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?

It was all amusing for a while, but grows thin. By 1956, the U.N. was embarrassing even to its best friends. Today it is an impediment to world safety. It should be replaced. The United States should pledge to the United Nations its strong support while it prepares a substitute. It should deny vigorously the whole time that it has ever dreamt of replacing the U.N. This will drive the French crazy and make everyone understand that we are serious.

Now is the time to start thinking post-U.N., not merely because the Security Council has made such a mess of Iraq but because we have remarkable opportunities. And if the experiment fails, the U.N. simply carries on, chastened.

The core of the new organization--call it the Big Three--would be a Britain-Russia-America triumvirate. The underlying principle: No credible world organization could include only countries we like. But Russia's fluid condition gives us an unusual opening. Russia is a big country with a vivid history. No organization that includes Russia could possibly be America's cat's-paw. Yet Russia is uncertain of what she wants; she is open to persuasion. Yes, that means money; but international prestige is worth even more, especially to a humbled former champion. Including Russia (but not China or France) in the ruling committee might impart just the right soupçon of anti-Americanism to the new organization, which must be credible yet not intractable.

The new organization, unlike the U.N., would be founded with no chatter or charter. The three countries' U.N. ambassadors would simply adjourn one afternoon to a neighborhood brownstone. They would announce: We are going to have a meeting and talk things over. We may pass some resolutions. Afterwards we will issue a report and have a press conference, and meet again when we feel like it.

And they would of course add: However big it may happen to grow, our new organization will never replace the United Nations!

Why build it this way, around a Big Three? Official U.S. policy favors a united Europe. A politically united Europe (first promoted by Winston Churchill) is (allegedly) a rich, peaceful, stable, responsible Europe. But the Europeans themselves--especially France and Germany--have long seen United Europe as a "counterweight" to the United States: a way to balance our resolution against their indifference, our sympathy for Israel against their sympathy for suicide murderers, our naive ideas about planting democracy everywhere (which are so painfully American, so Woodrow Wilson!) against their thoughtful, sophisticated disgust with mankind. "Of course," we will say, "we are solidly behind United Europe!" But why should we be?

And why not offer Britain a choice?--a way to formalize her foot-in-both-camps situation? During and after the Second World War, Churchill preached his vision of "the great English-speaking democracies" retaining their separate identities but joined in one commonwealth with shared citizenship. The idea never caught on. No one liked it. Neither country wanted it. Today it is still a non-contender. But (of course!) Churchill was on to something. He understood that American-British friendship is a rare thing in world history, and that one strong, proven friendship is worth vastly more than a milling throng as a basis for international peacekeeping. This is still true, and the friendship still stands. Today much of Britain's intellectual elite seems as rudely and ignorantly anti-American as any in Europe. But we should pity a friend's misfortunes, and not mistake the disease for the man. (Admittedly this is easier said than done, both for the well man and the sick one.)

Russia would make the triumvirate global. Putin has been disappointing on Iraq, but we need to look beyond Iraq. Russia will be a great power again someday. We should be laying the groundwork for a U.S.-aligned and not Old-Europe-aligned Russia. Russia doesn't deserve a place in a new world-leading triumvirate--but that is exactly why it would be such a powerful gesture to offer her one. She might vote against us in the new Big Three as readily as she does in the U.N.; then again, she might rise to the occasion.

Once its brain has been replaced, the former-U.N.'s body (the police forces, aid organizations, bureaucracies) could easily be reconstituted within the Big Three. A B3 resolution won't pack quite the multilateral punch of the Security Council, but it will pack plenty.

And there will be plenty of time, too, to gather junior members. Membership would be limited to democracies or aspiring democracies that spend at least some agreed percentage of GDP on their militaries.

Thus, the right world organization for today--as the U.N. was (perhaps) right for 1945. We show our solidarity with Britain, help coax Russia onto the right side of history, and liberate world councils from overlordship by the evil, the nasty, and the irrelevant.

But what if the new world organization doesn't work? What if it never even gets started? What if Russia turns us down? Or Britain does? What if we never even ask?

We still win big just by talking about it.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.