Lessons for the UN from the American Civil War

The United Nations is broken -- this is beyond question.   The only thing left to argue about is if it is Worldcom-broken, where the basic business model is OK but the management is corrupt; or Internet-startup-broken, where the whole mission and business model is wrong.  I would contend that the answer is a little of both.

One of the sources of confusion in discussing the UN is that the organization has several very different missions.  These missions fall in roughly two categories:

  1. Distribution of aid and relief, including funds and training for education, public health, and poverty mitigation.
  2. Helping to manage relationships between nations and, sometimes, between nations and their people

The first mission, of administering aid, is plagued mainly by corruption and bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, and would probably be fixable to some extent with better leadership in place.  Personally, I think much of the aid provided is well-intentioned but misguided.  Poverty generally results from corrupt, confiscatory, totalitarian regimes.  As a result, much of the aid (see oil for food in Iraq) gets siphoned off as graft by rulers, and the rest may alleviate some suffering but provides no long-term progress toward fixing the real problems the poor face.  However, given that so many people and nations feel conscience-bound to keep sending the aid, and given that some of the aid does in fact help, a cleaned-up UN is probably a reasonable vehicle for delivering it.

My main focus in this post, however, is on the second UN mission listed above, that of managing the relations between peoples and nations.  The fundamental problem is that we as Americans (rightly) expect the UN to carry a set of values into its dealings with nations that the majority of its member nations do not share.  Here, I am not even talking about contentious issues that even Western democracies might argue about (e.g. abortion, capital punishment) but the basics -- things like free elections, free expression, and free markets.  Just scan the list of member nations, or, even more revealing, the list of countries on the UN Human Rights committee (yep, you can bet that Sudan brings a lot of moral authority to that committee).  The UN is a dictators club.

The best analogy I can come up with is the United States in the decade before the Civil War.  Imagine that rather than being split 50/50, the majority of states in the US at the time supported slavery.  In those circumstances, how much chance would there be that the Congress would successfully pass a law outlawing slavery?  Right, none.  In the same way, it is unreasonable to expect a UN that is majority-controlled by totalitarians to take any meaningful steps to support freedom and plurality.

Until the Civil War, states in the South believed that the Constitution allowed them substantial, in fact near total, leeway in setting their own laws and standards.  While in a Federalist system this is always somewhat true, what the Civil War was really about was the United States establishing that there are certain minimum standards that member-states will be held to, even if enforcement of those standards requires the use of force.   Ever since, though states may vary in terms of tax rates and such, there are minimum standards that are non-negotiable  (though sometimes this gets carried away - was the 55 mile an hour speed limit really a necessary element of these minimum standards?)  The civil rights movement of the 1960's was another such time when the US enforced a minimum standard on its individual states.

Bringing this analogy back to the UN, the UN is weak because there are no minimum standards for membership.  An immoral nation alone is immoral.  A grouping of immoral nations is still immoral - the grouping does not confer any moral authority.  When the UN was founded, it was thought that having as many of the world's nations as possible as members would confer the maximum moral authority on the body, sort of like having a higher turnout in an election tends to increase the perceived mandate and legitimacy of the victors.  Its becoming increasingly clear, though, that having all the nations of the world, many of them dictatorships, as members is in fact destroying any moral authority and effectiveness the UN might have.

Since 9/11, the United States has adopted a dual foreign policy of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy around the world.  Most Americans support these goals, thought many disagree with any number of the tactics over the last several years.  In achieving these goals, it would be far better for the US to be able to pursue them as part of a coalition, an alliance for freedom and democracy, rather than on its own.  As has been made pretty clear, the UN is not going to be that vehicle.  It houses too many terrorists to ever agree to fight terrorists (it cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism) and it encompasses too many totalitarians ever do anything meaningful to fight for individual rights (see Sudan, Congo).  Of course, this doesn't stop the UN from trying to take credit for progress made by others.

What is needed is a new organization with a core group of countries strongly committed to democracy that can act with greater moral authority than any single country but who will not be hamstrung by members who oppose strong interventions because they fear being the next target.  This article by Jonathon Rausch in Reason shows encouraging steps in the right direction:

Since 1996, a handful of foreign-policy wonks have been kicking around the idea of a "democracy caucus" at the U.N. Two administrations, first Bill Clinton's and then George W. Bush's, took quiet but significant steps in that direction. Now, according to Bush administration officials, the concept will be test-flown at the six-week meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that began on Monday in Geneva.

He concludes:

"United Nations" is an oxymoron. Democracies and dictatorships are mongoose and cobra, with no real hope of uniting except opportunistically. But a community of democracies"”that might just work. It already works in NATO and the E.U. The new community is a fledgling, but many readers of this article may live to see it soar.

UPDATE:  By the way, a reader pointed out to me one other problem the UN has:  their mission has been perverted from one something like "working toward a more peaceful world" to "peace at all costs".  The problem with peace at all costs, and something the American left and many of my fellow libertarians need to do a gut-check on, is that if you seek peace above all else, it means that you are willing to live, literally, with anything else.  That can mean anything from living with genocide (Sudan) to living with totalitarianism (N. Korea) to living with sponsorship of terrorism (Iran, Syria). 

By the way, I will pre-empt the obvious straw man here:  opposing peace at all costs does not mean favoring war as a first option.  I approved of the war in Afghanistan, but opposed invading Iraq, though in the latter case I am hopeful for the Iraqi people and that the example of Iraq may be setting a good example elsewhere, as in Jordan.

  • http://duanegran.com/blog/ Duane Gran

    Your blog entry is intriguing to me and well reasoned, however I must take issue with the inference that the civil war was a just use of force. Over 500,000 Americans died in that war. Surely there must have been another way to achieve solidarity rather than purging a generation. I should hope that the UN doesn't achieve the same backbone, ability or willingness to force its standards on its member nations.

    To answer the obvious response, yes I am opposed to slavery and believe it is wrong. I just marvel at the often stated assumption that the civil war was the right answer to the problem.