• U.S.

…But Not At The U.N.

5 minute read
Charles Krauthammer

North Korea detonates what it says is a nuclear device and the world is outraged. The United Nations Security Council needs only 30 minutes to issue a unanimous condemnation. Even the Chinese representative says his country supports “punitive actions.” The stage is set for precisely the kind of U.N. action envisioned by its founders–countering a threat to peace before it can explode into war.

Within 48 hours, the whole façade falls apart. As soon as it is time for action, the will evaporates. Beijing reverses course. The U.S. waters down its proposed resolution. At Russian and Chinese insistence, the unanimously approved Security Council resolution imposes mere inconveniences that do nothing to threaten the regime’s survival.

How many times does it take for us to learn? Nothing of any seriousness comes out of the U.N. On Sudan’s Darfur genocide, Iran’s nuclear-weapons development, Saddam Hussein’s defiance of 17 U.N. resolutions, Hizballah’s defiance of at least three, the U.N. does nothing. Not because the U.N. bureaucracy, its member states or their diplomats are corrupt or evil. Corrupt and evil many of them are, but the reason the U.N. is hopeless is that the central idea it was supposed to embody–“collective security”–is an illusion.

The idea was born out of the First World War. The balance-of-power diplomacy that had led to that great catastrophe was to be abolished and replaced by something new. The Great Powers all had an interest in not repeating that descent into war. They would henceforth act together–“collective security”–against those who would breach the peace. Hence the League of Nations. Hence the celebrated Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 in which they all pledged to abolish war forever.

Not quite. It turned out that Great Powers have wildly diverging interests. They may oppose war in the abstract, but they have other priorities too. Italy coveted Abyssinia. Germany wanted to rearm and reconquer. Japan sought control of Asia.

All these required war. But illusions never die. Amid the rubble of the resulting World War, the victors established the United Nations to impose collective security again. Their common interest in defeating the Axis powers would now be institutionalized in perpetuity in the world’s new guardian of peace: the Security Council.

Perpetuity lasted about a day. As soon as Germany and Japan were dispatched, the U.S. and the Soviet Union with their vastly different interests fell into a half-century of cold war during which the U.N. was paralyzed. But even that reality could not kill the dream. It had its third life when the Soviet Union collapsed. That time, the Great Powers, no longer divided by existential ideological conflict, would finally act together to safeguard peace. It all seemed confirmed by the relative unanimity of the Gulf War when, for a fleeting moment, a dying Soviet Union and a rising China acquiesced to the American-led war of restoration.

We never learn. That unanimity represented a singular alignment of planets. Soon they were all out of joint again, as France and Russia worked assiduously to free the defeated Saddam from his postdefeat sanctions. Another war became inevitable, and the run-up to it led to such acrimonious division within the Security Council that it was reduced to a bystander when a second Gulf War broke out in 2003. It could not endorse war. It could not stop war. It could only watch war.

Nothing new here. It had been a bystander to the Balkan wars of the ’90s, because Russia’s interest in protecting its traditional ally, Serbia, prevented any U.N. action. It is a bystander today in Darfur, because China has an interest in Sudan’s oil and the Arab League protects one of its own. It has been a bystander on Iran’s nuclear program, endlessly postponing the consideration of sanctions, because Russia and China have other more compelling interests: commercial relations with a rising Islamic power, oil supplies for a growing China and the maintenance of a burr in the side of an overbearing “hegemonic” America.

You would think there is a collective interest in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the mad and reckless hermit dictatorship of North Korea. There is not. Disarming Kim Jong Il would require China to starve and break his regime. Why doesn’t Beijing act? Because China has a prime interest in maintaining a friendly communist ally as a buffer between itself and U.S. forces in South Korea; as a roadblock to a dynamic, capitalist, reunited Korea; and as a distraction keeping America tied down in the northern Pacific, while China maneuvers to regain Taiwan and extend its influence throughout the Pacific Rim.

This is not venality. It is the natural way of nations–the primacy of interests and the pursuit of power, which from the Peloponnesian Wars until the 20th century invention of collective security were understood to be perfectly natural.

Tennyson dreamed of a parliament of man. Woodrow Wilson gave it to us. We have now lived with it in one form or another for almost 100 years. It has not worked. It never will. We should stop being surprised when it doesn’t.

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