The Unimportant Nations

With no hysteria, get out of the UN!


The United Nations is suiting up for a military takeover of the United States, according to the "black helicopter crowd," the paranoid fringe of anti-UN right-wingers. Meanwhile, a majority of U.S. citizens, according to a pro-UN ad in The New York Times in late September, think the UN should be the world's policeman, and trust it more than their own government by a 2-to-1 margin.

Opinions about the UN stretch to far-off margins. But the UN's most fervent enemies and its most starry-eyed partisans both overestimate its significance. Sure, the United States should get out of the UN. Not because it is particularly virulent or sinister, but because it is just one more irrelevant, useless bureaucratic excrescence that does more for its employees and the industry surrounding it than it does for the world it is meant to serve.

That reality hit home recently when I participated in a Voice of America sponsored radio debate on the topic of the UN–specifically Jesse Helms's call in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs for the UN to shape up or ship out. I thought the essay was a little mild for ol' Jesse–surely of all politicians he wouldn't go soft on the UN. Helms recited, lifelessly and without vivid detail, the usual litany of anti-UN complaints: bloated bureaucracy; sovereignty grabs; peacekeeping failures in Bosnia and elsewhere; pointless busybody conferences where well-appointed bureaucrats scratch their chins and tut-tut over huge, vague, ill-defined crises, from the environment to poverty to overpopulation to the status of women.

But Jesse wimped out in the end. He suggested some reforms, like getting rid of the meddlesome Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (even Bill Clinton agrees), no more of those world conferences, and cutting the bureaucracy's manpower and budget. But why not just get out of the UN, reform or no?

To my two opponents–newsmen who had spent their careers covering the UN for CBS News and Time–Helms's article was the most disgraceful thing they'd ever seen by a U.S. senator, much less the chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Helms was reductionist, they argued, painted with too broad a brush, and ignored reforms the UN has already attempted. Worst of all, he didn't take seriously enough the basic importance of the UN and its mission.

Which is–what? I reeled off a litany of world events that fell within the purview of the UN's goals of international diplomacy, cooperation, and peacekeeping, most gleaned from an article in the September/October 1995 Foreign Affairs by Abba Eben: the end of apartheid in South Africa; the formation of the European Common Market; the end of the Berlin blockades; the end of the French-Algerian War; the SALT talks; the Panama Canal settlement; the formation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe; and peace talks between Israel and its various enemies from Egypt to Jordan to the Palestinians. What do they all have in common? The UN had nothing to do with any of them.

In response, one of my debating partners piped in with a plug for the Korean War. That was the best example of a UN success he could supply. Since both men have dedicated large parts of their careers to covering the mess that is the UN, it would be difficult for them to admit that maybe the UN isn't so important or useful. (This is just one example of many non-sinister symbiotic linkages between media and government bodies that make it rare for the media to be tough on government in any substantial way.)

For some time now, the embattled Boutros-Ghali has been backstepping from international security and diplomacy as his organization's main selling points–politic of him with the memory of UN peacekeepers used as hostages for Serbs still vivid. "The vast bulk of the UN's work is elsewhere in the area of international cooperation," he told New Perspectives Quarterly in its Summer 1995 issue. "We've been successful at the environmental summit in Rio, at the population conference in Cairo, at the social summit in Copenhagen. The upcoming meeting in Beijing [on the role of women] will be a very important historic event."

A year down the line, it's easy to see that this is pure nonsense–a perfect example of an organization existing to serve its own needs and nothing else. But in the face of its obvious inability to ensure world peace and complete irrelevance for most important forms of international cooperation, that sort of goo-goo nonsense is the best Boutros-Ghali could come up with. Those conferences succeeded in nothing except providing an expensive vacation for international busybodies of various stripes. UN employees in general have cushy lives–high pay, elaborate offices, generous travel and leave policies. And the UN's management of its money is shoddy–millions disappearing from unlocked files in Somalia, embezzlement in UNICEF, waste and mismanagement claiming millions, according to their own inspectors.

The bill of particulars against the UN is simple: It wastes a lot of money supplying an easy life for bureaucratic parasites, and it accomplishes little to nothing of value. The UN is no serious threat to U.S. sovereignty or our American way of life. But it's good for nothing, and it ought to be abandoned.