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Saving humanity from hell

Development (Aid)

In March 2003, as the debates were raging in the Security Council over Iraq, 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 UN - 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 contretemps over Iraq in 2003 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.

Taking refuge: Cambodian children repatriated from Thailand in 1992.

Photo: Howard Davies / Exile Images

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.

And yet we live with a paradox. A Pew poll taken in 20 countries in mid-2003 showed that the UN had suffered a great deal of collateral damage over Iraq.1 The UN's credibility was down in the US because it did not support the US Administration on the war, and in 19 other countries because it did not prevent the war. The equivalent polls this year show the UN's standing at its lowest ever.

This year the UN turns 60. In the UN system 60 is the age at which we contemplate retirement. Is the UN ready to be pensioned off? On the contrary, we are seizing this occasion to contemplate renewal, not retirement. In 2005 the UN will debate the report of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which is examining the entire architecture of the international system built up since 1945. A summit of the UN General Assembly will also review the Millennium Development Goals established five years ago by the largest single gathering of Heads of State and Government in human history. Kofi Annan spoke last year of the world being at a 'fork in the road'. The UN's 60th Anniversary year is a crucial one in determining which path the world takes.

On the principle that the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror, it is important to recall that the UN was founded during a period when the world had known almost nothing but war and strife, bookended by two savage World Wars. 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. The second half of the 20th century, though far from perfect, was a spectacular improvement on the first half, for one simple reason: because, in and after 1945, a group of far-sighted leaders drew up rules to govern international behaviour, founding institutions in which different nations could co-operate, under universally applicable rules, for the common good.

The keystone of the arch, so to speak - charged with helping keep 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 US Houses of Congress in February 1945, 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.

Roosevelt's successor, President Harry Truman, put it clearly to the assembled signatories of the UN Charter in San Francisco on 26 June 1945: 'You have created a great instrument for peace and security and human progress in the world... 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.'

Of paradise and power

That was then, of course, and this - 60 years later - is now. How many of today's critics of the UN 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 licence 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!'

...the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it...

I suspect that there are many in Washington today who would not agree that this is indeed a reasonable price for the world's only superpower to pay in the interests 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 fundamental American critique of the place of the UN in today's world. The notion has gained ground of late, particularly in the wake of Robert Kagan's book 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 UN.

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 it were to be tied down by a system of rules designed to serve smaller states: it would be a Gulliver restrained - in Charles Krauthammer's words - by the 'myriad strings' of the Lilliputians 'that diminish its overweening power'. Hence the answer lies in disregarding the UN and, as Michael J Glennon has 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 UN was not created by starry-eyed Kantians but as a response to a Hobbesian world. The UN Charter was the work of the victorious Allies of the Second World War. They saw the Hobbesian world of the preceding three decades and vowed 'never again'. The leviathan imagined by the visionary statesmen of that era (notably FDR himself) was not a single power: it was 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. The US itself had a major stake in such a system. Gulliver was to lead the Lilliputians, not feel tied down by them; they provided him with a springboard, not a rack.

Saving graces

So what has gone wrong? It might be useful to confront the misgivings of the sceptics on their own terms. Some portray a UN that passed resolutions but could not agree to implement them, and ask if the Iraq war didn't prove that the US and Britain could do without the UN altogether. They may not have needed the UN to go to war - but they certainly needed it to manage the peace. The return of the US to the Security Council immediately after the war was an acknowledgement by Washington that there is, in Secretary-General Kofi Annan's words, no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the UN. Washington has discovered in Iraq that the US is better able to win wars alone than to construct peace. As Talleyrand said, the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is to sit on it.

The UN 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.

What's the use of the Security Council, some ask, if it's paralyzed by disagreement on something as important as Iraq? Doesn't the veto render it ineffective? Not quite. Even while they were disagreeing on Iraq, the Members of the Security Council were agreeing on a host of other vital issues, from Congo to Côte d'Ivoire, from Cyprus to Afghanistan.

No, the Security Council 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. All too often, Member States have passed resolutions they themselves had no intention of implementing. Even so, the UN's record of success is better than that of many national institutions. As Dag Hammarskjöld, the great second Secretary-General, put it, the UN was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.

And that it has done, innumerable times. During the Cold War the UN played the indispensable role of preventing regional crises and conflicts from igniting a superpower conflagration. Its peacekeeping operations make the difference between life and death for millions around the world.

And yet the UN is not simply a security organization; it is not a sort of NATO for the world. When the present crisis has passed, the world will still be facing (to use Secretary-General Kofi Annan's phrase) innumerable 'problems without passports' that cross all frontiers uninvited; weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, certainly, but also the degradation of our common environment, contagious disease and chronic starvation, human rights and human wrongs, mass illiteracy and massive displacement.

These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own - as someone once said about water pollution, we all live downstream. They cry out for solutions that, like the problems themselves, cross frontiers. The UN, for all its imperfections, has built up a solid record of achievement. It has brought humanitarian relief to millions in need and helped people to rebuild their countries from the ruins of armed conflict. It has challenged poverty, fought apartheid, protected the rights of children, promoted decolonization and democracy and placed environmental and gender issues on the top of the world's agenda. It solves the 'problems without passports' by devising blueprints without borders. There's nothing else like it.

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.

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian national, is UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. He is also the author of six books, including the award-winning political satire The Great Indian Novel (1989), and India: From Midnight to the Millennium (1997).

  • See also The Pew Research Center, 'A Year After Iraq War', 16 March 2004. http://people-press.org
  • New Internationalist issue 375 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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