Media mantras about American unilateralism notwithstanding, the record shows that American presidents generally try to work through the UN and genuinely want it to live up to its noble mission—only to be repeatedly disappointed.
It pays to recall that President Franklin Roosevelt helped found the UN.
President Harry Truman turned to the UN to build an international coalition to defend South Korea.
President John Kennedy used the UN as an international courtroom to indict the Soviet Union for its reckless actions in Cuba, and he enlisted UN Secretary General U Thant to help de-escalate the crisis.
President Jimmy Carter signed on to UN covenants on human rights and political rights.
President Ronald Reagan answered the UN’s call for peacekeepers in Lebanon, as did President George H.W. Bush in Somalia. Bush 41 also used the UN to help reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
When President Bill Clinton insisted that UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions related to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program be enforced, only Britain offered to assist. The rest of the UNSC shrugged. Clinton’s desire for international authorization to protect Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic found more intransigence at the UNSC.
Like Clinton, President George W. Bush called on the UNSC to enforce its own resolutions in Iraq, declaring, “We want the UN to be effective and respected and successful.” Yet it took eight weeks for the Security Council to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. Even then, even after UN weapons inspectors reported that Iraq had not complied with UN disarmament demands, half the Security Council refused to act. “The United States and our allies have worked within the Security Council to enforce that council’s longstanding demands,” Bush 43 explained. “Yet some permanent members of the Security Council have publicly announced that they will veto any resolution that compels the disarmament of Iraq. These governments share our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it.” So, the US led a coalition of three dozen nations into Iraq, in Bush 43’s words, to enforce “the resolutions of the world’s most important multilateral body.”
President Barack Obama and European leaders secured UNSC authorization for a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians from Muammar Qaddafi. But Russia blocked any such cooperation in Syria. Between October 2011 and April 2018, Russia vetoed at least 10 UNSC resolutions related to Syria. Obama, not unlike his immediate predecessors, ended up building an ad hoc coalition to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) outside UN auspices.
After Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks in 2017, President Donald Trump called the UNSC “a great disappointment” and ordered missile strikes against Assad’s military without seeking UN permission. After the Assad regime carried out another chemical attack in 2018, Britain and France joined the US in delivering a barrage of punitive strikes, again without seeking UN pre-approval.
In part because of the UN’s record, in part because of his default distrust of international institutions, Trump seems less likely than any president in the UN era to work through or with the UN. His 2017 UN address amounted to a public scolding of the world body, complete with critiques of the UN’s dues system and stark reminders that the nations that founded the UN did so not to create a debating society or a supranational government, but rather “to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.”
Order from Chaos
The problem, as former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder observes, is that the UN is “an institution beholden to its least cooperative members.” Thus, when faced with threats to peace and order, the US is left with two unpalatable options. It can allow the obstructionists to win and let the threats metastasize. Or it can act without UN permission and face the opprobrium of allied governments.
It’s important to note that America’s closest allies in Britain, Canada, continental Europe, Japan, and elsewhere in the Pacific—and to a growing degree, elements inside the US government—view the UNSC as the sole source of legitimacy for military action. (Many Americans would argue the only source of legitimacy for US military action is the US Constitution, but that’s a debate for another essay.) “Under the United Nations Charter,” Daalder and Robert Kagan explain, “states are prohibited from using force except in cases of self-defense or when explicitly authorized by the Security Council. But this presupposes that the members of the Security Council can agree on the threat and the appropriate response.” Yet time and again, the UNSC’s Permanent Five have proven unable to agree on what constitutes a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression.”
This is how UN inertia impacts national security and international order.
Order is an essential ingredient of free government within nations and peace between nations. The God of the Bible is deeply interested in order. Genesis tells us God brought form and order out of chaos. Paul writes that God is not a God of disorder, and he urges us to pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” The implication is clear: legitimate governments exist to promote order—within and between nations.
As the editors of Providence argue in their statement on faith and foreign policy, “there is no perfect human political system, but we believe the liberal order is the least flawed of all presently available options and constitutes the best means for accomplishing the ends for which government was ordained.” Yet this liberal international order doesn’t run on autopilot. Indeed, the natural order of the world is not orderly. At the international level, there are no police or judges to enforce the rules, settle disputes or maintain order. As the declaration explains, “cultivating the garden of world order” requires “tending to the tasks that uphold public safety, execute justice, and promote human flourishing.”
The UN’s founding fathers wanted the Security Council to fulfill those tasks—FDR even envisioned the US, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union serving as “four policemen”—but they set the organization up for failure. The lowest-common-denominator approach and diplomatic mischief that characterize the UN were inevitable byproducts of the UN’s systemic shortcomings. After all, this is an organization where the Stalinist Soviet Union was accorded the same position as America, Britain, and France; where the lawless are expected to respect the rule of law; where there’s no distinction between democracies and dictatorships; where, as Niall Ferguson observes, “the seal of multilateral approval can be withheld by the unilateral action of just one other permanent member of the Security Council.”
Perhaps the real problem, then, is not the UN, but rather that so many continue to expect it to do what it’s not able to do. As Robert Kaplan has noted, “the UN represents not just the hopes but more accurately the illusions of millions of people.”
Organizations as diverse as NATO and the National Education Association (NEA), the European Union and American Legion, the Red Cross and Greenpeace are “a force for action,” to borrow Churchill’s phrase, precisely because their members are united by shared values. What are the shared values that unite all 193 members of the United Nations? To be sure, there are values “written on the heart” of man, as scripture reminds us (see Jer. 31 and Rom. 2). But short of a transcendent belief system, is there such a thing as “universal values” or a “universal community”? Who determines “the global conscience” that then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invoked after Assad gassed Ghouta?
“The universal community,” Reinhold Niebuhr observed when the UN was young, “has no common language or common culture—nothing to create the consciousness of ‘we.’” Niebuhr seemed to be suggesting that perhaps there’s no such thing as a “global conscience” or “global community.” Yet Niebuhr saw hope in the liberal democracies. “Modern democratic communities…all possess a core of common spiritual possessions which the world community lacks.”
That “core of common spiritual possessions” connects liberal democracies into a community of shared values and shared institutions—the rule of law, political pluralism, religious liberty, individual freedom, free enterprise, free trade, majority rule with minority rights. We know this community of shared values as “the West”—a circle of nations that grows (and sometimes shrinks) based on the choices of individuals and their government: Germany and Italy rejoined the West in the decades following World War II; Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey graduated into the West in those postwar years; India and Israel have joined; after escaping the prison yard of communism, Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and much of the Balkans returned to the West; Ukraine and Georgia are dying to join (literally), while Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela and Erdogan’s Turkey rapidly drift away from the West.
Policymakers, political scientists, and pundits in the US and Europe are making a compelling case for formalizing this community and thus bypassing the dysfunctional UN, which we will discuss in part three of this series.
Photo Credit: A view of the Secretariat Building with members states’ flags flying in the foreground at United Nations headquarters in New York on February 23, 2017. UN Photo by Rick Bajornas.