Friday, July 22, 2005

the (dis)United Nations

reading over the papers today at breakfast - trying to get into the habit, since i do vaguely need to know what is going on in Singapore if not the world - i came across a review article on UN reforms written by the Ambassador of Poland to Singapore. Now he doesn't really say anything we didn't already know -that is to say: the UN requires reforms, but not just cosmetic reform, but there are some stumbling blocks- but it kicked me right back to those early days in my career as a historian/political scientist, and i remembered how little i knew then (and realised, quite possibly, how little i know now). and how things didn't make as much sense then as they do now -thank you, University of Chicago. but anyway: a brief return to my historian-roots as a History 7 student (History of the Modern World, if that makes any sense to you - basically a current affairs paper. i was a UN/USSR specialist.):

M'sieur Ambassador points out various principles the UN has to bear in mind when contemplating reform: the principle of state sovereignty and the related notion of the right of self-defence; the principle of democracy and its related notion of the right to self-determination; and the principle of non-intervention. Nothing unusual there - state sovereignty and non-interference are the founding principles of many inter-state institutions (not the least among them our own ASEAN, where these princples tend to outweigh all others), while the increasing number of democracies in the world (say what you like about democratic peace theory, you don't often see democracies headed in a rush for the exit marked 'tyranny and absolute dictatorship') suggests that this particular institution had better sit up and take notice of democratic interests (and notions of what constitutes acceptable behaviour both within the state and in interstate relations). But he claims that
"The basic problem of the UN stems from the lack of clarity and consensus on certain principles underlying collective action in the international environment. These principles have to be adequate to meet new threats, challenges and expectations."
this is where i disagree. i think the basic problem of the UN may be an insoluble one: it is the head-on clash between the need to preserve state sovereignty and related state rights including non-interference, and what has increasingly become the point of the UN exercise, which is intervention, humanitarian or otherwise. many will claim that the failure of the UN to become the world's policeman is caused by the lack of a UN army (blue helmets nonwithstanding) - 'i say!' they remark, 'look at America, she can intervene wherever she wants, because she puts half her troops on an aircraft carrier group and zooms around backing up her velvet glove with a bloody big iron fist!'. [it's easy for single states -relatively easy, in any case- to decide when and whether to intervene. and even the US has all sorts of domestic troubles whenever she decides to stick herself into business elsewhere. imagine the collective action problem within an institution comprising many many independent states! (not, you say, that most of them matter, seeing as they contribute little to the cause in any case. but their votes in the GA matter. and the votes of the few who sit on the UNSC matter.) but it's not the collective action problem that i'm thinking about. at least, not directly.] i think the real reason the UN isn't the world's policeman is -well, the world doesn't WANT it to be one. independent states are unwilling to give up their (god-given) rights to self-whatevers in order that sometime in the misty future, when trouble might arise in their backyards, they can call on a supranational government for help. (heaven only knows it's bad enough having to call on your own government.) the profit/loss ratio doesn't balance in anyone's favour, except the people who are in trouble now -and even then you see a general reluctance to call in help from outside. states would often rather go it alone - reliance on an outside institution is perhaps seen as a sign of weakness and failure at self-government, and merely invites future trouble.

i don't know that there is a good way to resolve the conflict between these competing principles of governance. the modern solution has tended to lean toward an agreement that 'something must be done' in situations requiring humanitarian intervention, followed by a general consensus on looking the other way when the time comes to step up to the plate and insert your own troops and resources into the picture. after all, if you cannot even justify the loss of your troops to what is ostensibly a defence of the homeland (coughcoughiraqcough) then how can you tell mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers that you've sent sons and daughters to die for a people they've never met, never even heard about until they started being slaughtered in large numbers somewhere very far away?

i used to be fairly optimistic about the future of the UN (-amused- how silly the examiners must have thought me, grading those essays i wrote back when i was eighteen and still sort-of-vaguely idealistic and believer-in-the-goodness-of-the-world). but now, after learning all about game theory and the principles of international relations and collective action problems and so forth, it's hard to see a clear path for an international institution such as the UN, with so many competing interests and internal differences between member states. i mean, if an institution like the European Union finds it hard to get off the ground, comprising as it does states that are geographically close to each other, with plenty of shared economic interests, and similar political systems, as well as social and cultural conditions, then how can we expect anything of a vastly larger institution without any of those things? perhaps there is such a thing as aiming too high.

and now i must go and make a start on packing my room. the new mattress is coming, but right now there is nowhere to put it!


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