Sunday, January 02, 2005

Multilateral Toss-Pottery *

Following on from this post, I'd like to take a quick look at the UN, in terms of how it is increasingly perceived on both left and right, how useful it is and what the correct stance - in my view - towards it probably is.

I think it's important to cover a number of aspects of th UN issue here: First, the flawed vision many on the Left have of what the UN is and what it should be; Second, what the UN was actually intended to be when it was first set up; Third, what it actually IS today; Fourth, how this should be dealt with.

You might want to start crying right about... now. No,

I've identified various main flaws in the approach of sections of the Left toward the issue of the UN.

  1. First among these is the worrying tendency of some Left wingers to approach the UN as though going through the UN is an end in itself rather what it actually is, which is a means to an end. A similar mindset can be seen with regard to the International Criminal Court and Kyoto. By this rationale, various European powers can sign up to environmental accords and then proceed to fail utterly to meet the benchmarks they signed up to and the Americans can recognise that they are never going to meet the benchmarks and on that basis refuse to sign up and it's the European powers that are the good guys. Never mind the fact that the Americans merely recognised an unpalatable truth and told it how it was. The point is that the Europeans were prepared to make saccharine speeches and turn up at endless summits and photocalls and generally make nice. In other words, they played the game and that's what counts. The fact that the game is utterly rancid and rotten to the core with hypocrisy is beside the point. Similarly, America is lambasted for not signing up to the International Criminal Court while people such as China and Syria, whose presence is laughable on the face of it and makes a mockery of the whole process, are patted on the back and gushed over. That said, in the interests of intellectual honesty I do feel that it is appropriate to note the irony inherent in the fact that various people of a "neo-con" (not a phrase I like or use often) persuasion make mock of the notion of normative values in international relations while simultaneously arguing that the spread of democracy will soothe all ills. In fact there are cases where the cultivation of agreed behavioural norms has born fruit. The most obvious example of this is that of the EU, the expansion of which using a combination of high standards of entry and economic inducements has done more than practically anything else to consolidate liberalisation and the spread of human rights in Eastern Europe and Turkey (recognition of this is just about the only reason - heck, it IS the only reason - I grudgingly support the UK remaining bound to European human rights legislation). But the point is that this is one instance of success among many failures - every agreement must be considered on its own merits and examined for the impact it is likely to have. It should not be dismissed out of hand but equally the idea of consensus and multilateralism should not be held up as some sort of talisman or seal of quality - it's always a means to an end, not an end in itself.
  2. This brings us to the second point. Just as there is an annoying tendency in some circles to see the UN as an end in itself, there is also a possibly even more infuriating tendency to refer to the UN as though it were somehow a moral entity. It isn't. If morality can be brought into international politics it is important to understand that a moral action is not rendered immoral because a majority in the UN Security Council will not endorse it. Equally, an immoral action does not become moral simply because a majority is in favour.It is high time that reference to morality and ethics disappeared from the arsenal of multilateralism boosters.
  3. Along with these aspects, we hear frequent reference to "international law" when it comes to security matters. At the risk of sounding controversial, international law is bunk. Actually that's not true - international law works 99% of the time. Unfortunately, where the stakes are highest - in the field of security - it simply cannot be held up as a final arbiter. In practice, nobody who really believes they are under threat cares two hoots about international law. There is not - and of this fact I am utterly confidant - a single person who opposed the Iraq War purely because they believed it to be "illegal". Legality or illegality is essentially a tool and is a subordinate factor in decision making. Many people cite the War's illegality but the prime factor in their opposition is in fact that notion that Iraq was not a threat. The employment of international law as an argument to buttress and justify their primary convictions follows on naturally, just as pro-war activists would attempt to use the same notions to provide cover for an action they already believed to be justified. "International laws" can therefore create norms, indeed it is a natural human instinct to come up with justifications for various actions. Nobody believes that they are evil or wicked or even merely cynical. But the higher the stakes, the more likely that these norms will break down. Nobody who seriously believed that their country was under serious threat - let alone imminent threat - would gamble their lives and those of their loved ones on the niceties of international law. Least among those who would do so are our elected leaders - and rightly so. One of the key functions - if not the key function - of a government is security and a democratically elected government is accountable to its electorate and to its taxpayers, not to the governments and populations of foreign nations or to unelected international bureaucrats or to an ephemeral accumulation of norms commonly referred to as "international law". If the elected leader of a country believed that his country was under threat and did not act because of "international law" he or she would be guilty of criminal, unforgivable negligence. This reality devolves to lower levels too. I would not sacrifice the life of family or friends merely in order to uphold international law - and neither would you. And quite right too! This extends to a whole range of areas. People like to feel a sense of justification, but it is easiest to make fine sounding pronouncements when one is least likely to be confronted with the real life implications. Ask most members of the public whether we should be meddling in the Middle East and they will say no. Ask them if the pursuit of oil is a legitimate national interest and they will say no. Ask them - really ask them - what they would be prepared to give up in order for their government to run a truly touchy feely foreign policy and the answer is almost invariably bugger all. Prepared to stop driving in order for us to undertake a sustained programme to wean ourselves off oil? Nope. Prepared to lose your job for it? Nope. Prepared to see the economy tank? Nope. Prepared to experience a noticeably declining standard of living in order to play fair with the Arabs? Nope. And so it goes on. Scratch an Idealist and you'll find a hypocrite. Hold a gun to his head and you'll find a Realist.

Thank God for victors' justice

The fact of the matter is that if the founders of the United Nations emerged from the grave as zombies and began to maraud about town in some form of grotesque splatter-fest, they would doubtless pause a moment and move beyond their crimson-visaged, instinct-driven apocalyptic bloodlust to ponder the matter of exactly what has become of the institution they helped create. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that the UN as originally envisaged was not -at least to some degree - an idealistic endeavour. However, it was not envisioned as some form of world democratic forum or anything so fluffy as that. The idea ran that the UN would be dominated by the leading great power victors of the Second World War and that this would allow for a structure through which order would be imposed. This notion quickly turned sour, of course - of the leading powers aligned with the USA, the United Kingdom was (to an extent that shocked the USA when the reality dawned) a shadow of its former self, militarily spent and trying to ward off bankruptcy and France was a mess, included for (perfectly sound) political reasons as much as anything else. The relationship with the Soviets went sour and China unexpectedly going Red effectively resulted in the cosier of the initial assumptions crumbling around the ears of those who saw the UN as a stabilising WW2 victors' club.

What's the frequency Kenneth?

When it was founded, the UN had 51 members, many of whom were closely affiliated (if not actual Dominions in the case of the British Empire) with and dominated by the Big Five. As of 2002, it has 191 members. The process of decolonisation and increasing interdependence has altered the relationships between the member states. Smaller states are increasingly assertive and this assertiveness is fed by large constituencies within the Great Powers who believe, either through well-intentioned ignorance or foolish and strongly believed activism that the UN should function more and more like a world democracy. There are, however, serious problems with this. First off, the liberals who support this sort of thing tend to neglect the fact that a significant proportion of the regimes that make up the UN are, to put it mildly, rather unpleasant. This brings us to the key difference between something like the EU and European human rights standards and the UN. In the case of EU expansion there are set benchmarks for entry and existing members can block entry of anybody who is viewed to be undesirable. In the case of the UN, if you can get recognised as a state and you want membership you're pretty much in. Zimbabwe and Iran have as much saw as the Netherlands or Australia. Without any real checks and balances it is silly to expect Western democracies to allow decisions to be placed in the hands of tinpot third world dictatorships - turkeys don't vote for Christmas. Expansion combined with a decline in great power influence means that the UN as a decision making body runs into the law of diminishing returns. Decisions tend to run into gridlock - there are always plenty of people who will either vote for the status quo or who will be actively interested in action not being taken. Ironically, many of the ideas for the UN coming from the Left would make this situation worse, not better (for provocative and interesting ideas that might actually work and which argues that both the right and the left have got it wrong to some extent, see James Gow's "Defending the West" featured on the sidebar).

Knowledge will set you free

Different people react to the problems of international politics and the UN in different ways. The Left often argues that the UN should be given more power and that we should respect it more and give the views of the "international community" extra weight. The Right tends to argue that the UN is irrelevant or actively unpleasant. The practical implications of this tend to range from ignoring the UN to activism in the cause of witholding funding and payments to outright withdrawal. A third notion is for the boosting of either a Democracy Caucus within the UN, membership of which would be dependent on standards of behaviour, legitimacy and human rights or for the UN's replacement with some sort of "League of Democracies" which would be similar to the UN but would have entry standards and would exclude dictatorships and other unpleasant types.

I find - or at least found for a time - this last idea attractive. However, increasingly I think that the most important thing is to recognise what the UN is - namely, a forum through which states pursue their national interests. Some forum is better than no forum at all - but that is what it is. It is the refusal of sections of the Left to recognise this that is causing many of the problems and which skewed the debate in the build-up to the Iraq War. In Britain, earnest looking commentators sat with furrowed brows and babbled on about how the Security Council should really be required to come up with unanimous agreement if war was to happen and how the vote would be illegitimate if the USA "put pressure" on any security council members to vote a certain way (as though the French weren't doing the exact same thing!) - this is the politics of the student union, not the real world. If we can recognise and accept what the UN is and all the limitations that brings with it then we may actually be able to make it work better - and we shall never be disappointed. Again, better a cynic with his eyes open than a dewy eyed incompetent. Many of those statesmen who were most keen on the UN - Kissinger, Baker, Nixon, Bush senior - were hardly liberals and were rarely to be seen prancing through the corridors of power wearing rose tinted spectacles (though Kissinger would have looked fabulous...). They saw the institution unemotionally for what it was and in doing so were able to work it to our advantage. If our leaders can do that then it is easy to make the case that we are far better with the UN than without it. We need neither gushing idealism and an urge to demand that the world act as it should be and not as it is on the on hand, nor hysterical denunciation on the other.

*I feel that I should put out a thank you to my friend Oliver in acknowledging the influences on this post. Not that Oli would endorse all - or indeed any - of it. My attempts to break him down to emotional and intellectual rubble and rebuild him in my own warped and bitter image have so far not borne (much) fruit, though it is a work in progress. A lot of the thinking expressed in this post (which may be tweaked as it was typed in a rush and some of it is less coherent that I'd like) emerged, or at least coalesced into something reasonably solid - my views were already there - in the process of a joint project revolving around looking at the Iraq War from a realist viewpoint. For a good liberal to have to sit and listen to my fevered rantings without once attempting to smother me with a pillow and, further, to be able to get up at the end of it and make the case without flinching, is quite an achievement. And maybe one day if he puts his mind to it he'll prove my worldview completely wrong - in which case nobody will be happier or more gratified than myself. But until that day...


Blogger Josh Jasper said...

I'd feel a lot more comfortable with a "League Of Democratic Nations" if I wasn't suspicious of Bush trying to use it as a pool of yes-men and cannon fodder for future American adventuring in the middle east.

It's not too far fetched a notion. The US and a few first world allies (Britain, Australia, and Japan to start with) form a club. They then set out to create an army comprised of soldiers from nations that are dependant on them for food and economic aid. That security force could be huge. For the cost of 1/3 of a US soldier, we could create superbly trained troops, make sure they're fairly well equipped, and just use them as "boots on the ground" once we invade our next middle east target (Iran or Syria).

If we had another 100,000 troops ready on short notice, why not invade Iran? They're actualy building nuclear weapons, they're far more in touch with terrorist groups than Iraq was, and there's a strong possibility that they'll sell either weapons or technology to other Islamic fundamentalists.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I see the point you are trying to make but do the factors you discuss - if you believe them to be a problem, which I suppose depends on personal politics - not exist now? What about NATO? Heck, what about the UN or the EU? The US certainly threatens, coerces and cajoles. France acts like it still runs part of Africa and tells the countries of Eastern Europe they'd better get with the programme or face the consequences. Oman and Sierra Leone are virtually British protectorates.

I think the main point with an association of democracies is that it brings with it some degree of legitimacy. I may rant and rave about the French and, to a lesser extent, the Germans, but it seems to me that anybody should be able to recognise a qualitative difference between France and Belgium on the one hand and, say, Syria and China on the other. You can make the case that America and Britain should respect the views of France and Germany and vice versa. So long as people argue that Western liberal democracies should pay attention to the sensitivities of Libya and Burma they are going to be onto a loser.

4:28 PM  
Blogger J. said...

Quite a dissertation, sir. I was going to let loose a salvo about your view on international law, but you did note that they do exist to act as international norms. I am digging into "Arms and Influence" by Thomas Schnelling, (old book but just got wind of it) and he notes the importance of two adversaries understanding what the rules of the war are to ensure each understands the level of response, etc. Or something like that.

I like your points, but wonder if you really have a suggestion on how to execute this reform. Do you retain the UN for peacekeeping but start a new "club" for the big powers? Do you eject the UN and start over? Do you think the Bush administration would be any less thickskulled about their view of the world and how the United States should "unilaterally" lead the other countries?

Don't get me wrong, I like your ideas, but the current administration pouts too much and wants to take its ball to another park when the team doesn't like its ideas. Problem is there is no other park.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Aha, well this is the rub isn't it? In truth when it comes to the idea of a grouping of democratic nations I have few practical prescriptions, which is largely why I think the best thing to do is to simply stick with the UN - but for both sides of the argument to look at the situation from a different perspective.

Without wanting to get too far into personal politics, I'd have voted for Bush in 2000 (though I didn't, not being American, obviously). However, I think the diplomatic record of the current administration has been lamentable and clumsy. As a pro-American Brit my dearest wish for most of 2003 was for Donald Rumsfeld to have his lips sewn together. I don't think people across the Atlantic really appreciate how much damage he did diplomatically - and the people who were hurt worst were those people within Europe trying to make a pro-American case. You'd get one step forward, then Rumsfeld would open his mouth and make some sort of "down home", "folksy" pronouncement and you'd suddenly be two steps back. Not helpful. Don't get me wrong, as I'm sure you've been able to tell from my posts, I'm not misty eyed about these things. It's just that too many members of the Bush administration seem to think there's an inherent virtue in picking fights with people. There isn't.

I feel that the Cluasewitzian "culminating point of victory" can be applied to American diplomacy. America has huge reserves of diplomatic clout and power of both a hard and soft variety. Sometimes they can use their sheer weight to bombard their way through diplomatic opposition that they find inconvenient. However, with each use of this power they will find subsequent resistance ratcheted up a notch. Thus it should be employed prudently and when it is NEEDED, whereas a lot of people on the Right seem to think it can be used as a matter of course and at their convenience. Think of it as the diplomatic equivalent of a powerful army outrunning its lines of supply and artillery cover, courting disaster by the very fact of its success.

5:44 PM  

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