What happens in the Security Council more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem-solving.
— Jeanne Kirkpatrick
The United Nations is one of those institutions, like the Women's National Basketball Association, that sails above its failures because it just seems to so many people like a good idea.
Despite its corruption, bias, indolence and waste, the U.N. retains so much moral authority that former President Bush felt he had to appeal to the U.N. in order to get Democrats to authorize the Gulf war in 1991. And today, George W. Bush had to punch his ticket in Manhattan before being able to count on support from a number of U.S. allies abroad, as well as the same Democrats in the U.S. Congress his father had to worry about. (It's worth pausing to note that the current President Bush struck just the right note at the U.N., challenging the institution to enforce its own resolutions.)
The United Nations, like the League of Nations before it that crumbled at the first challenge from armed thugs, is an exercise in utopianism. It embodies the hope that the nations of the world can cooperate to eliminate scourges like dysentery and river blindness, and settle their differences over polished conference tables rather than with machetes and M-16s. The U.N. can boast some modest success in battling disease and poverty, but its record on peace and reconciliation is abysmal.
Though blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeeping forces have been deployed around the globe, they have proved highly vulnerable to political manipulation — in other words, they've been useless. In 1967, U.N. forces were summarily ejected from the Sinai Desert — where they were theoretically keeping the peace between Egypt and Israel — when President Gamal Abdel Nasser waved them off with a flick of his wrist. In 1991, when the Croats counterattacked against the Serbs, the blue helmets were left standing impotently in the dust as tanks and APCs rolled through.
The fantasies of the U.N.'s founders were limitless. Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of state, Cordell Hull, imagined the U.N. would rid the world of "spheres of influence, alliances, balance of power, or any of the other special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests."
It isn't the fault of the U.N. per se that the unrealistic hopes pinned on it have been punctured. The U.N. reflects its membership. Before the end of the Cold War, the great blocs that held sway there consisted of communists and a variety of other criminals, potentates and presidents for life. In those days, the Commission on Human Rights was always looking into the situation in Puerto Rico and Tel Aviv, but never in Havana or Moscow.
Even today, when more of the world's nations are free and democratic than ever before in history, China still holds a seat on the Security Council and the Arab nations still comprise the largest bloc vote. Israel has been condemned countless times (though Israel is not, as callers to talk radio and C-SPAN constantly assert, in violation of Resolutions 242 and 338), but the Security Council has never once condemned Arab terrorists, far less the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the massacre in Rwanda, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, Russian conduct in Chechnya or Serbian acts in Bosnia.
And yet, most Americans and an overwhelming majority of Europeans believe the moral imprimatur of the United Nations is necessary before any military action can be contemplated. When people tell pollsters what high regard they have for the U.N., they are forgetting about the "Zionism is racism" resolution; the orgy of America and Israel-bashing at the Durban conference on racism; the instant pronouncements by U.N. personnel that Israel had committed an "atrocity" in Jenin (only to be contradicted by the facts later); and so on. They are engaged in the same sort of utopianism that motivated the U.N.'s founders.
But the world does not and probably never will run on cooperation, peaceful dispute resolution and friendship. Peace is maintained today as it always was, by armed force and balance of power. We are fortunate to live in a time — most unusual in human history — when the good guys also have the biggest guns. That is the source of our security and the world's hope, not the fond figment on the East River.