Commentary

Pruning the United Nations

The arrival of another United Nations Day this past October produced an outpouring of both praise and vilification. A more balanced and realistic look at the UN is needed, for it is neither global savior nor global Satan.

A blizzard of hype and excuses from the UN’s cheerleaders cannot disguise the organization’s numerous faults. Its record in the realm of conflict resolution has been unimpressive. The nation-building project in Somalia (which was to be the model for rehabilitating failed states) produced a bloody fiasco. The UNPROFOR mission in Bosnia, essentially an attempt to manage a civil war, fared no better. Even the UN’s much-touted achievement in ending the long civil war and fostering democracy in Cambodia has unraveled.

To be fair, the UN has not been without successes. The organization played a constructive role in helping to end the armed conflicts in El Salvador and Mozambique and in supervising elections that brought independence and democracy to Namibia. Nevertheless, the failures are decidedly more spectacular than the successes and serve to emphasize the UN’s inherent limitations.

On non-military matters the UN’s performance has been dreadful. The organization is plagued by problems of mismanagement and corruption. Much of the UN’s energy and funds has been devoted to pushing such pernicious measures as the Law of the Sea Treaty and holding pretentious summits on the environment, world population, and other issues. Delegates to those gatherings habitually embrace the discredited notion that more government intervention and regulation are the solution to any problem.

Critics have suggested a number of changes in Washington’s policy toward the UN. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other congressional hard-liners believe that the United States should reduce its financial support for the organization and insist, not ask, that it trim its bloated, corrupt bureaucracy. Other proposals call for a comprehensive audit that would go beyond an examination of the UN’s finances and management to scrutinize the UN’s missions and eliminate those that are unrealistic or objectionable.

Such suggested reforms are commendable, but they skirt the central issue. Ultimately, the United States needs to re-examine its enthusiasm for the entire concept of global collective security. We should no longer accept on faith that it is either feasible or wise to attempt to “globalize” civil wars and minor cross-border conflicts.

America ought to have a restrained and somewhat skeptical relationship with the United Nations. The belief that the UN was mankind’s last best hope for peace was erroneous when the organization was established in 1945 and it is erroneous today. The United Nations is neither the guardian of global peace nor the institutional conscience of humanity. If the United Nations is to play a constructive role in international affairs, we need to puncture such overblown notions. (The recent investigation of U.S. prisons by a UN functionary to ferret out alleged human rights violations is precisely the kind of overreaching and gratuitous meddling that justifiably infuriates Americans.)

The UN has limited utility as an international forum for different points of view and a mediation service to resolve quarrels. It also can play (and indeed has played) a useful role in coordinating humanitarian relief efforts. But the notion of the United Nations as a powerful global security body is unrealizable and undesirable.

The United Nations is merely an association of the world’s governments — not, it should be emphasized, the world’s peoples. As such, it is, and should be, only a marginal player on the global stage. Once that limitation is accepted, the UN can perform some modestly useful functions — provided that it is properly focused on its core missions and is able to overcome its serious management problems.

Indeed, the American people should not want it any other way. The United Nations as an embryonic world government with an independent taxing authority and the other powers of a political state would pose a threat to individual liberty wherever it exists. Most UN members are ruled by authoritarian regimes that rarely even make the pretense of being democratic, and the culture of governance at the United Nations itself is hardly sympathetic to the values of individual rights and tethered government.

Even the more limited version of an activist United Nations, with a standing military force and a mandate to rebuild “failed states” around the planet, would constitute a dangerous entanglement for the United States. Not only is it dubious wisdom to make parochial conflicts a matter of global concern and intervention, but the lives of American military personnel should be put at risk only to defend America’s vital security interests. Their lives should never be sacrificed for the abstract and illusory goal of global collective security.

Critics need not be shy about pressing their case for radical reform of the UN. It is not isolationism, much less know-nothingism, to insist that the role of the United Nations —and America’s relationship to the world body — be carefully examined or that the UN’s performance be subject to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. It is merely common sense.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the editor of Delusions of Grandeur: The United Nations and Global Intervention.