Polishing a tarnished veneer

Colin James’s speech to United Nations Association, United Nations Day, 22 October 2004

When Gerardine Lynch asked me to speak to you, I replied: “Your request is a puzzle to me, since I have never been to the United Nations, know very little about it and am not knowledgeable about international affairs beyond what I scrabble together from time to time to write around domestic politics. I can’t think what I could say to a knowledgeable audience.”

But Gerardine Lynch persisted. So here I am, ignorance intact.

Since ignorance knows no boundaries, I will start with the United States and its presidential election campaign. This has implications for multilateralism in general and the United Nations in particular since President Bush’s foreign policy is intensely nationalistic (some would say simplistic as well) and he bypassed the United Nations when he invaded Iraq. John Kerry has proposed a more multilateralist, or at least less unilateralist, approach but is trailing in the polls. In any case, he would be stuck with Iraq and its ramifications.

Tom Friedman in the New York Times yesterday stated the nationalistic American case with his usual clarity. Of two things “troubling the soul of America today”, one is: “We really do have enemies out there.”

And when a nation has enemies the United Nations is not usually much help. So Bush decided on self-help. His nation applauded. His foreign policy was good domestic policy. Which is the acid test — and the United Nations’ problem. A large ingredient in the United Nations’ serious disabilities is its constitution as a body of nations, not an assembly of the world’s people or, in any true sense of the word, of the world’s peoples. The United Nations represents and must respect governments, which, puppet regimes aside, derive their legitimacy or, in the absence of legitimacy, power from within their borders. Those governments operate according to national self-interest.

National interest can be and often is tempered by wider concerns. Small nations, in fact, don’t have much choice: it is in their self-interest to act partly according to larger nations’ interests. New Zealand has to bother what the United States or China (vis-a-vis Taiwan, for example, on which this country’s policy is abject) or Australia think. The detention of Ahmed Zaoui, who is surely by now neutralised as a potential terrorist, seems to me explicable only by such concerns, however much ministers deny it.

Large countries have less self-interest in tempering foreign policy to wider concerns. Bush’s conduct suggests he sees no self-interest for the United States in doing so and instead has a singular focus on nationalistic priorities. This was to attack the enemies and to hell with questioners at home or abroad. More recently he has added an apostolic mission: to implant in other nations what he has called in recent campaign speeches “the transformational power of liberty”. We can applaud that ambition, since we in this society subscribe broadly to the ideals of liberty, representative democracy, the rule of law and competitive capitalism to which the United States also subscribes. But Bush’s version is idiosyncratic one, even for the United States: it is fuelled by his born-again Christianity as a recovered alcoholic and rests on intellectual foundations devised by the so-called “neo-conservatives” who have a firm view of what is right and wrong with societies around the world.

Not all Americans agree with the neoconservatives’ or Bush’s worldview or with the self-absorbed missionary role he has assigned to their country, a role which is at once engaged and curiously detached, allowing no real place for multilateral organisations, and especially the United Nations, unless they fall in with the United States’ analysis and objectives. To query the “evidence” on which the Iraq invasion was predicated, as did older European continental states, that is, the “evidence” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and would use them and pass them on to Al Qaeda, was characterised as shifty, unprincipled or, the ultimate sin in this unipolar world, un-American.

United States foreign policy will at some point ease back to a more realistic positioning, somewhat more quickly if John Kerry were improbably to be elected President on 2 November. But even then don’t expect the United States to cease to think itself exceptional. It is a state founded on an idea, not a folk. That makes it unusual. So of course it behaves unusually.

I happen to think the United States is predominantly a force for good — for liberty, prosperity and generosity. Many, perhaps most, of the worst excesses of liberal-democratic capitalism are to be found there but so, too, are many, perhaps most, of the uplifting emanations. But this very duality disqualifies it as an automatic model for other established democracies and developing or nascent democracies. Nor is the American model readily transplantable to nations with traditions of authoritarian rule: the Bush Administration’s assertion that it can establish a working democracy in Iraq is either na�ve or an intellectual conceit or cynical.

Put together Bush’s god-given certitudes, his war footing and his missionary zeal and you have a recipe for potentially the opposite of the global stability and security he seems to think he is creating: making a wasteland and calling it peace is still making a wasteland. Democracy will be a temporary implant in Iraq. What happens then? Hardly the cascade of democracy through the Middle East the neoconservatives expect.

Moreover, Bush has also put the world at risk of economic instability. His America-first-and-last twin-deficit policy — huge deficits in the Budget and in the external accounts — has dangerously cantilevered his country’s economy. The best hope is that the cantilever eases down slowly and takes 10 or 15 years to do that. The danger is that some unpredicted event pulls the pin on Asia’s underpinning of those twin deficits and the whole world goes catatonic. Re-electing this man poses strategic issues, to be sure; his economic irresponsibility may turn out to be the more damaging. Contrast this bull in the world’s china shop with the role of small nations. Their national interest is to find shelter, either in a niche or under an umbrella, that is, either a friendship with a big and powerful state or group of states or protection under a rules-based system.

In matters of security, Australia has chosen a niche, this country the umbrella. Australia joined Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, New Zealand’s bigger effort in Iraq was not part of the coalition and was committed only under at least nominal United Nations auspices. Australia, no stranger to cynicism in foreign policy, has in the past week refused a request to provide military cover for United Nations’ activities.

In economic matters both countries prefer the umbrella but are hunting around for niches because the umbrella is in serious danger of being turned inside out unless the rich countries of the northern hemisphere prove more willing to open their economies to poor countries instead of swaddling their farmers. Australia has got its economic niche in a free trade agreement with the United States as a reward for joining the Iraq coalition. New Zealand is hunting one in negotiations with China.

What I want to suggest is that multilateral organisations are for the weak and small. That disables those organisations in all matters in which the big and strong think they can look out for themselves and/or discern their national interest as at odds with those of the weak and small. As Iraq demonstrated, the United Nations was toothless in the face of the United States’ determination to crush the Iraqi state. Will China in a generation’s time pose the same challenge as it gains economic and military strength � say over its need for oil and raw materials? And what about India, if eventually it realises the economic, and therefore military, potential many see for it and develops into a similarly powerful state? The answer is some sort of mechanism providing checks and balances. That is how good domestic political systems work and logically it is how a good international political system would work.

The Cold War provided a rough and ready balance, each side blocking the other, backed by the ultimate sanction of mutual nuclear destruction. Maybe a quadripolar world will develop in time: the United States, Europe, India and China, each with a sphere of influence and counterbalancing each other.

If so and if the United Nations is to play a part in this balancing mechanism, its decision-making methods and structures will have to change. At the least the Security Council, or its successor, will need to include India as an automatic member. Better still if the veto was removed (but why would any country with a veto give it up?). Better still if Europe’s over-representation among the permanent members was reduced to be commensurate with China and India and/or Asia’s permanent member representation expanded to include, say, Japan. Perhaps a permanent membership of the four polar states of United States, Europe, India and China might be appropriate, with a rotating membership of countries from within those four’s spheres of influence and some way of including Africa, the Middle East and central Asia. But there is a deeper problem than structural reform. The fundamental disabling feature of the United Nations is that it is an organisation of inviolate nation-states and not of peoples.

The nation-state was a useful invention of the sixteenth century to set some rules to end the ruinous religious wars. The religion of a state’s prince was to be accepted by the princes of other states. From this grew the principle of inviolable sovereignty. Whatever a tyrant does within the borders of a state is of no concern of any other state. The logical conclusion of this is Rwanda and Serbia and Kosovo and Iraq with its Kurds and countless other abominations. And that is despite the United Nations’ grandiloquent universal declaration of human rights. There are no rights at the UN, it seems, unless statesmen agree there should be in any particular instance.

It is this abject betrayal of the United Nation’s own principles that has prompted the development of a doctrine of the “responsibility to protect”. Conceived by an international commission funded by the Canadian government, it proposes that inherent in their claim to sovereignty states have a fundamental duty to protect their citizens and if they fail egregiously to do that, other states have a duty to intervene to protect those citizens. Obviously an elaborate set of rules is necessary defining what degree and quality of failure warrants such intervention, the mechanisms for making the decision to intervene, who should intervene, what the objectives should be and the exit mechanisms.

I was New Zealand’s “civil society” nominee to one of the meetings the commission held around the world to discuss its thinking while it was formulating its final report. The one I went to was in Delhi in June 2001 and was attended by Asian representatives, myself and a representative from Australia. On my return and before the commission reported I sent a detailed note to those with whom I had discussed the commission in advance, including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a number of officials and others knowledgeable about international affairs. I mentioned the idea in several columns, including one shortly before 9/11 which identified Afghanistan as a possible candidate for intervention. As the United States readied for Iraq I raised it again, in the context of Saddam Hussein’s horrendous treatment of his subjects. The interest and response in political and bureaucratic circles was zero and I can recall one off-the-record conversation in which the idea was ridiculed as impossibly idealistic and impractical.

Now factor in the United States’ failure to find significant evidence of its pretext for invading Iraq: weapons of mass destruction available and intended for use and links to Al Qaeda. The United States’ fallback justification is the liberation of the Iraqi people from tyranny. That sounds to me like a backhanded version of the responsibility to protect except that there is no evidence of enthusiasm in the Bush Administration to form coalitions of the willing to protect other grossly oppressed peoples.

Stir in the ghastly state slaughter in Darfur and the ghosts of Rwanda. Here is the previously uninterested Phil Goff, lecturing the United Nations last month: “The concept that national sovereignty is paramount and stands in the way of international intervention in local conflicts cannot be sustained � The Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty concluded two and a-half years ago that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe — from mass murder and rape, from starvation. When they are unwilling or able to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of nations.” The wheels of MFAT grind even if they grind exceeding slow. Why the shift? Because sovereignty sensitivities paralyse the “broader community” and its bumbling peak organisation. Postmodernism is rife in the United Nations. The death of innocents is sanctified by the immutable principle of inviolable sovereignty.

It is this sort of disgrace that in part justifies coalitions of the willing as an alternative to the United Nations. The removal of Saddam Hussein is an undoubted benefit to mankind. If the Bush Administration had made Hussein’s gross violations of human rights the justification for invading Iraq, I for one would have thought it defensible, though Ramesh Thakur, one of the commissioners who developed the responsibility to protect doctrine, says Hussein’s regime fell below the bar: it was not, to use Goff’s word, a “catastrophe”. Moreover, if Bush is to make the protection of Iraqis from Hussein’s brutality and depravity credible a convincing cause of war, there are some other causes awaiting his attention. North Korea would surely be near the top of any list.

But you can be very sure Bush and his neoconservative mentors have no intention of invading North Korea. Apart from there being no dynastic score to settle with North Korea, it is not in the Middle East on which the neoconservatives are fixated. The “coalitions of the willing” do not have a roving brief. World War IV, as Norman Podhoretz, a leading neoconservative intellectual, describes it, is between the United States (and, you need to add, Israel) and muslim Arab terrorists and their backers, funders, sympathisers, toleraters in high and low places and fellow-travellers, witting and unwitting, which amounts to rather a large proportion of Arabs by neoconservatives’ reckoning (plus assorted muslims of other ethnic dispositions). The Arabs must be pacified for the United States to live in peace and Bush has started with Iraq.

It’s a fair bet he won’t succeed. Donald Rumsfeld has already talked of United States troops leaving Iraq before it is pacified. The “democratic” regime is unlikely to last long in a country riven ethnically and religiously and with no tradition of democracy to build on. Even if the troops stay there, the American people will tire of the task and a future president, or perhaps Bush himself, will draw back.

This illustrates one difficulty with relying on “coalitions of the willing”: they are by definition ad hoc. Moreover, if the United States were to develop the idea into a doctrine and forge such coalitions for more campaigns in pursuit of its own national interest, then, first, it will find recruitment is ad hoc and grows more difficult over time and, second, there may well develop antagonistic “coalitions of the unwilling”. That would be a danger to world stability.

There are successful coalitions of the willing. They are called peacekeeping missions and they are overseen for the most part by the United Nations. Increasingly, they also have first to do some peacemaking.

And the United Nations, while cumbersome, inefficient and corrupt, does do much lower-level work that, at least in part, earns its keep. For all that and for the peacekeeping, if there wasn’t a United Nations it would be wise and useful to invent one.

But at the highest level, the one that counts most, that of world policeman, it cannot succeed because the principle of inviolable sovereignty cannot be challenged and because decisions are made by an archaic mechanism that defies logic, commonsense and practicality and those in charge of it would have it no other way.

I’d like to think that in the long run this will change, that communication by way of the astonishing new technologies of the past 15 years and the next 50 will forge lateral linkages among people and among peoples, that trade will lock economies and so peoples into each other’s prosperity and prospects, that the practice of international cooperation and mutual regulation through international treaties, already well developed and developing fast, will continue to chip away at petty sovereignties and that internationalisation and localisation will erode the will to hide behind the drying moats of national politics.

But this is the long view. And it must necessarily be a very long view, maybe one looking out a century or two. First, the emerging quadripolar world may hold people apart rather than draw them together. Second, there is still an enormous gap between the richest and the enriching economies and the poorest and stagnant economies, between the democratic and democratising societies and the tribal, authoritarian and corrupt societies, between the post-religious and the animist or religious worldviews. And third, the veneer of civilisation we cling to as the moral salvation of our species is wafer thin, as the goings-on in the cadet school at Waiouru demonstrate in this country’s case.

The United Nations is part of that veneer. It is good that it is there, even if it is stained and tarnished. But a veneer is only a veneer. Polishing it with some restructuring and reform might make the veneer look better but it cannot make it thick and solid. For that a fundamental change is needed in the notion of sovereignty and that is for the distant future.