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Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his incomparable memoirs that Soviet admirals, like admirals everywhere, loved battleships, because they could get piped aboard in great style amid the respectful hurrahs of their crews. It’s the same with the UN, now more than ever reduced to the servile function of after-sales service provider for the United States, on permanent call as the mop-up brigade. It would be a great step forward if several big Third World nations were soon to quit the United Nations, declaring that it has no political function beyond ratifying the world’s present distasteful political arrangements.
The trouble is that national political elites in pretty much every UN-member country–now 191 in all–yearn to live in high style for at least a few years and in some case for decades, on the Upper East side of Manhattan and to cut a dash in the General Assembly. They have a deep material stake in continuing membership, even though in the case of small, poor countries the prodigious outlays on a UN delegation could be far better used in some decent domestic application, funding orphanages or local crafts back home.
Barely a day goes by without some Democrat piously demanding “an increased role” for the UN in whatever misadventure for which the US requires political cover. Howard Dean has built his candidacy on clarion calls for the UN’s supposedly legitimizing assistance in Iraq. Despite the political history of the Nineties many leftists still have a tendency to invoke the UN as a countervailing power. When all other argument fails they fall back on the International Criminal Court, an outfit that should by all rights should have the same credibility as a beneficial institution as the World Bank or Interpol.
On the issue of the UN I can boast a record of matchless consistency. As a toddler I tried to bar my father’s exit from the nursery of our London flat when he told me he was leaving for several weeks to attend, as diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Worker, the founding conference of the UN in San Francisco. Despite my denunciation of all such absence-prompting conferences (and in my infancy there were many), he did go.
He wrote later in his autobiography, Crossing the Line, that “The journey of our special train across the Middle West was at times almost intolerably moving. Our heavily laden special had some sort of notice prominently displayed on its sides indicating it was taking people to the foundation meeting of the United Nations From towns and lonely villages all across the plains and prairies, people would come out to line the tracks, standing there with the flags still flying half-mast for Roosevelt on the buildings behind them, and their eyes fixed on this train with extraordinary intensity, as though it were part of the technical apparatus for the performance of a miracle.On several occasions I saw a man or woman solemnly touch the train, the way a person might touch a talisman.”
It was understandable that an organization aspiring to represent All Mankind and to espouse Peace should have excited fervent hopes in the wake of terrible war, but the fix was in from the start, as Peter Gowan reminds us in a spirited essay in the current New Left Review. The Rooseveltian vision was for an impotent General Assembly with decision-making authority vested in a Security Council without, in Gowan’s words, “the slightest claim to rest on any representative principle other than brute force”, and of course dominated by the United States and its vassals. FDR did see a cosmopolitan role for the UN; not so Truman and Acheson who followed Nelson Rockefeller’s body-blow to the nascent UN when, as assistant secretary of state for Latin American Affairs the latter brokered the Chapultepec Pact in Mexico City in 1945, formalizing US dominance in the region through the soon-to-be familiar regional military-security alliance set up by Dean Acheson in the next period.
These days the UN has the same restraining role on the world’s prime imperial power as did the Roman Senate in the fourth century AD, when there were still actual senators spending busy lives bustling from one cocktail party to another, intriguing to have their sons elected quaestor and so forth, deliberating with great self-importance and sending the Emperor pompous resolutions on the burning issues of the day.
For a modern evocation of what those senatorial resolutions must have been like, read the unanimous Security Council resolution on October 15 of this year, hailing the US-created “Governing Council of Iraq”, and trolling out UN-speak to the effect that the Security Council “welcomes the positive response of the international community to the establishment of the broadly representative council”; “supports the Governing Council’s efforts to mobilize the people of Iraq”; “requests that the United States on behalf of the multinational force report to the Security Council on the efforts and progress of this force”. Signed by France, Russia, China, UK, US, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, Chile, Mexico, Guinea, Cameroon, Angola, Pakistan, Syria. As Gowan remarks, this brazen twaddle evokes “the seating of Pol Pot’s representatives in the UN for fourteen years after his regime was overthrown by the DRV”.
Another way of assaying the UN’s role in Iraq is to remember that it made a profit out of its own blockade and the consequent starvation of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi babies in the 1990s. As a fee for its part in administering the oil-for-food program, the UN helped itself to 2 per cent off the top.(On more than one account members of the UN-approved Governing Council, whose most conspicuous emblem is the bank-looter Ahmad Chalabi, are demanding a far heftier skim in the present looting of Iraq’s national assets.)
Two months before the October resolution, the US’s chosen instrument for selling the Governing Council, UN Special Envoy Vieira de Mello, was blown up in his office in Baghdad by persons with a realistic assessment of the function of the UN. Please, my friends, no more earnest calls for “a UN role”, at least not until the body is radically reconstituted along genuinely democratic lines. As for Iraq is concerned, all occupying forces should leave, with all contracts concerning Iraq’s national assets and resources written across the last nine months repudiated, declared null and void, illegal under international covenant.