Changing the UN in Order to Save
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
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
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.