Has the U.N. been strengthened, and Israel been weakened, by U.N. Resolution 2334, condemning Israeli settlements? On the left, the view is that both claims are true. One does not have to be on the political right to think this conclusion is dreamy. Long before there were Neo-Cons and Republicans, and long before politics had divided along the lines of “left” and “right” in aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, there was Hobbes. The dreamy left of today, however, knows little of the great work of political thought, Leviathan (1651), in which Hobbes saw clearly the three possible places sovereignty can be vested: the state; various sub-state entities; a supra-state entity. Since then, we have played with variants of all three. To those on the left in our day, and to those dreamers in his day, who wished to vest sovereignty at the supra-state level, Hobbes observed: “covenants without the sword are invalid.” In our own day, that means that the U.N. may proclaim whatever it wants; but unless the U.N. has the sword, it’s proclamations are worthless.
Let us take an even larger view. Long before Hobbes’s Leviathan provided a clear-eyed view of the state of things in the international order, St. Augustine some, 1,200 years earlier, had provided a theological understanding of a world composed of different nations, without an overarching power to mediate between them. Because theological arguments generally stand behind political ones, St. Augustine is worth considering. There is no finer statement about the plurality of nations in the world of time than that found in his City of God (Bk. XIX, Ch. 17). Until the End Time, there will be multiple nations, each with their own laws, intended, in their own way, to achieve a workable level of civil concord. What this theological position means politically (to bring us to the present moment) is that we may be able to have treaties and alliances between and among nations, but any effort to permanently coordinate matters at a higher level will only work temporarily if at all. “Covenants without the sword are invalid.”
Because the U.N. does not have the power of the sword, the U.S. abstention in the recent U.N. vote has not weakened Israel at all; it has weakened the U.N. Israel, it is true, has been declared an outlaw nation by the U.N. The U.N., however, will do nothing. For decades the U.S. protected Israel in the U.N., by vetoing various anti-Israel resolutions that came to a vote. As a consequence, the enforcement power of the U.N. with respect to Israel could remain untested. Now that is no longer the case. Having declared Israel an outlaw nation, what is the U.N. now going to do to enforce its declaration?
On the matter of the Palestinians, it is safe to say that few peoples have been more used by their own leaders since 1948 than have the Palestinians. The inconvenient truth is that the U.N. itself has, in some measure, made it possible for that to occur, by funneling aid to the Palestinians without an intact government able to dispense funds appropriately. Political facts on the ground, too, militate against the establishment of a Palestinian state. To these dire circumstances, add the following: the single date that defined the second half of the twentieth century was 1948, when the state of Israel was established. The U.S. deal with Iran, authored by the Obama administration, erases that date, and replaces it with another: 2015. Because of 2015, many of the Sunni Arab states will be working more closely with Israel, to thwart their perceived common enemy, Iran. The Palestinian “cause” will shift even farther back on the stove. In addition, there is the uncomfortable fact that anyone who has lived long enough in the Middle East already knows: public support for the Palestinians masks a deep antipathy under the surface. Many Palestinians who left their homes were highly educated, and weren’t warmly welcomed into societies where their talent would quickly place them at the top of the food chain. Finally, which of the countries that have spilt blood and treasure for the Palestinians have come out ahead? Egypt? Jordan? None of them have. Bring these considerations together, and it does not look like Palestinians have much of a shot at getting their own state. Borders are determined by wars between states. The U.N., however, will not go to war. And because of that, the U.N. will have little to do with the fate of the Palestinians—except perhaps to hold them in a permanent state of limbo.
Why, then, the U.S. decision to abstain, for the first time in 36 years, on a U.N. resolution critical of Israel? By most accounts, it is a slap in the face of Israel, either long-overdue or wholly unwarranted. In the waning days of the Obama Administration, which dared to declare early on that we live in a post-political world characterized by cooperation and technical management on a global scale, there seems to be something bigger at issue, of which the question of Israel is a proxy: can the U.N. or other trans-national bodies exercise sovereignty over sovereign states? In a world recently rocked by Brexit, and trying now to make sense of Make-America-Great-Again-Donald-Trump, the U.S. Abstention looks more like one last attempt by Obama to assert that the new world that is upon us all—a world of sovereign states that Hobbes so long ago had in mind—is a ghastly mistake against which he must stand faithfully to the very bitter end.
The irony of the U.S. abstention is that in finally allowing U.N. Resolution 2334 to go forward without U.S. veto, what is being revealed is what was hidden for so long: The U.N. does not have the power to intervene in any really significant way into the internal affairs of intact states. President Obama’s effort to show that the U.N. does have authority over sovereign states is actually helping to make the point that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump represent: the state, not the U.N. (or the EU), matters.
The post-1989 world—held together by the longing for supra-state sovereign authority—is rapidly being dismantled. To get ahead of this development, the United States needs to quickly pivot to the new reality of “a world of nations.” It must stop pinning our national hopes—as did the Obama Administration—on organizations that promise but can never deliver global coordination. If Augustine is right, the world cannot be successfully organized in that way. That means the work at hand is to refortify those alliances we think are important for our national security, rebuild our own country so that our citizens have a measure of security and prosperity, and leave it to God to weave everything together, at a time and in a manner He knows, but we cannot. Augustine had faith that the crumbling of the “global order” that he witnessed—the fall of Rome—indicated, in part, that Roman pride had overstepped the bounds set by God for man. That pride is evident today, in the refusal to understand that the post-1989 “global order” aimed too high; and it is evident in the belief that the U.N. can have any effective power over states and their borders. The U.N. can do tiny things. But big things are done by States.
Joshua Mitchell is a Professor of Government at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age.
Photo Credit: Chaired by President Obama, the UN Security Council Summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament unanimously adopted a resolution expressing the Council’s resolve to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. Shown here is a wide view of the vote on September 24, 2009. UN Photo by Mark Garten, via Flickr.