Is it time for the U.S. and its closest democratic friends to give up on the United Nations and try something new? That’s the question a growing number of thinkers and policymakers are asking. And given the UN’s sad record of moral relativism and systemic inertia, it may be an idea whose time has come.
Before digging into what might come after the UN, it’s important to understand the breadth and depth of the UN’s shortcomings. A good place to start is today’s headlines.
• In Syria, as before in Iraq, Kosovo, Rwanda, Bosnia and Lebanon, the UN Security Council is divided and thus unable to act. And so, the war enters its third year; 140,000 are dead; 2 million are homeless; millions more are succumbing to disease; al Qaeda is on the rise; U.S. allies in Jordan, Turkey and Israel are at risk; chemical weapons are loose; and a brutal dictator is transformed from an international pariah into the key ingredient for making sure chemical weapons aren’t used again. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon conceded that securing Bashar Assad’s WMDs was anything but a diplomatic victory. Calling Syria a “collective failure,” he said, “We can hardly be satisfied with destroying chemical weapons while the wider war is still destroying Syria. The vast majority of the killing and atrocities have been carried out with conventional weapons.” After trying in vain to broker an end to the war in Syria, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the world body “strikingly powerless.”
• Three weeks ago, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Russia, Cuba and Algeria were elected to the UN Human Rights Council—the UN body that, in its own words, is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations.” A global human rights index ranks Saudi Arabia (where women have no rights, where arbitrary detention, disproportionate punishment and state-sanctioned brutality are the norm), China (where people are imprisoned for disagreeing with the state and for worshipping in a way not approved by the state) and Russia (where freedom or religion, speech and association are restricted by the state) in the very lowest category; Algeria, Vietnam and Cuba place in the second-lowest category. All are considered “not free” by Freedom House. Having these regimes sit in judgment of others would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.
• In October, Iran took a seat on the UN Disarmament and International Security Committee—the same Iran that’s flouting the will of the international community by building an outlaw nuclear-weapons program; the same Iran that’s undermining international security by arming, training and deploying fighters into Afghanistan and Iraq; the same Iran that’s using Hezbollah to fan the flames in Syria; the same Iran that’s threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz; the same Iran that’s making common cause with Assad.
• Last year, Russia suggested that it might use its veto power in the UN Security Council to block UN authorization for the U.S.-led international security assistance force in Afghanistan.
• In 2011, North Korea was elevated to the presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament—the same North Korea that has been caught shipping illicit weaponry, testing prohibited long-range missilery, attacking South Korean ships and territory, detonating nukes and ignoring virtually every resolution the UN Security Council passes. That same year, UN peacekeepers literally averted their gaze as Sudanese troops targeted and killed civilians gathering around a UN base in the south-central town of Kadugli.
This is the bizarro world of the UN, where those pursuing the noble if naive goal of disarmament sit alongside the world’s most notorious weapons proliferators, where the worst abusers of human rights are chosen to protect and promote human rights, where North Korea’s attack on a South Korean ship is condemned but the attacker is not, where it takes eight weeks to agree on a resolution requiring Saddam Hussein to comply with existing resolutions, where those who vote for such resolutions refuse to enforce them, where Srebrenica can be called a “safe haven,” where Aleppo and Kigali and Sarajevo and Kadugli turn for help and receive only Pilate-like excuses.
These and a host of other UN debacles help explain why there’s growing support for a new way to organize and legitimize international action.
For instance, the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan notes that the United Nations has become “hopelessly paralyzed by the split between autocratic and democratic members” and advocates “a concert of democracies” that would enable liberal democracies like the United States to “protect their interests and defend their principles.” Similarly, Ivo Daalder, President Obama’s NATO ambassador from 2009 to 2013, has called on “the world’s established democracies” to come together in “a single institution dedicated to joint action.”
Even Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, concedes, “The Security Council the world needs to deal with this crisis [in Syria] is not the Security Council we have.”
Indeed, most UN failures can be traced to systemic problems inside the Security Council, where obstructionist members use their veto power to play diplomatic games rather than play the leadership roles they were fortunate to be granted at the end of World War II. As Daalder puts it, the UN is “an institution beholden to its least cooperative members.”
That’s a problem for two reasons: First, the governments of France and Britain—and to a growing degree, the United States—view the UN as the sole source of legitimacy for international military action. (This is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say that the only thing that legitimizes U.S. military action is the U.S. Constitution.) Second, according to the UN Charter, the Security Council’s duty is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” Thus, if China and/or Russia disagree with the Western powers, they block UN authorization—and threats to peace are allowed to metastasize.
Defenders of the UN counter that the UN succeeded in Korea in 1950, Kuwait in 1990 and Libya in 2011. But we know that UN authorization for the defense of South Korea was a fluke, thanks to Moscow’s shortsighted decision to boycott a Security Council session; UN authorization for the liberation of Kuwait proved to be a post-Cold War aberration; and UN authorization for a no-fly zone over Libya came only after Moscow and Beijing were assured the authorization wouldn’t be used to do what the NATO-led coalition ultimately did—namely, topple Qaddafi. In fact, Moscow has cited what happened in Libya to justify its opposition to any similar resolution for Syria.
To be sure, the U.S. and its allies have acted without UN approval on occasion, but in most cases the Western powers allow the obstructionists to win.
A “concert of democracies,” proponents argue, would bypass this sort of obstruction. It also would confer international legitimacy onto U.S.-led military interventions, which is important to U.S. allies.
The outlines of a concert of democratic powers may be coming into focus. In 2000, several democratic countries quietly formed the Community of Democracies. The organization’s governing council enfolds 25 countries, including the United States, Canada, Poland, Italy, Japan, India and South Korea. Not a bad start.
The democracies are not just sitting around a conference table, however. In fact, ad hoc partnerships of democratic powers are actively engaged on the global stage:
• The Kosovo war was authorized not by the UN Security Council, but by NATO.
• Similarly, the Iraq war was prosecuted by a coalition of the willing—27 nations in all, the vast majority of them liberal democracies—that acted without explicit UN approval.
• The U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative enfolds dozens of seafaring democratic powers that collaborate to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction—by force if necessary.
A concert of democracies would not be without its limitations, of course. After all, the diplomatic train wreck at the UN before the Iraq war was the result of friction between two democracies: the U.S. and France. But like an extra tool in the toolbox, an invitation-only community of liberal democracies could serve a helpful purpose when conscience or interest compels America and its allies to intervene in the world’s danger zones.
In other words, the concert of democracies wouldn’t necessarily upend the UN. The UN could still serve as a place where governments work toward solving common problems like global hunger and disease. UN sub-agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Health Organization—organizations whose means, methods and ends the big powers generally agree on—could survive without the UN Security Council. Alternatively, these sub-agencies could be spun off into independent non-government organizations and freed to do their good work separate from the UN.
An Army of Conscience
Advocates of the concert-of-democracies idea are in good company.
In 1992, as Yugoslavia descended into seven years of war and the UN dawdled, President Reagan admitted, “I did not always value international organizations, and for good reason. They were, if you pardon the expression, nothing more than debating societies. Their sole purpose seemed to be to blame the U.S. for the world’s ills.” He hoped that would change as the Cold War melted away, but sadly it did not.
As an alternative, Reagan envisioned “an army of conscience” to prevent future Yugoslavias. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?” Sounding prescient given today’s nuclear challenges, he predicted that this partnership of democracies might need “to undertake military action…to prevent the spread of nuclear knowledge and weapons to terrorists and hostile states.”
Winston Churchill, a founding father of the UN, expressed similar concerns about the UN decades earlier. “We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words,” he said in 1946.
Almost 70 years later, we still haven’t succeeded. Perhaps it’s time to try something new.