Unprincipled and Inert

Why the United Nations is sinking fast.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

A review of Tower of Babel. How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos by Dore Gold (Crown Forum, 2004: New York).

The current dispute in the Senate over John Bolton’s nomination as ambassador to the United Nations strikes me as being as pointless as arguing over who should have been first mate of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. Like that doomed marvel of modernity, the U.N. is a relic of Enlightenment arrogance and idealism, a grand idea wrecked by the cold, hard reality of human nature and nationalist self-interest. Only the continuing support of the United States has allowed the U.N. to keep steaming along despite its numerous obvious failures.

The meticulous documentation of those failures composes the bulk of Dore Gold’s Tower of Babel. Gold, who holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and Middle East Studies from Columbia University, was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1999. He previously authored Hatred’s Kingdom, an exposé of Saudi Arabia’s support of Islamic terrorism. Joining the skills of the scholar with the practical experience of the diplomat, he has written a scathing indictment of the moral incoherence, institutional corruption, and self-serving cowardice that have characterized the U.N. from its very beginnings and turned it into what Winston Churchill feared it might become: “a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.”

Gold correctly identifies the fatal flaw of the U.N.: its lack of any consistent unifying principles or values that could legitimize the use of force to deter and punish aggression, which was the reason the U.N. was created in the first place. At first, the opposition to fascism united the member nations, since to belong to the U.N. a country had to have been an ally against the Axis powers. Thus at its birth in 1945, “The U.N. was, at base, an alliance built on shared principles. Indeed, it grew out of a military alliance, for every nation that attended the organization’s founding conference in San Francisco had declared war on at least one of the Axis powers.” Since the overwhelming majority of states were Western democracies and their allies, even tyrannous states like the Soviet Union had at least to make the pretence of acknowledging principles like human rights.

This unity, however, quickly fell prey to the polarization of the world brought on by Communist aggression during the Cold War, and by the influx of new members who brought with them their own interests and “concepts of international morality,” concepts that included ideas that considered “human rights” or democracy Western notions irrelevant to non-Western cultures. By 1993, a little more than a third of the member states were free democracies, the rest being various forms of totalitarian or autocratic governments. The vacuum created by a lack of unified principles was filled by politics and self-interest, and the U.N. served as the vehicle for pursuing those interests, as when the Soviet bloc in 1986 engineered a resolution that in effect forbade using human rights abuses as a rationale for U.N. intervention. Likewise in 1993, when a U.N. conference on human rights ended up writing a declaration “that omitted any reference to individual rights such as freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. The new U.N. majority had emptied the term ‘human rights’ of its original meaning and hijacked it to serve its authoritarian political agenda.”

If, as Gold argues, the “U.N. . . . is a political body that reflects the sum total of the moral values of its member states,” then it has no unified principles on which to base action against aggression. Indeed, it cannot even coherently define aggression: “Over the years the General Assembly introduced enough exceptions into prohibitions against aggression to give a pass to state that initiated armed conflict.” The worst exception was the one that exempted struggles of “national liberation” from restraints on aggression, encoded in Resolution 2708 passed in 1970. This resolution states that the U.N. “‘reaffirms its recognition of the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples and peoples under alien domination to exercise self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal.'”
As Gold points out, that last phrase, written at a time of growing terrorist attacks, in effect gave terrorism carte blanche, as long as a patina of “national liberation” could be spread over it. A short four years later, the head of a terrorist organization that in 1972 had butchered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, P.L.O. chairman Yasser Arafat, with a pistol strapped to his side addressed the General Assembly to enthusiastic applause. This free pass for terrorists was reaffirmed in 1982 when the General Assembly approved the “‘legitimacy of the struggle of peoples . . . from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.'”

Thus did the U.N. give its imprimatur to terrorism, empowering the most lethal threat today to the global order the U.N. is supposed to uphold. Perhaps the most revealing example of this failure of moral nerve occurred in April of 2002, when the U.N. Human Rights Commission “affirmed ‘the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to resist Israeli occupation’ just after a Hamas suicide bomber killed thirty Israelis celebrating together the Passover Seder.” The distinction between the murderer and the defender against murder was erased, the specious verbal camouflage of the “cycle of violence” was affirmed, and Western criticism of terrorism was neutralized.

The politicizing of the U.N. in the absence of unifying moral principles has enshrined moral equivalence as its operating principle: “That inability, or refusal, to recognize and boldly confront evil is the UN’s salient flaw, its Achilles’ heel.” Examples of this flaw abound, and indeed the bulk of Gold’s book comprises these numerous crises in which the U.N., in the face of evil aggression, refused to side with the victims against the perpetrators. This failure points to a larger flaw in the U.N.: its complete indifference to the important differences between free democracies accountable to their citizens and tyrannies of various stripes accountable to no one. Nowhere is this indifference more glaring than in the Human Rights Commission, which over the years has seated serial human rights offenders such as North Korea, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan and numerous others that have used their seats to forestall any effective action actually to do something about human rights.

Gold provides numerous examples to support his indictment of U.N. failure, but the case of Israel provides the most powerful evidence, not least because the most important threat to global order, terrorism, originated in the Arab efforts to destroy Israel. As Gold points out, “The U.N.’s treatment of Israel is a warning sign of a more general failure of the U.N. system.” In fact, the Arab League attack on Israel in 1948 — “a war of extermination,” as the Arab League spokesman put it, “and a momentous massacre” — was the first test of the U.N.’s commitment to responding to aggression, a test it failed miserably when it took no action to protect a state that had U.N. legitimacy and membership. Thus despite being under U.N. protection according to Resolution 181, the Old City of Jerusalem was besieged and ultimately fell: “Fifty-seven synagogues and academies in the Old City were either destroyed or desecrated,” including a synagogue dating back to 1267. Only the heroic efforts of the Israelis themselves preserved Jewish Jerusalem and the state of Israel from annihilation.

The worst legacy of the U.N.’s failure in 1948, however, was its subsequent diplomatic activity in which the guilt of the aggressor against the victim was totally ignored and in some cases the roles were reversed. Thus U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte proposed that Jerusalem be placed completely under Arab sovereignty, despite the fact that Jews were the majority population of the city and the U.N. itself had put the city under U.N. administration. Nor did the U.N. punish subsequent violations of the 1949 Armistice Agreement, such as the Jordanian desecration of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, or its exclusion of Jews from the Wailing Wall. Finally, “the U.N. agreed to unique definitions of what a refugee was and removed them from the definitions contained in the [1951] global convention.”
Consequently, Palestinian Arabs kept their refugee status even if they acquired a new nationality, and the requirement of “habitual” residence was erased: “The U.N. was thus taking into account many recent Arab immigrants into Palestine even if they would not be seen as being Palestinian according to general criteria that the U.N. had established in other instances.” And direct descendents were now also eligible for refugee status. The seeds were sown for one of the most contentious roadblocks to peace in the Middle East, the status of the so-called Palestinian refugees, whose numbers have grown astronomically since 1948. Of course, the U.N. has made no mention of the roughly equal numbers of Jewish refugees expelled from Arab states, some of whose ancestors had lived in those states for millennia.

These U.N. actions, which resulted from the failure to exercise moral clarity and to identify and punish the aggressor, set the stage for the following half-century of violence in the Middle East and the subsequent armed aggression against Israel through war and terror. Worse still, it institutionalized the moral equivalence that vitiates all attempts to resolve that crisis. As Gold says, “To reverse the principle [that aggressors forfeit territory] and penalize the victim of an outright attack while rewarding the aggressor, would only assure that aggression would be repeated in the future.” The ensuing decades would see this failure replicated over and over, culminating in the disastrous 90s, when genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia took place literally under the noses, and occasionally with the aid, of U.N. peacekeepers.

And of course, the crisis in Iraq represents what may perhaps be the U.N.’s fatal wound. Nowhere, with the exception of Israel, was the U.N.’s moral idiocy and politically induced paralysis more obvious than in the complete unwillingness to deter and punish a serial violator of sixteen of the U.N.’s own resolutions. The engine of that paralysis was the geopolitical and financial interests of the member states, particularly those states on the powerful Security Council, and of the U.N. bureaucracy. Principles and morality, not to mention the U.N. mandate to deter aggression and protect global order, simply had nothing to do with the U.N.’s behavior.

Given that the U.N. has no unified set of principles upon which to base its actions, the notion that only the U.N. can confer legitimacy on the use of force is ludicrous, if not suicidal. As Gold points out in commenting on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s claim in the lead-up to the Iraq war that the U.S. needed the “unique legitimacy provided by the U.N.,” “Who exactly was conferring this ‘unique legitimacy’? Annan was essentially saying that the collective will of a group of authoritarian regimes was more legitimate than the decision of the American republic to defend itself. According to U.N. standards, then, a consensus of dictatorships was superior to the decision of a democracy.” And herein lies the greatest flaw in the thinking of those Americans who still bow down to this failed idol: that unelected, unaccountable functionaries of tyrannous regimes — regimes not just pursuing their own interests but frequently working against our interests — are more capable of determining the legitimacy of the United States’ foreign policy and behavior than are the American people. On the contrary, true legitimacy is conferred by the democratic process and the attendant free and open debate on the part of citizens who can hold their leaders accountable, and who have a sense of the ideals and principles that animate action and provide its goals.

Can the U.N. be fixed, as a recent article by Michael Soussan in the AprilCommentary asks? A group of “eminent persons” chosen by the Secretary General has put forth 100 proposals, and the fact that now 60% of the member states are democracies suggests that reform may be possible. But Soussan’s analysis of these recommendations concludes that any improvement will be marginal, since the fundamental issues — demanding accountability from member states and putting the U.N. forthrightly in support of democracy — are still not addressed. Without moral clarity, without a clear and vigorous defense of the principles of self-governance and human rights, without a commensurate vigorous punishment or expulsion of those states that violate the same, the U.N. will remain an instrument of tyrannous states and a bloated bureaucracy whose main objective will be the perpetuation of its own power and privilege.
Gold ends with an equally somber assessment of the U.N.’s viability and prospects for reform. Noting that the U.N. “has utterly failed to achieve its founders’ goals . . . to halt aggression and assure world order,” Gold considers the United States and its allies to have a better chance of “creating a safer and freer world”: “Perhaps in the long term they can reinvigorate the U.N. and make the organization’s system of collective security a viable option. But that day is a long way off.” Indeed, I would argue that that day will never come, and so it is time for the U..S to recognize the U.N. as a failed ideal that works more often against our interests and the interests of freedom and democracy.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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