Examining The Progress of the United Nations Towards a Post-National Constellation

For Jurgen Habermas (“Part IV: the Kantian project and the divided West” [2006]), and many other critics of international relations, the 1990s were ambivalent and deeply distressing. The UN, though, came into its own as an “important forum of global politics” (p. 169). From the outbreak of the first Iraq war, from 1990 to 1994 alone “the Security Council authorized economic sanctions and peacekeeping interventions in eight instances and military interventions in five further cases. It has proceeded somewhat more cautiously since the setbacks in Bosnia and Somalia; aside from arms embargoes and economic sanctions, there have been UN authorized missions in Zaire, Kosovo, East Timor, the Congo, and Afghanistan” (ibid.). There has been much debate regarding the effectiveness of the Security Council, but Habermas points out the UN enhanced the reputation it had acquired by rejecting the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a breach of the UN Charter. They also refused to “grant retrospective legitimacy to the military facts on the ground” (ibid.).

The successes and failures of UN intervention

The authority of the UN was provocatively evident when they intervened in “conflicts within states, be it, (a) in response to violence caused by civil wars or breakdown in government  (as in the former Yugoslavia, Libya, Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, and East Timor); or (b) in response to gross violations of huma rights or ethnic cleansing (as in Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] and South Africa, Northern Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, and Zaire); or, (c) in order to promote democracy (as in Haiti or Sierra Leone” (p. 170). The Security Council also tapped its tradition of Nuremburg and Tokyo in establishing “war crimes tribunals for the massacres in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia” (ibid.).

But so-called “successes” can be balanced against serious failures in a number of countries where UN peacekeepers intervened. Roland Paris in At war’s end: building peace after civil conflict (2004) demonstrates that in the case of Angola, the intervention (with assumptions regarding the beneficent results of democratization market liberalization) actually fueled the tribal and political animosities of opposed sides in the aftermath of elections.

Paris suggests that introducing structural adjustment measures in Rwanda in September 1990 actually worsened the  economic situation, making the government more susceptible to hate propaganda. What Paris dubs the  Wilsonian solution—democratization leads to peace—failed miserably (in fact, often exacerbated the latent, age-old hostilities) in Angola, Rwanda, Cambodia, Liberia, Bosnia, Croation, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. UN peacekeeping actions appear to assume that the learning processes for embracing democratic structures and institutions can happen rapidly and root deeply. Most decidedly, this has not happened. A furious Habermas lambastes the West: “The reckless disregard for obligations applies especially to the West, which is today confronted with the negative impacts of a failed process of decolonization in addition to the long-term consequences of its colonial history, not to mention the effects of processes of economic globalization that are insufficiently counterbalanced by political institutions” (p. 171).

New kinds of “privatized violence” are now disturbingly present in our disordered world (a jigsaw puzzle tossed to the winds). September 1, 2001 provides the sobering historical example. These (and other) trends, “which are currently capturing attention under the heading of globalization, do not only run counter to the  Kantian project of cosmopolitan order; they also meet it halfway. Globalization also provides supportive context for the aspiration to a cosmopolitan condition, one that mitigates the initial appearance of invincibility of the forces opposed to a political constitutions for global society” (pp. 172-3).

Habermas always seems to pull the hopeful rabbit out of the hat. Keep focused on the “sparks of hope” evident in history’s movement—he counsels us. Habermas knows well—to say the least—that: “The  reform agenda for the core domains is not especially controversial. It follows as a matter of course from the record of the successes and failures of the existing institutions” (p. 173). How will Habermas cut through some pretty prickly bramble to secure a clear way forward? What debris does he need to remove to articulate a realizable vision for humanity? What role does he foresee for the world’s only superpower? Here, expressed schematically, are six key ideas.

1) “The Security Council must be harmonized with the new geo-political situation and its capacity for action strengthened, assuring adequate representation for whole continents organization” (ibid.).

2) The Security Council must not be captive to any particular nation-state in its “choice of agenda and its resolutions. It must bind itself to actionable rules that lay down, in general terms, when the UN is authorized and obligated to take up a case” (ibid.).

3) “Given the decentralized monopolies on the use of violence enjoyed by individual states, the executive must be reinforced to a point where it guarantees the effective implementation of resolutions of the Security Council” (ibid.).

4) “The International Court of Justice has now been augmented by an International Criminal Court (though the latter has not yet won broad recognition). The adjudicative practice of such a Court will promote the requisite definition and codification of the loosely defined crimes laid down in international law” (pp. 173-174).

5) “The legislative decisions of the Security Council and the General Assembly require a more robust, if indirect, form of legitimation from a well-informed global public opinion” (p. 174). This maxim is, perhaps, a potential chink in the armour.

6) “But this weak legitimation will suffice for the activity of the world government only if the latter restricts itself to the most elementary tasks of securing peace and human rights on a global scale” (ibid.).

One of the main reasons why Habermas specifies the above series of reforms is quietly simply the vast complexity of the UN and world organizations. He thinks that the fundamental significance of the “loosely connected international organizations in the narrower and wider penumbra of the UN lies in the emergence of a world society, chiefly as a result of the globalization of markets and communication networks” (p. 175). Echoes of Kant’s vision of perpetual peace ring loudly across the valley. William Scheurman (“Global governance without global government? Habermas on postnational democracy [2008] does not think that Habermas has probed deeply enough into the important question of how we can (down here on the rocky ground) actually move from the “present-day UN where the hegemonic ‘law of the stronger’ is legally entrenched in the Security Council and the veto it outfits each of its permanent members” (p. 141). Like other critics, Scheuerman doubts that the Habermasian goal of securing peace and human rights can be accomplished without acquiring substantial political and military muscle as well as acquiring some “familiar attributes of modern statehood” (ibid.).

In his recent book, What is at stake now: my appeal for peace and freedom (2020), Mikhail Gorbachev urges us to reject pessimism. “Pessimism,” he says, is “no ally of ours.” Citing the words of a great Veda teacher – “Walk and ye shall reach” – Gorbachev comments that: “There is great wisdom in these words. They articulate the conviction that humankind, having learned to negotiate vast expanses, to penetrate the mysteries of the universe, to create innumerable material benefits, can also rise to another, possibly more arduous challenge—that of organizing the global world in a way that would enable all its peoples and individual denizens to live in safety and security, in judicious union with nature, and in accordance with the demands of reason and morality” (p. 123).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.