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What If We Quit the United Nations? : THE U.N. In or Out? by Ernest van den Haag and John P. Conrad (Plenum: $19.95; 335 pp.)

October 25, 1987|James Finn | Finn is editorial director of Freedom House and editor of Freedom at Issue, its bimonthly magazine.

Should the United States remain in the United Nations, or should it get out? This is not a new question, having popped up in political debates over the years. It has taken on new urgency, however, since, on the one hand, the United States and Great Britain have withdrawn from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, one of the organization's specialized agencies, while, on the other, the Soviet Union has suddenly decided to pay all its back U.N. debts.

In this book, two experienced debaters give sharply opposing answers to the question. John P. Conrad, a criminologist and a self-declared liberal internationalist, responds with a resounding: Yes, we should stay in. His antagonist Ernest van den Haag, a professor of jurisprudence and public policy at Fordham University, counters with an equally strong: No, the United States should get out.

The tone of their exchanges-- friendly but sharp, sometimes acerbic, frequently witty--can be gauged from their exchange on Woodrow Wilson. Conrad describes him as "one of our few truly great Presidents, an intellectual who passionately believed that the League of Nations could become an effective instrument for maintaining the peace." Van den Haag asserts that Wilson "did nothing for the peace of the world besides dreaming of it. The Versailles Treaty to which he contributed so much guaranteed the next war. . . . John Conrad is impressed by Wilson's dream. I am by his fatuity."

Opinions about Wilson frequently serve as a litmus test, dividing political idealists, who usually admire him, from political realists, who tend to scorn him. And so it is in this case.

Conrad wears his idealism proudly, exuding optimism, hope, and high expectations as he evaluates what the United Nations has done and, even more, what it might be. He believes that national sovereignties are being eroded, that world public opinion can exert real pressure on recalcitrant nations, and that the United Nations is a forum in which that opinion can be used as an instrument for peace. He supports a resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly for a New International Economic Order, a plan for transferring resources from the First to the Third World. (He describes the possible expropriation of multinational corporation properties as an "innovative idea.")

He supports the Law of the Sea Treaty--which the United States has rejected--for planning to distribute the wealth of the ocean beds equitably among the people of the Earth, no matter which agency succeeds in developing them. He believes that the Soviet Union is being drained by the war in Afghanistan and wants out. He says that South Africa should be ejected from the United Nations because of its "gross, chronic and explicit violation" of the Charter but that the Soviet Union should stay so "that it will be compelled to justify its brutal ways."

Van den Haag pours scorn on most of these positions. Nations remain sovereign, he asserts, and there is no international body that can coerce the strongest of them. That is why war in the future is so likely that we are justified in describing it as inevitable. World opinion is a myth and a deception. To support a plan that would give profits from sea mining to groups that have neither invested nor participated in that work is to support robbery. To believe that the Soviet Union wants out of Afghanistan is to believe without evidence. As for South Africa, there are a number of countries whose domestic atrocities exceed those of South Africa and who are welcome in the United Nations.

Each reader will decide for him or herself which of these debaters presents the better arguments and whether they are finally persuasive. As one who believes that on balance the United States should remain in the United Nations and do its best to improve the performance of that body, I nevertheless found that Van den Haag's arguments were frequently more firmly grounded in reality and more persuasive than were those of Conrad's.

Those of us who continue to support the United Nations must acknowledge the force and accuracy of many of the criticisms made by observers as acute and cogent as Van den Haag. We almost also, I believe, have expectations of what that body can presently accomplish considerably lower than Conrad's. It does little good to say that the aim of the United Nations is "the most lofty of all worldly enterprises" when that organization so often fails even to hit the target. Nor should someone who places such great weight on world opinion so cavalierly assert that "the steamy eloquence of anti-Western delegates is harmless."

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