By William Urban 

            The first Great Decisions program of 2006 (each Wednesday in the Stockdale Center at 7:30) was on proposals for reforming the United Nations. The speaker for the introductory thirty minutes was yours truly, but the heart of the program was the students, faculty and citizens who participated in the lively discussion that followed.

            The need to make changes in UN operations is clear – there is sufficient inefficiency and corruption to dismay all but the organization’s blindest supporters. But there is little agreement as to how the organization can be improved. The main question is how to make the organization live up better to its original goals – bringing the nations of the world together in a search for peace, prosperity, human rights and the advancement of science, education and health. The fact is that there is no other forum where this can be done.

            One fundamental problem stems from the growth in membership. The coalition of the democratic victors from the Second World War was soon undermined by the existence of the Soviet bloc and the Cold War, but newly admitted nations quickly formed mutually supporting coalitions that changed the dynamics of the UN even more fundamentally. In days when Cuba was clearly a Soviet ally, Cuba was accepted a non-aligned power; even today Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe are on the Human Rights Council. Obviously, there gap between ideals and practice.

            This should not be too great a surprise: the UN is a political body. There are many opportunities to posture for the folks at home, to bargain for favors, and to rip the system off. Even the poorest country has powerful families which can send its young men to New York to enjoy the high salaries, the night clubs, the travel and the right to ignore traffic and parking regulations. Many jobs are apportioned among the nations, not on competence. How far corruption could be taken was shown in the Oil for Food scandal, when Saddam Hussein bought off UN officials, French and Russian ministers, and even implicated the Secretary General’s son.

            This is not to say that the USA is perfect. Chicago and Springfield fall short of being the models of democracy we extol in school; and they are hardly free of corruption and incompetence. But the powers of American mayors and governors are far short of those implicit in a stronger UN. 

            For certain, the United States is not about to put its fate in the hands of the UN. One has only to think about the flawed Kyoto Treaty, the war crimes tribunal with the potential power to put presidents and generals on trial, and the fact that dictators and autocrats rule so many young nations. Those who can remember African and Islamic nations and the Soviet empire joining together to attack Israel are justifiably cautious – similar combinations would gladly bring down the world’s only superpower, limit globalization and oppose “imperialism”, even if the result would be a world-wide depression and making it difficult for the US to continue its role as the UN’s largest financial support.

            On the other hand, the US is not likely to destroy the UN. It is illogical to say that the UN is too weak to act, yet argue that it is so strong as to be dangerous.

            So, we are back to the real question: how to reform the UN? The small countries do not want to lose influence, while the large countries fear being outvoted. Thus far, the Security Council has maintained the balance, with the five permanent members using the veto whenever their national interests were threatened. But in today’s world can one logically say that France should have a permanent seat, but not Japan or Germany, or Brazil or Nigeria? On the other hand, how big can an effective Security Council be?

            We live in a world of flawed human beings and flawed institutions. Making these better will not be easy. There is no excuse for not trying to do that which is possible, but America’s best chance of getting individuals to vote against their own (often corrupt) self-interest will require some political realism that the believers in one-world government will not like.

Review-Atlas (February 2, 2006), 4.