WHO NEEDS THE UNITED NATIONS? Reforming the United Nations

Monday, October 25, 2004

In 2003, the secretary general of the United Nations appointed a 16-member commission to assess the threats to worldwide security in the twenty-first century. The commission came back with a number of recommendations for reforming the UN itself. Is this institution so important that it must be preserved and reformed? Or, given its lack of response to the crisis in Iraq, the ongoing nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran, and the humanitarian crisis in the Sudan, is the UN beyond reform? Perhaps it has outlasted its usefulness. Peter Robinson speaks with Victor Davis Hanson and Jane Wales.

Recorded on Monday, October 25, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: who needs the United Nations anyway?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the United Nations--should it be reformed or ignored? Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, "We know from history that international institutions which fail to act in the face of global crises gradually wither away." Given the United Nations' response, or rather lack of response, to the crisis in Iraq, to the ongoing crises in North Korea and Iran, and to the humanitarian crisis in the Sudan, should the United Nations simply be permitted to wither away? Or is the institution of such critical importance that it must be reformed? And if it is to be reformed, how?

Joining us today, two guests. Victor Davis Hanson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Jane Wales is president of the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Title: United We Stand?

Peter Robinson: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, "For $1.25 billion a year, roughly what the Pentagon spends every 32 hours, the United Nations is still the best investment that the world can make in stopping AIDS and SARS, feeding the poor, helping refugees, and fighting global crime and the spread of nuclear weapons." True or false?

Victor Davis Hanson: Half true.

Peter Robinson: Half true?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. Good things like diseases, good for refugees, good for debating societies so that people can air their views, but when it tries to go to the next level of adjudicating differences in the political realm, it doesn't do a very good job.

Peter Robinson: Jane. True or false?

Jane Wales: True.

Peter Robinson: True, full stop.

Jane Wales: True.

Peter Robinson: One hundred percent true, not a half true.

Jane Wales: True.

Peter Robinson: All right. Let me ask you about the United Nations in principle. Founded in 1945, at least in part is the result of wartime discussions between FDR and Churchill. Let me quote to you about the United Nations from Encarta Encyclopedia, "The UN is an alliance of countries that agree to cooperate with one another. It brings together countries that are rich and poor, large and small, and have different social and political systems. Member nations pledge to settle their disputes peacefully, to refrain from using force or the threat of force against other countries and to refuse help to any country that opposes UN actions." Victor Davis Hanson, what could possibly be wrong with so much sweetness and light?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, it's a nice pretense, but in fact, the UN is a bully organization. If China goes in and swallows up Tibet, takes over a whole country, it's pretty much silent about it.

Peter Robinson: The UN is silent about it.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. Almost half of the General Assembly's resolutions are worried about Israel. Why? Because Israel is weak and strong comparatively to its neighbors who are large and populous. So, its resolutions are aimed at what is easy and not what's difficult. It's easy to attack or to censure the United States because we listen. It's not so easy to go into the Sudan and tell the Sudanese stop killing 30,000, 40,000 people every six months.

Peter Robinson: Jane, let me flip the question for you. Some 180 nations, 184 I think, is the count at the moment, are members of the United Nations today. About two thirds are oligarchies, autocracies or dictatorships. Why should we want to be a member of that club?

Jane Wales: Because that is the nature of the world we're in. And we are a member of the world. You can't get around that. Let me say something about what the UN, just in response to Victor, what the UN is for. I mean, it really is three things. One, it's a process. It's a process for establishing the principles for which countries are willing to fight, to stand, to pay.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Jane Wales: And so it's an opportunity to persuade others of our values.

Peter Robinson: All right. A debating society.

Jane Wales: No, no much more than that. For example, the UN Declaration on Human Rights. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is an example of the West persuading the rest of the world of the value of a certain set of principles.

Peter Robinson: Mm-huh.

Jane Wales: And then those are principles on which you can act, which takes me to the second point. It's also a decision-making body for collective action. So, in those instances when we decide to act collectively, even including using military force by deputizing a group as we did with East Timor, as the UN did with East Timor or by...

Peter Robinson: Give me your third point.

Jane Wales: And the third point is that what it is in essence is an opportunity to establish specialized agencies that have got expertise for carrying out those tasks that no one state can carry out alone.

Peter Robinson: Now let's look at how the United Nations has responded to international crises throughout its history.

Title: Cold Feet on the Cold War

Peter Robinson: First four and a half decades, roughly, the United Nations existence, there was one signal struggle in the world: the Cold War. Totalitarianism versus freedom. Communism versus democracy. And on June 27, 1950 the UN Security Council votes to repel the North Korean invasion of South Korea because Stalin, for reasons that historians still don't understand, tells his ambassador not to veto it. With that one exception, the United Nations effectively sits out the Cold War. The signal struggle of its day. Why should that organization have any moral legitimacy at all?

Jane Wales: Actually, what it did throughout the Cold War is, in fact, create forums for establishing some of the rules governing the Cold War including rules with respect to the transfer of armaments, and then ultimately, the UN was the source though which, or the body through which, we came up with the Helsinki Accords and which allowed us, in fact, in the 1970s to…

Peter Robinson: Emphasize human rights.

Jane Wales: …emphasize human rights and violate what had been a basic UN rule which is you don't interfere into the affairs of others.

Peter Robinson: The UN has a distinguished record during the Cold War, Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: No, I think what ended the Cold War, whether we like him or not, was Ronald Reagan. The UN did nothing to stop the onset of countries, like Russia or China, that collectively kill 80 million people in the 20th century. The problem with the UN is it gives a veneer or the pretense of legitimacy to some pretty awful things and it has the unintended effect of aiding and abetting. For example, if you have, as you say, 60% of the general assembly are autocracies, the only time they ever vote is when they come to New York. And then they act as if that's a democratic body and we assume, a lot of people do, that the same protocols that governed their behavior in New York apply to their own country. They get a sense of legitimacy for some pretty awful things at home. And then in the Security Council it's always the lowest common denominator based on the veto system, so China adjudicates or rules or governs what's moral behavior and what's not.

Peter Robinson: Today, we talked about the Cold War, the UN today, quoting you, Victor, "The contemporary United Nations wants nothing to do with the two present dangers to world peace, a nuclear North Korea and, soon to follow, theocratic Iran." Explain yourself.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, it hasn't taken a lead in trying to get those countries into the discussion and trying to have some type of moral censure for what they're trying to do. And people understand that, from both sides of the political spectrum. When Bill Clinton wants to go in and stop 250,000 people being butchered in Serbia, he doesn't go to the UN because he knows, for the wrong reasons, Russia will veto that action. And, again, what we have a system is that, by this pretense that the UN is a moral body, it gives a veneer of cover for some pretty awful regimes like Algeria or Cuba or Syria or Iran to be on a commission of human rights. It never once says, let's just make it simple. If you want to be in the UN, it's not all the nations in the world, it's all the nations that are democratic. That's all you'd have to do.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So, America says that the UN largely sits out the Cold War. It's American buildup that actually wins the Cold War. The present day, we have Iraq where the UN, an American layman is likely to say that was a debacle. We have this pressing problem in North Korea and Iran and now you argue to me that we're better off with the UN as regards to the present day challenges.

Jane Wales: Oh, absolutely, and let me just take the example of Kosovo because, in fact, everyone who's been part of a democracy knows that there are times when your friends can't afford an up or down vote. They can't afford a vote that puts them on the record because back home, with their home constituency, they don't do so well. So, you use that forum to find out where's the political wiggle room. The Clinton Administration used the UN precisely for that when it came to going into Kosovo. We got a sense that there would be no objection. That nobody would try to stop us. If we went into Kosovo that there would be sort of a wink and a nod and you see that very often in our own Congress, in our own town meetings. This is the way decisions are frequently made.

Victor Davis Hanson: So, when the UN is behind you, you use it and you apply for its sanction and when it's not, you go act unilaterally.

Jane Wales: Well, in this case it wasn't unilateral. What it was was NATO that went into Kosovo, as you recall, but there was a situation where we knew that Russia could not afford to vote, but it could afford to stand by, let us do the right thing, and then help us out later.

Peter Robinson: So, when should the United States work with the UN and when should it not?

Title: Ties That Bind

Peter Robinson: Your argument makes a lot of sense. There are circumstances in which the United Nations is useful, right? But by playing by UN rules, by going to the United Nations, by taking it seriously, the United States tends to bind itself to United Nations decisions and there are also plenty of times when the United Nations is going to operate in a way which is perverse, contrary to our interest and so forth. So, how do you do what Victor just said, in effect, the United States, how does it legitimately, before world opinion carve out the position that when the UN is sensible and useful we will use the United Nations, and when it's contrary we will do what we have to do. George Bush tried that and the whole world came down on him.

Jane Wales: It's always understood that every state has got a right to look out for its own national security interests and that the UN can not deny it. In fact the UN Charter even says that, but let me just go further. Let me take the example of Iraq because that's a very interesting example and that's what's, in fact, provoked so many people to be critical of the United Nations, is its failure to back us in Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Jane Wales: What's interesting is we went to the UN and instead of saying we would like to enforce your resolution, i.e.: our goal is to disarm Iraq, to enforce the terms of the armistice. Instead of saying that, which they would have voted for, coercive inspections could have passed. Instead we said we want to change the rules. We would like regime change for the sake of regime change so that we can alter the entire Middle East. Trust me, if any other country went to the UN and said we would like to remake a region, we would oppose that.

Victor Davis Hanson: We never said that. The President never said we're going to remake the Middle East, he went to the UN and said your body will have no credibility unless your resolutions are enforced. The only reason inspectors were asked in was not because of UN authority, but because of fear of the United States. And Bill Clinton, for example, bombed four days under Operation Desert Fox and Mr. Zinni himself said he killed four thousand Iraqis. Nobody in the UN criticized the United States...

Jane Wales: Let me...

Victor Davis Hanson: Because there's not an arbiter of behavior that's based on principle. It's always going to be convenient and has a political agenda behind it. And that's why we do have people, you talked about the UN Charter, it's a wonderful document. Anybody who believed in that Charter, especially the UN, its own Charter would simply say to Iran or Cuba or Algeria you don't really belong in a commission. We can't let you belong because your regimes are de facto, a rejection of our basic principles.

Jane Wales: Well, this takes me to my next point, which is there really is no point to have a club made up of people who already agree with you. I'm not sure what I gain from that. You want to draw in folks who don't agree with you to see what the points of agreement can be.

Victor Davis Hanson: Ah, that's where I think the big disagreement is. I think you want to have a membership where people can't get in because then they have something to strive for and some coercive mechanism to change their behavior. Every club that lets everybody in, nobody wants to be a member of it. If you say that the UN...

Jane Wales: Everyone seems to want to be a member of the United Nations.

Victor Davis Hanson: Because you don't have...

Jane Wales: Including us.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, because you don't have to do anything.

Peter Robinson: ...and you can double park in Manhattan.

Jane Wales: I mean, I mean that...

Victor Davis Hanson: But if you said that you have to have a democratic constitution judged by a UN Commission then perhaps people would take it seriously.

Peter Robinson: Let me give you a couple of ways of reforming the United Nations...

Jane Wales: Take Uzbekistan. Would you like right now--in fact, why is the U.S. government failing to bring Uzbekistan to the UN and say, you know, you don't belong in here. In fact, you don't belong in our coalition to fight the War on Terror because you are a tyrannical government.

Victor Davis Hanson: Ah, but you assume that there's the UN or nothing...

Jane Wales: What would you gain?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, you're saying the UN or nothing. There's all sorts of bilateral relationships, alliances, NATO, the United States has all sorts of bilateral relationships...

Jane Wales: But why not throw Uzbekistan out of the United Nations?

Victor Davis Hanson: Oh, I probably would. I'd say that we have bilateral relations...

Jane Wales: Would you throw them out of the coalition on the War on Terror?

Victor Davis Hanson: It depends on what they contribute. I don't know the specifics but…

Jane Wales: Because that's one of the first places our government went to for help. To Pakistan and Uzbekistan, both of which don't belong in your UN.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, when you're in a war to defeat fascism, you're willing to do things like sell 350,000 trucks to...

Jane Wales: You're making my point.

Victor Davis Hanson: ...to Soviet Union, but that's different than a utopian body. We have no pretense that we're trying to protect the security of the United States. Just like in World War II we were willing to deal with Stalin and give him billions of dollars of aid, even though as soon as that war was over we turned on him and said, you know what, you violated the principles we stand for. Now we're in a Cold War with you.

Peter Robinson: Next, reforming the United Nations.

Title: Extreme Makeover: UN Edition

Peter Robinson: One approach is to reform the United Nations itself extensively. You can name a reform yourself if you'd like to, but you can broaden the Security Council to include India, gigantic democracy...

Victor Davis Hanson: Great idea.

Peter Robinson: ...as opposed to dilute the power of say of France which is a little democracy in world terms these days. Insist that other nations such as Russia and China contribute more to the cost of operations. Amend the Charter to make it much more explicit that member nations have the right to defend themselves against terrorist threats and rogue states. All right, will you go for that? You'd like to do all of that?

Victor Davis Hanson: Sure.

Jane Wales: I'd be happy with all of that. I think that the Security Council gets more unwieldy as you add and so the U.S. has always been...

Peter Robinson: So, my point, Victor, is, is it worth going to all the trouble to try to reform the United Nations which we know, if any of these reforms were to be enacted, we're talking about a process that would take a decade at a minimum...

Victor Davis Hanson: You're leaving out...

Peter Robinson: ...or should we walk away?

Victor Davis Hanson: No, I think all of those would be good.

Peter Robinson: That'd all be good. All right.

Victor Davis Hanson: And they shouldn't be opposed by sane people. They would be, but they shouldn't be. And then the most important would be to have a criterion for membership, like every other club...

Peter Robinson: Well, here's...

Victor Davis Hanson: ...but to be in the General Assembly, you have to pass, just like the EU doesn't let everybody in the EU. They have some stern membership requirements.

Peter Robinson: What about--you've got the United Nations...

Victor Davis Hanson: But if you're out of the EU, doesn't mean Europe doesn't talk to you. They still talk to Bulgaria.

Peter Robinson: United Nations, you got a hundred and eighty some members. They're in apartments in Manhattan. They're there to stay. So, what you do instead is set up a new league of democracies.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: You set up another organization that dilutes the power of the United Nations and you choose countries that actually behave pretty well and that actually live up to the ideals first annunciated in the United Nations. So, you say to yourself, the United Nations is what it is. It's probably easier to set up a new organization than to reform it. And you set up an organization along the lines you have outlined. Would you go for that?

Jane Wales: What would its authority be? I mean, it depends what it is.

Peter Robinson: Victor? How would it work? What would its authority be?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well...

Jane Wales: Isn't that what NATO is?

Peter Robinson: Well, no, but you'd have Australia, say, and you'd bring in India. NATO is North Atlantic, of course, right?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, the advantage of that would be that you wouldn't have the problems you do with the UN vetoes, so you could keep the UN for doing things like AIDS problems, or World Health Organization, but if you had a group of democracies, because not since democratic Sicily was invaded by democratic Athens, have you really had a consensual government that goes to war readily with another consensual government. So, you have this group of democracies that are far more likely, in political terms, to act, to address real problems in the world. And China probably wouldn't be allowed to join for a while. Maybe that would put pressure on reformers in China to listen to their own dissidents, but the problem with the UN is that, wrongly or rightly, it has this utopian humanitarian sanction that it gives to pretty unsavory characters and they use that for domestic political purposes and to find legitimacy where they were not legitimate at all.

Peter Robinson: So, what do you want to do about it?

Victor Davis Hanson: You could just be very nice and smile to the UN and go through the motions, but don't count on any real political decisions being addressed there, and then have a league of democratic states which would be more political and try to solve real problems.

Peter Robinson: This brings us back to the war in Iraq.

Title: Operation Talk and Awe

Peter Robinson: So, George W. Bush played it about right. He went to the UN. He gave speeches there, but at the same time he talked to the American public and said look, I'm not going to give anybody, including the United Nations, veto power over us. Is that right?

Victor Davis Hanson: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: And that's the way American Presidents ought to behave?

Jane Wales: That's the way American Presidents always behave. I mean, you never give veto power to another body.

Peter Robinson: So, John Forbes Kerry had no right to criticize George Bush's treatment of the United Nations?

Jane Wales: No, that's not the same thing. What I said is that the U.S. always looks out for the U.S. interest. The U.S. has a right to protect its own national security interest. John Forbes Kerry may not agree that going into Iraq, the way we did, when we did, was actually in our national security interests.

Peter Robinson: But as regards...

Jane Wales: It's not a persuasive argument.

Peter Robinson: As regard to the United Nations, what did Bush do wrong?

Jane Wales: What I said earlier is that he argued that this was to enforce a set of UN resolutions, when, in fact, it was not to enforce this set of UN resolutions. To enforce those set of UN resolutions, the smart thing to do is what he appeared to be doing at first and that is to amass a significant force, get the weapons inspectors back in with the constant threat...

Peter Robinson: All with the sanction of the United Nations.

Jane Wales: All with the...

Peter Robinson: Step by step they approve it.

Jane Wales: ...all with the threat of force if Saddam Hussein ever threw out a weapons inspector, has ever failed to...

Peter Robinson: But he should have gotten the vote of the Security Council for each of these steps.

Jane Wales: I'm not sure it was needed to have a vote of Security Council to do that. It was needed to have a vote of the Security Council to change the rules, to change the objectives.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, his logic is that it assumes one thing, that for the UN to work, the United States has to work against the UN. It has to step forward and say, I'm the self-appointed sheriff and the inspectors are going to go back into Iraq or we're going to take unilateral action which the UN will then oppose...

Jane Wales: It doesn't need to be unilateral.

Victor Davis Hanson: They would never have been invited back in.

Jane Wales: There's a different set of issues and that is the fact that no other nation has got the airlift and sealift capacity that we have. No other nation has the military force we have. So, if you're going to have a major military action, if the UN existed or did not exist, it is an inescapable fact that we have to play a role.

Peter Robinson: Here, let me ask another couple of questions. All right. So, we are the world's only superpower and at this given moment we are a democracy. We do, indeed as a country live up to the ideals in the United Nations' Charter. We have a Bill of Rights. Human Rights is a perpetual political issue. It's something we take very seriously. Why do we need to go to the United Nations at all to sanction any action we wish to take? I grant you, I think Victor grants you that the United Nations is diplomatically useful as a sounding board.

Jane Wales: Because legitimacy on the ground matters. And we're finding...

Peter Robinson: But why is it that the United Nations grants legitimacy. That's what I'm trying to get from you, Jane.

Jane Wales: Ask those for whom the legitimacy takes. Does the average Iraqi see us as being a legitimate actor right now?

Peter Robinson: The average Iraqi...

Jane Wales: Hear me out. Hear me out.

Peter Robinson: The average Iraqi could be a very confused person. Likewise, the average Frenchman...

Jane Wales: But hear me out. Sistani right now, Grand Ayatollah Sistani will not speak to an American representative.

Victor Davis Hanson: What did he think ten years ago when Saddam Hussein was in power? Did he think the UN was legitimate or Saddam Hussein?

Jane Wales: Let me just complete my point...

Peter Robinson: Okay. Go ahead. Make your point. Make your point.

Jane Wales: However, he would deal with the UN. For some reason, the United Nations is perceived as legitimate...

Peter Robinson: You're saying--you're saying is that for mysterious reasons which we need not even ponder...

Jane Wales: Well, they're not mysterious...

Peter Robinson: ... the United Nations does indeed confer moral legitimacy and Victor's saying, exactly, and that's what's wrong. That is a misconception on the world stage. Is that right?

Jane Wales: It is because…

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, because I trust the collective government of an elected house, an elected senate, a censoring body in the Supreme Court, an elected President to form a policy that represents a consensuality. There's none of that in the UN because you're only as strong as your weak link and when you have these countries there that give legitimacy who themselves are illegitimate, it has a counter-effect. It's not a force for positive humanitarian good because it either turns its head away from a really pressing problem or it gives sanction to people who don't deserve it and haven't earned it.

Peter Robinson: Last topic; let me tackle this issue of moral legitimacy one last time.

Title: Ayes of the Beholder

Peter Robinson: You simply do not believe that it is the case that if not with the American public than with large publics abroad, Britain, France, the Iraqis, that a vote by the United Nations Security Council does confer moral legitimacy. You believe that's the case? Right?

Jane Wales: In many instances it is the case.

Peter Robinson: And Victor says it should not be the case and you say...

Jane Wales: But how is it going to change public attitudes around the world? I mean, I'm not sure by changing the rules you can change public attitudes around the world.

Peter Robinson: All right. All right. Last question. We're running out of time. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, "We know from history that international institutions which fail to act in the face of global crises gradually wither away." The League of Nations. This is what he's talking about, of course. A decade from now, will the United Nations be playing a role in world affairs that is more or less important than the role it plays today?

Victor Davis Hanson: I think it's obviously less. Unless it's lost the confidence of the one country that it needed to retain and that's the American voting public. It might like UNESCO and UNICEF and all of that, but it does not trust the UN and has a deep suspicion of its motives and its morality.

Peter Robinson: Jane?

Jane Wales: We must be reading two different sets of polls, but let me say that I have the same view. That is to say, that I think it will lose its force if it fails to act in the face of genocide. And at the same time, we the U.S., in the case of Dafur in Sudan, we, the U.S. will also lose moral legitimacy for failing to act. We've got the same test and we're both going to fail it.

Peter Robinson: What about the benign neglect? We just keep going up there to the East River and jaw, jaw, jaw, but ignore the UN. And its importance will shrink on its own.

Jane Wales: It's in our interest to actually strengthen it and make it work, but, in fact, yes, benign neglect or our current approach which is to attack it, will have the opposite effect.

Victor Davis Hanson: I wish it was true, but the people who are alive today in the Balkans are alive because of the U.S. Air Force and the people in Dafur who will be alive, if they are going to live, is going to be alive because of the U.S. military.

Peter Robinson: Jane Wales now gets the last word.

Jane Wales: But we won't take that on.

Peter Robinson: We won't take it on.

Jane Wales: I mean, that's the problem is that we won't take it--we won't take on the responsibility...

Peter Robinson: Can you give me an example of something the UN has taken on that we wouldn't take on?

Jane Wales: Well, that's a good point. We will take it on if it's collaborative, but we won't take it on alone.

Peter Robinson: I see. Jane Wales, Victor Davis Hanson, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.