Many around the world tout the United Nations as the only legitimate source of peacemaking in the world today. But sixty years after the organization’s founding and in the wake of a series of high profile political failures and financial scandals, is the United Nations a realistic alternative to the emerging Pax Americana?
In his new book, The Future of the United Nations: Understanding the Past to Chart a Way Forward (AEI Press, September 2005), Joshua Muravchik, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the answer is clearly no. While the UN’s humanitarian efforts–responding to natural disasters such as famines or the recent Asian tsunami–are important, the UN’s peacekeeping efforts have been largely unsuccessful.
Indeed, according to Muravchik, the UN has failed to serve the purpose for which it was founded–to be the main bulwark of global peace and security–and none of the reforms currently under consideration will begin to remedy these faults. Muravchik concludes that only a more radical restructuring of the UN–concentrating on humanitarian work and on its role as a forum for international discourse and informal diplomacy-will allow the organization to play a useful role in the twenty-first century.
Initially, many of the UN’s failures were attributed to Cold War tensions. But in the more than fifteen years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the UN has functioned little better, revealing a deeper flaw in the institution’s architecture. “Whether we look at the UN during or after the Cold War or at the League of Nations before that, this kind of political organization just does not work,” says Muravchik. “It is neither accountable nor transparent, and this invites the kind of financial and sexual misbehavior that has rocked the UN recently, as well as its more profound failings.” Muravchik argues that the main cause of the UN’s failure is its very structure as an embryonic world government, with the power to make “law” and enforce peace. Member states are asked to yield a measure of their independence in return for the protections offered by the UN. Yet, as Muravchik shows, these protections were illusory and as a result this global social contract was a dead letter from the start.
In fact, Muravchik adds, if the world has been more peaceful since 1945, it is due to the farsighted international policies of the United States, and not to the existence of the United Nations. If the governments that are promoting the UN as a counterweight to the United States–many of which are either fearful or jealous of America’s unique superpower status-succeed, Muravchik says, the world will become a far more dangerous place, above all for its most vulnerable citizens.
Muravchik believes that the UN’s flaws are unlikely to be remediable in an organization made up of governments and not citizens. Whereas a democratic system provides individuals with incentives to expose misdeeds and question the existing authorities, the structure of the UN rewards governments and diplomats for going along with the status quo. Emblematic of this problem is the performance of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which UN secretary-general Kofi Annan himself admits has become an embarrassment. “Despite its military powerlessness, the UN might still have been a moral beacon to mankind,” says Muravchik. “Instead it is a model of hypocrisy, thanks largely to its record on human rights.”
Muravchik argues further that the current proposals for UN reform–which focus primarily on enlarging the Security Council–are “worse than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. . . . It is like loading on additional luggage when the ship has already begun to sink. States are more concerned with their own status than with the UN’s ability to fulfill its mission.” Muravchik suggests scrapping the “political UN” entirely, preserving its specialized agencies and its function as a diplomatic meeting place. “If peace is to be protected, it will be by alliances, regional bodies, and ad hoc coalitions. In the main, these will be led by the United States.”
JOSHUA MURAVCHIK is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of eight books and hundreds of articles on U.S. foreign policy and international relations. He has worked closely with two prominent U.S. ambassadors to the UN, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown University.