Changing the UN in Order to Save It

After Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Iraq, some people think the UN should be abolished. Others feel it is the only guarantor of international legality. The Church has always maintained it plays a fundamental role.

edited by Maurizio Crippa

The dramatic international situation seems to be dominated by the presence or absence of a silent partner, the United Nations. For the most radical segment of the Bush administration, but also for many European “neo-conservatives,” the UN should simply be abolished, because of its inability to come to political decisions, its failures in the field, and, above all, because, according to them, its function has been reduced to an ideological cover for anti-American “pacifism.” For its supporters, on the other hand, the UN is and remains the only guarantor of international legality, as well as the only organization authorized to resort to force.
Ever since its inception, the Church has had great respect for the UN. In 1965, Pope Paul VI said that it “represents the obligatory road for modern civilization and world peace.” And several weeks ago, Fr Giussani expressed the insight that “the education of people’s hearts” is the “UN’s horizon of action.” We approached these topics with Vittorio Emanuele Parsi, who teaches International Relations at the Catholic University in Milan and writes editorials for the Italian daily Avvenire. Parsi does not take a side on the issue, but rather emphasizes the need for realism and seeking common points among the various positions. He has devoted a significant part of his latest book, L’alleanza inevitabile—Europa e Stati Uniti oltre l’Iraq [The Inevitable Alliance—Europe and the United States after Iraq] to the problem of “changing the UN to save the UN.”

Professor Parsi, what use does the UN serve today?
If the UN is understood as the implementer of world peace, no use. If it is understood as the world government, it has no use, and it would not even be a good thing for it to serve this use. If it is understood as the world’s Supreme Court, it has no use. But if it is understood as the organization that gives an institutional form to the consensus among the various countries when this consensus exists, or defuses conflict when this agreement is lacking, then the UN is still essential. We cannot take the position of those who say, “Let’s throw it out.” Nor can we agree with those who say it is useful only because of its specialized agencies: FAO, UNICEF, etc. In my book, I point out that every day, millions of people live, eat, and avoid slaughter because there are UN personnel who take care of them.

It is said that the UN is only a fig leaf over Cold War realpolitik…
No, we must not forget that in 1944, the Roosevelt administration was still convinced that the Soviet system could be pointed in the direction of democracy. There was still hope for a world government shared by a group of powers who had peace and managing the process of decolonization at heart. For Roosevelt, the UN was the shared form of American hegemony; the United States’ strength was always conceived within the United Nations. With the Yalta conference, this process was interrupted, but the UN continued to function, and function well, as the place where conflicts are toned down. Saying that the UN never worked during the Cold War is a falsehood. It worked very well as a place where conflicts were given a chance to settle down. This is because it was institutionally engineered to contain a dual logic: the General Assembly gave concrete form to the principle of equality among nations, and the Security Council faithfully represented the distribution of strength on the international scene. This apparent divarication—in reality, it was the utilization of two different principles brought together harmoniously in one system—meant that a blatant separation between the right of force and the right of law never emerged.

Even the “infamous” veto power played a positive role…
It was a valid alternative to armed conflict. When a superpower exhibited its right to veto, it was also an invitation to “tone down” the conflict. It should be noted that, even after the Cold War was over, the Security Council did not go into crisis when Russia threatened to veto intervention in Kosovo. That veto did not split the UN, and yet the conflict between Russia and the United States was a real one. On the other hand, the UN risks being torn apart over the war in Iraq, because the threat of veto does not come from Russia, but from a lesser ally of the United States, France. This does break down the mechanism. Because if Russia uses its veto, it is a reduction compared to a conflict, but if France does it, this throws more fuel on the fire. In one case, it is two giants who agree to discuss things instead of shooting at each other, and in the other it is an ant that could not do anything, but uses a bureaucratic instrument to drive in a wedge that risks killing the UN.

What has to be done to make the UN function again?
It has to be reformed to make it adhere more to the real distribution of power. The UN cannot be used systematically as a straitjacket to impose on America, because in the end the jacket tears apart. And if the United States pulls out of the UN, it will be a disaster for everybody. At the same time, we have to enlarge the Security Council to let in some more permanent members, but without giving them veto power. The problem today is that the Security Council is—or is perceived as being—a “government of whites.” The UN was born out of the association of some forty or so “old world” nations, while all the others were still colonies. Where today is the space of representation of this hundred or so former colonies? Is it the General Assembly that does not count at all? Can we think about enlarging the powers of the General Assembly, transforming it into a parliament? Yes, if we wish the UN harm! But if we want truly to give representation to this world, we have to let some new members in: India, South Africa, Brazil, and—something no one ever says—Egypt. Because an Egypt “secured” by the West with massive investments—not only financial, but also social and political—can be the key to defeating fundamentalism, whereas a weak Egypt is the beginning of a total confrontation.

The Church has always supported the role of the UN, and she did so also during the Iraq crisis. Could this position change in the future?
The Church has always supported the UN because a very high price was paid to establish it, in human and political terms, after World War II. Moreover, it is the culmination of the effort to give a juridical base to international politics, which was the dream of the twentieth century. The limitation lies in the fact that Catholic culture is too often tied to an apologetic world view—it conceives of the world as full of good feelings and good people. Often, too, a hyper-conservative attitude endures, that leads to considering the UN as untouchable. Instead, it is evident that reform is necessary, and the period after the Iraqi war probably provides a great chance to do it. I believe the Church has intuited the importance of this. Even the Americans are realizing that the UN is not only a straitjacket. When you are able to fit into it and manage consensus, it is also an enormous resource.

You are a political scientist. What is your opinion about the call to “education of the heart” as a prospect for work also in the relations between nations?
I believe that in this case, words are the constructive part of a view that is not detrimental to awareness of the real situation. Sometimes, the problem of fine words is that they end up taking the place of an analysis of reality. Thus, today, unfortunately, we either have military strategy or pacifism, and we are missing this constructive, educational part. However, it would be a crazy example of subsidiarity to delegate to the UN, at the apex of the world political organization, a task as important as education. Culture, society must take on this task of educating men. Peace has to be built, certainly, but not by way of a UN super-government. This would be a nightmare worthy of Orwell.