There is a large wooden horse next to the Epsom traffic circle in NH. It now sits unidentified, a mere puzzling curiosity with a No Trespassing sign attached to it. It was once a local landmark, bedecked with large homemade sign about how the UN was a Trojan Horse in the US, and surrounded by a makeshift cemetery of crosses, each inscribed with the name of a country under communism and the year it fell. The guy was a kook, with some odd religious and nutritional ideas as well – amazing how those seem to go together so often.
That display made the only criticism of the UN that I recall encountering as a child, perhaps even into young adulthood. No one criticized the idea of the UN. People would complain that it was rendered less effective by the USSR’s veto power in the Security Council, or grumble that it had gotten things somewhat wrong by holding the well-behaved nations to high standards when the insane nations started acting up, but it was universally acknowledged by my family, teachers, and church – especially my church, as I was a UCC Congregationalist – as a force for good. (A particularly delicious recent example of liberal squealing with delight over the UN can be found here.) The UN also ran TV ads in the 1960’s to remind us of what a great job they had done in – no lie – Cyprus and Gaza. Only kooks could oppose such a wonderful idea, the great dream of the nations of the world sitting down to discuss matters instead of going to war.
As I grew older and read more, I encountered people who were opposed to the US being in the UN, but these were dismissed as cranks, their motives being paranoid fantasies or complete misunderstanding. All sensible people supported the UN, everyone knew that.
Sure. When you only look at one side of the balance scale, what’s not to like? Any failure by the UN to bring peace to an area was only because it wasn’t working well enough, not yet. However long the teaching of the stupid warmongering people of the world took, it was going to eventually happen. People would get it, and conflicts would be resolved evermore.
What’s in the other balance scale? What things can we see in retrospect went wrong with the core idea of the UN?
Every government – not country - chose its representatives at the UN, and each of course chose its aristocrats. The Western nations sent their intellectuals, the communist nations sent their secret police, and the poor countries sent educated members of whatever organized crime families were currently ruling the nation. It sounds like a lead-in to a joke: An intellectual, a 3rd-world crime boss, and a KGB officer walk into a bar… But it was no joke. We now know that the Soviet legations were not merely “infiltrated by” or even “riddled with” KGB agents, but were composed entirely of such agents.
The people of Russia or China were never represented – the governments were. The people of Ghana, Guyana, and New Guinea were never represented – their governments, formed entirely of ruling castes – went to Turtle Bay. Even in the democratic nations there was a certain “type” who went to the UN: Dag Hammarskjold* was the son of a prime minister, from a family which had directly served the Swedish crown since the 17th Century. He had taken graduate degrees in political subjects, then gone to work in government.
The Americans sent folks like Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr, Adlai Stevenson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George H.W. Bush, Charles Yost, James Russell Wiggins – politicians, academic lawyers, major newspaper editors. Intelligent, well-meaning, good-government types, and you could not find better evidence of our good-faith effort to make this work than the quality of people we have sent over the years. The Brits sent Lord this and Baron that, all educated at Eton or Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, then immediately on to government posts.
The rest of Europe had different goals for the UN: A. no wars on European soil. B. Prove that socialism solves everything.
The non-aligned nations sent people like Kofi Annan, smooth-talking members of corrupt ruling families eager to get in on some international money action. The UN is not only imperfectly democratic, it is anti-democratic. Under the guise of giving every nation, no matter how poor and weak, a vote in the world’s governance, it is actually a force for giving every aristocracy, no matter how evilly chosen, international power. Even if it were the United Less-Than-Half-Insane Nations the aristocracy issue would still be a problem. Heck, Even the United Sensible Nations would have that problem.
Because - even the Sensible Nations sent too many people with that 1939World of Tomorrow outlook on life. The UN is to international relations as air cars and bubble cities are to science. What all the smart people predicted turned out to be not completely untrue, but far enough off the mark as to be ridiculous. The UN is the government we imagined The Jetsons would have.
Thus, one group went to the UN with the goal of teaching the peoples of the world how to be sensible, one group sent the secret police, and the third came to find the line where the dollars were. What do we expect to happen in such a situation?
Exactly what did happen. Europe and North America thought that public relations meant getting the word out what great ideas they had, and giving people stuff. The Soviets played a deeper public relations game, exploiting regional hatreds to turn people against the US. Romanian secret police defector Ion Mihai Pacepa revealed that it had been specific Eastern Bloc policy to incite Arabs against the US by sponsoring resolutions against Israel, incite African sentiment against the US by sponsoring resolutions against South Africa, and siding with all post-colonial governments regardless of ideology in order to highlight disparities of wealth.
Now the UN resolutions I suggested you read up on should come to mind. The UN docket has been taken up with exactly those three things for 60 years. That Russian strategy worked pretty well. Well enough that they even convinced the intellectuals of the Western nations. UN Resolutions over the years have been dominated by Israel, South Africa, and the plight of former colonies now ruled by kleptocrats. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Cambodia, North Korea, vast slaughters in China, religious persecution in Arab countries – Historians will find no record of such things by studying the UN archives.
One irony is that the USSR did not have particularly bad relations with Israel or South Africa, trading peacefully with each. They didn’t have to have their names on the resolutions against these nations, just so long as the fires were stoked. They used the UN in order to have it both ways.
You would think there would be more suspicion about coming to the same point of view that the KGB is trying to steer you into, but I guess not. The second inherent weakness of the UN comes into full view here.
The United Nations, and any similarly constituted body, provides a stage for the world’s despotic and nutcase governments, with no mechanism for getting them off that stage, no matter what they do. Winston Churchill first used the words “United Nations” to refer to the Allies, those nations united against the Axis – and he wanted the Russians out of there as soon as it was polite.
We see this on full display still. Castro addresses the UN, Ahmadinejad addresses the UN, Chavez addresses the UN and we tell ourselves that giving such folks their say on the national stage will allow people to see how poor their ideas are, yet show how open dialogue can lead to Greater Understanding. And as a bonus, they’ll kick the United States. Shrewd nutcases come and tickle the intellectuals in the right places, beg for more money on behalf of the world’s kleptocracies, and leave with elevated world status. It’s been going on for years, but the UN ‘n’ Chat crowd keeps thinking that the world’s people will hear more than the insults against the US. This time Jan, this time Maria, enlightenment will begin to dawn on them. They will not only hate the US but love Europe.
*Dag Hammarskjold was also a complete doofus. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you," he wrote, "the better you will hear what is sounding outside."
Everything will be all right - you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves." The KGB must've licked their chops waiting to get at that schoolboy. In the words of PJ O'Rourke "Earnestness is just stupidity that has been sent to college."