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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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.