One of the most astute critics of the United Nations was a man who worked there for years and worshipped its ambitions. His name was Conor Cruise O’Brien, an Irish diplomat and extraordinary writer who savaged the institution he once adored.
“The main thing that endears the United Nations to member governments, and so enables it to survive, is its proven capacity to fail, and to be seen to fail,” he wrote. “You can safely appeal to the United Nations in the comfortable certainty that it will let you down.”
Despite this track record, assured by the duplicity of governments who pay lip service to UN ideals and then use the institution to carry out policies and projects they would prefer not to initiate unilaterally.
Members are called “the international community” but there is little to the phrase except for cordiality among diplomats who rapidly become careerists – along with a bevy of international civil servants who labour in the catacombs of the bureaucracy, following Byzantine rules and protocols that are rarely evaluated for real world effectiveness.
This is the original playing field for “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
The UN comes to town
When you are a New Yorker, you know the UN is in town when traffic crawls to a halt as processions of presidents and other rulers rush about in police secured motorcades feeling important and trying to be seen and even heard. The best hotel suites and tables at the priciest watering holes have been booked well in advance.
As Anastasia Churkina reported on Russia Today: “Once a year, for about ten days, the United Nations becomes Mecca for world leaders.
“From the confrontational, to the surprising, to the outright wacky – the UN General Assembly pilgrimage never fails to impress. What happens in the Big Apple becomes a mirror image of the engaging game politics can be.”
Engaging, yes, but often in self-reverential and self-promoting terms.
They pay lip service to their diversity with every nation allowed a few seconds in the sun of the General Assembly rostrum, while everyone knows that the handful of permanent members of the Security Council have formed their own “super-committee” for years, threatening the veto but rarely exercising it.
If you are looking for a democratic United Nations, this is not it. The peoples of the world in whose name the UN was consecrated have no real role, except as spectators on the official tour. NGOs have their meetings in the basement, passing resolutions that stay in the basement.
Powerful countries control the world body; citizens are seen, not heard.
Activists increasingly push what should be the UN agenda – but rarely in the UN. Did you know that there is a “Mayors for Peace” organisation with 5,000 members across 151 countries and regions? That includes 188 US cities, which makes it the world’s largest network of local governments.
The downplayed but highly visible pomp and circumstance of the annual ritual at what’s called “the General Assembly” allows a place for US presidents to lecture the world while playing to domestic public opinion.
It is political theatre, built around the big speech – followed up with hand shaking and secretive backroom deals. The formal events are covered; the informal wheeling and dealing mostly ignored.
Dissenting presidents such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predictably criticise the United States, Israel, and the West – with his appearances triggering walkouts by hostile diplomats from Western countries, pre-planned for dramatic effect.
This reaction is anticipated, too, and useful for a president under fire at home. It is all done for domestic consumption. The more he is denounced, the more successful he is in the eyes of his followers.
This spectacle is a calculated sham.
This game-playing adds to the circus-like spirit of confrontation that the media loves to highlight and promote. Journalists find peaceful discussions of complex issues boring – even in this global house of peace. They are drawn to conflict like moths to a flame, especially when there are political personalities battling each other.
The US media stakes out the big house during these major events – or when Washington wants global backing for a war or humanitarian crusade. But it mostly ignores what the UN and the specialised agencies do.
There is more regular coverage of the UN in Dar Es Salaam in East Africa than on New York City‘s East Side, where the wealthy live and a “we are the world” ethic prevails.
And so it came to pass last week that Barack Obama, the self-described emissary of change, who had been championing a breakthrough on Palestinian rights, came before the UN to oppose world support for UN recognition of Palestine.
“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN,” said the president of the country that picks up 25 per cent of the UN’s budget. As various commentators noted, Obama’s unwillingness to challenge Israel is grounded in presidential politics and the recent loss of a Democratic seat in Brooklyn – designed to teach him a lesson about pressing the Netanyahu government.
Despite his UN bashing, bilateral negotiations that successive US administrations claim to have favoured are once again going nowhere. In essence, Obama offered a prescription for more inaction and undermined US credibility on the issue.
The Palestinians rejected Obama’s stance but the smart money on the issues sees the UN as freezing any effective action. UN Secretary General Ban says he is “carefully scrutinising their application”. Give me a break.
After decades of UN resolutions upholding Palestinian claims, the Israeli occupation will continue.
Alon Liel, the former Director General of Israel’s Foreign Service, said: “It hurts to see a president like Obama, who caused us to feel such great hope, dismiss Abu Mazen who has spent three years working on the diplomatic track.”
He added: “Obama and the US of today are no longer running the world, there is a larger international community that can run the world. The US doesn’t have the power to deal this blow.”
The US-based Israeli lobby is still calling the shots. A minority is, in effect, vetoing the wishes of world opinion on the issue. The lobby is not even on the Security Council.
The UN in which so much hope was invested has struck out as a forum for advancing Middle East peace, an issue in which it has invested billions of dollars and tens of millions of words over 60 years.
The UN is useful for the humanitarian work of its specialised agencies – with occasional scandals even undercutting that credibility.
But the world body can’t be an engine for global change when the governments that control it only want to tinker with the status quo.
That’s why there has been so little UN progress on climate change, human rights, peace and war, nuclear disarmament – name your issue. If it’s controversial, the UN ends up on the defensive – seeking a middle ground that pleases no one, but is functional and reinforces its pretence of gravitas.
The UN has been a tower of babble since its inception. Countries talking to each other can be a good thing, but too much of the conversation is earnest to a fault and pre-scripted, based on government instructions and devoid of spontaneity, compassion or honesty.
Unfortunately, this makes a global consensus harder to achieve – but that doesn’t mean the UN isn’t an important venue. Yet, it is set up to be impotent and dysfunctional. Unlike banks considered “too big to fail”, the UN seems to have been designed to fail. That’s the problem.