in effect canceled out by Article 24, which says, “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic sharia.” Or, taking their cue from Western cultural relativism, other nations dismiss such ideals as specific to the West. They argue that trying to impose Western ideals on non-Western cultures is stealth imperialism, if not outright racism.
The vacuum created by a lack of unified principles has been filled by national, political, and ideological self-interests. Thus the United Nations becomes the vehicle for pursuing those interests, as when the Soviet bloc in 1986 engineered a resolution that in effect forbade using human rights abuses as a rationale for U.N. intervention. In 1993 a U.N. conference on human rights wrote a declaration that left out any reference to individual rights such as freedom of speech. As Israeli statesman and diplomat Dore Gold writes in Tower of Babble, “The new U.N. majority had emptied the term ‘human rights’ of its original meaning and hijacked it to serve its authoritarian political agenda.”
As the sorry history of the United Nations has shown, the various non-democratic regimes use the organization to pursue their interests at the expense of those of the United States. But then, so do American allies, as when France and Germany labored mightily in 2002 to thwart a U.N. resolution authorizing the war against Saddam Hussein, despite the fact that he had flouted seventeen previous U.N. resolutions.
Examples of such unprincipled behavior in pursuit of national interests are legion. The most egregious are the various resolutions that legitimize and reward terrorism. For example, Yasser Arafat addressed the General Assembly wearing a holster on his hip in November 1974, a mere six months after his terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization had murdered scores of Israeli schoolchildren and three American diplomats. Arafat’s visit was inevitable after the United Nations in 1970 passed Resolution 2708, which states that the United Nations “reaffirms its recognition of the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples and peoples under alien domination to exercise self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal.” This free pass for terrorists was reaffirmed in 1982 when the U.N. General Assembly approved the “legitimacy of the struggle of peoples . . . from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.”
Even more despicable, in 1975—on the thirty-seventh anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom against German Jews—the United Nations passed Resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as a form of racism. This odious resolution was revoked sixteen years later, but only because Israel had made its repeal a condition of participating in the Madrid peace conference. That this repeal reflected expediency rather than principle was obvious in April 2002, when the U.N. Commission on Human Rights affirmed “the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to resist Israeli occupation,” just after a Hamas suicide bomber had killed thirty Israelis celebrating Passover.
The Commission on Human Rights and its allegedly improved successor, the Human Rights Council, may be the best representatives of the United Nations’ Orwellian hypocrisy. Thug states like Iran, Sudan, Cuba, China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, which support terrorism and violate human rights as a matter of policy, have been allowed to sit on the council, where terrorist and state violence is never censured, even as Israel faces serial condemnation. Indeed, in April 2005, the commission refused to condemn killing in the name of religion. At the same time, it asserted that criticizing Muslim terrorists was “defamation of religion.”
In March 2007, the council’s response to the killings and riots that followed the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad was to call for a ban on the defamation of religion—even as it ignored the threat to the human right to free speech. Neither the genocidal charter of Hamas nor the widespread, state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the Middle East has ever been condemned, while thirty-three resolutions through 2010 have criticized Israel. The animus of the Human Rights Council against the only liberal democracy in the Middle East was evident recently in its wildly inaccurate and biased Goldstone Report, an investigation into Israel’s actions in Gaza. Even the report’s author was compelled to disavow it because of inaccuracies and obvious bias. Like the United Nations, the council is an instrument of member states’ interests, not the presumed principles and rights enshrined in its charter and rhetoric.
“HARMONY OF INTERESTS” A CRUEL ILLUSION
Given its purpose as a means for weak or autocratic states to pursue their interests, the United Nations has evolved into a bloated, corrupt, ineffective bureaucracy. Its budget has doubled since 2000. The most famous U.N. scandal is the 1995–2003 oil-for-food program that operated in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, overseeing $15 billion a year supposedly meant to feed the Iraqi people. Instead it was “an open bazaar of payoffs, favoritism, and kickbacks,” as the New York Times put it, generating over $10 billion in illicit funds for Saddam’s regime and billions more for Russian and French politicians and businessmen.
Worse than these financial scandals, however, is the utter impotence of the United Nations in stopping violence in places like Sudan, Bosnia, and Rwanda, where horrific violence occurred a stone’s throw away from U.N. “peacekeeping” forces. In fact, in Bosnia, U.N. “safe areas” simply made it easier for the Serbs to round up and slaughter seven thousand Bosnian Muslims.
The United Nations is a relic of the same Enlightenment idealism that has driven internationalism for almost two centuries and which has failed dismally to stop the violence of the twentieth century and beyond. That idealism assumes that all humanity is progressing beyond the use of force, tyrannical regimes, and parochial nationalist interests to a transnational “harmony of interests” created by communication technologies, global trade, and the spread of liberal democracy. These shared interests, moreover, can be institutionalized in international laws, courts, treaties, and supranational organizations that will substitute diplomacy and negotiation for force.
This vision created the League of Nations, which in the Twenties and Thirties completely failed to stop the state violence of Japan, Italy, and Germany. Its successor, the United Nations, has done no better for the simple reason that such a “harmony of interests” does not exist and never will. States and peoples have different values, beliefs, and aims. They pursue interests that conflict with the interests and aims of other states. And the melancholy lesson of history is that these conflicts usually are resolved by force or the credible threat of force, not by diplomatic chatter in a “cockpit in the Tower of Babel,” to use the phrase conjured up by Winston Churchill when the United Nations was born.
The question, then, is not how we fix the United Nations, as the U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act, introduced in August by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, attempts to do. Instead it is why we continue to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars—$7.7 billion in 2010—on an institution filled with states hostile to us and working against our own foreign policy interests. Herein lies the greatest flaw in the thinking of those Americans who still believe in the usefulness of the United Nations: they believe that unelected, unaccountable functionaries of tyrannous regimes—regimes not only pursuing their own interests but frequently working against our interests—are more capable of determining the legitimacy of the United States’ foreign policy and behavior than are the American people.
In contrast to the United Nations, the legitimacy of American actions is conferred by the democratic process: the free, open debate on the part of citizens who can hold their leaders accountable and have a sense of the ideals and principles that animate foreign policy and provide its goals. Subjecting those decisions to the corrupt deliberations of the United Nations merely hampers our own interests and endangers our national security. We need to get out of the United Nations, not fix it.