The withering of the United Nations

6 Aug

Kofi Annan’s resignation as the UN special envoy to Syria was greeted by a few hours of mock disappointment and then the news agenda moved back to the Olympic Games. The fundamental explanation for the failure of Annan’s mission does not lie in Damascus or Aleppo. Sure neither the Assad regime nor the Free Syria Army cooperated, each preferring to try and win on the battlefield. The main explanation for Annan’s failure though can be traced back to the sapping of the UN’s moral authority over the past decade and a half.

The UN has always had a contested moral authority. It was (and still is) a victors’ organisation. Its first decades were hamstrung by the Cold War, but the end of that conflict gave the organisation a new chance. It seized that chance, or rather it was allowed to seize that chance by member states. We saw an increase in the number and complexity of peace-support operations in the early 1990s. The UN was the planet’s premier collective security organisation. Sure, nation states still put their interests first, but the UN was an organisation to be listened to and states contributed money and personnel to its operations. Over the past decade and a half much of the moral authority associated with the UN has ebbed away.

Let’s go back to 1997 and the establishment of the Project for the New American Century. This self-described ‘not-for-profit educational organization’ sounds like a mom and apple pie outfit, though a scan of the signatories of its opening letter give some indication of the ideological pedigree of its founders: Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Elliot Abrams. Sound familiar? These guys were the neo-conservatives who served in the George W. Bush White House. The Project for a New American Century advocates American leadership, based on military strength and ‘moral principle’, for the ‘good of the America and the world’. All of this would be laughably patrician if it wasn’t for the fact these guys came to power. Multilateralism, the principle upon which the UN is founded, was seen as a threat to American hegemony. Thus it became US policy to side-line the United Nations.

NATO and ‘coalitions of the willing’ were seen as the primary vehicles for security and continued American hegemony. The UN was useful for picking up the pieces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for dealing with humanitarian crises in strategically unimportant parts of the planet, but it was not part of the plan. Perhaps the greatest illustration of the downgrading of the UN’s importance has been the US enthusiastic support for a South Korean non-entity to become Secretary General. But there have been lots of other illustrations of the chipping away of the UN’s standing in US policy circles. For example, in June 2012 the United States (world’s greatest military power) contributed 12 soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions. Yes, that figure was 12. That great military powerhouse Tanzania contributed one hundred times that number. Western states have virtually ceased providing peacekeeping troops over the past decade.*

Of course, the issue is far more complex that a dastardly US plot. The United Nations is merely the sum of its constituent states and US is not alone in downgrading the role of the UN. Important too in this story has been the Manichean lens encouraged by the War On Terror. Humanitarian and neutral space became squeezed in the unforgiving ‘you’re either with us or against us’ atmosphere that occurred post 9/11. The UN compound in Baghdad was attacked in August 2003 because the attackers could see little difference between the UN and the coalition of the willing. The UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs found that attacks on humanitarian workers tripled between 2001-2011. The line between humanitarian and military personnel – always blurry at the best of times, was further blurred by the ‘armed humanitarianism’ of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and other humanitarianism with muscle.

All of which brings us back to Syria and the descent into civil war. The stakes are so high that mediation was always a difficult task. For the Assad regime there can be no halfway house: it must be complete power or nothing. For his opponents also, there can be no semi-resistance: it must be violent uprising or cowed silence and state recriminations. As Kofi Annan noted in his resignation statement, a mediator cannot want peace more than the antagonists. Yet, Annan as a representative of the UN, should have been able to draw on one trump card – the moral worth of the UN. But that legitimacy has been eroded away.

None of this is to romanticize the UN. It was an organization forged out of the realpolitik of a victors’ peace. It has always been embroiled in global and regional struggles, with one side or the other attempting to use it as a proxy ally. Yet the notion of a universal collective security organisation is an important one. It must rest on a sacred trust, or the belief that the collective will of humanity carries more trust and worth that the narrow concerns of individual states or peoples. That collective trust, summed up in the phrase ‘We the Peoples …’ in the Charter of the United Nations, has been cynically undermined over the years. Kofi Annan hadn’t a chance.     

 

 

*http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/resources/statistics/contributors.shtml     

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2 Responses to “The withering of the United Nations”

  1. Stuart Stocker 19/08/2014 at 5:47 am #

    So why would and ex IRA – obviously intelligent supporter now try to break up the UK?? A hell bent agenda??? Why do you NOW live in Scotland and tell students to leave the UK if they have a vote?? Does it mean that IF you get your way it will pave the way for the same in NI??? Stu – 07745455800

  2. Stuart Stocker 19/08/2014 at 6:55 am #

    still awaiting “moderation” commitment personified

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