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December 15, 2003


And yet...

I have a friend from high school who's worked for the UN for a number of years, first for UNHCR, and now for the General Assembly. He almost ended up stationed in Iraq, and three of his four friends who did go didn't come home.

God knows the UN is an imperfect organization.* (Try riding herd on any dysfunctional family some time...) But there are an awful lot of people trying their damndest to make a positive difference.

* On the other hand, I don't see anyone else out there doing what WHO, UNHCR or UNICEF does.

Following up on JKC's asterisk, Moe, does your disdain extend to all component areas of the UN?

Let's assume the UN isn't going anywhere. Should the US push for Security Council reform? We could do away with the existing permanent member/veto structure in favor of a weighted vote & filibuster system. Or we could just remove Britain and France as P5s and add a rotating EU seat, then throw in Japan as a P5. (Perhaps expand it to P6 with India.)

Think about how many of the crimes we're charging Saddam with come from post-World War II international law covenants--the UN played a big role in those. It's not an effective institution, it's dysfunctional in many ways--my sister has worked for them and is extremely disillusioned. But it hasn't done nothing, and ideas matter even if they're not lived up. I'm not prepared to give up on the idea.

"Following up on JKC's asterisk, Moe, does your disdain extend to all component areas of the UN?"

No, just the ones that don't work. But - and this is just one example of many - while the World Health Organization does not require the General Assembly to give it legitimacy, the reverse is not true. Sorry: I thought that I had made it clear that I was for keeping the useful bits and tossing the rest - as long as it was understood that the UNSC and UNGA were on the tossing list...

"I'm not prepared to give up on the idea."

The day is young and I can wait. The UN can't be fixed and it won't get better on its own: it will dissolve in quite possibly my lifetime and definitely within my hypothetical child's.

But the sooner it goes away, the sooner we can have something in its place that might actually work. :)

I'm curious, Moe Lane, about this: "only two - the USA and PRC - truly deserve their seats." My curiousity leads me to ask, why?

"I'm curious, Moe Lane, about this: "only two - the USA and PRC - truly deserve their seats." My curiousity leads me to ask, why?"

Because if I was going to pick out the top five representative groupings of Earth, it'd be the USA, the PRC, India, Brazil and the EU. Russia is a shadow of what it used to be... and I can't justify letting two Western European nations take up seats when half the planet is excluded. If I was going to expand the permanent section, it'd be the USA, the PRC, the EU, India, Brazil, Great Britain and Japan. 'Course, the French would probably scheme and set things up so that they would still keep 'their' seat, but hell, let 'em.


I'd like to bid on the wiring of the French seat (cable, phone - maybe a little electric). Just to help out.

Back when the train wreck of the Security Council Iraq debate was going on, I was trying to work out a plan to reform the security council. It involved nine permanent members, requiring 2 to veto:


and then I couldn't decide on the ninth country. I figured it should be a Muslim country but didn't know which one. (The largest in population is Indonesia, followed by, IIRC, Pakistan and Iran. Actually India may have the second or third most Muslims). I couldn't decide how much to favor human rights and how much to favor sheer size/representativeness, or whether it would create a bigger mess to include India with or without Pakistan. I also considered South Africa and Turkey as possibilities.

OR we could have an United Nation that is utterly autonomous, and over which the most powerful nations in the world have no sway. This would cut out problems such as disagreements, and mean that the little fellers don't get shafted, as is regularly the case.

It would mean that the primary interest of the primary power in the world was, in fact, the world - and not each corner pushing its own national interests.

But this probably wouldn't work. Moe, tell us why.

P.S. Katherine, did you mean 'Great Britain'? England does not exist as an international political entity.

Hmm I never really got the meme that had the UN being replaced by an organisation that only included democracies, usually put forward by the more nationalistic USians amoung us. I don't think it would take much thinking to realize that such a grouping would either be a pointless talking club, or if it could put real controls on it's members, be a big curb on US unilateralism.

Regional groups are an odd thing, while the EU is quite successful, the other groupings (NAFTA, ASEAN, the African Union ) I think will will they may be successful in their stated goals, I don't think we'll see any block as cohesive as the EU any time soon.

There are some parts of the UN that are doing good-to-excellent work; the WHO, for instance. And while UNHCR (High Commission on Refugees) is not perfect, it's really hard to see how anything better could easily replace it.

Do keep in mind that UNHCR probably makes the difference between life and death for several million people.

Severing them from the UN, while not impossible, is harder than you make it sound. The UN umbrella gives them a lot of legitimacy.

Real world example: Doctors Without Borders got tossed out of Kosovo under Milosevic because it was, you know, a Western front organization for imperialist interference in the internal sovereign blah blah blah. So the same work got shifted over to the UNHCR, which was able to handle it nearly as well and was much harder to criticize.

Also, the UN is not -- quite -- immune to reform. The WHO was vastly improved in the 1990s. (In the '80s it was considered a rather ineffective organization. Not the case today.) And the UN itself underwent significant financial and administrative reform in the same period.

(True, this merely lifted them from "Ottoman Empire on a bad day" to "Austria-Hungary"... okay, sorry, that's geeky; from "Horrible" to merely "Pretty Bad". But still.

Are you altogether sure you're not falling into the trap of "this can't be reformed, so let's kill it and not even bother trying"? This is the conservative mirror image of the liberal "sure it can be reformed, let's throw more money at it"; and like all such reflexes, should be looked at hard before indulging. Nu?

Doug M.

Contemplate the difference between Iraq 1990-91 and Iraq 2002-3.

There's not much question that things went more smoothly for the US and its friends when we had the umbrella of a UN resolution over us. Allies were encouraged; critics were quelled; Saddam couldn't pretend that he had any sort of international legitimacy. (Nor could he easily play the Islamic card, with two Muslim countries on the Security Council voting to let the coalition attack proceed.) It was A Good Thing to have UN backing, and by making it easier for wobbly neutrals to join the coalition (and harder for Iraq to imagine it could wiggle away from defeat) it almost certainly saved American lives.

Now, there are a couple of obvious responses to this. One, it was probably impossible to get a UN resolution clearly supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2002. And two, is it really worth having a large and expensive international organization for situations that only pop up once per decade or so?

Points. OTOH, it's clear that UN approval is a really nice thing to have, when you can get it. Among other things, it makes it much easier to build coalitions, and this has nontrivial effects on the ground. Getting rid of the UN would eliminate even the possibility of getting that approval and (perceived) legitimization.

Is it worth keeping the UN around in case it might, someday, once again approve of something that we do? Well, right now the UN consumes just under one twentieth of one percent of the US federal budget. That's less than we spend on price support payments for dairy products, and just a bit more than we pay for price support payments for tobacco.

So, given that a UN resolution can actually save American lives on the ground, and that it's not all that expensive as these things go, I hesitate to throw this particular baby out with the admittedly rather stagnant bathwater.

Doug M.

Oh, and lest I forget: there was a post on precisely this topic , just the other day on TruthLaidBear. (Yah, in addition to being the keeper of the Blog Ecosystem, the Bear is a decent blogger in his own right.)

Doug M. -- slimy mollusc, but with crustacean ambitions

"But this probably wouldn't work. Moe, tell us why."

Because you're describing effectively a world government: I have no objection to such an entity... as long as it is created precisely according to my country's core principles and practices. What? No? Never mind, then.


PS: Doug, I recognize that you probably are looking at this from a different angle and everything, but from where I'm standing it was the UN's stance in the first half of the Gulf War that made the second half necessary. I am, in other words, unconvinced of your position of the utility of UN resolutions.

Heh. Wish that I'd seen that article. Oh, well, this happens when you're new at this. :)

"if I was going to pick out the top five representative groupings of Earth, it'd be the USA, the PRC, India, Brazil and the EU."

Well, you wouldn't get the EU. And believe me, you wouldn't want it, politically.

But if you can include the EU, why not Indonesia? More people there than in Brasilia.

Oh, and Moe - what core principles and practices would those be for a world government? 'US interests come first'? ;-) Seriously, though, is that what you mean? Or under what circumstances would a World Gov be acceptable?

...and while I've got the microphone, let me say that I believe in the idea (at the very least) of international law and an international community; the problem is that for it to work, the contributing powers need to have a genuine concern for the PEOPLE of other nations.

That's not true of all world governments, is it now.

[Drops mic, leaves stage.]

Doug, I recognize that you probably are looking at this from a different angle and everything, but from where I'm standing it was the UN's stance in the first half of the Gulf War that made the second half necessary. I am, in other words, unconvinced of your position of the utility of UN resolutions.

If you're talking about Gulf War I, that doesn't sound right at all.

Actually, no offense, it isn't right. Sorry.

Saddam invaded in August. The Security Council passed a resolution condemning the invasion and calling for withdrawal within 48 hours. Then, over the next three months, the UN:

-- Declared that Iraq's annexation of Kuwait ws 'null and void'. (Res. 662, Aug 9)

-- Imposed air and shipping blockades, to be enforced by the willing (i.e., US) (Res. 665, Aug 25)

-- Threatened unspecified "measures" against states not cooperating with the blockade (Res. 670, Sept. 25.) This was not-too-subtly directed at some countries who'd been continuing to trade with Iraq, most notably Sudan and Jordan. And then, it

-- Authorized member states to take "all necessary means" to throw Iraq out of Kuwait (Res. 678, Nov. 29). This resolution is noteworthy for its unusually terse and clear language; it briefly mentions Iraq's "flagrant contempt" for previous resolutions, authorizes the guns to fire, and calls upon all member states to support the action, in less than 300 words.

Now, you may be remembering that a lot of speeches got made in the General Assembly in late 1990 and early '91, and some of them were pretty silly. Well, the GA is sort of like Usenet, or the comments section of a very busy blog; it's always a mixed bag. But the Security Council is where the rubber meets the road, and in 1990-'91 the SC provided invaluable support for the coalition war effort.

Cripes, 670 and 678 made it a positive offense agains the UN to not support the coalition. What more do you want, egg in your beer?

As for "the UN's stance in the first half of the Gulf War", what you're probably remembering there is the aforementioned bibble-babble in the General Assembly, and the stance of a couple of countries (Yemen comes to mind, plus one or two others) who were loudly anti-coalition.

But the same Usual Suspects would have been yapping just as loudly if the UN didn't exist. So I'm really not sure what you're on about here.

Doug M.

Not to throw words in Moe's mouth, but I would guess that he is talking about the need to placate the UN which led to our not 'finishing the job' by going to Baghdad. The size and nature of the coalition led to the need to placate far too many people that we wouldn't normally listen to. Because we relied on the 'acceptance' by the UN of military action, we were bound by its skittishness. Leaving Saddam still in power(well, alive in my eyes) to keep our coalition from splintering and avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory was what led to the need for Gulf War, Act II. Our stripped down coalition for Act II was what gave us the freedom to radically change plans at the start and finish of the war(the capture of Baghdad).

I'll wait and see what Moe actually thinks before I respond.

(Not that I wouldn't respond to you, too, Joe. But let's see if I can do it with one post.)

Doug M.

Re Gulf_I and placation, wasn't the real issue a promise to the Saudis we weren't going to seize Iraq? (Certainly the rest of the coalition wouldn't have been happy either.) For that matter it seems to me that Bush_I thought he'd drawn Saddam's teeth at the loss of few lives and without destabilizing the region - which in my view the subsequent years have borne out, except for the hard-to-foresee blowback of our continuing troop presence in SA pissing off OBL.

Actually, Joe has it mostly right: aside from his commentary, my other major objection to Gulf War One was in the way that the United States military were treated as mercenaries. Fine, fine, call them 'professional liberators' if you like - but our troops were essentially paid to go do the UN's dirty work for it, and we took the heat for that for the rest of the decade.*

Never again.


*One reason why I don't actually hate Clinton: the poor bastard didn't deserve the level of crap that got wished on him by GHWFB. You'll note that he didn't bother overmuch with the UN, either. Well, nobody ever said that Bill Clinton was dumb.

Um. We went to a fair amount of effort to shame, cajole, and arm-twist various allies (most notably Germany and Japan) into coughing up cash for the coalition effort. And this was entirely independent of the UN, which ostentatiously avoided the issue of who was gonna pay for it all.

Note that the single biggest chunk of cash came from the Saudis. Understandably enough.

Saying that we were the UN's mercenaries is... distorted. At best.

Similarly, blaming the UN for not taking Baghdad is way, way outta line. GB I never seems to have /wanted/ to take Baghdad; a limited war was Plan A from the beginning. And this was strongly reinforced by pressure from the allies -- most especially, the Saudis -- and the Soviets.

Yah, the Soviet Union was staggering and coughing blood, but still in existence in early '91; Gorbachev was still running things, though only for a few months more. Remember when there were two superpowers? Gulf War I was the very last time we ever had to take Soviet concerns into account; but we did, and the Soviets were very vehement that going to Baghdad was a big no-no.

You can argue that we should have ignored them, allies and Soviets alike... and actually, I'd agree with that. But the UN had very little to do with that.

Moe, I love you, man, but this issue seems to be clouding your normally clear judgment a little.

Doug M.

"Moe, I love you, man, but this issue seems to be clouding your normally clear judgment a little."

Possibly: the way Gulf War I went down actively angered me, after all. I've got plenty of scorn available for Bush I and his advisors, too. But the UN should have been pushing for the resolution of the first half of the Gulf War to be something other than the status quo ante. They didn't, and thus lost what little remnant of their moral authority that was left them in my eyes.

As for 'mercenaries'... as I said, call us 'professional liberators' if you like... but while liberating conquered nations is in the finest tradition of the United States, hitting up other countries for the cash (in advance) is not, for reasons made clear by subsequent events. You want I should be angrier at Bush I for doing things that way than at the UN for accepting them? I can do that, actually. But that doesn't let the organization off of the hook.


Agree to disagree, I guess. Possibly we can wrangle in a bit more detail over a beer when I'm in the DC area in a couple of weeks.

Doug M.

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