issue 262 - December 1994
Death of a dinosaur
Richard Gott argues that the UN is collapsing -
and welcomes the prospect.
The United Nations, forever bumbling away in the background, has been so much part of our lives for the past half century that it is difficult to imagine the time when it won’t be there any more. Yet all the evidence suggests its days are numbered.
Many people hoped that the UN would rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the Cold War, but these early hopes have clearly not been fulfilled. Today its very existence is in doubt. In the last year or so, as its activities in former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Cambodia have been closely scrutinized, the UN has come under sustained attack – from press and politicians and the public. It is not perceived as ‘our’ UN any longer, but as someone else’s, and ‘those people’, whoever they may be, are now endlessly portrayed as corrupt and incompetent.
Overstretched and underfunded, bureaucratically and unimaginatively organized, the UN is perceived to straddle the globe like a dinosaur, fed only by the pious hopes of those (now rather elderly) people who once dreamed that it could be used to forge a better world; and by those time-serving diplomats created in each other’s image who make up what is sometimes almost laughingly referred to as ‘the international community’. From Sarajevo to Phnom Penh, from Nicosia to San Salvador, the UN’s thin blue line of ‘peacekeeping forces’ is uncertainly deployed, confused participants in a global strategy that has lost all historical validity and over which no group or sentient individual seems to have adequate control.
Given the head of steam that is building up against it, it seems likely that the UN, like the League of Nations before it, will have vanished into history by the end of the century. The programmes put forward for its reform, most recently the American suggestion that Germany and Japan should be admitted to the Security Council, are not signs of life but symptoms of its decline.
A couple of years ago I spent some months in New York with the purpose of examining the activities of the Security Council and the General Assembly at close quarters. Travelling there with the usual set of historically acquired assumptions common to the liberal left, I was prepared to believe that the UN was an interesting and potentially progressive institution with a new lease of life. Though traditionally under the control of the great powers, there was a clear possibility that, with the end of the Cold War, it might enjoy some new flexibility of manoeuvre.
I returned with a somewhat different set of beliefs that have become hardened over time. Today’s UN is an intrinsically conservative institution, operating almost solely for the benefit of the advanced capitalist world. It is no longer capable of reform along progressive lines, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Third World.
Public support for the UN in Western countries is now conspicuous by its absence and this will prove eventually to be its Achilles’ heel. An isolationist President in the US, with the Americans concentrating on internal affairs and the breakdown of their own country, will have neither the time nor the inclination to manipulate the UN. Without active American support the organization will implode.
We have got used to thinking of ‘the West’ as a coherent and cohesive unit, yet this era is clearly drawing to a close. The G7 countries may soon fall out among themselves. The US itself may never again take a leadership role. We spend so much time extrapolating existing trends – particularly in the ecological debate – that we often forget our political parameters can suddenly change, just as they have since 1989.
To understand what is happening we need now to go back in history and ask ourselves why we have supported such an extraordinary concept as a world organization at all. The great international organizations we have known in this century – the League of Nations and the UN – have always been assemblies of colonial powers designed essentially to prevent inter-imperial conflict. That has been the pattern and it is difficult to see how it could be changed.
The General Assembly of the UN is not, and could never be, a democratic organization. If it were, the world would be run by the Chinese. One has only to look at the difficulties of organizing a United Europe to realize that a United World would be a wholly utopian venture. Public opinion in the West is utterly unprepared to accept losing its soldiers in foreign wars that it is in no way geared to comprehend.
So I believe now that we should rid ourselves of any residual enthusiasm for the UN; we should regard it with the same kind of suspicion that was once reserved by the Left for the CIA or any other institution that seeks to protect the privileges of the status quo powers. We should shed no tears if it were to disappear.
In the philosophically post-modern world in which we are now regrettably forced to live, the UN – with its all-embracing centralist ambitions – is a dangerous anachronism.
Richard Gott is literary editor of Britain’s The Guardian, where these ideas were first aired.