Mark Steyn on why the UN is unreformable
The inimitable Mark Steyn on why the UN is unreformable, here, from the Spectator (London). Some very unwise people have the impression that Steyn is simply too funny to be intelligent. They are wrong. Hitchens once said to me in passing last summer that Steyn is "very tough-minded." Indeed.
Thanks to Scott Lahti for passing this along - along with the many too-nice things he has said on his blog about my writing for the Times Literary Supplement over the years. Thanks,l Scott.
There is no cure for the UN
Spectator (London), September 19, 2005
Kofi Annan is the very embodiment of transnationalism’s polite fictions: a dapper soft-spoken African, he seems the soul of moderation. Even when what he’s actually saying is highly immoderate, and even when he’s standing next to some disgusting dictator as he says it, he’s always a reliably decaffeinated Kofi.
So what if his brother and his son and his son’s best pal are under investigation in the UN oil-for-food scandal? So what if his secretariat got a $1.4 billion oil-for-food administration fee yet apparently couldn’t afford an auditor for the programme? So what if the head of Kofi’s budget oversight committee was too busy sluicing hundreds of thousands of dollars for himself to notice whether anybody else was on the take? So what if Saddam Hussein used the UN as a money-laundering operation to advance his geopolitical aims? Paul Volcker’s independent report has decided that, even though Mr Annan knew of the kickbacks since at least 2001, the secretary-general is guilty of sins of omission rather than commission. He and his deputy, Canada’s Louise Frechette, simply failed to notice the world’s all-time biggest scam exponentially expanding under their noses and with the enthusiastic participation of their closest colleagues.
Possibly they carelessly assumed it was just the usual nickel’n’dime UN corruption — like the child-sex rings and drug cartels that operate out of pretty well every peacekeeping operation. But the point is, while it may have happened on Kofi’s watch, he wasn’t watching, so that’s OK. Like OJ promising to hunt down the real killers, Mr Annan and Mme Frechette are committed to staying in their jobs and redoubling their efforts to spearhead the reforms the UN vitally needs. As the media ‘talking points’ distributed by the secretary-general to his underlings put it, ‘It is time to focus on the important reform agenda’ because ‘the inquiry’s findings underscore the vital importance of proposed management reforms’. And if we say ‘vital’ and ‘focus’ and ‘underscore’ often enough, this whole thing will fade away and it will be back to business as usual.
I, too, am in favour of Kofi Annan staying on, not just till his term expires in December 2006, but for five, ten years after that, if he wishes. If I was as eager for UN ‘reform’ as its supporters claim to be, I’d toss Kofi to the sharks and get some new broom in to sweep clean. But if, as I do, you believe 90 per cent of UN ‘reforms’ are likely to be either meaningless or actively harmful, a discredited and damaged secretary-general clinging to office is as good as it’s likely to get — short of promoting Didier Bourguet, the UN staffer in Congo and the Central African Republic charged with running a paedophile ring. A UN that refuses to hold Kofi Annan to account will be harder to pass off as a UN that represents the world’s ‘moral authority’, in Clare Short’s blissfully surreal characterisation.
What’s important to understand is that Mr Annan’s ramshackle UN of humanitarian money-launderers, peacekeeper-rapists and a human rights commission that looks like a lifetime-achievement awards ceremony for the world’s torturers is not a momentary aberration. Nor can it be corrected by bureaucratic reforms designed to ensure that the failed budget oversight committee will henceforth be policed by a budget oversight committee oversight committee. The oil-for-food fiasco is the UN, the predictable spawn of its utopian fantasies and fetid realities. If Saddam grasped this more clearly than Clare Short or Polly Toynbee, well, that’s why he is — was — an A-list dictator and they’re not.
Why was there an oil-for-fraud programme in the first place? Because back in the 1990s, having thrown a big old multilateral Gulf war and gotten to the gates of Baghdad, the grand UN coalition then decided against toppling Saddam. So, having shirked the responsibilities that come with having a real policy, America, Britain and the rest were in the market for a pseudo-policy. And where does an advanced Western democracy go when it wants a pseudo-policy? Why, the UN! Saddam correctly calculated that the great powers were overinvested in oil-for-food as a figleaf for their lack of will and he reasoned that in such an environment their figleaf would also serve as a discreet veil for all kinds of other activities. He didn’t game the system, he simply understood far better than Clinton and Bush, Major and Blair how it worked.
That’s the essence of transnationalism. For weeks now the Bush administration has been advised — by Mr Blair among others — that they should sign on to all the multilateral guff being peddled at this week’s so-called ‘High-Level Plenary Meeting’ because come on, it’s mostly a lot of feelgood blather, so where’s the harm? When it comes to identifying which transnational tumours metastasising across the global scene are benign, the Prime Minister isn’t your most reliable diagnostician. As I recall, the principal beneficiaries of the United Kingdom’s signature on the European Declaration of Human Rights were supposed to be British transsexuals, who were very excited about it for some reason or another. Instead, it turned out to be boom time for suspected Islamist terrorists, non-citizens but now serenaded by every London judge with a soothing chorus of ‘Undeportable, that’s what you are.’
Transnationalism is the mechanism by which the world’s most enlightened progressives provide cover for its darkest forces. It’s a largely unconscious alliance but not an illogical one. Western proponents of ‘sustainable consumption’ and some of the other loopy NGO-beloved eco-concepts up for debate in New York this week have at least this much in common with psychotic Third World thugocracies: both groups find it hard to win free elections, both regard transnational bodies as useful for conferring a respect unearned at the ballot box, and neither is unduly troubled by the lack of accountability in global institutions.
Those of us who believe that big government is by definition remote government and that therefore the pretensions to world government of the UN make it potentially the worst of all should, in theory, argue for withdrawal from the organisation. A neighbour of mine periodically pins one of his ‘US OUT OF UN NOW!’ bumper stickers to the back of my rig, and I’m happy to drive around with it. Outside a few college towns and effete coastal enclaves, I don’t believe there would be any political downside for candidates campaigning on a platform of pulling out of the UN entirely, and I’d encourage Republicans to do so if only as a way of unnerving those lazy pols like John Kerry who are prone to mindless transnationalist boosterism. But as a matter of practical politics I can’t see the US leaving the UN any time soon.
Can the US force the UN to reform itself? I mean really reform itself, not just get-Kofi-off-the-hook reform. Well, look at it this way: with hindsight, the UN was most effective when it was least effective — that’s to say, the four decades between Korea and the Gulf when the Cold War mutually assured vetoes at least accurately represented the global stand-off. Now, however, we’re in a unipolar world. And, as a result, the UN is no longer a permanent talking-shop for the world’s powers but an alternative power in and of itself — a sort of ersatz superpower intended to counter the real one. Consider the 85 yes-or-no votes America made in the General Assembly in 2003:
The Arab League members voted against the US position 88.7 per cent of the time.
The ASEAN members voted against the US position 84.5 per cent of the time.
The Islamic Conference members voted against the US position 84.1 per cent of the time.
The African members voted against the US position 83.8 per cent of the time.
The Non-Aligned Movement members voted against the US position 82.7 per cent of the time.
And European Union members voted against the US position 54.5 per cent of the time.
You can take the view of the Will Hutton school that this is proof of America’s isolation and that the United States now needs to issue a ‘Declaration of Interdependence’ with the world. Or you can be like the proud mom in Irving Berlin’s Great War marching song: ‘They Were All Out Of Step But Jim’. But what the figures really demonstrate is that the logic of the post-Cold War UN is to be institutionally anti-American. Washington could seize on Kofi Annan’s present embarrassment and lean hard on him to reform this and reorganise that and reinvent the other and, if they threw their full diplomatic muscle behind it, they might get those anti-US votes down to — what, a tad over 80 per cent? And along the way they’d find that they’d ‘reformed’ a corrupt dysfunctional sclerotic anti-American club into a lean mean functioning effective anti-American club. Which is, if they’re honest, what most reformers mean by ‘reform’.
Obviously, within those various blocs, America has many friends. But the regional voting structure of the UN means that even relatively well-disposed allies become less friendly when their voice is filtered through geographic groupings that prize solidarity over all. For example, Libya became chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission because it was felt to be Africa’s turn and Africa put up only one candidate and the European Union had agreed to vote as a bloc and they didn’t wish to be seen to be disrespecting Africa by voting against its preferred candidate, so they abstained. So, by filtering Britain’s voice through one transnational body (the EU) into another (the UN) to vote on the candidate of a third (the African Union), Her Majesty’s Government is now on record as having no objection to the world’s leading human rights body being headed by a one-man dictatorship that blows up American airliners in British airspace. It’s a good thing the UN has ‘moral authority’, because the United Kingdom certainly doesn’t. Thus, transnationalism artificially diminishes the voice of second-tier powers and artificially inflates basket-case psycho states.
Any real reform of the UN would start by dismantling the deeply unhealthy regional structure. Instead, reformers complain that the permanent Security Council membership excludes all of Africa and Latin America, and demand that Brazil and South Africa be brought on board as regional house captains. That would be a disaster. An India that sits alongside America as a fellow democracy, trading partner and beneficiary of the Britannic inheritance is one thing. An India that represents an invented power bloc defined by the increasingly outmoded constraints of geography would just be a vehicle for taking those 85 per cent negative votes up to the Security Council.
Yet we’re now being told that the United States is obstructing the 60th anniversary ‘full-blown relaunching’, as the Washington Post puts it, by impeding the expansion of the Security Council. One can only hope so. ‘Relaunching’ the UN in a fast-changing world is like trying to redesign a horse-and-buggy for a moon-shot. Take last month’s first Sino-Russian war games, a rare joint venture by the two non-Western members of the Big Five. Moscow may see an alliance with Beijing as its only hope of retaining world-power status. By 2020, when the agreement on the 4,000-mile Russian-Chinese border comes up for renegotiation, the Far East of the Russian Federation, containing 80 per cent of the country’s resources, will have been de facto settled by the Chinese.
That’s not a corner of the world anyone thinks about much right now, but it will look profoundly different in 15 years’ time. How likely are we — or, more to the point, Kofi Annan, Louise Frechette and co. — to be able to construct formal structures for a world just a decade and a half hence? Given the unlikelihood of getting it right, it’s preferable to stick with the second world war victory parade preserved in aspic. The existing Security Council’s ever more obvious obsolescence will be the best counterweight to the lazy assumption that transnationalism is the wave of the future.
So I hope that by the time you read this the deliberations at Turtle Bay are poised somewhere between paralysis and meltdown. The polite fictions of Kofi Annan really belong to the lost world of 10 September 2001. It was very agreeable if you were one of the bespoke chaps cruising from summit to summit — UN, EU, G8 — mediating the cares of the planet. And it was all terribly sophisticated, as sophisticated as an urbane Paris boulevardier from the fin de siècle, impeccably coiffed and coutured but riddled with syphilis. Since Osama bin Laden blew apart those polite fictions, the effective international relationships — America and Australia, America and India — have taken place without the construction of permanent secretariats. Let’s keep it that way. The best way to avoid having to ‘reform’ transnational bureaucracies is not to have them in the first place.
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