Beating up on the United Nations is a favorite pastime of pro-Bush conservatives. It’s ineffective, they say – why support an organization that can’t stop outright genocide in Bosnia or Sudan? Besides, they claim, America needn’t obey any would-be world government – we’re better than any third-world spear-chuckers or Old-Europe surrender monkeys, so why compromise?

This attitude reminds me of an old joke. Two women on vacation are eating at a restaurant. “This food is terrible!” one exclaims. “Yes,” the other says, “and such small portions!” Either the U.N. can have the strength to solve world problems or America can have its own way and expect those problems to get worse. We can’t have it both ways.

The U.N.’s problems are complex, but they aren’t hard to understand. They’re the same conflicts America faced while convincing its separate states to unify. There are two basic problems: legitimacy and security.

According to developing countries, the developed world writes the rules and referees the game. Why play at all when America, Russia, France, Britain or China can veto rules at will? International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization market reforms have worsened already dire poverty levels and given Western businesses carte blanche, so developing countries naturally suspect that the U.N. serves foreign interests first.

For its part, the developed world doesn’t like that foreign aid keeps ending up in the coffers of vile warlords and dictators. Anti-American and anti-U.N. conspiracy theories in these countries often serve to keep popular resentment directed away from their own corrupt leaders. While the West doesn’t always live up to its own principles, it nevertheless possesses greater freedom and greater responsibility toward other nations. If developing countries want the same rights, they need to display the same responsibility.

The U.N. is therefore essentially one single argument: The West says “grow up and get a democracy,” and the rest say “screw you, we have real problems.”

Conservatives view this as an inevitable “clash of civilizations,” but I don’t buy it. The legitimacy problem can be solved with a new level of sovereignty. Transnational super-states – already prefigured by the European Union, the ASEAN economic alliance and the African Union – could combine the voting power of their separate nations and push back against Western hegemony. It would also give developing countries room to interpret freedom and democracy according to their own histories and values. Trying to rush the process hasn’t worked too well in, say, Palestine and Iraq.

This federation of states would also foster security. Each regional organization could deal with its own bad apples, removing the suspicion that U.N. intervention is just Western imperialism in drag. If a state’s actions exceed well-defined bounds – such as proven possession of weapons of mass destruction, grave human rights abuses and the threat of violence against neighbors – then the U.N. Security Council would automatically begin considering military action.

This wouldn’t mean the end of war; Instead, it would be its transformation into something much less terrible. Individual member nations would contribute some of their own military reserves in exchange for internationally guaranteed security – a social contract between nations. The obscene imbalance of power between the American military and Iraqi “army” seen in the war in Iraq would acquire a far different meaning if that war were an internationally-supported police action against a rogue state with actual WMDs.

This is an ambitious vision, but it’s not merely a possibility – it’s a necessity. Ever since the first atom bomb was detonated at Los Alamos, international order has been more than a dream: It has become the sole condition of human survival. Without international governance to unify the efforts of individual nations, global problems from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to global warming will only continue to worsen. Benjamin Franklin’s wisecrack about the signing of the Declaration of Independence now applies to the whole world: We need to hang together, or we’ll most assuredly hang separately.

Individual nations need not be idealistic or even democratic to begin. All they need is the desire for self-preservation. But there is a great need for idealism – especially here in America. A home-grown political avant-garde of self-professed world citizens could spearhead the drive to a united world. By demanding that American power serve the global common good, these world citizens would be standing up for the truest expression of American patriotism: the dream that one day, the ethnic and personal divisions of the peoples of the world would wither before their bonds of common humanity.

Toby Mitchell can be reached at tojami@umich.edu.

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