“Despite Severe International Criticism”: The Dismal Failure of the UN

This morning brings news that Israel will continue to provoke the Palestinians with whom it claims to seek peace by continuing to create construction projects in “all of Jerusalem.” This, the news report from the Associated Press said, comes “despite stiff International criticism.”

When President Putin of Russia repossessed Crimea, it came “despite severe international criticism” and amid threats that by its warlike behavior Russia risked being ostracized from the global stage of leadership.

As the United States turned back and incarcerated thousands of children trying to migrate to a better, safer life in America from South and Central America, it did so while encountering “severe international criticism.”  And yet there were forces in American politics clamoring for an even more bellicose response.

There are literally hundreds of such events, small and large, undertaken by nations powerful and weak, that draw harsh criticism from around the globe every year. But the criticism tends not to have any real impact. The absence of any real tool of moral suasion seems to me to lie at the root of this ineffectiveness.

Logo of the United NationsThe United Nations Charter, similarly to the Preamble to the United States Constitution, is filled with high-minded, idealistic language outlining purposes and missions that, if actually executed, would lead to a world that is much more peaceful, egalitarian and life-supporting than we experience in the real world. But the UN suffers from some fundamental flaws that are probably never going to be resolved, in part because some of them are probably seen, as we say in the software business, as “features, not bugs.”

The very existence of a Security Council is perhaps the largest single obstacle to the UN accomplishing anything. As long as China, France, Russia, the UK and the US hold permanent seats with veto powers, you can be sure that nothing substantive will ever be done even in the face of the most egregious conduct. These memberships were granted at the formation of the UN when Russia was the Soviet Union, a legitimate world power. It clearly no longer is. The remaining 10 seats on the Security Council are term-limited and effectively powerless so long as the veto power exists.

Just as in our national Congress, meaningful reform will always be dashed against the rocks of entrenched power, so in the United Nations any attempt to eliminate or reduce the power of the veto would itself be vetoed or simply ignored.

It is worthy of national and global debate to reconsider the structure, organization and purpose of the United Nations. This has been the case for virtually my entire life. When I was in high school in 1961, the national debate topic was “Resolved, that the United Nations should be significantly strengthened.” That we are still debating this issue 53 years later is not astonishing, but it can be discouraging.

Short of a single global body through which this “severe international criticism” can be channeled and activated, enforced — not necessarily militarily but perhaps through some combination of name-and-shame and economic sanctions, or though some as-yet-undeveloped mechanism — how can we translate this legitimate concern on the part of most of the world about the conduct of one or a small group of countries? The idea of one World Government will, I suspect, remain a distant dream (or nightmare, depending on one’s politics) for the rest of humanity’s history. Unless, that is, a global catastrophe of the size and scope and power of global climate change finally decimates our population to a point where we are forced to come together to cooperate to save what remains of the race.

Perhaps in the end that will be our fate. To be reduced in size and power to a place where we no longer pose a threat to Gaia and, in so doing, to learn the lesson of Oneness, that we are all in this together, that we hang together or surely we shall hang separately. The only alternative I see is to envision and help bring about a global tipping point of more “enlightened” (however that word is understood) humans who can then bring about the transformational change that I see as humanity’s only hope of surviving the impending crisis.

1 comment for ““Despite Severe International Criticism”: The Dismal Failure of the UN

  1. November 4, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    *Editor’s Note: The following exchange with a reader took place offline but Gary Stark was kind enough to allow me to post it here. It took place over the course of several days; this is an edited transcript that eliminates duplication and tries to maintain the flow.*

    **Gary Stark:**

    I wanted to post a comment on your UN article, but couldn’t find the register link, so thought I’d write you directly.

    I totally agree with your assessment, that the UN has failed on it’s promise.  My own conclusion is that we need a United Democratic Nations, an organization where democracy matters.  The very word “democracy” appears nowhere in the UN charter.  If we value democracy, it makes no sense to completely ignore the concept when conduction foreign policy. Here’s a video I made on my proposal for a revamped UN (it’s short)…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmEceg1YPRc

    I would be interested in your feedback.  Here’s the accompanying website:  www.UnitedDemocraticNations.org.

    **Dan Shafer:**

    Actually, you can comment on my Web site without registering but you need an account at Disqus. Sorry that wasn’t clearer; I’ll revisit the site to see how I can make that more evident. Thanks for persisting!

    I find your idea interesting. A United Democratic Nations would certainly be a completely different organization from the UN. Nations who are not members would not feel any necessity of complying with its mandates (one could argue there’s a lot of selectivism in the UN as well, but at least global responses including sanctions are possible there). 

    I also wonder about your statement that, “Democracy is the best hope for world peace.” I have an aversion to trying to decide for other nations, cultures and peoples, what is in their best interest. Democracy is the best form of government for us and for many other nations. But the only way for democracy to supplant other forms of government is through some sort of force. I think the Arab Spring put the final touches on that argument; popular revolution can (and usually does) become violent before it succeeds. And then even after it succeeds, democracy does not inevitably follow (see Egypt). In nations with very low literacy rates, widespread poverty, little or no educational opportunity, it is difficult to imagine democracy working very well at all. In fact, in those scenarios — and there are dozens of such nations in the world today — we have a chicken-egg situation: democracy could arguably eventually correct those shortcomings but with all those shortcomings, democracy seems perhaps inappropriate.

    A final point. In the Western World, democracy has become too closely associated with the free enterprise capitalist economic system. And I do not see that as the best system, particularly for emerging nations in the second and third worlds. We have with capitalism created an unsustainable economic model that threatens to bring down humanity in a jumble of climatological disaster. Emerging democracies must, I think, follow much more closely the European Social Democratic models. But I don’t see how that happens if the United States, stuck as it is in 19th century economic thinking, leads the charge for a UDN.

    **Gary Stark:**

    >I find your idea interesting. A United Democratic Nations would certainly be a completely different organization from the UN. Nations who are not members would not feel any necessity of complying with its mandates (one could argue there’s a lot of selectivism in the UN as well, but at least global responses including sanctions are possible there). 

    The real purpose of a United Democratic Nations would be to lead by example, not create a world government or send UN armies across the globe.  So yes, dictators would no doubt continue to flaunt any majority opinions, but with a UDN would at least have a more credible position.

    >I also wonder about your statement that, “Democracy is the best hope for world peace.” I have an aversion to trying to decide for other nations, cultures and peoples, what is in their best interest. Democracy is the best form of government for us and for many other nations. But the only way for democracy to supplant other forms of government is through some sort of force. I think the Arab Spring put the final touches on that argument; popular revolution can (and usually does) become violent before it succeeds.

    So again, lead by example.  But yes, democracy really is our best hope for peace.  Democracy means greater representation, which is the opposite of repression, the cause of much violence in the world.  There really is no better system, certainly no more fair system.

    >And then even after it succeeds, democracy does not inevitably follow (see Egypt). In nations with very low literacy rates, widespread poverty, little or no educational opportunity, it is difficult to imagine democracy working very well at all. In fact, in those scenarios — and there are dozens of such nations in the world today — we have a chicken-egg situation: democracy could arguably eventually correct those shortcomings but with all those shortcomings, democracy seems perhaps inappropriate.

    If you graph the percentage of countries that are democratic between two hundred years ago and now, the trend is good.  And while the arab spring might seem to have a mixed outcome in the short term, I have no doubt that it’s a good thing in the long term.

    >A final point. In the Western World, democracy has become too closely associated with the free enterprise capitalist economic system. And I do not see that as the best system, particularly for emerging nations in the second and third worlds. We have with capitalism created an unsustainable economic model that threatens to bring down humanity in a jumble of climatological disaster. Emerging democracies must, I think, follow much more closely the European Social Democratic models. But I don’t see how that happens if the United States, stuck as it is in 19th century economic thinking, leads the charge for a UDN.

    It’s very frustrating that the United States has become the symbol of democracy, given we have the best government money can buy.  The reality is that we need democratic reform in our own nations as much as elsewhere.  But to say that democracy doesn’t fit all nations really makes me bristle.  Which people in the world, which “emerging nation”, do you feel doesn’t deserve the equal representation afforded by democracy?  I’ve heard that point before, but it seems to evaporate when it comes to specifics.  If an ignorant voting populace is a reason not to have democracy, what does that say about the US?  I always favor democracy.  And this reminds me of my favorite quote on the subject…

    “Democracy is a system ensuring that the people are governed no better than they deserve.”
    -George Bernard Shaw

    **Dan Shafer:**

    >which “emerging nation”, do you feel doesn’t deserve the equal representation afforded by democracy? 

    You miss my point, perhaps because I wasn’t clear. I am not talking about who deserves democracy but who can function in a democratic society and benefit from its advantages. Illiterate populations faced with democratic choice will be subject to the same manipulations they are now, only they’ll have the illusion of choice to hypnotize them into more docile obedience.

    **Gary Stark:**

    Can you give an example where this would apply?

    **Dan Shafer:**

    Sure; Yemen, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cambodia, North Korea. Shall I go on? 

    Mali, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad….

    **Gary Stark:**

    Literacy in the United States in 1776 is estimated at “greater than 70%” (source).  The literacy of the nations you listed is as follows (source)…

    North Korea 100
    Equatorial Guinea 94
    Cambodia 74
    Angola 70
    Yemen 65
    Chad 35
    Mali 33
    Afghanistan 28
    Burkina Faso
    28

    So for starters do we remove the top three from your list?

    Now lets take the bottom end.  Many do hold elections and there ARE people in these countries fighting for democratic reform.  What exactly would you say to them?  Sorry, you’re not ready?  I deserve self determination but you don’t?  Take Afghanistan for instance…record numbers of people risked life and limb to vote in the most recent election (source).  Would you say they are wasting their time?  This article quotes various young people (a majority of the population in Afghanistan) on their aspirations…

    “I want change that not only brings peace but also good education, freedom and rights for all women of Afghanistan,”  (21-year-old Feroza from Kabul. She is the only one in her family with a voter’s card.)

    “Like other countries, we deserve to have peace, security, welfare and a strong economy,” (Ghulam, a 27-year-old from Herat)

    So your conclusions on “who can function in a democratic society and benefit from its advantages” seem a bit presumptuous to me.  The only way to become more democratic is to practice it.  Myself I would not exclude any nation or individual from the benefits of democracy.

    **Dan Shafer:**

    You are correct. I was working from outdated (and in one case misunderstood) data. So several of my examples were wrong. I appreciate you pointing that out.

    That said, i guess I’m going to go with Thomas Jefferson over Gary Stark. 🙂 When he said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” I believe he intended the reverse also to be true: well-informed people cannot be trusted with their own government. 

    I maintain that a so-called democracy in a nation where the people broadly cannot offer qualified assent to its provisions and behaviors is a democracy in name only. Th vast majority of the world’s population is ignorant of how it is governed and apathetic at the same time. To the rice farmer in the paddies of the remotest part of Vietnam, he does not know or care who is sitting in the president’s office in Hanoi. He just wants to be allowed to raise and sell or trade his rice and care for his family. Only when a certain degree of civilization has been reached are most people able to spend any significant portion of their time doing anything more lofty than scratching out an existence. 

    I agree with you that the democratic ideal is worth striving for. I agree that the world might be a more peaceful place if democracy reigned more broadly (though wars are not about politics, but economics and religion). I just resist any effort on the part of the United States to presume to tell any other country what form of government its people want or need or deserve. The doctrine of American Exceptionalism is, to me, repugnant and arrogant.

    But at the end of the day, it seems obvious you and I will simply have to agree to disagree. You keep wanting to make the discussion about who “deserves” democracy and I prefer to focus on who can most benefit from it and hold it accountable, as well as which people are socially and culturally adapted to the underlying beliefs in individual responsibility, collective good, and popular representation. 

    I must say I’ve enjoyed our dialog however.

    **Gary Stark:**

    I think there’s an inherent flaw in your logic here.  Clearly an illiterate public will be less likely to make intelligent voting decisions.  You could arguably make the case that the US is a prime example of this.  But as opposed to what?  The alternative to a democracy is a dictator.  And what do dictators do wrong?  They rob the country blind, brutalize their own people, and get the country into needless wars.  Well it doesn’t take a literate person to be against that sort of thing.  Even an illiterate dirt farmer knows when he is being oppressed.  And he will almost certainly be less likely to send his own children off to war than the dictator would.  So I’m just not seeing your point about literacy being a prerequisite for democracy.  An advantage?  Yes.  But a requirement, no.  Democracy was never intended to be the cure for bad governance.  Democracy only means that the people are responsible for their own decisions, that they own the process.  This brings to mind another great democracy quote…

    “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.”
    — Al Smith

    I would say that sums up my position fairly well.  As for the US (or the UN) forcing democracy on anyone, I fully agree with you…bad idea.  But helping nurture democracy by fighting censorship of the internet and such things is a worthwhile contribution.

    **Dan Shafer:**

    You wrote:

    >Even an illiterate dirt farmer knows when he is being oppressed.

    And I think that’s a key point at which we diverge. I was in Vietnam in the mid-1960’s and was part of a team set up to help inform the people in the remotest villages of what the Viet Cong were trying to do and to gain their loyalty to the central government. We found two amazing things. First, Vietnamese didn’t even have a word that could be accurately translated to mean “freedom”. They as a people had never known it. Second, the inhabitants of the remote villages didn’t know their nation’s capital, who was in charge or what was going on. All they knew was that periodically some army type would come through their village, claim to be there to help, disrupt things for a while, and leave.

    I think it’s a huge mistake to draw conclusions about what people know or think based on the modern Western democratic model. That model is not prevalent or dominant in the world.

    **Gary Stark:**

    Yes, but the difference between 1960 and now is mind blowing.  I suspect those very same villagers you met now all have cell phones.  And when the army attempts to march in and cause trouble, it ends up on youtube.  It’s a very different world.  And for the record, the western world has no monopoly on democracy.  Democracy is just democracy.

    **Dan Shafer:**

    it feels like we’ve sort of reached an end to this conversation, but I wanted to close by saying how grateful I am to you for taking the time to clearly share and explain your thoughts. Even though I’ve reached the ripe old age, I recognize every day how little I know. You’ve raised some very interesting points in this dialogue, which I will edit in place on my site soon. You are a very clear thinker and writer. I hope you will find yourself having some influence on the way the world evolves.

    **Gary Stark:**

    Well, thanks for giving me the time of day.  As you can tell I’m very passionate about this subject…if there was any disrespect on my side, it was not intended.