the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 March 11


The United Nations is a body that once had my admiration, but at present I am dumbfounded as to why. Undoubtedly some of it was a vestige of childhood, of what I would guess is a shared experience for many of us. It didn’t take long, even as a child, to recognize that there was something putrid about the behavior and attitude of the United States during the Cold War. I couldn’t articulate my recoil from the jingoistic vitriol directed against Russia, and the love-it-or-leave-it patriotism directed towards all things “American”. For some time I was quite sympathetic to Russia. Perhaps that came partially from the dawnings of my present egalitarian collectivism, but mostly it was from a belief that the Russians were folks, just like us, real human beings and not monsters. Russia couldn’t possibly be as bad as the US said it was.

I know now that it was much worse. My child self was revulsed to hear Ronald Reagan call Russia an “evil empire”; my adult self is only inclined to quibble with the religious element of the characterization. I grew up in the era of Brezhnev, Stalin’s true heir, a petty, unimaginative thug who aped a grandiose, clever destroyer of humanity. I understand better than Reagan why Brezhnev and especially Stalin were to be condemned; Reagan’s actions and rhetoric on other subjects demonstrated that he was sympathetic to tyranny of all varieties other than “communist”. As a practicing egalitarian collectivist ― communist, you might say ― I have another reason for complaint, namely that the nationalist, imperialist, fascist regimes of Stalin, Mao, Lenin, and Brezhnev existed in the name of an ideology that in origin and nature opposed nationalism, imperialism, and fascism, that opposed dominion over land as well as people, and so these regimes discredited this ideology in the minds of unthinking critics.

The United Nations was also once appealing to my cosmopolitan orientation. I want to see the world integrate, culturally, politically, and economically. I want us to set aside our arbitrary divisions and live, again, as folks, as a single body of diverse individuals, rather than a battlefield of armed sects and factions. I even believe that some of the founders of the UN, and many of its current employees and supporters, feel the same. But the UN, and its policy-making directorate, the Security Council, is a spent force, an institution that every day more demonstrates that it represents not a united world of diverse individuals, but the precise collection of armed sects and factions that cosmopolitans most want it to supplant.

Currently the US, Britain, and France are jetting their ministers around the world in an effort to secure or block a nine-vote supermajority on the Security Council in favor of eventually, maybe, after much prevarication, saying that it is willing to do more than jaw about Saddam Hussein’s disarmament and go so far as to take action. The US and Britain are pursuing this majority even though, without France’s concurrence or at least abstention, such a resolution cannot pass. This is being done primarily because Tony Blair is skating on a narrow mandate of Labour Party whip loyalists and principled (perish the thought) Tories, and would have more support from his own party with a new UN resolution. Polls in the US reflect the same sentiment, that many individuals would be swayed on the issue of war if, and only if, the Security Council endorsed it. Perhaps this is a cynical, hell-freezes-over condition, but more likely it is because the UN, “multilateralism”, and the notion of international consensus are still held to have some kind of moral authority.

There are fifteen members of the Security Council. Five states are permanent members. They ― the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China ― were the four most significant combatants on the winning side in World War II and their French ally, and for a long time and not coincidentally, the only open nuclear powers and the five largest arms exporters. The other ten members are elected for staggered two-year terms from and by the General Assembly with more thought to regional factionalism and clubbiness than contributions to international peace and security. That General Assembly consists of one hundred ninety-one recognized governments (out of at least two hundred forty-seven actual sovereign governments in the real world), only one hundred twenty-four of which are democracies even by the loosest standards.

Of those fifteen members, the governments of the US, Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria are democratic, and acting in apparent defiance of their electorates’ majority opposition to war. Germany, Chile, and Mexico are democracies, and Germany’s opposition and Chile’s and Mexico’s reluctance are reflections of public opinion. I might wish their governments to show more spine and leadership on the question of Iraq, but I can at least credit them (but not much) with showing spine and leadership on the question of the United States. They are on the losing side of history, but are there honestly, as I was with Russia as a child. Of course, I was a child, so the comparison goes only so far.

That leaves:

China, ruled by Jiang Zemin, self-aggrandizing puppetmaster, standing down formally in a matter of days, but fancying himself another Deng Xiaoping (or worse, Mao Zedong). Thankfully he is not nearly so capable, nor clever. But his state remains a military and economic power, and an absolute dictatorship, whose controlling faction no longer even pretends to believe Mao’s bogus ideological justification and is now just ruling because, well, that’s what it does.

Pakistan, ruled by Pervez Musharraf and the military. Pervez took power for exactly one reason: the elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, fired him. It may be that Nawaz and his rival, Benazir Bhutto, were both corrupt, but they were also both popular democrats. Nawaz went as far as to withdraw from the military’s recent show elections in support of Bhutto, who was banned. Those elections produced, probably through genuine electoral support, a pro-military ruling coalition, and a strong surge in religious-fundamentalist, pro-Taliban representation. But Pervez saw to it that he would retain control no matter the outcome.

Angola, ruled by José Eduardo dos Santos and the MPLA. Angola was, for a brief time, a democracy. The rightist, Cold War, apartheid-funded UNITA, headed by the self-important, atrocious Jonas Savimbi, can be blamed for rejecting its electoral defeat and prolonging the civil war. But dos Santos has now apparently decided that it doesn’t matter if he ever holds elections again, or ever stands down. It is the old African pattern: one man, one vote ... one time.

Guinea, ruled by Lansana Conté, who took power in a 1984 coup. The former officer has been running and “winning” sham elections since then, planning his perpetuation in office.

Syria, ruled by Bashar al-Assad, the “apolitical” ophthalmologist son of the world’s late, lamented leading autocrat, Hafez al-Assad. His power is based on inheritance and a cabal of his father’s cronies; his supposed reformist tendencies have been little in evidence.

Cameroun, ruled by Paul Biya, who came to power in a one-party system in 1982. Biya immediately began a program of suppressing opponents, and has since stolen election after election.

Russia, ruled by an oligarchic democracy that favors nationalism, imperialism, and strong authoritarian leaders, the current being Vladimir Putin. Putin’s adventures in imperial brutality in Chechnya have nearly succeeded in destroying Chechnya as a warning to future resistance to Moscow.

And, finally, France, about which nothing good can be said at this point. I have already condemned France’s duplicity on this matter ― does anyone with a clue to France’s entanglement with Saddam’s regime believe it to be acting on principle here? ― and could equally condemn its perpetual neo-colonialism and its current (and in some ways perpetual) Gaullism (referring not to Gaul, of course, but to the pompous and conniptive Charles de Gaulle). France in general and Jacques Chirac in particular are nursing some long-unrealistic vision of France as a great power. Don Rumsfeld, and believe me I hate to say this, was right: France is Old Europe. Gone are the days of revolutions when France led the world to rationalism, republicanism, liberté-égalité-fraternité. Now it is the country of Indochine and Algérie Française. It is the country of economic and even linguistic spheres of influence. And when it cannot win its rivalry with the Anglophone world through merit, it resorts to belittlement. Who in eastern Europe will ever forget Chirac telling their elected leaders to mind their manners and keep their mouths shut? Those outside the club of western Europe should be exploited, not heard. What an ass.

This is what is meant by the ‘United Nations’. In December, the previous Security Council (minus Angola, Chile, Germany, Pakistan, and Spain, plus Colombia, Ireland, Mauritius, Norway, and Singapore, but the point holds) unanimously endorsed “serious consequences” (by which it meant war) should Iraq not immediately comply with all previous (including twelve-year-old) requirements for disarmament, including giving full information about its past programs, allowing all technicians to be interviewed without supervision, and actively assisting in the destruction of all of its banned weapons, without hesitation, none of which ― do I repeat myself? ― it has done. But for the evident resolution of the United States and Britain to invade otherwise, even such pathetic tokens of cooperation as have been provided so far would have been withheld. And yet that token cooperation has been used by France and others to argue for their position that war should not take place under any circumstances. France and Russia don’t even want containment, it must be remembered. Should the interventionists back down, in time France and Russia will call for an end to inspections, and then to sanctions, and within a couple of days Chirac will have Saddam in Paris for a bit of the old wine-and-dine.

Pakistan, Guinea, Cameroun, Syria, arguably Angola, and especially China are dictatorships, whose support the democracies of the world should be happy to do without. Pakistan, Russia, China, and Guinea have been the recent recipients of some form of tolerance (inexcusable, in my mind) from the United States for their misbehavior, as a reward for some or other geopolitical assistance. Now the United States is engaged in another unseemly attempt to win their support, mostly through enormous bribes, but also through promises of continued tolerance. This support, I will say again, is designed entirely to win cover for Tony Blair, whose electorate would apparently feel better about disarming or removing a dictator if only Pervez, Conté, Biya, al-Assad, dos Santos, Jiang, and Putin were aboard. With such august sanction, who would not approve?

The Security Council has made a threat, and a justified one: that it would go to war against a dictator who refused to abandon biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons and has a demonstrated willingness to use them. It made the threat unanimously and clearly. Even with a clear threat and hundreds of thousands of troops amassed against him, Saddam Hussein is stalling for time. As well he should ― history demonstrates that there is no resolve in most of the world to touch him, and plenty of interest in cutting him loose. Even the oil interests in the United States, in whose name this war will allegedly be waged, would far prefer a lifting of sanctions so they, too, could cut deals with Saddam. An entrenched dictator is better than a young democracy for stability, if that is what we are interested in. Saddam can hold the country together, keep the oil flowing, and probably even make the trains run on time. If we are interested in legitimacy, something else is called for; and those who think it resides in the United Nations should ask themselves whence the UN derived its authority, and after what degree of provocation it is prepared to defend that authority.

A large number of ostensibly brave but fundamentally misguided ― nay, silly ― pacifists have offered themselves as human shields in Iraq, to defend with their own bodies the survival of Saddam’s power. It is a good idea. I’m thinking of chaining myself to the United Nations building in New York. And if morality and common sense try to force their way into the UN, they had better be prepared to kill me first.


Original version


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