Saving humanity from hell

SHASHI THAROOR

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AT the beginning of March this year, as the debates over Iraq were raging in the Security Council, a BBC interviewer rather glibly asked me, ‘So how does the UN feel about being seen as the "i" word – irrelevant?’

He was about to go on when I interrupted him. ‘As far as we’re concerned,’ I retorted, ‘the "i" word is "indispensable".’

It wasn’t just a debating point. Those of us who toil every day at the headquarters of the United Nations – and even more our colleagues on the front lines in the field – have become a little exasperated at seeing our institutional obituaries in the press. The recent contretemps over Iraq has led some to evoke a parallel to the League of Nations, a body created with great hopes at the end of the First World War, which was reduced to debating the standardization of European railway gauges the day the Germans marched into Poland.

Such comparisons are, to say the least, grossly overstated. As Mark Twain put it when he saw his own obituary in the newspaper, reports of the UN’s demise are exaggerated. On the principle that the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror, let me first venture back into history.

The United Nations was founded during a period when the world had known almost nothing but war and strife, bookended by two savage World Wars that began within 25 years of each other. In the first half of the 20th century, people in most parts of the world scarcely had the luxury of deciding whether they were interested in world politics. World politics took a thoroughly intrusive interest in them.

Horror succeeded horror until, in 1945, the world was brought face to face with the terrible tragedies wrought by war, fascism, attempted genocide and nuclear bombing. Had things gone on like that, the future of the human race would have been bleak indeed. Happily they did not go on like that. The second half of the 20th century was far from perfect. But it was a spectacular improvement on the first half.

 

 

I do not deny that civil wars and even international wars continued, and there were terrible atrocities – the Partition of India, the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, genocide in Rwanda – in the latter half of the century. Nor can one blithely overlook the sufferings of the developing world, where billions of people still live in extreme and degrading poverty. And yet the overall record of the second half of the century is one of amazing advances. The world economy not only recovered from the devastation of 1945, it expanded as never before. There was also astonishing technical and technological progress.

Many in the industrialised world (West and East) enjoy a level of prosperity, and have access to a range of experiences that their grandparents could scarcely have dreamt of; and even in the developing world, there has been spectacular economic growth. Child mortality has been reduced. Literacy has spread. The peoples of the so-called ‘Third World’ threw off the yoke of colonialism, and those of the Soviet bloc won political freedom. Democracy and human rights are not yet universal, but they are now much more the norm than the exception.

Did all this happen by accident?

No. It happened because, in and after 1945, a group of far-sighted leaders were determined to make the second half of the 20th century different from the first. They saw that the human race had only one world to live in, and that unless it managed its affairs more prudently, all human beings in that one world would suffer; indeed, all might perish. So they drew up rules to govern international behaviour, and they founded institutions in which different nations could cooperate for the common good, functioning on the basis of international cooperation, the elaboration of consensual global norms and the establishment of predictable, universally applicable rules to the benefit of all.

 

 

The keystone of the arch, charged with keeping the peace between all nations and bringing them all together in the quest for freedom and prosperity, was the United Nations itself. The UN was seen by visionaries, like former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the only possible alternative to the disastrous experiences of the first half of the century. As he stated in his historic speech to the two Houses of Congress after the Yalta Conference, the UN would be the alternative to the arms races, military alliances, balance-of-power politics and all the arrangements that had led to war so often in the past.

In the view of people like FDR, the UN stood for a world in which people of different nations and cultures looked on each other, not as subjects of fear and suspicion but as potential partners, able to exchange goods and ideas to their mutual benefit. His successor, President Harry Truman, put it clearly: ‘You have created a great instrument for peace and security and human progress in the world,’ he declared to the assembled signatories of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. ‘...If we fail to use it, we shall betray all those who have died in order that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we seek to use it selfishly – for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations – we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal.’

 

 

That was then, of course, and this, 58 years later, is now. How many of today’s American critics of the United Nations, who have rushed to proclaim its irrelevance (and even, in a few cases, to celebrate its alleged demise) would recognize the voice of an American President in Truman’s speech that historic day? ‘We all have to recognize,’ he declared, ‘no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation... can or should expect any special privilege which harms any other nation… Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organization for world peace can accomplish its purpose. And what a reasonable price that is!’

Few in Washington today would agree any more that that is indeed a reasonable price for the world’s only superpower to pay in the interest of something as amorphous as ‘world peace’, especially in an era of terrorism. It is in the United States, above all, that the organization has suffered most. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the expectations that many Americans have had for the world organization. ‘If the UN was good for anything,’ declared Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, after the infructuous debates on Iraq, ‘it would be [for] something like this. Since the UN was no good for this, maybe they’re good for nothing.’

There is, of course, a more fundamental American critique of the place of the United Nations in today’s world. The notion has gained ground of late, particularly in the wake of Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, that the elemental issue in world affairs today is the incompatibility of the American and ‘European’ diagnoses of our contemporary geopolitical condition. In this view the US sees a Hobbesian world, rife with menace and disorder, that requires the imposition of order and stability by a Leviathan, while Europe (and much of the rest of the world) imagines a Kantian world of peace and rationality which can be managed by reasonable-minded leaders coming to sensible arrangements through institutions like the United Nations.

 

 

Since the latter view is a fantasy, such analysts suggest, the institutions underpinning it are equally impractical and ineffectual. In the real world, a Hobbesian Leviathan could not possibly function if he were to be tied down by a system of rules designed to serve smaller states: he would be a Gulliver restrained by, in Charles Krauthammer’s words, the ‘myriad strings’ of the Lilliputians ‘that diminish his overweening power.’ Hence the answer lies in disregarding the United Nations and, as Michael J. Glennon has recently argued in Foreign Affairs, restoring might to its rightful place in world affairs.

There are many flaws in this argument, but the key one lies in its central premise. For the United Nations was not created by Kantians; it was established as a response to a Hobbesian world. Indeed, it is important to remember that it is the United Nations that won World War II; the countries whom the media called ‘the Allies’ called themselves ‘the United Nations’ from 1943 onwards. The Charter, in other words, was the work of the victorious Allies of the Second World War converting their wartime alliance into a peacetime organization.

They saw the Hobbesian world of the preceding three decades, which had inflicted upon humanity two savage world wars, several brutal civil wars, the atrocities perpetrated by totalitarianism and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and vowed ‘never again’. But the Leviathan imagined by the visionary statesmen of that era (notably FDR himself) was not that of a single colossus; it was made up, instead, of a system of laws that would ensure that the world of the second half of the 20th century would be a better place than the one that had barely survived the first half.

So great was the perceived American stake in such a system that the US became its principal financial contributor, paying as much as 50% of the United Nations’ regular budget in the first years of the organization (a figure astonishing to recall at a time when so much American diplomatic energy was recently invested in reducing its current share from 25% to 22%). Gulliver was to lead the Lilliputians, not feel tied down by them; they provided him with a springboard, not a rack.

 

 

And so the world of which FDR and Truman spoke was a world for which they and all of the Allies had fought – a world of increasing openness; of imperial contraction making way for the expansion of freedom; of growing mutual confidence; above all, a world of hope.

But that hope seems to have dimmed around the world in recent months. A recent Pew Poll in 20 countries shows that the UN has suffered a great deal of collateral damage over Iraq. The UN’s credibility is down in the US because it did not support the administration on the war, and in 19 other countries because it did not prevent the war. Does that mean that the UN is finished?

Far from it. First of all, the US is back at the UN on Iraq. The Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1483 (a number redolent of the year of the Battle of Bosworth Field, in which Henry Tudor found the crown of England lying in a ditch) and the United Nations has taken on significant tasks in post-war reconstruction. That the United States chose to give the UN such a role is not just a result of British pressure but also a reflection of Washington’s increasing need for the world body.

 

 

Indeed, the very submission of this resolution by the US to the Security Council was an acknowledgment by Washington that there is, in Secretary General Kofi Annan’s words, no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations. And the acceptance of that resolution by other Council members, even those who led the demarche against the US intervention, demonstrated their understanding of the importance of collective action.

Similarly, the key message of President Bush’s appearance before the UN General Assembly in September last year should not be forgotten. In calling on the Security Council to take action against Iraq, he framed the problem not as one of unilateral US wishes but as an issue of the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The UN and the earlier decisions of its Security Council remained at the heart of the US case against Iraq.

Second, the League of Nations analogy simply does not apply. By the late 1930s, two of the three most powerful countries in the world at the time – the United States and Germany (the third being Great Britain) – did not belong to the League, which therefore had no influence on their actions. The League died because it had become truly irrelevant to the global geopolitics of the era. By contrast, every country on earth belongs to the UN, including the world’s only superpower, the United States. Every newly independent state seeks entry almost as its first order of governmental business; its seat at the UN is the most fundamental confirmation of its membership in the comity of nations. The United Nations is now seen as so essential to the future of the world that Switzerland, long a holdout because of its fierce neutrality, decided by referendum in 2002 to end its isolation and join. No club that attracts every eligible member can easily be described as irrelevant.

 

 

Third, the authorization (or not) of war in Iraq is not the only gauge of the Security Council’s relevance to that situation. Just four years ago, the NATO alliance bombed Yugoslavia over its government’s conduct in Kosovo without the approval of, or even reference to, the Security Council. My interviewer’s ‘i’ word was heard widely in those days – Kosovo, it was said, had demonstrated the UN’s irrelevance. But the issue of Kosovo returned to the Security Council, not just when an unsuccessful attempt to condemn that bombing failed, but when arrangements had to be found to administer Kosovo after the war.

Only the Security Council could approve those arrangements in a way that conferred international legitimacy upon them and encouraged all nations to extend support and resources to the enterprise. And only one body could be entrusted with the responsibility to run the civilian administration of Kosovo: the United Nations. Whatever the tasks the UN ultimately takes on in a post-war Iraq (and these are still evolving as I write), it is important to remember that this would not be the first time the United Nations was written off during a war, only to be found essential to the ensuing peace.

The UN offers a legitimacy that no ad hoc coalition can muster for itself. When the Government of India declined a US request to participate militarily in Iraq because it needed the protective shield of a UN mandate before it could deploy troops under American command, it underscored this message. Many other countries, in Europe as well as Asia, require UN resolutions before they commit troops abroad. Washington is discovering in Iraq that the US is better able to win wars alone than to construct peace alone: military strength has its limitations in the area of nation-building (as Talleyrand said, the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it). I am convinced we will see the increasing internationalisation of Iraq’s rebuilding in the months to come.

 

 

But whatever happens in Iraq, let us not forget, in penning the premature epitaphs for the UN, that the relevance of the United Nations does not stand or fall on its conduct on one issue alone. When this crisis has passed, the world will still be facing (to use Secretary General Kofi Annan’s phrase) innumerable ‘problems without passports’ – problems that cross all frontiers uninvited, problems of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of the degradation of our common environment, of contagious disease and chronic starvation, of human rights and human wrongs, of mass illiteracy and massive displacement.

Robert Kagan’s famous, if fatuous, proposition that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus has gained wide currency these days in the US. If that is so, where are Africans from? Pluto? The tragic confluence of AIDS, famine and drought in parts of Africa threatens more human lives than the crisis in Iraq ever did. These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own, and which are yet the shared responsibility of humankind. They cry out for solutions that, like the problems themselves, also cross frontiers. The United Nations exists to find these solutions through the common endeavour of all states. It is the one indispensable global organization in our globalizing world.

 

 

And no, it is not perfect. It has acted unwisely at times, and failed to act at others: one need only think of the ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda for instances of each. It has sometimes been too divided to succeed, as was the case earlier this year over Iraq. And all too often, member states have passed resolutions they had no intention of implementing themselves. But the United Nations, at its best, is a mirror of the world: it reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions. Sometimes it only muddles through. As Dag Hammarskjold, the UN’s great second Secretary General, put it, the United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.

And that it has, innumerable times. How quickly we forget that during the Cold War, the United Nations played the indispensable role of preventing regional crises and conflicts from igniting a superpower conflagration. And even while they were disagreeing on Iraq, the members of the Security Council were agreeing, at the very same time, on a host of other vital issues, from Congo to Cote d’Ivoire, from Cyprus to Afghanistan. Let us not distort the record by seeing the UN’s work on international peace and security only through the prism of one issue, Iraq.

And let us also remember that the United Nations is both a stage and an actor. It is a stage on which the member states play their parts, declaiming their differences and their convergences, and it is an actor (particularly in the form of the Secretary General, his staff, agencies, and operations) executing the policies made on that stage. The general public usually fails to see this distinction; to most people ‘the UN’ is a shapeless aggregation, in which the sins of omission or commission of individual governments on the ‘stage’ are routinely blamed on the organization (and so discredit the ‘actor’). When American officials blame the United Nations for failing to prevent genocide in Rwanda, overlooking the United States’ own role in ensuring inaction by the Security Council on that issue, the point could not be clearer.

As it attempts to face the ‘post-post-Cold War’ world of the early 21st century, the United Nations provides an indispensable forum to bring states together to tackle the great problems of our time. Some in India say the Security Council is too much in thrall to its most powerful member. The debates over Iraq have proved that that is not always the case; but even if it were, it is far better to have a world organization that is anchored in geopolitical reality than one that is too detached from the verities of global power to be effective. A United Nations that provides the vital political and diplomatic framework for the actions of its most powerful member, while casting them in the context of international law and legitimacy (and bringing to bear upon them the perspectives and concerns of its universal membership) is a United Nations that cannot be anything but relevant to the world in which we live.

This is why I am proud to use the other ‘i’ word – and to affirm the UN’s indispensability, as the only effective instrument the world has available to confront the challenges that will remain when Iraq has passed from the headlines.

 

© The author. The views expressed are personal to the author and not attributable to the organisation for which he works.

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