The Common Good
September-October 1996

A Community of Nations

by Joe Nangle | September-October 1996

A visit to the United Nations stimulates reflections and emotions regarding humanity's striving for community.

A visit to the United Nations stimulates reflections and emotions regarding humanity's striving for community. Approaching the U.N. complex from 46th Street and First Avenue, you see the flags of the 185 member nations flying at the same height, placed in the alpha-

betical order of their country's names. The sight speaks of equality—the Stars and Stripes of the world's superpower is number 175 in this even row of national banners.

Stepping from the sidewalk onto U.N. property, you learn that technically you have left the United States and now stand on international soil. The scene around you changes dramatically (or is this one's imagination?). It seems that most of those entering the U.N. building are people of color, a visual reminder of global population realities. Clearly the human community comes in all shades of black, brown, yellow, and white.

A guided tour of the United Nations calls to mind the significant moments in humanity's quest for community as represented in the 51-year history of this organization. From the dark days of World War II, when the Allied nations foresaw international collaboration in the service of peace, to the actual Charter of the United Nations and its ratification in the spring and fall of 1945, to the first General Assembly of the then-51 member states in January 1946, you get a sense of early gropings toward the "one world" that those pioneers envisioned.

The list of secretaries-general recalls the names that have become identified with the innumerable issues, dialogues, dramatics, and sheer boredom that have characterized this five-decade pursuit of a truly global community: Trygve Lie (Norway), Dag Hammarskjold (Sweden), U Thant (Burma), Kurt Waldheim (Austria), Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru), and Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt). Each name speaks eloquently of humanity's yearning that "all may be one."

AND YET. And yet. Our tour takes us to the U.S. Mission, the office of our country's delegation to the United Nations. What we hear there chills the soul. A U.S. spokesperson calmly tells us that the United States sees the United Nations as a "tool of our foreign policy." Not a place of dialogue among sister nations, not a forum where we strive as equal partners with other countries in the pursuit of our ideals, but just one more of those organizations that our powerful nation bullies to get its way.

The briefing at the U.S. Mission continues and our country's attitude becomes ever clearer. We do not like what the United Nations does in certain areas of the world, or about certain issues, so we refuse to pay our share of this world body's costs. Our financial arrearage currently comes to something just over $1 billion. We do not like the current secretary-general so we block his appointment to another five-year term. What is ominous as we listen to this spokesperson is the absolute certainty with which he proffers his views and with which he predicts certain outcomes. Boutros-Ghali, he assures us, will not receive a second term, despite statements of support from many corners of the world. The United States will have its way on this one.

Walking away from the United Nations one recalls the choice offered to God's people in Deuteronomy: "I set before you life or death, a blessing or a curse...." In the context of the community known as the United Nations, the choice between life or death comes down to seeing this organization as a "tool of American foreign policy," or as that place where "all peoples treat each other as brothers [and sisters]" (Pope Paul VI, 1965).

For people of faith living in the United States, and dedicated to the building up of human communities at every level, the question becomes: Are we citizens merely of this country, or do we strive to exercise our citizenship in the entire human family? How we answer, and what we do as inhabitants of the United States, has far-reaching consequences for us—in the words of the opening line of the U.N. Charter—"the peoples of the United Nations."  

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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