Alexander's Column

The Trouble with Turtle Bay

Mark Alexander · Sep. 22, 2006

Watching President George W. Bush’s address to the 61st Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, some of us couldn’t help but wonder: Why can’t we get along with the UN? Why can’t we make it work?

After all, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of an international body designed to provide a forum for the resolution of the grievances of its members. To be sure, the UN does a great many things very (or at least reasonably) well. UN agreements keep airplanes from colliding in the air and ships from colliding on the high seas. UN-brokered protocols also aid the technical aspects of telecommunications between countries. Obviously, if a body like the United Nations could step up to the plate to help resolve global conflicts, U.S. commitments abroad could be reduced as each country carried its fair share of the load.

Equally as obvious, this is not the case. Nor can it ever be. This was made painfully clear on Wednesday, when Venezuela’s oil-rich tinhorn Hugo Chavez took the floor to call President Bush “the devil” and to complain that the place still “smells of sulfur.”

Part of the problem at Turtle Bay is what the United Nations is, versus what it claims to be. Even conservatives (shame on us) tend to think of the UN as an independent entity like a nation-state, with power of its own that can be used to shape global events for better or for worse. It even boasts a veritable “head of state” in the person of the Secretary-General. This perception of the United Nations is reinforced by the fact that the UN seeks to present itself in just this way. Who could argue but that Secretary General Kofi Annan considers himself the globe’s “first diplomat” and chief executive, presiding over a parliamentary body representing the world? Only this notion of the UN as some sort of super-state could make Bill Clinton so hopelessly infatuated with assuming the Secretariat (or maybe he just thinks it’s his last chance to run away from home).

Contrary to this picture of the UN as a sort of uber-state, the real United Nations is a far different scene. We’re commonly taught to believe that, regardless of the object of discussion, the whole entity is “greater than the sum of its parts.” For the UN, however, this just isn’t true. The UN is composed of a group of states, and at the end of the day that’s all it really is. Contrary to the romantic notion of the global village, the UN is doggedly equal to the sum of its parts, no more.

When we understand the UN for what it is – a group of states and nothing more – a clearer picture emerges. By viewing the UN in these terms, we can begin to see why it doesn’t work. The UN has no army and thus no hard power, nor does it carry the soft stick of economic might. Thus, Kofi Annan can talk a lot, but he cannot act.

Rather, the UN’s member states decide what the body will and won’t do, and they invariably make those decisions based upon self-interest, as states always have. This explains how the UN Security Council could pass no fewer than 17 resolutions against Saddam Hussein but couldn’t effectively enforce one of them. With respect to Iran’s nuclear-enrichment programs, we see the same story all over again. Iranian oil is reason enough for Russia and China to demur on the subject of sanctions against Tehran, and France is too spooked by its own growing population of Muslim radicals to get mixed up in the Middle East. This sort of irresoluteness ensured the appalling genocide in Rwanda, and it hamstrings the UN from acting even now in Darfur. In addition, the combination of UN greed and impotence paved the way for history’s greatest corruption scandal: The Iraq Oil-for-Food Program. So much for the Charter’s commitment “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.”

By the same token, the UN can accomplish things like international agreements on air traffic, shipping lanes and the like. Unlike important matters of international security, however, these acts are possible because all member states benefit from them, and at no real cost to themselves.

Because the UN is no more and no less than a group of the world’s states, it should be no surprise that it is largely dominated by undemocratic and otherwise failed versions of same. It thus readily serves as a bully pulpit for pontificating tyrants and as a forum for the legitimacy of failed governments. Here we note not only the aforementioned Chavez diatribe, but also Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad’s address on the same day as President Bush, and the Cuba-led, 118-member-state Nonaligned Movement’s petition demanding a change to the current “unjust, hegemonic” character of the world. Each case exemplifies the enabling of deviant state behavior at the expense of U.S. interests. Ultimately, a body seeking to serve such parochial interests can serve no legitimate interests at all.

So, if bodies like the United Nations and its august predecessor, the League of Nations, can’t work, what’s left? Is the U.S. left to go it alone?

If a given foreign-policy objective is only in our nation’s best interest, the answer is yes. Fortunately, however, this is rarely the case – there are usually allies to be found. The stirring success of such organizations as NATO, in stark contrast to the UN’s abysmal failure, points the way. Because of its members’ shared values, NATO served as a bulwark first against a resurgent Germany, and soon thereafter against the menace of Soviet Communism. Today, NATO continues to serve the interests of democratic states in their stand against Islamist fascism. Even when some of its members “demur,” the infrastructure of NATO works for its willing members.

So, rather than putting our faith and funding in global organizations where no consensus on any substantive issue is possible, the U.S. should invest in alliances with those who share our values and concerns. UN Ambassador John Bolton’s very best efforts to the contrary, we shouldn’t be wasting our time with a woefully corrupt and fatuous body that allows the likes of Cuba, Sudan and Libya to sit on its human-rights commission. Rather, when circumstances merit, let us ally ourselves with those who share our values of self-determination, religious liberty and democracy – when necessary, let us ally ourselves with the West.

Critics will charge that such a view of the world sets the stage for a “clash of civilizations.” But aren’t we already there?