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Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : THE UN AND WORLD GOVERNANCE


High expectations



Arnaud Blin, Gustavo Marin ¤ 7 January 2009 ¤
Translations: français (original) . Español .

Our intention here is not to try the United Nations, summarily and in absentia. Nonetheless, it is indispensable to take stock before attempting to determine the type of role that the UN might be able, or ought to play in the future.

Taking stock is of course no simple matter and the idea is not to draw up two lists, one for UN objectives that were reached in the past 60 years and another for those it failed to reach. First of all, those objectives have evolved as the world has changed. Then, in our political or geopolitical world, perpetual gaps are allowed, or should be, between the stated aims of high political bodies and the harsh realities of their implementation. From time immemorial, political leaders in their vast majority have pronounced in favor of lasting peace, which their actions have also never ceased to make impossible. It would be unfair to measure the success of the UN with a different yardstick, all the more so that the United Nations is above all—we tend to forget—a political institution. To start with, its claims seem sincere and obviously, a body expected to represent the whole of the planet will be determined to achieve a world peace and stability that only the interests of a very few will sometimes challenge. The aim of “collective security” is that most people’s common sense prevail over the passing madness of the odd person who for one reason or another is proving selfish, excessively ambitious, or even paranoid. Contrary to the principles of traditional realpolitik, which produces a portrait of the world marked by a perpetual power struggle, the idea behind collective security is that international policy is definitely not a zero-sum game.

But—and this is a fundamental question—is collective security even possible if some—or even a majority—of the system’s members are playing both sides? This is clearly the case of the most powerful countries, whose power status also makes them permanent members of the UN Security Council. In this situation, how could other countries not be expected to take advantage of their tribune to intervene—sometimes perversely but also often fruitfully—in the complex negotiations taking place in the different UN agencies? The UN, like all other political organizations, is first and foremost a place where power is the main bargaining chip. The ideal of collective security is in a way the member countries’ renouncement of power—more precisely, it is pooling the power of states in order to bring about and maintain lasting peace so as to generate development, fairness, and wellbeing. In short, it is to turn into reality, at the world scale, the ideals developed by Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Kant in the eighteenth century, which the architects of twentieth-century collective security claimed as their source. [1] From theory to practice, there is a step that the UN has been unable to take, like the League of Nations before it. Can in fact the United Nations be truly said to operate according to the principles of collective security? Nothing is less certain.

From the start, the UN has been plagued by a structural ambiguity that has become ever more evident over the years, to the point that it has practically become ludicrous by now. Nonetheless, this aspect of things is not as much due to an intrinsic regression of the UN as to the fact that its structural shortcomings have grown increasingly sharper with time. We all know the famous “law” of Alexis de Tocqueville (The Old Regime and the Revolution): it is not because France’s situation was deteriorating under the former regime that the 1789 Revolution came about but because improved conditions made inequalities show even more by contrast, making them unacceptable in the eyes of the majority. It could be argued that the UN’s advances, along with its reforms, are what in the end have been making its deficiencies more visible and more unacceptable.

How, in fact, can the UN be judged? Is it a matter of measuring, as some have done with precision, its successes and its failures in terms of the conflicts that have fraught the second part of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first? [2] Ought a more general approach be adopted to see in what ways the UN has reached the goals that it had set at the start, i.e. the purposes underscored in Article 1 of the UN Charter? Or would the idea be rather to compare how the UN has fulfilled its goals as against other historical international systems, such as the Westphalian order and other systems of checks and balances among powers? Or else should other possible options be considered and compared to the UN option, to determine, in short, whether like democracy, the UN is simply “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”? Each of these approaches is valuable in itself. Insofar as possible, we will try to integrate each of these dimensions into our analysis.

More to the point, a reminder of the UN’s first goals is far from useless. Here, in substance, is how the UN Charter is organized, as set out in Article 1:

The purposes of the United Nations are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
  4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

There is no need for long speeches or detailed analyses to understand that the UN is far from having matched its first expectations. Or, more precisely, its displayed purposes. Each of these points could of course be scrutinized and most of them are so fuzzy and even ambiguous that there could be endless dithering about what they really mean (what, exactly, does “develop friendly relations among nations” involve?). What is clear, is that neither peace, nor security, nor international cooperation is what actually characterizes today’s world, no more than it does yesterday’s.

It would however be pointless to reject the UN for the sole reason that it has not, or might not (yet?) have reached these goals, which in fact add up more to an ideal than a roadmap. We should note in passing that no time frame is set by the Charter: if we followed the projections of Emmanuel Kant, one of the great philosophical inspirations for the League of Nations and the UN, it would take centuries marked with ups and downs to reach these ends and this end (“of history”).

Although the UN has not accomplished, far from it, any of the four great missions set out in its Charter—the fourth is perhaps the one to which it has come closest—this does not mean it is useless, and even less that it is dangerous: there are really very few people, even among its detractors, who think that the UN is a negative instability factor.

[1This kind of approach is found elsewhere than in Europe and before the eighteenth century—among the Iroquois, for instance, who in the sixteenth century had constituted their own league of Five (later, Six) Nations. The “League of Peace and Power” included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, then Tuscarora nations, gathered as the Hodenosaunee; the word “Iroquois” is a French distortion of “hiro kone,” which means “I have spoken in truth,” with which the Hodenosaunee often end their oratory. Nonetheless, Woodrow Wilson, Aristide Briand, and like-minded thinkers claimed their inspiration from the European Enlightenment, even though the Iroquois example, to mention only this one, was quite well-known by Europeans and even more so by Americans. In fact, this unacknowledged episode is fascinating and rich in teachings, as are definitely also the various visions and organizations of collective-security systems in the history of peoples of all regions, visions and organizations that did not make it into the “official history” of global governance.

[2See for instance M. Brecher and J. Wilkenfeld, A Study of Crisis, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1997.

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