Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is The War Moral? - Part II

We have different standards for war because we believe that the existence of the UN changes the rules. Perhaps it did change the rules, or should have, or gradually will. But we must first make that connection – the standards are now different. Whether or not the presence of a supranational body should change the rules for nations, many people believe that it has. Rightly or wrongly, many Americans now have a much higher threshhold for going to war, because they believe that the UN is “in charge” of international affairs.

I use here the term “United Nations” to refer not only to that body, but other similar international bodies, such as the IAEA or ICJ. The UN is by far the largest and most important of these, it is the parent organization for many others, and works closely with the rest. What is said of it applies in lesser measure to the others.

There are two UN’s, and confusing the two promotes the uttering of a great deal of foolishness. There is the UN- Idea, a place where the nations of the world can yell and argue, threaten and cajole, but generally work things out without resorting to warfare. There is also the UN-Actual, more corrupt than any banana republic, less competent militarily than even small nations, a vast sinkhole for money and attention, unable to effect even minor improvements.

Both UN’s, Idea and Actual, have failed, though not in the same way or for entirely the same reasons.

The first perplexity is to wonder why so many people cannot acknowledge the failure of the UN-Actual. What is up with that? Why is the obvious so hard to see? The farther Right has long had dark suspicions that UN supporters are secret (or not-so-secret) One World Government types, or general anti-Americans. There are less conspiratorial explanations which might be brought forward: that the workings of the UN are remote from our day-to-day existence, and we pay about as much attention to its corruptions and failures as we would to those of a foreign country – less in fact, than we would care about Canada’s or Great Britain’s problems. Most conservatives would suggest that people just don’t want to give up the dream.

There are also variations on the theme of people supporting the idea of the UN to the neglect of seeing the actuality. Some people like the simple assurance that such an organization exists, believing that it must improve things somehow and not bothering too much about the details. A more nervous extreme of this last are those who believe that we have no choice but to support international organizations, because after the UN, The Deluge. Others, especially on the Left, believe that the UN would work if the US didn’t keep undermining it, and all talk of corruption and inadequacy is mere smokescreen from the Right, which wants an America dangerously unconstrained. There is even a negative version, in which those who support the idea of a UN regard any criticism of it as an attack on its vison of a noble world – the criticism of those who would keep us in a world of violence and inequality for their own ends. There are likely other reasons which have not occurred to my imagination why we as a people almost universally ignore the corruption and failure of the UN. I suppose each of the above possibilities has some truth in it.

I don’t know which of these reasons is the true one. They each likely have someone in their bin. But the first fact is that the current article is a disaster, not just because it gets in America’s way, or because it is an ossifed corrupt bureaucracy, but because it does no positive good whatsoever. We must keep this central fact fixed in front of us, always returning to the question “But what good has it achieved?” All excuses for why the UN “has not done as well as it might” need to be countered by the lack of a positive case for its accomplishments. The imagined dialogue must remain like a litany.

The world would be worse without the UN.
We don’t know that. What good has it achieved?
A lot of the criticism comes from people with an agenda.
True. But what good has the UN done?
UN resolutions have held despots accountable.
There is no evidence for that, and much against it. What good has it achieved?
UN peacekeepers have reduced tensions in volatile areas around the world.
That is an article of faith, not evidence. The evidence says that the entry of UN troops makes things worse. What good has the UN achieved?
Well, even Churchill said that “Jaw, jaw, jaw, is better than war, war, war.” Isn’t it better that nations try to resolve their differences peacefully?
Churchill spoke at its inception, about the idea of a UN. What good has it achieved?
We have the weapons capacity to destroy all mankind.
The UN has prevented no nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. What good has it done?
But the UN does other things like bringing food and medicine to children.
That is generous and well-meant, but it has eventually left most of them in greater poverty. What good has it done? Point to something.
Well, there’s the World Health Organization.
Its results are mixed, but it has done some good. That I concede.
There’s Unicef.
A net loss for the nations it helped. Plus, it has permanently installed corrupt leaders.

I concede, as with the WHO above, that there are branches and programs of the UN which have done some good. These results are meager, and could have been accomplished by any number of medium-sized nations acting independently. For a fraction of the cost. Without installing corrupt aristocrats in the receiving nations.

If the idea of a UN is so necessary, wouldn’t that make reforming it more important, more deserving of our attention, its failure more of a scandal?

Against that background, the horrors of all the raped children in Africa, the innocents unprotected because UN soldiers don’t do their jobs, and the billions of dollars funneled to corrupt governments, terrorist organizations, and organized crime become even more maddening. We are not putting up with these horrors and corruptions as the unfortunate but necessary price of bringing stability – we are paying this price and we are getting nothing back.


David said...

A few years ago, the Securities & Exchange Commission did something clever. (Sounds irrelevant to the UN, but bear with me a minute.) They put up a website that appeared to be a scammy "investment opportunity"--offering "gold-backed senior debentures" or similar nonsense, with something like "a guaranteed absolute minimum return of 20% per month." When the sucker clicked to invest, he got a message along the lines of "This is the SEC. If it had actually been an investment, you would have lost money. You need to be more careful in the future."

Ths incredible things is this: After seeing this message, some people tried to contact the site owner to inform them that the site had been "hacked" by the SEC! All evidence to the contrary, they still thought there was an investment opportunity there, and they still wanted to put their money into it!

The lure of that "20% monthly minimum return" was too strong to resist, even though it was totally fictitious. Similarly, the lure of "peace" held out by the UN is so strong that in many people it overcomes the ability to see what the UN has really become.

Erik said...

Some people like the simple assurance that such an organization exists, believing that it must improve things somehow and not bothering too much about the details.

One of the negatives about being in such a prosperous nation is that we have the "luxury" to favor American Idol & the latest Britney gossip over things of actual consequence.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

david - a very interesting comparison.

Carl said...


I think the analysis isn't so tough.

1) Does it matter that we're not in a declared war? Bush invaded Iraq under his Article II, Section 2 power as Commander in Chief. The Congress strengthened that power by separately authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. I think this does not effect the remainder of the analysis -- see Fleming v. Page, 50 U.S. 603, 615 (1850) ("As commander-in-chief, he is authorized to direct the movements of the naval and military forces placed by law at his command, and to employ them in the manner he may deem most effectual to harass and conquer and subdue the enemy. He may invade the hostile country, and subject it to the sovereignty and authority of the United States.") -- but must be cleared away first.

2) Is it a "just war" according to the long-developed logic of that doctrine? Importantly, the doctrine does not make war a last resort, as George Weigel has written:

"As a tradition of statecraft, the just war argument recognizes that there are circumstances in which the first and most urgent obligation in the face of evil is to stop it. Which means that there are times when waging war is morally necessary to defend the innocent and to promote the minimum conditions of international order. . .

In the classic just war tradition of statecraft, what "justifies" the resort to proportionate and discriminate armed force–what makes war make moral sense–is precisely the morally worthy political ends being defended and/or advanced. . .

Moreover, in the classic just war tradition, armed force is not inherently suspect morally. Rather, as [just war theorist James Turner] Johnson insists, the classic tradition views armed force as something that can be used for good or evil, depending on who is using it, why, to what ends, and how."

3) Does anything about signing the U.N. Charter, particularly Article 51, change that analysis? Scholars disagree on the scope of Article 51, but don't get bogged down in that: under U.S. law, treaties like the UN Charter are subordinate to the Constitution, meaning the President is bound to act to protect the national security even, in theory, were such an act inconsistent with the Charter. Besides, the UN is a dictator-dominated thug-club lacking moral or legal authority over America.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Patience, young Padawan...