It has become fashionable, especially in America, not only to view the UN as irrelevant, but to gleefully compile litanies of abuses committed by the New York-based international organization. This gets us nowhere. The key question to ask is whether or not the UN is relevant, or even essential, in the modern world. I believe the answer to that question is a resounding "yes". With that in mind, corruption and incompetence calls for reform, not scorn. Think of some other examples. One thing that irritates me in the US is the incompetence of local school boards and teachers unions, but this does not mean public schools should be abolished. And while we are on the topic of enduring institutions, I would remind everybody that the stench of corruption emanating from the Vatican was once so strong that certain so-called "reformers" denied its legitimacy altogether...
In fact, UN peacekeeping has been a major success, in spite of a few high profile shortcomings. A few years back in the New Republic, Gregg Easterbrook discussed patterns of war over the past half century. While the prevalence of war rose from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, it fell sharply thereafter. Global military spending is also on the wane. Very few nations have increased military spending over the past decade. A major exception is, of course, the US, which accounts for 44 percent of global military spending. Now, as Easterbrook notes, the major contributing factor to a more peaceable world was the end of the cold war, as the superpowers ended the multitude of proxy wars that caused so much carnage and suffering. But second on the list is the rise of peacekeeping, especially under the auspices of the UN. In fact, UN peacekeeping turned out to be an excellent investment, and the RAND corporation concluded that most UN peacekeeping operations were successful. Of course, these factors are intertwined, as the end of the cold war and the dissolution of hostile blocs meant that countries were now more willing to look to the UN for guidance.
How should we approach this issue as Catholics? Well, we should start by noting that the Vatican is a huge supporter of the UN system. Following up on themes stressed by servant of God John Paul, who noted that the UN was "a moral center where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being, as it were, a family of nations", Pope Benedict has this to say:
"The protection of human rights is constantly referred to by international bodies and, in particular, the United Nations Organization, which set itself the fundamental task of promoting the human rights indicated in the 1948 Universal Declaration. That Declaration is regarded as a sort of moral commitment assumed by all mankind. There is a profound truth to this, especially if the rights described in the Declaration are held to be based not simply on the decisions of the assembly that approved them, but on man's very nature and his inalienable dignity as a person created by God. Consequently it is important for international agencies not to lose sight of the natural foundation of human rights. This would enable them to avoid the risk, unfortunately ever-present, of sliding towards a merely positivistic interpretation of those rights. Were that to happen, the international bodies would end up lacking the necessary authority to carry out their role as defenders of the fundamental rights of the person and of peoples, the chief justification for their very existence and activity."And indeed, as noted by John Allen, in discussing the just war principles, the Vatican leans closer and closer to defending military options only in cases of humanitarian intervention guided by the UN. The key issue is sovereignty and proper authority. As Allen says, from the Vatican's perspective, sovereignty is becoming increasingly vested in international organizations such as the UN. It is pretty clear that one of the reasons that the Church opposed Bush's Iraq war so vigorously is because if failed to follow the lead of the UN. When asked to expound on the Iraq war, then-cardinal Ratzinger referred frequently to the importance of the UN, with statements like: "The United Nations is the [institution] that should make the final decision", "The fact that the United Nations is seeking the way to avoid war, seems to me to demonstrate with enough evidence that the damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save", and "It is the instrument created after the war for the coordination -- including moral -- of politics".
The issue of often couched in terms of justice and solidarity. As Cardinal Lajola said a few years back:
"It is clear here that the military and economic superiority of one country, while giving rise to a particular moral responsibility vis-à-vis other nations (the principle of solidarity), does not automatically translate into an institutional pre-eminence with the subordination of other members (the principle of equality)."Vesting the UN with such sovereignty makes particular sense in a world with a myriad state and non-state actors where technology, globalization, persisting injustices, and rapid information flow can magnify any disproportionate blowback from military actions. From the point of view of Catholic social teaching, a vital UN is especially apt. For the principle of subsidiarity suggests that most decisions should be taken at the local level. The principle of solidarity implies the need for an over-arching institution that brings all people together. You can see where I am going here. Those most opposed to the UN are those most wedded to the absolute sovereignty of the nation state and the ideology of nationalism. This is especially the case in the US where politicians compete to out-jingo each other by mocking the UN and announcing that American soldiers will never serve under UN commanders. And therein lies the problem. In a globalized world, what right does one country (the US) have to invade and occupy another (Iraq), half-way around the world and posing no direct threat, without the explicit approval of the community of nations? None whatsoever.
So, yes, reform by all means, and stamp out abuses, but do not question its legitimacy.