'THIS HAS BEEN an especially unhappy summer for the United Nations," Harvard historian Niall Ferguson observed on this page last week -- and who could disagree? With its mission in Lebanon unable to control Hezbollah, its blue-helmeted observers on the southern border blown away by Israeli shells and its role in the latest Mideast crisis being worked over in that boxing ring known as the Security Council, the U.N. seems to have fallen far short of its original, 1945 mission to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." Even the cease-fire that was finally negotiated looks incomplete and liable to fragment in the very near future.
So, is the U.N. good for anything? Could we, as U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton once claimed, lop off 12 stories of the U.N. headquarters building in New York (containing the offices of the secretary-general and his staff) and not notice the difference? What does the U.N. do that helps humankind?
Amid personnel scandals, the oil-for-food fiasco and a constant barrage of neoconservative attacks, that's a fair question. And anyone who holds a belief in the value of the international organization should be ready and willing to answer it. The easy way out would be to point to the many instances in which U.N. representatives have done well: negotiating the Central American peace accords of the early to mid-1990s; supervising elections in countries recovering from war; rebuilding infrastructure; advancing the international human rights agenda, establishing intellectual property rights, the law of the sea and climate accords; fostering cultural cooperation; gathering statistics and the like.
But that would seem an evasion to the many observers who focus on the grinding struggles along Israel's borders or the war on terrorism. To them, the $64,000 question is: What can the U.N. do once and for all to settle the Lebanon crisis and assist the parallel Palestine-Israel peace process? And if the answer is "not much," then the critics will feel justified in their more general dismissal of the utility of international organizations.
So, any defense of the U.N. has to be very careful in explaining what the organization can do, and what it cannot. It is, for example, useless (and ignorant) to blame the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) observer force for not disarming Hezbollah when its Security Council mandate expressly forbade it from taking such military action. And it is silly to blame the secretary-general for failing to exert powers that he does not possess -- he is, after all, the "servant" of those two difficult masters, the General Assembly and the Security Council. The U.N.'s performance can only be measured against its existing capacities and authority, not against some mythical, nonexistent strengths. So let us ponder two basic truisms concerning the world organization, the first becoming increasingly obvious to U.N. supporters and detractors alike, the second a far more subtle and cynical point.
The first truism is that the United Nations is not, and never has been, a large and centralized actor in world affairs. Despite its charter being based loosely on parts of the U.S. Constitution, and despite all the founding rhetoric about "the Parliament of man," its creators insisted that it be nothing more than an assembly of sovereign nation states.
It is, if you like, a sort of holding company, with governments as the shareholders, and with some of those shareholders -- the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council -- having much more voting power than others. True, all signatories to the U.N. Charter agree to surrender some sovereignty, but always with reservations. There is no U.N. army and no U.N. Treasury Department, both signs of statehood. And, for all the charter's proclaimed purposes to deter aggression and halt massive human rights abuses, the language about using force is very cautious and guarded. Very little about the U.N.'s peacekeeping powers is clear-cut. Everything depends on the circumstances.
This is why it has been and will be so difficult for the world body to bring lasting peace to Lebanon. First, the five permanent veto members have to agree on what is to be done -- or, at least, not disagree. Second, U.N. peacekeepers may be very constrained. The resolution authorizing "all necessary action" is actually quite vague in its instructions about where and when force might be used by blue-helmeted troops if Hezbollah-Israeli fighting resumes. Above all, even a large U.N. operation would find it impossible to crush Hezbollah, let alone the Israeli Defense Forces, should either side resume belligerencies. When the foe is weak, the U.N. can be strong (Sierra Leone, East Timor). But if the players are willful and powerful, it can only hope for a fragile peace to continue. More than that we cannot expect.