Things haven’t been going well for the United Nations lately, even by its own account. The burgeoning oil-for-food scandal has sapped its dwindling stock of moral capital.
Politically, the organization that Franklin Delano Roosevelt dreamed would prevent the rise of another Hitler has not only abdicated any responsibility for dealing with would-be fuehrer Saddam Hussein, but has essentially opted out of helping to build a democratic Iraq.
Now comes word of an internal report recommending some seemingly sensible internal reforms. There is much to find encouraging in it, particularly the potential for returning the UN to some level of constructive participation in facing the critical issues facing world security, from Islamist terrorism to North Korean nuclear proliferation. But even assuming the report’s recommendations are taken seriously — and history is not encouraging in this regard — major structural impediments remain.
First things first. It is significant that the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change commissioned last year by Secretary General Kofi Annan provides as candid an assessment as it does. The report recommends some sweeping changes to the Security Council and the UN as a whole (101 in all), and includes the following findings, among others:
* “There is a need for a more professional and better organized Secretariat that is much more capable of concerted action.”
* The Commission on Human Rights, which was chaired by Libya last year and includes such shining role models as China, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan, “suffers from a legitimacy deficit that casts doubts on the overall reputation of the United Nations.”
* The General Assembly has “lost vitality and often fails to focus effectively on the most compelling issues of the day,” and “The Security Council needs greater credibility, legitimacy and representation to do all that we demand of it.”
But alas, the reforms do not address the central weakness of the Security Council: its near-perpetual paralysis in the face of anti-American sentiment and the veto power of each of its five permanent members (The United States, Russia, Britain, France and China).
Roosevelt never imagined that the Security Council would evolve into a sort of global forum for determining the legitimacy of the use of military force. Such a notion would have struck as absurd the man who, along with Churchill, directed the war to save the world from Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism, and did so chiefly with the mighty U.S. military.
The Security Council certainly didn’t deter the invasion of Kuwait, of course, any more than genocide in Africa or any number of massive violations of international law.
Instead, it has served mainly, in the words of writer Mario Loyola, to stymie “the use of force by the very states for whom (UN) legitimacy matters most — the great democracies.”
Thus the United States, which has attempted to fill the global leadership vacuum since World War II, has faced the task of safeguarding world order in the face of obstruction by anti-democratic governments exploiting the legitimacy conferred by their UN membership. In effect, Roosevelt’s dream has been turned on its head.
And that’s the real problem with this report: it explicitly rules out pre-emptive action, such as the invasion of Iraq, without Security Council approval, claiming “there will be ... time to pursue other strategies, including persuasion, negotiation, deterrence, and containment.” In other words, we must wait until an attack is imminent (and maybe beyond), as though that were possible in an age of weapons of mass destruction and terrorists eager to use them.
The report would actually leave America’s national security even more beholden to world approval than the UN’s current, ambiguous conventions.
And it is in such over-reaching, ironically, that Loyola sees in the report an opportunity to fix the underlying problem. He urges the Bush Administration to “court our democratic partners” and build a movement to more properly constrain the role of the Security Council.
After all, the trouble it creates has been apparent since one nation objected to the wording of the UN’s charter six decades ago, urging that “individual states must be free to act when the Security Council fails to act.” That nation was France.
Sen. Kyl is chairman of the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee and the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security.