It’s the Nukes, Stupid: Why We Still Need The UN

I think the hostility many Americans feel toward the UN stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of why it is important (aside from its many, many, effective humanitarian programs, which are all underfunded). Since Donald Trump was elected, Republicans are once again talking about defunding the UN. These proposals always arise when it makes decisions the US doesn’t support, like condemning Israel for its settlement activity, or blocking a resolution to impose sanctions on Syria. These critics appear to view the UN as if its primary function were to pass resolutions that agree with American policy.  In reality, although the UN was founded by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, it is not a creature of the United States, and therein lies its usefulness.

We’re talking about an international body with 193 member states that, for better or worse, gave its 5 original members a veto they can use to protect their own interests and those of their allies.  As much as that might create gridlock and hypocrisy, the fact that Russia and China can throw their weight around as much as the US allows the UN to perform its most critical functions: representing a set of international standards of conduct respected, if not always followed, by all member states, and acting as an impartial forum in which nations can present their arguments to the international community. The US defunding the UN would effectively cripple the institution, and that would be a profoundly stupid idea in the face of a resurgent Russia and nuclear North Korea. We need only look to our own history, and the role the UN played in the Cuban missile crisis, to understand the importance of the institution.

The UN security council has always been gridlocked and difficult

The foundation of the UN was the alliance that brought down Hitler: the British Empire, the United States, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, and the Free French. Roosevelt called the alliance the United Nations. That is why these 5 nations have permanent seats, and a veto, on the Security Council. Obviously, the veto proved problematic when, in Churchill’s words, the “Iron Curtain” fell over eastern Europe. For the approximately 40 years of the cold war, the permanent members exercised their vetoes, either formally or by implication, often enough to prevent the security council from getting much done. Important conflicts that were ignored include the partition of India (Britain), Algerian war (France), 1st Afghan War (Soviet Union), and Vietnam (US). During the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union were particularly inclined to use their vetoes. If the usefulness of the UN were defined by the effectiveness of the security council at enforcing the UN charter, it would have been dead on arrival.

The UN helped prevent nuclear powers from ending life on earth

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the UN performed two functions: 1) it offered a credible forum where the American Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, could present evidence that the Soviet Ambassador, Valerian Zorin, had been lying about placing missiles in Cuba (you can watch it here; it’s pretty great); and 2) it gave Secretary-General U Thant the credibility he needed to mediate between the two superpowers, helping them to avert catastrophe.

When the UN got involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world was at possibly the most dangerous point in human history. There was a standoff between the US and the Soviet Union from October 16-28 of 1962 over intercontinental ballistic missiles placed in Cuba by the Soviets. The US found out about the missiles through routine overflights of the area, and were understandably perturbed. The Soviets denied that the missiles existed, and the United States imposed a quarantine on Cuba, promising to intercept and turn back any Soviet vessel that tried to approach. It is difficult to exaggerate the danger of that moment. The tension was so great that, but for one man’s refusal, a Soviet submarine would have started a thermonuclear war.

Enter the UN. On October 24-25, UN Secretary General U Thant was able to convince US President John F. Kennedy to try to avoid intercepting any Russian vessels, and convince Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to temporarily divert his vessels away from Cuba. It was a hard sell. Initially, when asked to remove the quarantine entirely,John F. Kennedy flatly refused. During this period of mediated negotiation, Stevenson was able to present the American evidence on the floor of the UN General Assembly, which reduced Soviet credibility among other nations. On October 28, when the crisis concluded, it was in no small part due to Thant’s intervention.

It is the gridlock and power struggles that give the UN its value

The UN would have had no ability to negotiate between JFK and Nikita Kruschev if the US had more power than the Soviet Union within the organization. The UN’s impartiality is its greatest asset. It makes Russia and the US accept the judgment of Turkish coroners that Syrian civilians died of a nerve agent (even if those two nations dispute who killed them). It is an impartial arbiter precisely because Russia and China can exercise their veto when we don’t want them to. There is intrinsic value to having an organization that establishes a list of principles everyone should live by, even if we don’t live up to them all the time. Even when we, the US, or Russia, or Britain, or Argentina fail to comply with the UN charter, the Secretary-General representing the principles in that charter still has power as a mediator. The UN is a giant bureaucracy with a lot of problems, but it performs an important role in a flawed world. Without its impartiality, and the forum it provides, the world would look a whole lot grimmer.

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One thought on “It’s the Nukes, Stupid: Why We Still Need The UN

  1. Pingback: Why we need the UN – The Big School

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