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The Meaning of the U.N.

Ken Nesmith

Say what you will about George Bush’s foreign policy, but if nothing else, agree that it’s bold. The administration isn’t afraid to purposefully take what it believes to be the right course of action. An ongoing tension between strategies based either on diplomacy or on military action has been brought visibly to the fore in recent months, as prominent voices both currently in power and recently deposed have aired attacks on their strategic opponents. Amidst this fight, the Bush administration has faced a good deal of criticism merely for stating the unstated but acknowledged truth.

Newt Gingrich kicked things off with an article in the journal Foreign Policy openly attacking disorganization and institutional failure at the State Department; the article was widely interpreted as a sidelong attack on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s commission by Rumsfeld and his ilk. Most agreed, though, that Gingrich’s criticisms had some merit. This was only another manifestation of traditional tension between Pentagon unilateral strategies and Department of State diplomatic, collective strategies. These strategies yield markedly different characterizations of the United Nations, either the centerpiece of international relations, or an irrelevance, depending on who you ask.

The course of events leading to war in Iraq weakened the international stature of the United Nations. The middling organization simply could not manage to adequately address Saddam’s murderous folly. In fact, they’ve failed to accomplish much of anything in the way of policing world affairs. U.N. peacekeepers are best known for standing by helplessly in the face of escalating slaughter, most recently in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. Travesties like that illustrate very clearly for us that the rule of law is predicated on the threat of force --and without that threat, law is nothing but empty idealism. The United Nations, apparently lacking the ability or will to deliver a credible threat of force ever or anywhere, instead makes itself the vanguard of idealism, ultimately irrelevant in international relations. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Clinton, calls this bloody truth “inherent in the voluntary and collective nature of the United Nations” in a Sept. article in Foreign Policy.

In the same article, Albright objects strongly to contemporary characterizations of the United Nations as irrelevant, ineffective, and at odds with the United States. Ultimately, though, she paints a picture of the United Nations as a large-scale charity operation that occasionally hosts meetings about military matters. The most prominent U.N. roles she identifies are charitable and humanitarian ones, haphazardly feeding the hungry, fighting disease, defending human rights, and so forth -- vital goals, to be sure, but ones that perhaps have not been orchestrated to perfection. Meanwhile, a New York Times article notes that the Gates Foundation, an underappreciated dividend of Microsoft’s success in the software industry, has spent more than $610 million to fight tuberculosis, malaria, and A.I.D.S., and will spend at least $478 million more by 2005. The United Nation’s Global Fund partnership of 14 countries, private charities, and industry partners, established to fight those same three diseases, will spend just a bit more than that, $1.5 billion, on its mission. One man’s handiwork now challenges an international collective as the most effective aid organization in the world. Perhaps a few more successes out of Redmond will find Mr. Gates displacing the United Nations as the global leader in prominent fields of aid work.

More interesting than Albright’s defense of the United Nation’s relevance in administering charity and conferring legitimacy on conflict is her mention of the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemption. That simple doctrine states that if we face a significant military threat, we will act to eliminate it rather than waiting to be attacked, as one might act in self-defense against an armed criminal, rather than waiting for them to shoot at you. This is an undeniably reasonable stance. Albright agrees, but is bothered that the administration “elevat[ed] what has always been a residual option into a highly publicized doctrine.” The critique, then, is that in this doctrine, the administration openly stated the truth. Her critique feels hollow. Surely all can agree, there are worse sins than honesty.

Attacks on the administration for truth-telling are even more ironic at a time when its leaders face so much criticism, some warranted and some not, for deceptive arrangement of evidence for war in Iraq. This is not, after all, the only time that forthright statements about international affairs have brought criticisms that we’re stepping on toes and not affording terrorist nations proper courtesies; that’s been the charge ever since the world heard Bush speak of the existence of right and wrong, a charge renewed upon his identification of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as ‘evil.’ But most recently, the administration got into trouble when John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, spoke about North Korea, a nation suffering the wrath of the Kim Jong Il, the most vile dictator of which one could conceive. James Bond-style evil masterminds can’t hold a candle to this monster, who has killed millions via an induced famine in the last decade; speak ill of him in his country and you, your children, and grandchildren will face enslavement in prison, as have innumerable North Korean citizens. He’s openly lied to the international community on countless occasions, and apparently continues to do so. Now, he’s on the verge of acquiring a few nuclear weapons. (He’s stated in the past that he’d be proud to make a martyr of his nation by striking the U.S. with nuclear weapons.) We’ll soon begin six-way talks to see if diplomacy can succeed here where it’s failed us so many times before.

What were Mr. Bolton’s insensitive comments? He described life in North Korea as “a hellish nightmare,” and labeled its leader a “tyrannical rogue.” “To give in to [Kim Jong Il’s] extortionist demands would only encourage him and other would-be tyrants around the world.” Again, his statement is nothing but the truth and, for that matter, the obvious. The response? Predictable fretting about Bush’s presumptuous foreign policy -- and, North Korea dubbed Mr. Bolton “human scum.”

Too often, criticism of the current administration’s military policies consists of loud denunciations, perhaps with a cheeky call for regime change at home here and there, but behind the charges lies little more than objections to a straightforward, uncommon forthrightness to which the world is unaccustomed. It is not encouraging when the most prominent criticisms of our leadership consists of attacking their insistence on calling an apple an apple, evil evil, and a hellish nightmare just that.