Many who read my weekly columns know that I have, in the past, advocated the dismantling of the United Nations (UN) and I am by most accounts one of its harshest critics. However, after some dialogue and much research, I have come to understand that some of my criticism was misplaced. While I still advocate UN reform, I no longer advocate its elimination, having realized that the UN, arguably, has had a far greater effect on world peace than any other entity in the history of men.
It is true that the UN is inefficient. However, what it lacks in efficiency it makes up for in effectiveness. When the major powers founded the UN at the end of World War II to replace the beleaguered and ineffective League of Nations, their goal was to create an organization that could foster greater dialogue among the countries of the world to prevent wars like the one the world had just fought (WWII) and World War I before that. It is worth noting that before the founding of the UN, the world had been embroiled in conflict. World War II was preceded by World War I, which was preceded by the Russo-Japanese War, which was preceded by the Franco-Prussian War and many others before that. In that respect, the UN, so far, has achieved the purpose for which it was created. Since its foundation, there has been no major regional or world conflict. The UN has provided a forum for countries to air grievances in public and set up a structure within which disputes among countries can be adjudicated and resolved peacefully. Further, it has established a framework to set up rules by which the nations of the world play and a structure for punishing countries that violate those rules.
Many world events that would probably have resulted in armed conflicts before the existence of the UN have been resolved peacefully since its creation. The Cuban Missile Crisis is one such event. It was in the UN that the United States made its case publicly for the Soviet Union to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Cuba. Before Ambassador Adlai Stevenson made his presentation at the UN, the Soviet Union had repeatedly denied that it had placed nuclear weapons in Cuba. Greater dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in the compromise that adverted nuclear war. (The Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for the United States’ agreement to withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Turkey). Can you imagine what would have happened before the creation of the UN? Another such event is the Gulf War of 1991. It was the UN that provided a forum for the United States and Kuwait to make their case that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was illegal. It was the UN that voted to authorize the countries of the world to use force if necessary to remove the Iraqi army from Kuwait and restore the legitimate government of Kuwait, which they successfully did under the leadership of the United States.
When countries have grievances against other countries, they often air those grievances in the UN to notify the world community that they have been wronged. Sometimes, the offending country having been shamed publicly discontinues the act or acts that had been the subject matter of the grievance. For example, Pakistan has in the past taken certain provocative actions across the demarcation line in Kashmir that it discontinued after India exposed them to the light of day at the UN. Without the UN as a forum to air those grievances, these events could have resulted in armed conflicts.
The UN is not a perfect organization, but it runs far more smoothly than its critics like to admit. Like any other bureaucracy, it can use more accountability and transparency. But it is rather effective in its core mission. The UN did a very good job of providing relief for the people of India and Indonesia in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami. Contrast that with the response of the government of the United States after hurricane Katrina. In that respect the people of the gulf coast would have fared far better with the UN than they did with the U.S. government. Many of the UN’s American critics argue that the United States would be better off without it. They foresee a world where the United States can use its great power and exercise dominion over the world. That’s a fallacy. The United States exercises its power far more effectively with the UN than it could without it. For example, the United States, through the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has prevented many countries that desire nuclear weapons from acquiring them. Certainly, a few countries have succeeded in obtaining nuclear weapons, but make no mistake about it; there would be exponentially many more countries with nuclear weapons today had it not been for the United Nations. Some would argue that the United States would have more freedom of action without the UN; it could bomb into oblivion any country that refuses its request to stop building nuclear weapons. The truth, however, is that the United States or any other country in the world for that matter does not have enough bombs to beat all the countries in the world into compliance.
There is no other organization in the world that can replace or undertake the tasks in which the UN is involved. There is no other mechanism for getting the cooperation and involvement of 191 independent States. If the UN were to be disbanded as some of the people advocate, who would take care of the missions in Lebanon, Kosovo, Haiti, and others. The UN has succeeded in its mission.
People forget that the countries of the world are like people. Each country takes the characteristics and values of its people. When a country is offended, it’s not the country itself that is offended, but its people. For example, when President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela criticized President Bush at his UN speech last month, he was universally condemned in the United States for offending the American people. If the United States criticizes China, many Chinese take the criticism personally. When people are offended, without the benefit of a referee, they take matters into their own hands. Thus, in a world without the UN, it is conceivable that nations, when they’re offended would take matters into their own hands resulting in more armed conflicts throughout the world and more deaths.
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