Khrushchev wrote in his incomparable memoirs that Soviet admirals, like admirals everywhere, loved battleships because they could get piped aboard in great style amid the respectful hurrahs of their crews. It’s the same with the United Nations, now more than ever reduced to the servile function of after-sales service provider for the United States, on permanent call as the mop-up brigade. It would be a great step forward if several big Third World countries were to quit the UN, declaring that it has no function beyond ratifying the world’s present distasteful political arrangements. The trouble is that national elites in pretty much every UN-member country–now 191 in all–yearn to live in high style for at least a few years, and in some cases for decades, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and to cut a dash in the General Assembly. They have a deep material stake in continuing membership, even though in the case of small, poor countries the prodigious outlays on a UN delegation could be far better used in decent domestic applications, funding local crafts or orphanages back home.
Barely a day goes by without some Democrat piously demanding an “increased role” for the UN in whatever misadventure for which the United States requires political cover. Howard Dean has built his candidacy on clarion calls for the UN’s supposedly legitimizing assistance in Iraq. Despite the history of the 1990s, many leftists still have a tendency to invoke the UN as a countervailing power. When all other argument fails, they fall back on the International Criminal Court, an outfit that should have the same credibility as a beneficial institution as the World Bank or Interpol.
On the issue of the UN I can boast of a record of matchless consistency. As a toddler I tried to bar his exit from the nursery of our London flat when my father told me he was leaving for several weeks to attend, as diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Worker, the founding conference of the UN in San Francisco. Despite my denunciation of all such absence-prompting conferences (and in my infancy there were many), he did go.
He wrote later in his autobiography, Crossing the Line, that
the journey of our special train across the Middle West…was at times almost intolerably moving. Our heavily-laden special had some sort of notice prominently displayed on its sides, indicating it was taking people to the foundation meeting of the United Nations…. From towns and lonely villages all across the plains and prairies, people would come out to line the tracks, standing there with the flags still flying half-mast for Roosevelt on the buildings behind them, and their eyes fixed on this train with extraordinary intensity, as though it were part of the technical apparatus for the performance of a miracle…. On several occasions I saw a man or woman solemnly touch the train, the way a person might touch a talisman.
It was understandable that an organization aspiring to represent All Mankind and to espouse Peace should have excited fervent hopes in the wake of terrible war, but the fix was in from the start, as Peter Gowan reminds us in a spirited essay in the current New Left Review. The Rooseveltian vision was of an impotent General Assembly, with decision-making authority vested in a Security Council without, in Gowan’s words, “the slightest claim to rest on any representative principle other than brute force,” and of course dominated by the United States and its vassals. FDR did see a cosmopolitan role for the UN; not so Truman and Acheson, who followed Nelson Rockefeller’s body blow to the nascent UN when, as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, the latter brokered the Act of Chapultepec in Mexico City in 1945, formalizing US dominance in the region through the soon-to-be-familiar regional military-security alliance set up by Acheson in the next period.
These days the UN has the same restraining role on the world’s prime imperial power as did the Roman Senate in the fourth century AD, when there were still senators bustling from one cocktail party to another, intriguing to have their sons elected quaestor and so forth, sending the emperor pompous resolutions on the burning issues of the day.
For a modern evocation of what those senatorial resolutions must have been like, read the unanimous Security Council resolution on October 16 of this year, hailing the US-created “Governing Council of Iraq” and trolling out UN-speak to the effect that the Security Council “welcomes the positive response of the international community…to the establishment of the broadly representative Governing Council”; “supports the Governing Council’s efforts to mobilize the people of Iraq”; “requests that the United States, on behalf of the multinational force…report to the Security Council on the efforts and progress of this force.” Signed by France, Russia, China, Britain, the United States, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, Chile, Mexico, Guinea, Cameroon, Angola, Pakistan and Syria. As Gowan remarks, this brazen twaddle evokes “the seating of Pol Pot’s representatives in the UN for fourteen years after his regime was overthrown” by Vietnam.
Another way of assaying the UN’s role in Iraq is to remember that it made a profit out of its own blockade and the consequent starvation of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi babies in the 1990s. As a fee for its part in administering the oil-for-food program, the UN helped itself to 2 percent off the top. (On more than one reliable account, members of the UN-approved Governing Council are demanding an even heftier skim in the present looting of Iraq’s national assets.)
Two months before the October resolution, Washington’s chosen instrument for selling the Governing Council, UN Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, was blown up in his office in Baghdad, where a more realistic assessment of the function of the UN obtains. So please, my friends, no more earnest calls for “a UN role,” at least not until the outfit is radically reconstituted along genuinely democratic lines. As far as Iraq is concerned, all occupying forces should leave; all contracts concerning Iraq’s national assets written across the last seven months repudiated.