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More Than Ever, We Need the U.N.

Despite right-wing rhetoric, it remains the best hope in a crisis-ridden world

September 24, 2003|Stephen Schlesinger | Stephen Schlesinger is the director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University and author of "Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations," just published by Westview Press.

"Four times in the modern age," English historian John Keegan has written, "men have sat down to reorder the world -- at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 after the Thirty Years War, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, in Paris in 1919 after World War I and in San Francisco in 1945 after World War II." Such is the march of human history that all of these events -- except for the most recent one -- collapsed in disagreements that eventually led to renewed war.

The ultimate outcome of the San Francisco Conference is still not known. However, what happened there that produced the last of these grand compacts, the United Nations, has already had an enormous impact over the last six decades. Indeed, the founding of the U.N. in the age of nuclear weaponry -- far more sinister circumstances than any faced by those earlier meetings -- is affecting the survival or demise of humanity.

The U.N. and its labors have become the background noise of our global age. It is truly ubiquitous. It has overseen 40 years of decolonization around the planet; sent peacekeepers to places like Cambodia, Cyprus and Sinai; helped end apartheid in South Africa via sanctions. The United Nations' World Health Organization was critical in eradicating smallpox and is on the verge of stamping out polio; its World Food Program feeds hungry people in Africa; its U.N. Development Program sends more multilateral aid dollars abroad than any nation.

People forget that before the U.N.'s founding, there was no truly functioning international organization (except for the creaky, faltering League of Nations). This meant that for many decades there was no place for nations to go in global crises.

Today, after half a century of the U.N., few of us are unaware that this aging experiment in global society exists and has given some modicum of hope to the world -- despite a dearth of financial resources and the brickbats tossed at it by American politicians. It has become the world's geopolitical emergency room. The question is whether it can survive.

Right-wing demagogues in our land have so unremittingly denigrated the organization for so long -- calling it bloated, anti-American, a body that wastes time on speechmaking, abdicates its responsibilities and remains out of touch -- that leading members of the Senate now routinely dismiss its importance and argue that it unnecessarily limits our sovereignty.

Furthermore, unilateralism is back in fashion. The Bush administration, after the attacks of Sept. 11, has promulgated a doctrine of preventive war that allows the United States to go into battle whenever it decides against whomever it wishes, regardless of whether there is a legitimate provocation. Recently one of Bush's hard-line appointees, Richard Perle, publicly derided the U.N. as being as ineffectual as the League of Nations. And last spring, the U.S. brazenly bypassed the U.N. Security Council to invade Iraq, relying on its preemptive doctrine. Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this crisis was a "fork in the road" for the organization, as decisive as the U.N.'s founding.

The sad fact is that our country would probably not pass the same U.N. Charter today that the U.S. Senate ratified by an overwhelming vote, 89 to 2, in 1945. Even putting aside its lone-cowboy maneuvers, if Washington had wanted to reinvent the U.N. it would have been virtually impossible to convince the 191 nations of the world again to draft a charter for the security of the Earth because of the sheer number of countries and the profusion of political differences. (Originally, the organization had 50 members.)

As we look back on the U.N.'s creation, we should realize how fortunate we were to get it in the first place. It took a grand vision, formidable planning and brilliant political leadership from two American presidents -- Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman -- to turn the organization into reality. Having endured the most calamitous war in history, this World War II generation extracted from the human propensity for devastation the right lesson for our time.

If we are to revive the role of the United Nations today as a peacemaker and security guarantor, the United States, as the only superpower on the planet, must again commit itself to the organization. President Bush himself has slowly come to this realization in the Iraq crisis. He is now seeking to reinvolve our fate with the U.N. because it offers political legitimacy for the American occupation of Iraq. And beyond Iraq, the U.N. bestows cover for various other U.S. global missions, allowing Washington to save taxpayers' dollars and the lives of its soldiers.

Instead of taking on international ventures alone, we are able to share the burdens of the work to stop bloodshed, reconstruct societies, police conflicts, train armies, provide legal frameworks, uphold governance standards and promote human rights. The creation of the U. N. is as timely now as it was 58 years ago.

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