Tag Archives: United Nations

Pity the UN

I pity the poor old United Nations. It seems to get a lot of stick from people – often for wildly contradictory reasons. On the one hand there are those who consider it part of the Illuminati’s plan to dominate the globe, while others claim (perhaps more eloquently) that it is ineffective, weak and hypocritical. To this first position I say: “Really? Have you looked at the UN in action?” To the second: “Yes, but…”

Lets start with the Security Council because that’s what most people think of when they use the term “UN”. The Security Council votes on matters relating to international security (whoa) and has five permanent members who can veto any decision if they don’t agree with it. Those countries are the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK, and the reason it is them and no one else is because they were the important ones when the UN Charter was written up. Now some say Russia does not deserve a permanent seat because it is not the USSR anymore (as it was when the UN was founded) and is no longer a superpower.  I must have missed the memo about the UK and France’s superpower status, but anyway the real reason people seem to not like Russia is its use of the veto on issues that affect its allies, like when it vetoes resolutions condemning Israel… oh wait, wrong country. I mean like when Russia vetoed a resolution on Syria, or Kosovo. China has also raised ire with its use of the veto as well.

The reason the veto power is there is so that the big powers would want to be a part of the UN in the first place. There is no way to enforce international law except through other states so if a state is big enough and powerful enough to not fear retaliation then it has no need for international law, except to give it legitimacy and credibility. Therefore the big, nuclear armed powers that existed when the UN was formed needed something to sweeten the deal so they got the right to veto stuff they didn’t agree with. Not fair, but a necessary compromise. Now they have that power why would they let it go? It is better to accept it exists and try to work around it. The UN Security Council still achieves things in a lot of cases, mandating the Libya intervention for instance, or reinforcing laws banning child soldiers.

Most people are used to the idea of a government with complete control over the right to use violence within its borders (thank you Max Weber) and seem to have problem understanding that the UN does not function as an international government in this sense. It has no independent armed force (members contribute troops to missions) and even if it did it would not be able to take on the likes of Russia or the USA anyway. It is a compromise between absolute state sovereignty and the rule of law at an international level, and like all compromises it gets messy sometimes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful compromise though, at least in many cases.

Finally all those aspects of the UN that aren’t the Security Council or the General Assembly, like UNICEF, UNDP, and UNESCO etc perform useful functions around the world and the UN itself creates a perfect framework for such operations.

So yeah, the UN isn’t perfect, but much of what is claimed about it is inaccurate and misinformed. Reforming the UN system to remove the veto powers of the Big 5 is appealing but I honestly can’t see it happening. Maybe I’m just too much of a realist (in the international relations sense) but I can’t see the big powers giving up an advantage they currently have in return for no net gain. The structure of the UN is now embedded in global politics and that makes it very difficult to change. It could be worse though: we could still have the League of Nations.

 

*I wrote a paper for an honours course (4th year at college for those outside NZ) about humantarian intervention without a UN Security Council mandate a couple of years ago, which covered some of this kind of stuff in a bit more detail. It compared the war in Kosovo in 1999 with that between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and drew some conclusions from this. I have uploaded it here if anyone cares! (Be warned, its about 9000 words long)


My prediction for a future UN Secretary-General is…

Helen Clark. And I’m not just saying this because she’s a New Zealander. Here are my reasons:

  • There has never been a female Secretary-General of the UN, and yet the UN itself is committed to “gender mainstreaming” – sooner or later the UN will have to have a women on top. This gives Clark a potential advantage over other candidates who are male. To me this is the key reason to predict this. The UN has already had Secretary-Generals from African, Arabian, Asian, Latin American, and European countries but they have all been men, so while they cannot be accused of being Eurocentric they can be accused of being sexist. I’m sure that the big powers are aware of this and will look to do something about it.
  • She has the right experience. In her current role as head of the UNDP she is already near the top of the UN hierarchy. Foreign Policy Magazine recently called her the “most powerful woman you have never heard of,” although seeing as she was Prime Minister of my country for nearly a decade I had, in fact, heard of her. Between leading a country and running the UNDP she surely has enough experience in global politics for the role.
  • New Zealand is inoffensive (to most people). New Zealanders have headed up international institutions before: former Prime Minister Mike Moore was Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, while former Foreign Minister Sir Don McKinnon was Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations. Diplomatically speaking, New Zealand has managed to generally tread enough of an independent path to not be accused of being a big power lackey, but managed to not ever get anyone too offside. Of course being small, isolated, and stable probably helps this. Being a New Zealander should make Clark palatable to both the Security Council (who recommend candidates for the position) and the General Assembly (who vote on it).

So that’s my prediction. I wonder if there’s any bookies taking bets on this sort of thing. Probably not, and if there are they probably aren’t the sort I want to deal with.


Some reasons for people to chill out over North Korea

In an earlier post I explained why I think Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are kinda scary. Continuing on this theme, here are a few reasons why I think North Korea’s missile test and possible nuclear test aren’t things to stress about:

  • North Korean leaders are not insane – they want to remain in power. When you are isolated and threatened by much bigger, more well armed opponents it can be useful to appear insane because people will be wary of you. Having nuclear weapons will mean that the North Korean regime will continue to be propped up by international (primarily Chinese) food aid because the world is scared of what North Korea will do if it starts to collapse. Developing a missile just means that the threat of North Korea going nuts isn’t as hollow, because they have a delivery system for their nukes now. Using a nuke as an offensive weapon would be suicidal on the part of North Korea’s leaders, and I really don’t think they want to be nuked themselves.
  • Following on from the previous point, this exercise is about the North Korean leadership maintaining internal control as well. Nothing like a missile test and setting off a nuke to get the people cheering for your weird Stalinist quasi-monarchy thing you have going on.
  • No one, least of all China and the US, wants war on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea knows this so it can push the boundaries knowing it is safe from retribution. Case in point, the torpedo attack on that South Korean naval ship a while back. Ballistic missile and nuclear tests are naughty, but definitely not naughty enough to go to war over.
  • Breaking a UN Security Council Resolution, as these tests will, doesn’t actually mean anything unless there’s actions the UN members can take to punish you. North Korea’s already diplomatically isolated and under economic sanctions, so what can the big boys do except cutting off aid or military action – neither of which they will do because they don’t want North Korea firing off a nuke as it is attacked and/or collapses because it can no longer feed its citizens.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are effectively a way of ensuring the long-term survival of the Pyongyang regime – something akin to a guy in a crowded room holding a hand grenade and threatening to pull the pin unless his demands are met. Odds are he won’t do it, but no one will want to take that risk.

It is important to note that China also wants North Korea to survive, as it provides a useful buffer between China and the liberal capitalist ally of the US in the form of South Korea. Having a land border with such a state is not something the Chinese government wants to have to deal with. At the same time, although the US and South Korea would both rather North Korea did not exist the cost of  making this happen would be far too high to contemplate.