August 25, 2006

UNfair Criticism

In the midst of the outbreak of violence in Lebanon and northern Israel, much hope for halting the war was placed on the United Nations. Now, it appears that a UN force will be charged with keeping the peace between Hezbollah and Israel. Unfortunately, the hope for stopping violence and maintaining peace is placed in a United Nations that does not and never did exist. When people look to the UN to step in and solve conflicts, they imagine a fictional world governing body with the power, will, and clear-mindedness necessary to make an impact around the world.

However, because of the very structure and authority of the organization, the UN’s true power, will, and perhaps above all, clear-mindedness, fall far short of the hopes placed on it, leaving the UN open to consistent criticism when things go badly.

The UN as it actually exists is by definition limited, constrained, handcuffed, paralyzed. Despite lofty rhetoric, it is not a world government with world peace as its agenda, but a collection of national governments with national interest as their agendas. Without the consent of the member states, the United Nations cannot even issue staplers to its employees, much less compel the deployment of troops sufficient to quell violence in Lebanon, Darfur, or anywhere else.

Yet it is the UN that is the convenient answer to all the world’s ills and the convenient scapegoat when all the world’s ills go unsolved. Yale historian Paul Kennedy, author of “The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations,” notes that if the UN fails to bring a lasting peace to Lebanon, the consolation for the world will be that “we will all be able to blame the United Nations for being ineffectual, weak-toothed, anti-Israel or anti-Arab, and thus of no good to the world community.”

Such proclamations have become standard accompaniment to global conflicts, as though it is the UN that is the source of the world’s discord rather than the bad-behaving individual nations – or as though it is the UN itself rather than the obstructive member states within it that prevent the UN from adequately responding. Certainly the UN has its own troubles, including corruption at high levels, but the lion’s share of the responsibility for UN failures in responding quickly and substantially to unfolding crises requiring military responses rests with member states looking out for their own interests.

As we evaluate the UN, we must remember that at its essence, the United Nations is a building. It is a forum for the nations of the world to gather and discuss the problems of the day. It is a place for diplomacy and smoky room dealmaking. In this way, it is an alternative to war and it has been somewhat successful in putting global diplomacy on at least equal footing with military confrontation as a means of solving problems.

Given its actual role and mandate, the UN is very good at limited tasks – negotiating peace agreements, coordinating and delivering humanitarian aid around the world, observing elections and assisting in rebuilding infrastructure in war-ravaged countries, keeping human rights on the global radar, providing international business and legal guidelines as national borders disappear in those areas, and gathering statistics for reports that reveal trends in the world. Conspicuously absent from this list is anything related to military endeavors. Yet it is on the military front, in Lebanon today and somewhere else tomorrow, that the world seems to expect the most from the UN only to consistently be disappointed.

Paul Kennedy argues that “the U.N.’s performance can only be measured against its existing capacities and authority, not against some mythical, nonexistent strengths.” It is unfair to condemn the UN for being unable to accomplish tasks it is fundamentally unqualified to accomplish, especially when the UN remains unqualified in part because of the member states’ unwillingness to give the organization broader power. The criticism is unfair perhaps, but politically useful and not likely to end any time soon.

August 04, 2006

New New World Order

When the Berlin Wall came down, there was much discussion about how the world would reorganize itself in the post-Cold War world. During the 1990s, the United States established itself as the world’s lone superpower, leading the globe through a decade of relative prosperity. With unprecedented superiority in economic and military prowess – the two measures central to the Cold War – American dominance on the global stage seemed to have no end in sight.

Yet with the arrival of the 21st century, it became increasingly apparent that the metrics used to measure power during the Cold War no longer captured the whole story. Sometime between 1989 and 2001, a shift in how to measure global power occurred. And with this shift came the realization that though still the world’s only superpower, the United States no longer wielded the amount of power it once had. That Bush Administration has come face to face with that realization, albeit reluctantly, as it has sought to assert America’s will on the world with varying degrees of success.

As Harvard’s Samantha Power puts it, in thinking about power today, we’d be better served thinking in terms of influence. In other words, power in the 21st century depends not only on the strength of a nation’s economy and military, but on the extent to which it can affect the way the rest of the world behaves. Part of the reason American influence is on the wane, Power argues, is that influence stems from two variables that American leaders think too little about: (1) other nations’ trust that the United States will use its power legitimately, and (2) other nations’ faith that the United States is capable of achieving what it puts its mind to. American policies have dealt severe blows to each of these variables and the consequences are being felt all over the globe.

As a result of the Cold War battle for hearts and minds being waged all over the world, it was in the United States’ interest to act – or at least appear to act – in a legitimate way with respect to other countries. With the alternative being Soviet authoritarianism, the global sense was that the United States could be counted on to do the right thing. With its rich and progressive culture, the U.S. was the global good guy. With the contrast of the Soviet superpower removed, the United States is now held to a different standard. Every decision is analyzed with increasing scrutiny all over the world, analysis that is made all the easier by the instant information allowed by the internet. Considered under this microscope, there is an increasing sense that American power is not being used legitimately. With the ascendancy of the Bush administration, skeptical of international opinion and unilateral by nature, that sense has been exacerbated.

The Bush administration has also unwittingly diminished American influence by undermining the global faith that the United States can accomplish what it sets out to achieve. Although perhaps no less effective than the administrations that preceded it, the Bush administration’s failures have been particularly visible – the inability to capture Osama bin Laden, the inability to rescue American citizens after Hurricane Katrina, and, most damaging, the inability to secure Iraq.

It is, of course, Iraq that has had the most severe impact on American influence. The buildup the war occurred amid the perception that war was a foregone conclusion, a perception fed by the fact that the rationale for the war has shifted constantly. The execution of the war, meanwhile, has exposed weaknesses in the decision-making process governing the American military. The current momentum for withdrawal confirms a lack of public will often cited by the most zealous anti-Americans.

When President Bush says that leaving Iraq would send the wrong message to the world, he is correct. However, the wrong message has already been sent. As a result of American policies and the limitations those policies have exposed, we are on the brink of what was not conceivable as recently as a decade ago – a world where American dominance is no longer assumed and where stateless leaders of insurgent groups who capture the hearts and minds of their constituencies can stop the world’s superpower from having its way.