Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has thrown down the gauntlet. Well, actually she has tossed several gloves down, but this particular challenge is aimed directly at the bete noir of conservatives, the United Nations. The one time minister of foreign affairs in the Republic of Korea, Ban Ki-moon, has vowed to meet the challenge in person. He will appear in the course of hearings scheduled to start later this month.
Ms Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American representing a district in South Florida, has made her distaste for the UN abundantly clear. She considers the organization, particularly the Secretariat, to be corrupt, inefficient, lacking in transparency, deficient in honesty, and generally speaking unworthy of the lavish support it receives from the American taxpayer (and his Chinese lenders.) She has recommended making contributions to the world body purely voluntary as a means of persuading the outfit to clean up its act.
Such a move would cut the UN off at the knees. Currently the US provides 517 megabucks of the UN's 2.17 gigabuck operating budget. In addition the US forks over 2.68 billion of the organization's 9.67 billion dollar peacekeeping costs. That constitutes a whole lot of something for not too terribly much of a return.
Not surprisingly, Secretary General Ban is not in agreement. While he is more or less willing to admit rather grudgingly that there may have been some problems in the UN during the past, he claims he has made great strides in assuring efficiency, transparency, and an absence of corruption during his tenure to date. In any event, he seems to say, what alternative is there?
Beyond that cop out defense, Mr Ban appears to think that the only problem the UN has is one of image. Not unlike the Democratic party following the midterm election, Mr Ban hints at the UN having failed to properly address its "messaging" difficulties. If only the American public and its (Republican) representatives understood just how well the UN is handling its manifold tasks, there would be no argument over the notion that We the People were getting a very good return on our investment.
Unfortunately the problem is not as simple as Mr Ban believes. Nor is it simply a matter of UN management. If that had been the case, the 1999 Helms-Biden United Nations Reform Act would have been sufficient to meet American objections and questions. The problems of UN performance are far more extensive, totally systemic, and in largest measure are the consequence of the organization having been afflicted with a bad case of institutional overreach.
The UN has long strayed from its basic mission, the foundational reason for its creation. That initial mission was simple to state but very difficult to put into practice. The purpose of the UN was to preserve international peace by assuring that those countries which broke the peace would suffer severe and immediate punishment by the "international community." In principle, a state which broke the international peace by unprovoked aggression would face the united effort of member states to restore the status quo ante bellum.
The realities of international politics as expressed in the Security Council made certain that the UN could not address its major mission more than a couple of times--the Korean War and the repulse of Iraq from Kuwait forty years later. Between the influence of the Cold War on Security Council votes and the many ways in which a state could plausibly present aggressive war as one of a legally defensive nature, the UN failed the hopes of its creators.
In part because of its manifest failure as an instrument of collective security but also as a consequence of the great expansion of its membership during the post-colonial decades, the UN cast about for additional missions. By feats of (mis)definition, the body concluded that it possessed the authority to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state if that state undertook measures which stimulated a flux of refugees to neighboring countries which threatened instability in those states. Similarly, the UN determined that it could intervene to address or prevent humanitarian crises contingent upon the collapse of a state or actions by a government which put lives at undue risk.
While the General Assembly, Security Council, and Secretariat were engaged in mission leap, so also were the assorted subsidiary entities operating under the collective UN mantle. This gave rise to such abominations as the International Panel on Climate Change as well as the aggressive outreach by such bodies as the World Health Organization and the supreme abomination of the Human Rights Council. Each of these bodies has attempted with more or less success to intrude on affairs formerly seen as the sole bailiwick of sovereign states.
The proliferation of "peacekeeping" missions along with "humanitarian" operations further emphasized the intrusive and expansionist nature of the UN--to say nothing of its increased demands for money. The result, a consequence not likely to have been intended, was to make the UN appear to have delusions of becoming the very thing denizens of the far, far Right warned against a half century ago--a pretender to world government status.
Leaving aside the philosophical merits of a One World Government, the brute fact remains that the UN is not equipped in any respect to fill that function. The nature of the Security Council with its Conference of the Victors veto holders as well as the General Assembly with its every country has one vote assure that the UN lacks both the capacity and the perceived legitimacy to operate as even the vaguest sort of super-national government.
What Mr Ban must address--and what Ms Ros-Lehtinen objects to--is the pretense by the UN that it is by right a form of super-national governing body even if not a super-national government per se. The task for Mr Ban is simply impossible. There is too wide a perception that the UN has delusions of governmental aspirations for him to counter in a single appearance or even several.
A close reading of the UN record in peacekeeping shows a record which comes far closer to failure than to success. In the Congo as elsewhere the UN blue helmets have demonstrated a lack of capacity and will to impose or keep the peace which serves to erode the credibility of peacekeeping fatally. Many of the national contingents assigned to UN duty are poorly trained, poorly equipped, lacking in basic discipline, bereft of effective officers, and overly given to gangster as opposed to military virtues. That the US should be paying for this is insupportable.
The record in humanitarian operations is not much better. Haiti is a fine example of how poorly the UN is equipped for major rescue and rehabilitation efforts. The response to the cyclone in Burma may have been impaired by the local government's intransigence but was still marked by ineptitude at best and flat out blundering at worst.
Mr Ban may be proud of the UN's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan but there is precious little objective support for this pride. Domestic political pressures may have forced George W. Bush to relent on his anti-UN stance following the Iraq invasion, but this should not be mistaken as an acknowledgement that the UN was well equipped to do anything meaningful either in Iraq or Afghanistan. The same applies to Sudan. American and European diplomacy rather than UN efforts brought about the secession vote in Southern Sudan and have at least limited the Khartoum government's brutal actions in Darfur.
The UN has done nothing to enhance its perceived legitimacy with the ever greater profusion of special tribunals charged with investigation and prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. So far, the tribunals seems to have specialized in prosecuting former African dictators and the war lords of former Yugoslavia. It is not surprising that a belief has grown in Africa to the effect that the tribunals are simply one more neo-colonial apparatus intended to keep Africans in their collective place. The indictment of the current Sudanese president has forced the notion to spread from Africa to portions of the Muslim world. And, this aspect of UN overreach is bound to get worse no matter which course of action the pre-trial judge in the Lebanese matter goes.
With the exception of those Americans who have an agenda such as the environmental activists and their global warming fellow travelers, or those of the hard Left belonging to the "blame America first" school of thought, there is not much support within We the People for the UN. This translates into a lack of support for feeding the UN's expensive habits.
At a time when budgetary realities are dismal at best, at a time when the US must cut its defense expenditures regardless of the war in progress, the ongoing threat of violent political Islam, the growth of Chinese ambitions and the military means to support those ambitions, there is very little stomach in the US for largess directed to the lame, anti-American bunch which constitutes the ambition heavy, accomplishment light group called the United Nations. The correlation of forces runs against Mr Ban and runs for those like Ms Ros-Lehtinen who desire an end to American underwriting of the UN.
Tinkering on the margins of the UN will not solve the problem. The UN as currently constituted is the problem. The world may benefit from a credible instrument of collective security, but the UN as it exists today is not that instrument.
Pace President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and others of their ilk, get a grip on reality. The UN as it exists now is not useful. It is not useful as a means of preventing or punishing international aggression. It is not useful as a means of protecting human rights. It is not competent in the protection of the environment. It is not even a worthy mechanism of American foreign policy.
At best the UN is a charade. At worst it is a fraud perpetrated upon people eager for a genuine means of keeping the international peace or addressing the very real problems of the global commons. Today, in large measure because of its nature and character, the UN is as toothless and worthless as was the League of Nations in 1939. Like the League it has outlived its usefulness. It has become an institution not unlike a fly in amber, a fossil of a long dead time, entombed.
As the US took the point in developing the concept of the UN during the dark days of a war which seemed without end at the time, we must now take the lead in developing a credible replacement for the UN. This is a far more demanding process than simply seeking to force changes on the margins by playing games with our financial contribution to the discredited Circus by the Hudson. It will demand deep and realistic thinking, prolonged and perhaps bitter debate, but the results can be worth the effort.
In any event we cannot simply stand by as the great golem of the UN shambles and lurches along on its course to self-inflicted destruction. Our future and that of the world in which we live demands more and better of us.
As Robert Kennedy was fond of asking, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"