A cursory look at the history of the world reveals an unending stream of blood. The greed for power, intolerance and the utter disregard for the basic needs of people have led, and continue to lead, to abuse and violence. If these traits are inherent in human nature, we as human beings have failed to acknowledge it and to devise solutions to ameliorate the problem.
After the Great War the Allies created the League of Nations with the intent of preserving world peace. This of course was a well-intentioned and worthwhile endeavor, but came up short of its stated goals. As Germany began an accelerated race to rearm itself in the 1930s, the Allies attempted to stop Hitler by appeasement. After the cataclysmic consequences of WWI, no one in France and Britain was willing to enforce the Treaty of Versailles. No one but Winston Churchill, that is. After the Second World War was over, he said:
“Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention. Up till the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which has overtaken her and we might all have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honoured to-day; but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool.”
It’s remarkable how many parallels we can find in modern times to the period between the two world wars. Anywhere we look there’s some rogue regime that poses a mortal danger not only to its own people but also to its neighbors. This is precisely one of the things the UN is supposed to prevent.
Both the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations have in their charter the goal to avoid future devastation through war, as both incarnations of this organization were created after WWI and WWII, respectively. From this point of view, the UN has failed as miserably as its predecessor. It has not prevented or stopped any war since its inception. We should not forget that it was the League of Nations that was impotent and failed to prevent WWII, and the UN the wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Arab/Israeli wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, Iraq/Iran, and India/Pakistan. It was also the UN that failed to prevent the ethnic cleansing genocide in the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq, Darfur, and disappearances, torture and mass murder in South American military dictatorships as well as the recent inefficient, impotent role they played in disarming the country that constitutes the greatest danger to world peace today, Iran.
Claiming that the UN is not being used to its potential is a gross understatement. The UN is not only not even close to fulfilling the tenets of its own charter, in many cases it has been a hindrance, and through their inefficiency and ineptitude have fostered an environment in which the opposite is true. It is the UN that has allowed and perpetuates the only case in history in which a people—the Palestinians—are kept in squalor in dismal refugee camps for decades, and it is the UN that conveniently looks the other way when in those refugee camps they run, the culture of intolerance and hatred is nurtured and taught to young children.
Saying the UN has not been effective in resolving the Arab/Israeli conflict is a gross understatement too. When the armies of five Arab nations invaded Israel in 1948 after the country had declared its independence (as established by the UN), the new organization looked the other way and let the new nation be slaughtered by the numerically superior and better-equipped invaders. Would those paladins of justice at the UN have acted any differently then and now vis-à-vis Israel had the Arab countries been sitting on just sand?
The problem with the UN is inherent in its composition. Since the UN is formed by all kinds of countries with all kinds of interests, and even all kinds of perspectives on life within and outside of their territories, the organization is unlikely to arrive at a consensus on many thorny issues. This is an organization in which the vote of, say, Qatar counts as much as the vote of, say, the UK. This is a problem, because Qatar is a little country in which most of the population is made up of very poor foreigners whose voices don’t count, and the few princes that rule and do count gang up with other similar small nations to form a powerful bloc of many votes, whose outlook, interests, policies and way of government and life are totally inimical to those of the rest of the world.
Ultimately it’s mob rule. When it comes to the General Assembly’s apparent main preoccupation—Israel—or preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the number of votes of the Western powers amount to a fraction of the number of votes of the Arab bloc. The vote of either Germany, France, Britain or the US counts as much as the vote of Qatar or the United Arab Emirates in the General Assembly, which is one of the reasons why the UN is such an ineffectual body (and in practice worthless regarding its stated goal of keeping the peace). When the Arab bloc votes, they vote together as a brotherhood of countries, so in anything that has to do with the Middle East they count as dozens of votes. This of course is one of the reasons why the UN has always been and continues to be so anti-Israeli.
Other reasons why it’s wrong and unfair that the vote of Bahrain or Qatar (for example) count as much as that of a place like Britain or the US is because there’s the issue of experience and population. Let’s look at these two issues in some more detail: countries that have become very powerful and influential cannot be put in the same bag as countries that have not only no “worldly” experience (in the sense of countries like Britain, France or the US) but also radical and antagonistic views about the rest of the world. There’s no way around it: there’s always some vested interest from some group that sways the vote in some direction, which is not necessarily the right direction.
The facts that on the one hand the UN is in essence mob rule and on the other hand has no real enforcing power makes it useless as a peace-keeping entity. The former is the main reason why it cannot be trusted, while the latter is the reason why it cannot get things done. The constitution of the UN is a relatively new problem since at the beginning the League of Nations and the UN were formed by the Western countries, which share a common interest and outlook on life. However, over time the organization was greatly enlarged by the inclusion of numerous other nations with very different and sometime opposing interests.
The trouble with lack of enforcing power is that nobody really wants the UN to be a powerful world police. No country really wants some external force judging and imposing things on them. So, if the UN determines Kashmir should be independent, or that it should swing back to India or Pakistan, it is clear that no matter what the decision will be, one or more of the three parties will be unhappy. At that point what should the UN do? One possibility is to enforce the resolution with boots on the ground. This, we know from experience, will not and cannot happen with the current organization. The end result is inaction and the perpetuation of the status quo. The same thing applies to Iran, and applied to Hitler: inaction, or ineffective action. The only way the UN can be relevant is if it had the power to enforce. If the UN is to be the world’s police it will have to carry guns. There’s no way around it. Because this seems to be a utopian dream, we must accept the status quo (issue resolutions and live with the consequences of not enforcing them).
The issue of lack of enforcing power could conceivably be fixed by a two-pronged approach. On the one hand the UN would have to be armed with a strong expeditionary army (as opposed to the small “peace-keeping” force they currently have), and on the other hand the way they operate and think would need to be radically changed. Diplomacy is great, but there are cases when it just doesn’t work. When the police faces a psychopath shooting indiscriminately, they use force to stop him. They don’t invite the man over for tea to discuss things. If this policy had been in place in the 1930s Hitler would have been toppled or stopped at the very latest in 1936, Nasser in 1966/7 and Hussein long before he invaded Kuwait.
As Churchill said in a speech to the House of Commons before WWII was over, in order to avoid the horrors of war again, and in order to avoid the pitfalls in which the League of Nations had fallen into, the successor organization—the United Nations—would have to be a very strong organization. He meant strength in the sense of force. Churchill envisioned a UN with a very powerful army that whenever necessary could go anywhere in the world and slap a few dictators here and there and prevent “rogue” states from breaking the peace. The UN not only doesn’t have a strong army, it also wouldn’t use it had it had one. That’s why the organization is worthless as a peacekeeping body.
Even in its somewhat successful humanitarian functions it’s pretty pathetic as far as its other responsibilities, as exemplified by its total failure to enforce the non-belligerent status of its own refugee camps in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere. And, in those occasions when they have tried to use force, they have done a dismal job as exemplified by their track record in the Balkans and Lebanon.
So, unless there’s a way in which the UN can (a) determine what’s good or bad based on universal standards of morality, ethics, etc. and not a popular vote and, (b) this organization is armed enough to be able to prevent wars, genocide and protect the human rights of defenseless populations with the use of force when necessary, it seems to me that said organization will continue to be as useless and impotent as it has always been.
If the UN is to keep world peace, then it must have teeth. There’s no way around it. But asking the UN—who received Arafat with wild applause in its General Assembly not too long ago—to adopt this new, radical way of seeing things might be too much. I do not know if it’s possible. My suspicion is that the UN has already become the League of Nations II, having adopted the policy of appeasement. The body has not learned the lessons from its past, and is following the same steps as its predecessors with predictably the same results.