Don’t Take the UN Too Seriously

In their speeches before the United Nations both President Bush and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in different ways and probably for different purposes, made a couple of mistakes that could easily come back to bite them. The chief mistake was to take UN resolutions and statements by diplomats and political leaders too seriously, too literally. World affairs are always greased by a certain level of hypocrisy, by a reasonably shared understanding that most of the participants don’t really mean what they are saying. If they did, they would probably make even more mischief for those over whom they claim authority than they do already.

Plenty of people have noted by now that the president did not present any new information about an imminent, clear and present danger from Iraq, although something might yet be presented that would make that case. Saddam is, after all, a nasty customer and he might well be working on nuclear weapons. But what the president presented, perhaps appropriately considering where he was speaking, was a laundry list of past UN resolutions and mandates that Saddam has defied or ignored, many of them well over a decade old. To be sure, he presented the case fairly thoroughly and comprehensively. As an opening statement by the prosecution in a trial this wouldn’t have been bad. In a trial with due process, however, it would be followed by a statement from the defense and presentation of evidence, along with cross-examination and expert witnesses, before a verdict was rendered. Something like that is now underway, but in a much less systematic, thorough and fair manner than is usually the case even in poorly conducted trials. And nobody knows for sure who the real jury is.

A number of people who fancy themselves enlightened internationalists, like foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, profess to be delighted at the Bush speech. The fact that Bush went to the UN, that he used UN resolutions to make the case against Saddam, that he challenged the UN to take its own resolutions seriously, was for Hoagland tantamount to a "Nixon-to-China moment." The "unilateralist" administration had embraced multilateralism and the institutions of the international world order were the chosen instruments of action. Oh rejoice, for the Prodigal Son seems to be returning to the faith of his fathers.

I suspect Mr. Hoagland has taken Mr. Bush too literally – or is trying to affect the outcome through his interpretation. One doubts if Dubya actually has a coherent multilateralist – or any other – vision of the way the United States should operate in the world. For whatever series of reasons he deems to have decided that he wants to get Saddam, and he’ll likely adopt whatever intellectually jumbled mix of policies and actions he thinks might help to accomplish "regime change" reasonably soon. One method has been to take all the various resolutions passed in conjunction with the last Iraqi war literally and as easily understood instances of clear violations. But neither the resolutions nor the violations have been as clear as Mr. Bush claimed they were or as he no doubt wishes they were.

UN resolutions almost always have ambiguous phrases and provisions that give all concerned a bit of wiggle-room when it comes to interpretation. They are written by diplomats, after all – people charged with going abroad and lying for their countries – and calibrated to get support from delegates who have no particular interest in the subject at hand or might have reservations about the course of action implied. Often they are more oriented toward posturing than action – consciously, purposely and perhaps thankfully.

All this is not necessarily a bad thing. The UN includes countries with a wide range of purposes and attitudes – though many of the diplomats who end up there take on the institutional coloring and interests of the UN or the vaunted "international community" more than the interests of their particular nation after a while. It is almost certainly better for the rest of us that they should be posturing and blowing off steam than actually taking action to promote their various agendas, many of which are arrogant and harmful at best.

The UN is not especially good at promoting peace, development or liberty, and it’s probably better for all concerned if it didn’t try all that often. Resolutions with ambivalent or ambiguous phrases are probably less harmful to the world than resolute and determined, united and unified action. Better to do no harm than to engage in too much foolishness. The UN, and to a great extent the world order, after all, are built on levels of ambiguity that are seldom acknowledged in part because it is potentially dangerous to make too much of them.

All the member states of the UN are said to be sovereign, and the world order is predicated to a great extent on the belief that member states will not meddle in the internal affairs of other states so long as said states refrain from invasion or aggression. But sovereignty in the affairs of nation-states is seldom if ever absolute. States meddle in the internal affairs of other states all the time. Larger, more prosperous and powerful countries have more influence and license to meddle than do smaller, less powerful countries.

On balance, however, it is viewed as inadvisable to inquire too closely into such meddling, or to try to define the limits of allowable meddling. It might very well keep conflict at tolerable levels to pretend to accept the myth of sovereignty and simply wink and nod when it is not respected in practice. Taking it all too literally could reveal some of the contradictions at the heart of the so-called system.

Another contradiction has to do with the desire of many to "transcend" national sovereignty through international organizations like the UN and various other trans-national bodies. The international bureaucrats and diplomats who are really working to make national sovereignty obsolete can seldom afford to say so in so many words. So they maintain certain necessary levels of hypocrisy. And insofar as hypocrisy is the tribute vice (conflict and subversion in the international arena) pays to virtue (peace and minimizing outright bloody conflict), we might well be grateful for some of this hypocrisy.

Insisting that UN resolutions be taken literally, as President Bush seemed to be doing in his UN speech, could upset this delicate balance of idealism, realism and hypocrisy. It might begin to undermine some of the unstated and unacknowledged assumptions that serve in part to keep our titular leaders from being even worse than they are now. Who knows, it might even help to hasten the end of the era of the nation-state in international relations – a development some historians including John Lukacs (his recent book At the End of an Age is fascinating reading) is underway already.

Insisting that UN resolutions really do say what they seem to say and that they should be taken seriously in that spirit might have other effects the Bushies might not welcome. The UN has passed plenty of resolutions critical of Israel over the years, that seem to mandate (although generally with enough wiggle-room that clever international lawyers can argue either way) that Israel withdraw from a great deal of territory that country has no intention of withdrawing from under current circumstances.

But if UN resolutions are to be applied literally and simplistically to Saddam Hussein, it won’t be long before certain parties will insist that consistency demand they be applied rigorously to Israel (indeed, plenty of people have been demanding just that for years). Will that be a welcome development to the neos at the Weekly Standard and New Republic, or to the administration itself?

All this discussion, of course, runs the risk of exposing just how empty is any UN claim to either physical or moral power or authority. Kofi Annan may sputter and fume and offer gratuitous advice, but he has no troops. He came very close in his speech last Thursday to acknowledging that the chief value of the UN is to give cover and the appearance of legitimacy to powerful nations intent on a course of action they will pursue with or without the UN. It might be useful for all of us to take note of this function, but making it more widely known can hardly do much to enhance UN claims to be the last, best hope of humankind for peace, order and stability in a troubled world.

Both President Bush and Kofi Annan may end up sorry that they upset the delicate balance of hypocrisy on which so much of their power and authority rests.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).