The Common Good
September-October 2003

Say Goodbye to the U.N.?

by David Batstone | September-October 2003

We cannot give up the U.N., despite its inadequacies.

Is the United Nations dead in the water? That's a common opinion in global leadership circles. In mid-summer 2003, I took part in a workshop in Sweden that brought together highly influential leaders—executive officers of major corporations, government ministers, and members of parliaments—to discuss trends in economic development and international governance. Participants hailed from around the globe: China, India, Africa, the United States, and Europe. Perhaps what is unique about this annual gathering—beyond the fact that no media are invited and no press releases issued—is that priority is placed on initiatives to increase human dignity and social justice in the world.

Though I had a very positive experience at the workshop, I left with the alarming realization that many leaders consider the United Nations a lost cause. Representatives of the developing nations railed against the double standards of U.N. declarations and the structural inequity posed by the Security Council. Europeans despaired at the U.N.'s impotence, pointing to its inability to establish effective mediation in the high stakes game of power politics over Iraq.

These premature post-mortems will sound like music to the ears of the neoconservatives who set the agenda at the White House. Nelson Warfield, a former press secretary for Sen. Robert Dole and a key Republican strategist, said it well in the International Herald Tribune: "Just about every conservative is thrilled with a president who tells the U.N. to take a hike." I wonder if more-progressive political operatives consider the alternatives when they so cynically undermine the United Nations?

Over the next decade we will be subject to the exercise of three dominant streams of geopolitical power on the global stage. First, it is clear that the Bush administration aims to lay the foundation for an "American century" and will act unilaterally and pre-emptively when necessary to accomplish its objectives.

Second, organized networks operating under no state flag will seek global disorder as a channel for political or economic gain—mafia groups that thrive in the Balkans and the Sunni militias that wield terror in Pakistan are prime examples.

Third, a coalition of political forces—nongovernmental organizations, civic groups, and nation-states—will seek to support multilateral institutions and nurture the rule of law in an effort to resolve global conflicts. The member states of the European Union will play a key role in this third stream, even though some influential leaders have given up on the path of global governance. Regardless, all three of these geopolitical streams will run in parallel to shape global order (or the lack thereof), competing for dominance, yet no one stream will completely overcome the others.

ANYONE WHO wants to promote the third stream and strengthen global governance cannot give up on the United Nations. Despite its inadequacies, it is practically the only body to which the U.S. government feels even a modicum of accountability in international affairs. Isn't it rife with bureaucrats who inefficiently run programs into the ground? No argument there, but that should lead us to work on serious reform and revitalization, not call for its elimination. The United Nations has the potential—as yet realized only on rare occasions—of providing a moral vision to resolve global conflicts in a way that transcends the interests of any one nation-state.

Critics point to the fact that the very existence of the Security Council ensures a double standard of justice; therefore, the argument follows, the United Nations should be jettisoned in favor of the creation of a new international body. That's simply a dead end. Can you imagine the United States, let alone China or France, making themselves accountable to a new governing body where parity and symmetry rule the order of affairs? That's not likely to happen.

The intensive focus on the United Nations after the Iraq war offers us the opportunity to create a more just system of governance with appropriate checks and balances within its present structures. We should not squander that chance just because we despair over its vulnerability.

David Batstone, executive editor of Sojourners, is author of Saving the Corporate Soul & (Who Knows) Maybe Your Own (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

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