In recent years, attacking the United Nations has grown from an occasional pastime among American politicians and intellectuals into an all-out sporting event. While previously standing as the ultimate nemesis of hawkish foreign policy wonks, the UN is increasingly becoming a bipartisan punching bag, with thinkers on both sides of the divide taking as many shots as they can.
Frankly, they have found much to swing at. Over the past decade, a series of failed interventions, corruption scandals and bureaucratic squabbles have rocked the organization, emboldening its detractors and leaving its defenders gasping for air. Brutal ethnic conflicts in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan demonstrated the limits of an outside body in preventing human-rights abuses within a sovereign state. The oil-for-food scandal and its aftereffects called into question the principles and accountability of the UN’s officials. Finally – and perhaps most jarringly – the skirting of the Security Council in the 2003 invasion of Iraq exposed the recurring problem that regardless of the alleged existence of an international authority, states can and will assert their own power and bypass the rules when it’s in their interest to do so.
The problem with so many of UN’s faultfinders, however, is not their critiques themselves – which are often legitimate – but rather the narrowness of their vision and the agenda they tend to hide. Those who spit the most vitriol at the UN, rather than seeking critical improvements, often hold deep contempt for the organization itself. These critics aim for either a drastic increase of U.S. authority and ability to extend its interests, or a large reduction in the institution’s power worldwide. The most prominent example of this type of thinking unfortunately comes from a rather important member of the organization, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who once famously commented that the UN headquarters could lose 10 stories and no one would notice.
Conveniently omitted from these critiques, of course, is remote acceptance of the massive impact efforts from the UN have on peace and international security.
And who says that the UN has promoted international security?
Well, we can start with the Human Security Report, a yearly publication that documents the incidence of war and its casualties worldwide. As the 2005 edition makes clear, alarmist theories regarding the current state of international violence and warfare are largely unfounded. Contrary to the commonly held belief that the world is getting more and more dangerous, both the numbers of wars and the civilian deaths they cause have decreased significantly over the past 15 years.
While we know that the end of the Cold War played a significant role in the reduction of these conflicts, what is less widely acknowledged is the effect of increased activism of international organizations like the UN. Citing a statistic from the center-right Rand Corporation think tank, the report asserts that the UN has been successful in approximately two-thirds of its peacekeeping operations. The rate of success for the United States in the same category is 50 percent. So while it may be standard to assail the organization for mismanaged operations in eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, one finds few accounts of the successful peacekeeping missions (i.e. East Timor, Kosovo, Cambodia, El Salvador) that are more common, statistically speaking.
For all the anti-multilateral rhetoric streaming from certain intellectual circles in this country, the ultimate irony may be that the years to come could see an increasingly co-dependent relationship between the United States and the UN. While it is clear that the United Nations needs the United States as its most politically forceful and powerful member, what is less acknowledged is how integral the humanitarian aid, peacekeeping forces and international credibility provided by the UN are to the future of our own foreign policy. This paradigm is currently playing itself out in Iraq, where deteriorating political support has led to repeated calls for reduction of American troops and an increase in the international presence. Despite the declared illegality of the invasion by the Security Council in 2003, it appears that in the long run, the United Nations will have to play a key role in redeveloping the country and maintaining some semblance of security.
So let’s start working on some of these reforms. Bring them on. There are a hundred ways the UN could increase efficiency, cut down on corruption and improve its image worldwide. But without a general understanding of the role the organization has played – and must continue to play – in promoting peace, stability and development worldwide, our efforts will get us nowhere. Maybe it’s just too painful for some to admit, so I’ll try saying it outright for them: A future with a strong, active United Nations is one that all of us – yes, all of us – should hope to see.
Bielak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.