Sunday, September 11, 2005

James Traub on reimagining the UN as something new and different

Journalist James Traub (who is also writing a book on the UN and alternatives to it) has a very thoughtful piece in the New York Times Magazine today (September 11, 2005, page 17, The Un-UN) on how a new international organization might be imagined to supplement and, in time perhaps, even to supplant the UN as it currently stands. Read it here. (And read Ed Morrissey's take on it here - I'll add some other reactions to it in the blogosphere as I notice them.)

The fundamental issue for Traub is whether the leading international organization should be open to everyone - open simply in virtue of territorial sovereignty - or whether, instead, it should have some standards for membership that imply some minimal shared values. As the UN stands now, it is an organization with everyone included. This has the virtue of providing a place where good guys can talk with good guys, and good guys can talk with bad guys - and bad guys can talk with bad guys, and scheme with bad guys, and give mutual support among bad guys, and all the stuff that leads to - not alone among UN organs - the current Human Rights Commission.

There is much discussion these days about a democracy caucus that would be its own bloc in the UN to counteract the organized behavior of the bad actors. The US and a number of other leading democracies have in fact been organizing precisely such a caucus for several years - Secretary Rice made a point of stopping through a meeting in Santiago not long ago. Traub proposes something that is at once less than a caucus of democracies and yet more. His proposal is that democracy is too narrow and too exclusionary a category - this is the "less" part - because his sweeping vision is to create a new global organization that would be a caucus of the relatively good guys, even if that means taking in some states that are not democracies. The organization would, in effect, replace the current UN as the leading actor in the international organization world - and this is the "more" part. The organization would have standards - what would they be, if they are not as stringent as democracy per se? Traub says:

"But perhaps rather than reconciling ourselves to the U.N.'s inherent limits, we should ask whether we can imagine a different kind of institution - one, for example, that looks more like NATO, which consists only of members with a (more or less) shared understanding of the world order and thus a shared willingness to confront threats to that order. This new body, which I will call the Peace and Security Union until someone comes up with a more resonant name, would require members to accept, in advance, a set of core principles, including:

Terrorism must be unambiguously defined and confronted both through police and, where necessary, military means; states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens, which in turn confers an obligation on the membership to intervene, at times through armed force, in the case of atrocities; extreme poverty and disease, which threaten the integrity of states, require a collective response.

Who should be eligible to join? There has been some discussion, mostly in conservative circles, of a new organization of democracies. But many third-world democracies resist almost any encroachment on other countries' sovereignty, whether in the case of "humanitarian intervention" or the singling out of human rights abusers; to grant them automatic admission would be to jeopardize the P.S.U.'s commitment to core principles. And it would be just as dangerous to automatically exclude China, since large parts of Asia - and not only Asia - would be reluctant to cross a Chinese picket line.

A better solution is to stipulate that any state that formally accepts the core principles and pledges to put them into effect will be permitted to join the P.S.U. Very few nondemocratic states would be willing to meet this threshold, especially if they could be ejected should they renege on their commitments. But no state could reasonably claim that it had been unfairly excluded."

In effect, then, it is a less-for-more, or more-for-less, proposal, depending on which way you look at it - standards less stringent than would otherwise constitute the "good guys" on both human rights and democracy, but an acceptance of certain standards of outside intervention on the basis of state failure or massive abuse. But this club, rather than being simply an ad hoc caucus seeking to be its own lobbying bloc within the existing UN (and almost certainly doomed to failure as a lobbyist, sadly), would seek to be something far more powerful - like NATO in its post-Cold War reach, and perhaps even a replacement organization for the UN, or at least parts of it, over time.

Traub sets this view against the view of Edward Luck, a long time observer of the UN, that the limitations of the UN are structural and cannot be shifted - and therefore it is better to go for small, incremental changes that do not challenge the structural limits. Traub's answer to that is, first, to agree that the limitations of the UN are indeed structural - and therefore the answer is a new type of organization. But even an imaginary and imagined organization must come to grips somehow with the facts of power, and it must therefore be open to the possibility of powerful states that are not democracies committing themselves to some other set of acceptable principles. The country he has in mind, of course, most of all, is China.

It is noteworthy that Traub does not line up Bolton and the Bush administration in his sights as the inevitable bad guys in all this - rather, he correctly notes that, the structural limits of great power politics in multilateralism being what they are, most of the great powers and many smaller ones are happy to see the reform efforts falter, especially if the US took the blame:

"If U.N. reform falters this week, or if only a few noncontroversial measures pass, the blame is bound to fall on the Bush administration and its confrontational ambassador, John Bolton. It's true that Bolton has shattered a great deal of crockery since arriving in Turtle Bay last month, loudly disparaging the laboriously assembled reform package and then submitting a new version with 750 amendments, as well as making common cause with the Chinese to block Security Council expansion.

And it's true as well that the United States, owing to its unique position of power and the ideological proclivities of this administration, is willing - no, eager - to make a very public bonfire of the high-minded principles of multilateralism.

What is less noticed, however, is how many other states - Russia, China and many members of the U.N.'s still-extant "nonaligned movement" - are perfectly content to dance around the embers. Many members of the U.N. are simply not willing to sacrifice whatever they define as their national interests for the collective good that the organization aspires to represent and advance."

I do not agree that the issue is always a question of national interests versus international "collective good," as Traub puts it. On the question of 0.7% ODA, for example, one might disagree over whether it is a good idea or a bad idea, rather than, say, pursuing aid through NGO mechanisms rather than official development assistance that has proven itself so badly spent over decades. One might claim that the US is simply cheap. But it is, in my view, a principled position on the part of the US to reject it, and not simply an exercise in self-interest. And many other issues in which individual countries, the US in particular, have taken positions against the UN - whether the Security Council or that particularly irreponsible and nasty agglomeration, the General Assembly (committed by the UN charter itself to the privilege of mouthing off without any fear of consequences or responsibility) or other organs - which are clearly expressions of ideals, including ideals of democratic sovereignty, rather than self-interest. It is far too quick and quite wrong to assume that the positions asserted by the UN and its organs represent "collective good" against "self interest." The UN's position are frequently in its own bureaucratic interest, rather than any genuinely "collective" interest, frequently "bad," rather than good, and the positions of its members against UN positions are frequently idealistic and good rather than self-interested; moreover, it is not illegitimate for sovereign democracies to put the interests of their citizens first.

I likewise have doubts about Traub's alternative, more inclusive criteria for membership. It reflects what is the current "next big thing" on the minds of many reformers - both political left-progressives, but also including many thoughtful conservatives - the so-called responsiblity to protect, to protect populations against the depredations of their own governments, against the abuses of failed states, and so on. As a practical matter, Traub says that trying to make the core principles - rejection of terrorism and pursuit of terrorists; intervention in matters of the responsibility to protect; and collective action against severe poverty - stringently binding will have the effect of keeping out states that worry about authorizing intervention. As well they might - after all, the point of a responsiblity to protect is, indeed, to abrogate once and for all the traditional sovereign boundary against intervention. So, he says, all states need do is accept the core principles to join the new organization - commit themselves to those principles to join up.

Traub says that very few of the worst of the bad guys will be willing to join on those terms. In the beginning that is very likely so. If it were actually to gather steam as an organization, over time I think it more likely that they will be willing to mouth the words or not depending on what they think it nets them. Consider how counries rushed to be counted among the United Nations back when it was still the anti-fascist alliance at the close of the World War II - even dubious neutrals such as Argentina were careful to jump on the "next big thing." Bad guys will say the magic formula if they think there is something worth it on offer. At that point, the choice for the organization will be to say, come in and we will try to use suasion to alter your political behavior - improvement through moral example, a kind of Sunday School to the nations - or say, nope, you don't meet the requirements, change your system and we will consider you. An organization which has already, in the name of great power politics, accepted what remains a totalitarian and deeply nationalist and, indeed, belligerent state such as China will have great trouble keeping anyone else out, except perhaps for a few small and unimportant pariahs. On the contrary, the tendency will be to take them in, even if they pollute, so to speak, the prayer circle.

(Because all these proposals for inclusionary or exclusionary new or reformed clubs of nations revolve, principally, around concepts of purity and sinfulness, the analogy with religion is actually a useful one within limits. There is a certain utility in considering the circumstances in which religious groups invite in the sinners and the circumstances in which, to avoid impurity and sin, they keep them out.)

The other grand issue in this is the question of whether Traub, or other proponents of new arrangements and new clubs, are offering what for a great many people in the world are simply stalking horses for the containment of US power that they resent and dislike. Certainly it seems to me that many progressives hope, out of the idea of a caucus of democracies, to contain the US in an arrangement that makes it harder for the US to use force unilaterally, or to cobble together a coalition of the willing. These progressives both recognize the inherent moral problem of UN action - bad guys and good guys together? - and they also believe that US power should be constrained and put to the collective use of the good guys, while understanding fully that what the US thinks is good and what western Europe thinks is good diverge considerably. It is hard not to detect a certain strain of this in Traub's thinking, as well. It is not necessarily a cynical or unprincipled position - but it is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with a strong ideal of democratic sovereignty, a democratic sovereign that has no political superior. What finally matters, after all, is whether one accepts or not global governance as the morally right form of global organization, over the requirements that democratic sovereigns owe to their own particular citizens.

I have problems with Traub's approach. But it is a welcome attempt to come up with something that is both idealistic yet takes power into account. Congratulations to him - I will look forward to reading his book - and to the editors of the New York Times Magazine, Gerry Marzorati, and do I detect the felicitous hand of Scott Malcomson here? for running this piece as the UN reform summit launches to who-knows-where.

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