The Magazine

Replacing the United Nations

From the March 17, 2003 issue: Make way for the Big Three.

Mar 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 26 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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IF IT WERE WORKING PROPERLY, a world organization like the United Nations could offer the United States official sanction for an upcoming bout, and assure the world that the heavyweight champion (no matter what kind of lowlife he is up against) will play by the rules and rein himself in; will hit clean and fight fair. Of course this is insulting. The United States has repeatedly proved that it follows the rules and fights fair. All the same, conservatives who hate the U.N. for many good reasons must acknowledge that there has never been a hyperpower heavyweight before, and that the idea of one remains frightening to many world-politics fans. The United States is wisely led today, but hasn't always been.

America's problem is not with the idea of a world organization; its problem is with the U.N. The U.N. is no good. Too often it can't do the right thing, and so it does the wrong thing in order to do something. This pattern doesn't always hold (the U.N. does good occasionally), but it is more than sufficient to damn the institution as a failure, because it is woven in, not printed on.

The great essayist E.B.White was a leading booster of the United Nations, probably its most articulate American defender ever. Nonetheless: By December 1956, 11 years after the U.N. was born, even White was fed up. He saw the pattern.

The U.N. made no sense, he concluded, if members were allowed to do whatever they felt like behind the locked doors of their own "internal domestic affairs," no matter what kind of shrieking and hollering the neighbors reported. "The United Nations should never have admitted the Communist nations on their terms," he wrote; "that is, freedom to operate behind a wall. . . . One of the preconditions of membership in the United Nations should be that the member himself will not shut his door in the face of the Club." Obviously the same holds for Iraq and other brutal dictatorships today. In 1956, Hungarian freedom-fighters had just recently rebelled against their Soviet masters. After some initial hesitation, the Red Army arrived to reinstate its puppet government and crush the rebellion beneath its tank treads. The U.N. passed resolutions; the Soviets ignored them. "By the end of November," the historian John Lukacs wrote in 1961, "the silence of a near-graveyard settled over the tragic scene of Hungary."

An equally fundamental problem: "Aggression," White noted, "is the keystone of the Charter. It is what every member is pledged to suppress." But this is nonsense, because "aggression" has no ethical meaning in itself; it can be good or bad. (Without aggression there would be no great generals, champion chess players, top scientists, effective businessmen, important artists.) D-Day was the most spectacular piece of aggression in history. "To condemn aggression," White wrote, "is to decide in advance of an event the merits of the dispute."

In December '56, the U.N. had just finished condemning Israeli aggression in the Sinai--a nice piece of work in which President Eisenhower lined up with Nasser and the Soviets. If Russian tanks felt like raping Budapest, the U.N. couldn't stop them. But it was easy to condemn Israel. (Israel's best friend at the time was France; not a hopeful sign.) Condemning Israel turned out to be such fun, it became the U.N.'s signature act, like the Whiffenpoofs singing "We are poor little lambs." An expectant hush descends, the boys smile debonairly and then break into their beloved old standby: "Israeli aggression can no longer be . . ." In November 1974, the U.N. at last welcomed Yasser Arafat to its podium. "Now Zionism will get out of this world," Arafat explained sweetly, gun at his hip, "under the blow of the people's struggle." He got a standing ovation. Six months earlier, Palestinian terrorists had murdered 22 schoolchildren at Ma'alot.

The U.N. in its present shape reflects the obsolete assumptions of 1945. We gave France (for example) a central role and a veto because France had once been a great power, and had suffered under the Nazis. But why should France keep those unearned privileges when she grows more neo-Vichy all the time? Pétain would be proud: A brave new France that is tight with the Germans, hostile to England, intensely wary of the United States, no friend of the Jews, contemptuous of Eastern Europe, thoroughly defeatist and desirous above all of avoiding trouble and keeping peace in the neighborhood. Wasn't this (perhaps) the real France all along? Wasn't Vichy just as "authentic" as the Free French?