Book Review: Conundrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives

This article appeared in the Washington Times on December 29, 2009.
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Conundrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives
Edited by Brett Schaefer
Rowman & Littlefield, 400 pages

The last best hope of mankind. So the United Nations has been termed. If that’s true, we should abandon hope.

That doesn’t mean the U.N. has no value, but it is a highly flawed organization operating well beyond its original purpose and current competence.

Notes Heritage Foundation President Edwin J. Feulner in his introduction: “Today’s United Nations is the result of decades of poorly considered mandates, duplicative responsibilities without clear lines of responsibility, insufficient transparency and accountability, and bureaucratic mission creep and institutional overreach.” Toss in wasteful spending and excessive expectations, and the seriousness of the challenge facing the international system is obvious.

Conundrum advocates smarter global engagement, using the U.N. when possible and seeking alternatives when necessary. The volume focuses on the most egregious failures and most serious threats.

For instance, Greg Mills and Terence McNamee, respectively of the Brenthurst Foundation and the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, call the U.N.‘s attempt at conflict resolution “mission improbable.” They write of Rwanda: “The mission’s vague mandate was unclear about the use of force, particularly in defense of civilians. As the genocide unfolded, the major U.N. powers dithered. They prevented any strengthening of [the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda’s] mandate and delayed contributing personnel until the killings had largely ended.”

The failure of peacekeeping is more than inadequate political commitment. Mr. Mills and Mr. McNamee explain that “U.N. peacekeeping, as with other parts of the U.N. system, have proven vulnerable to mismanagement, corruption, and misconduct.”

The authors argue that the U.N. should adopt the Hippocratic Oath — first do no harm — because, “In recent years, outsiders have exacerbated and prolonged more conflicts than they have brought to an end.” Observe Mr. Mills and Mr. McNamee, “the clamor for intervention in Darfur doubtlessly arises more from an instinctive desire to ‘do something’ than a nuanced understanding of the dynamics fueling the violence, which is necessary for effective action.”

Those designing peacekeeping missions should be realistic in setting ends and providing means. The authors warn: “The decision to intervene is a serious one likely to involve more resources, time, planning, and personnel than is initially apparent.” Enforcing accountability, too, is critical.

Even more hypocritical, if not quite as deadly, have been the U.N.‘s human rights activities. Although it has long been an organizational priority, Brett D. Schaefer and Steven Groves, both of the Heritage Foundation, conclude that “the U.N.‘s record in persuading member states to honor, enforce, and protect fundamental human rights has been gravely disappointing.”

That’s actually an understatement. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Groves write, “became a tool for human rights abusers to block criticism of their own actions and stymie efforts to promote human rights.” The replacement Human Rights Council, created in 2006, has proved to be no different.

Also problematic are treaties concocted by the U.N., such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The authors explain: “Recommendations of the CEDAW treaty body have included encouragement of abortion rights, legalization of prostitution, quotas to achieve gender parity in parliamentary bodies, same‐​sex marriage, and discouragement of references to motherhood as ‘stereotypical attitudes, even going so far as to call for eliminating Mother’s Day.”

Washington should not feel the need to support entities simply because they exist, Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Groves argue. They also advocate creating a forum outside of the U.N. to promote human rights.

Former executive branch attorneys Lee A. Casey and David B. Rivkin Jr. review international lawmaking. They write: “The growing influence that U.N. bodies exercise over the development, interpretation, and implementation of international law should be of great concern to the United States. Governments, nongovernmental organizations, and international bodies have increasingly undercut traditional notions of sovereignty.”

Washington long has promoted international law, and the process can benefit both Americans and the rest of humankind. Mr. Casey and Mr. Rivkin offer some important guidelines to ensure that this remains the case.

Their bedrock principle is preserving national sovereignty: The U.S. “should maintain and refuse to compromise the basic rule that every sovereign state is equally entitled to determine for itself the content and meaning of international law, including and especially the extent to which individual countries must comply with the judgments of international courts and tribunals.”

There’s much more within the U.N. system that is wasteful and even harmful. Christopher C. Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute writes about the U.N. and the environment.

Explains Mr. Horner: “The insistence on addressing [environmental issues] through the U.N. ultimately undermines real efforts to resolve them because in the U.N. the votes and often the views of small island countries such as St. Kitts carry as much weight as those of the United States. Common sense and practical experience indicate that an alternative approach — possibly any other approach — would be preferable.”

Susan Yoshihara of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute studies how the U.N. has increasingly sacrificed support for individual liberty and encouraged expansion of government. She explains: “In the past three decades, human rights activists inside and outside the U.N. system have also dramatically shifted their priorities from promoting civil and political rights to demanding that governments provide their favored economic, social, and cultural rights.” This approach has ended up “undermining the freedoms of speech and religion and circumventing democratic deliberation and debate.”

Arms control, development, free trade and health are other problem areas. In principle, international organizations could assist in all of them. In practice, the U.N. often has been an impediment to good policy. For example, Roger Bate and Karen Porter, both at the American Enterprise Institute, point to the “statist bias” of the World Health Organization, which suffers from “an ambitious mandate and a half‐​century of mission creep.”

A global network of competent, honest and voluntary international organizations could prove quite useful. However, that is not the U.N. today. The organization receives endless platitudinous compliments, but, Mr. Schaefer argues, “unconditional support for the U.N. also has consequences,” many of them bad.

Thus, he concludes this worthy volume: “It is time to rethink and reshape U.S. engagement with the United Nations so that it better serves both U.S. interests and the organization’s own stated purposes.” That means attempting to reform the U.N. while considering alternative organizations and strategies.