Is the United Nations Worth Saving?

For a good many years, it has been a fair question whether or not the United Nations is more trouble than it’s worth. For the first 15 years of its existence, from 1945 to 1960, it served its purpose as a handy forum for the world’s variegated nations, and even occasionally served a useful purpose — as in 1950, when it lent its name to the American-led war to defend South Korea from the North Korean invasion. (Though even that was possible only because the Soviet Union, which could have vetoed the move, had temporarily walked out of the Security Council in a huff over something or other.)

But then, about 1960, a flood of new ex-colonial nations entered the world body, and quickly organized themselves as the Third World, ostensibly neutral in the epochal struggle between the Communist powers and the Free World. By virtue of sheer numbers this new entity seized control of the General Assembly — and with it control of the United Nations’ central bureaucracy — and began selling itself to the higher of the two global bidders: Washington and Moscow. Slowly, however, under the leadership of India, the Third World began siding regularly with Moscow, and the United Nations followed suit.

This thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs lasted until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. That forced the Untied Nations, which, like any bureaucracy, is interested first and foremost in self-preservation, to seek a new sponsor. In the past decade, as France and Germany have increasingly seen themselves as the leaders of Europe in an effort to create a counterbalance to the American superpower; the United Nations has progressively yielded to their guidance. Today, it is little more than a marginally useful tool in their schemes to rein in the United States.

That is one reason why, in 2002 and 2003, the United Nations did its unsuccessful best to block the American invasion of Iraq, despite Saddam Hussein’s defiance of 12 successive U.N. demands that it abandon its development of chemical, biological and (if possible) nuclear weapons of mass destruction. And that is also why U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is today contending that any American military effort is “illegal” if Washington doesn’t first receive the United Nations’ permission.

All this would be more than enough reason for the United States to withdraw formally from all participation in the United Nations’ brazen efforts to run the world. But recently it has become clear that the Secretariat of the United Nations, or at least many highly placed officials in it, are quite simply corrupt. The United Nations’ appalling mismanagement of the high-minded “Oil for Food” program, under which Hussein was allowed to sell Iraqi oil ostensibly in return for desperately needed food and medical aid for his people, may well turn out to be the biggest instance of thievery in the entire world history of theft.

As the program actually worked, the United Nations allowed Hussein to sell oil to chosen beneficiaries at artificially low prices — oil which they could then resell at the market price, pocketing the difference. The beneficiaries apparently included U.N. officials and (not surprisingly) well-placed French, German and Russian players. Small wonder that their governments, and the United Nations itself, bitterly opposed George W. Bush’s intention to topple Hussein!

The scope of the corruption is now under investigation by the panel appointed Annan and led by Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, who is personally above suspicion. But Volcker seems to be having difficulty getting the cooperation he needed from Annan’s office, and he may be forced to report that he is not being allowed to do the job that needs to be done.

A better avenue of investigation, therefore, may be the Congressional committee headed by Minnesota’s Republican senator, Norm Coleman. This committee, too, has reported that it is running into foot-dragging at the United Nations. But it will press on, and there is reason to hope that it will come up with some answers, however shocking they may be.

All of which makes even more urgent a serious reevaluation of the ability of the United Nations. The time may be coming when Uncle Sam will have to say “Enough!”