The United Nations was a follow-on to the League of Nations that was founded in 1919 in reaction to the carnage of WWI, “the war to end all wars.” The proposal for the League was central to US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points for Peace, its purpose to offer “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” It was supposed to provide a mechanism to hash out issues that divided nations, press for peaceful solutions to disputes, and make the recourse to aggression unnecessary and counter-productive. Ironically, although the US President was central to the League’s founding, the United States itself never became a member. Wilson was unable to win the backing of the Republicans in Congress, who pointed out that Article X of the League’s Covenant would make US participation in war obligatory should one member state be attacked by another (even if the US was not involved in the dispute). This was an unacceptable infringement of United States’ sovereignty and so the League went forward without America’s participation.
Unfortunately the League of Nations, despite some minor victories, proved unable to achieve its goals of defusing international disputes. It had no army of its own that could force down aggressor states and in the end, the great nations once again used their power to attain their own ends. Although the League stumbled on through the end of the Second World War, it was a paper tiger that commanded no respect and no authority. In 1946, it was dissolved and soon thereafter replaced with the United Nations.
The League of Nations had failed in part because it had been unable to convince the US to become a member. The United Nations tried to avoid that outcome by taking into account the realities of great power politics and so it established the Security Council, the key UN organ. Members of the Security Council were given veto power over resolutions authorizing collective action, thus providing essential protection of their sovereign rights. Despite such tweaks to the League of Nations model, the question remains whether the United Nations has been significantly more effective in preventing the recourse to force by the powerful against the weak or protecting the principle of territorial security. Clearly the answer is a resounding “no.”
When N. Korea invaded S. Korea in the early days of the UN, the Security Council blessed the use of force by a coalition of the willing against the aggressor nation — but in that case the USSR abstained on the vote and communist China, N. Korea’s patron, was not a member of the Council and thus had no veto. The Security Council was never asked by the US to approve a resolution authorizing its use of force in the Vietnam War, which grew insidiously from a handful of advisors to 50,000 dead American soldiers. The Security Council did not authorize the USSR invasion of Afghanistan or the US invasion of Afghanistan, although it authorized an international force to stabilize the country post-invasion. NATO never asked for Security Council authorization to bomb Yugoslavia over the Bosnian War, although it claimed resolutions calling for certain steps to be taken by Serbia and authorizing anything short of “foreign occupation” to protect civilians had authorized NATO actions, including foreign occupation. The US never asked for UN Security Council authorization to bomb Serbia over Kosovo, claiming the very Charter of the UN was an authorization. In Iraq, the United States did not ask for a Security Council resolution before its invasion on the grounds that previous resolutions relating to weapons of mass destruction and approved in relation with the first Gulf war had clearly authorized the use of force should Saddam Hussein not comply with weapons inspections obligations. In that case, Secretary General Kofi Annan made clear that he considered the US action a violation of international law – but that did not stop the US action or its subsequent occupation of Iraq. In Libya, there was no Security Council resolution authorizing NATO bombing and no repercussions to the aggression. Today the United States President has declined to seek UN Security Council authorization for the bombing of Syria, citing as justification the certainty of Russian and probably Chinese vetoes. The US has presented fabricated evidence to justify its planned aggression and ignores the UN’s assertion that the US has no proof who deployed the chemical weapons that have provided the US with an excuse for more regime change.
It is thus apparent that the Security Council, the linchpin of the United Nations, is utterly powerless to prevent global aggression, and in particular the aggression of powerful states against weak states. This should come as no surprise. Back in the days of the League of Nations, Benito Mussolini commented that the organization “is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.” When a powerful nation decides to turn its weapons against another nation, even when there are no evident security interests involved, the United Nations proves no obstacle whatsoever. And since the collapse of the USSR, the United States has enjoyed the kind of global power not seen since the time of the Romans. Instead of Pax Romana, we have Pax Americana: we have used our unrivaled power and military technology to determine what nations will do, how they will live, and who will govern them. And the United States has not hesitated to send out the bombers when its will has been thwarted. Thus the UN has taken on the same image as the League of Nations in its day – as a “League of Victors” dedicated to preserving the global status quo and indifferent to the interests of everybody else. The rights of the small and the rights of the great are no more equal today than they were in the last century; and the territorial integrity of the small is as vulnerable to the predations of the great as ever before.
The United Nations is as useless an organization, as disrespected an organization, as the League of Nations ever was. It is helpful as a cover when an aggressor state is able to cobble together a collection of willing allies, or when it has finagled a resolution that can subsequently be construed as authorizing force; but it is only useful as an abettor to aggression. It has never proven effective as a bulwark against aggression.
And so my question is: why even bother with the United Nations? It is a bottomless pit that consumes the wealth of nations and provides sinecures to corrupt and lazy bureaucrats. It is particularly vulnerable to mission creep that allows it to intervene in the internal affairs of independent nations on issues from “global warming” to the internet, but has utterly failed in protecting vital principles such as territorial integrity. It cannot stop violence, and it is too often silent when aggression occurs, even when its own mechanisms are abused to commit that aggression.
I know it is a pipe-dream, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could just admit that the UN is a useless entity and close it down? At the very least, it would no longer be there sitting on its hands when the next war is ignited.