A TERRIBLE BEAUTY

 

The functioning of the United Nations was based on a philosophical model but it cannot fulfil its role in the world today, argues Michael Soussan. So, what can the institution do at times like these? asks MICHAEL SOUSSAN

I REMEMBER the first time I caught a glimpse of the United Nations building in New York. I was seven, standing atop the Empire State Building, peppering my father with questions.

"And what's this one?" I asked, pointing at the grey-blue UN secretariat building.

"That's the United Nations," said my father. "That's where all the countries in the world get together to make peace."

"What's peace?" I asked.

"Um . . . Peace is when people stop fighting. You know, like when you had your fight with Ivan at school?"

"He started it!" I said, immediately.

"Right, but that's not the point," said my father. "At some point your teacher came over and grabbed both of you by the ears and made you stop, right?"

"Yeah . . ."

"Well that's peace. It's when you stop fighting."

I pondered this for a bit, then asked: "So who's the teacher at the United Nations?"

I remember my father laughing at my question, but I don't remember him giving me an answer. Years later, at the age of 24, I would have an opportunity to explore the mechanisms through which the United Nations purports to preserve peace and order among its members.

I was working in a law firm in Washington DC when I received a call from a friend alerting me to an job opening at the UN. The organisation had recently set up a programme to help Iraqi civilians off-set the devastating impact of the economic sanctions that had been imposed on them after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait (and which were kept in place after his expulsion from Kuwait in order to force him to dismantle his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and keep a lid on his nuclear ambitions).

The so-called "Oil-for-Food" programme would allow Iraq to sell oil, on the condition that all proceeds be spent for strictly humanitarian purposes under UN supervision. It was to become the largest humanitarian operation in UN history. Unfortunately, it would also become the most corrupt scheme ever overseen by the world body; one that would give me a first-hand understanding of the organisation's core flaw: namely its inability to enforce accountability on its members.

Seven years after I had joined this gargantuan UN operation, I found myself testifying before the UN congress in what had become the greatest corruption debacle in the UN's 60 years of existence.

Under the UN Oil-for-Food programme, several billion dollars had disappeared from right under our noses (we weren't even sure exactly how many billions we were talking about, as estimates ranged from $1.3 to $20 billion; the latter being the preferred figure of UN-bashing conservative US lawmakers). Some of these billions had landed in the pockets of Saddam Hussein, in violation of just about every international and domestic anti-corruption law in the books.

About 2,300 international companies had participated in the fraud, and hundreds of high-level political leaders, diplomats and business tycoons from Australia to Moscow, Paris to Beirut, Geneva to Johannesburg, had profited from the scam that cheated the Iraqi people out of a large chunk of the money that we (the United Nations) had guaranteed the world would go exclusively to meet the humanitarian needs of Iraq's civilian population.

When I first joined the UN, I never imagined that I would one day become a whistleblower. I knew the UN was flawed in many ways. But I believed it could be reformed if only people were willing to "think outside the box", be open to new ways of doing things, and, above all, take responsibility for their actions.

Unfortunately, the UN was not designed with a view to enforce accountability on its members. The UN Secretary-General serves at the pleasure of the member states, and does not have the authority to step in and restore discipline like my first-grade teacher once did.

In essence, we have inherited a world body that offers little more than an illusion of control over world events. At a time when turbulence is on the rise around the globe - when democracy is regressing in places like Russia, Thailand, and an increasing number of African countries - a time of acute turmoil in the financial markets, when we face the prospect of a global recession, and when the "war on terror" appears to have no clear end in sight, we would do well to reconsider whether our "international system" is up to the myriad challenges that lie ahead.

The system may require more than mere reform. We may be looking at the necessity for a systemic overhaul if we are to rekindle the spirit and the core vision that stands behind genuine and effective efforts at world organisation in the service of peace and stability.

Past efforts at UN reform have not succeeded in preventing disasters from occurring on the UN's watch, as they did in Srebrenica (when UN peacekeepers were toasting vodka-shots with Ratko Mladic while 8,000 males were moved down by machine-gun fire in a field nearby), or Rwanda (where the UN ordered peacekeepers out, against the advice of the local UN force-commander, who called for reinforcements and warned of an impending genocide), and more recently, in Darfur (where it took the UN over seven months to pull the alarm bell on the massacre which they then refused to call a genocide).

In fact, what these fiascos tend to illustrate is a profound lack of unity among the UN's key constituents.

What, today, unites the UN? At a time when even "democratic" countries are seen to violate its Charter when it suits them (as the US and its allies did when they launched the second invasion of Iraq without UN authorisation), we cannot possibly pretend that its members are united by dedication to international law.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt coined the term "United Nations" in 1942 to describe the alliance of states united against fascism. After the second World War, the US sought to give new life to the idea of a world organisation dedicated to the preservation of peace and transformed the temporary UN alliance into a permanent institution.

The previous attempt was led by Woodrow Wilson after the first World War. The League of Nations (which the US Congress refused to join, and which stayed passive in the face of fascism in the 1930s) itself built on a previous effort to preserve the peace through diplomacy, known as the Concert of Europe, which followed the Napoleonic Wars and ultimately collapsed, paving the way for the first World War.

Before all of these devastating wars (and the three subsequent attempts to build international institutions that tried, but failed, to prevent more of the same) periods of peace existed episodically only when certain empires were at their apogee. Violently they were built, and violently they were destroyed. Until the Enlightenment, it seemed that this was the unavoidable nature of world affairs. Then suddenly, an alternative vision came to light.

It started one evening in 1795 when a guy walked into a bar. Above the bar he saw a painting of a graveyard, and above it the words "perpetual peace". Our man was not a known boozer, but that night he might have had a few pints as he contemplated the horrible notion that death was the only way to reach perpetual peace.

Most of the other clients in the room saw the sign as a wry joke that seemed to adequately reflect the fate of mankind at a time of rising warfare. But our man was a philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant. And his intellect rebelled against the notion that peace could only be achieved through death. So he did what intellectuals do, and applied the mechanics of reason to the problem.

If I was a betting man, I'd say that Kant might been a bit tipsy when he had a vision of a different world - of an international system where independent, democratic, accountable states banded together and adhered to rules for the peaceful resolution of their conflicts.

Kant's vision came to life in the US after the Civil War, when each state was forced to offer constitutional rights to all their citizens. After the second World War, Kant's vision guided the formation of the European community, now a formal Union. In both cases, the application of Kantian principles succeeded in perpetuating peace between these organisations' democratic member states.

In our attempts at replicating this model on a global scale, crafters of those institutions took a giant leap of faith in departing from Kant's original blueprint in one important respect. He had set out a clear precondition for such an organisation; the states that adhered to it should be free and accountable to their own people. The executive, legislative and judiciary branches of their governments had to be independent of one another.

Instead of focusing on an organisation that had high standards for membership and a good chance of perpetuating peace between its members, the architects of the UN set their sights much higher than Kant did.

Instead of limiting Kant's vision to states that met his basic requirements (states that did not consider themselves above the law domestically and were accountable to their own population), they set out to make Kant's vision work "universally".

Now I don't know what the members of the 1945 San Francisco Conference, where the UN was designed, were drinking, but I bet it was stronger than the brew drunk by our Prussian philosopher some 150 years prior.

There might have been value in creating an organisation in which any state, regardless of whether it was a democracy or a tyranny, could be a member. But recent history had proven beyond reasonable doubt that the value of the UN was not, and could not be, to perpetuate peace globally (much less "universally"). Not even a Bridge club can function coherently if the players are not expected to play by the rules. The UN is a system that fails to enforce accountability on its members primarily because so many of them are unaccountable to their own people.

The result is an institution in which genocidal regimes were given a chair at the Human Rights Commission (which has since been reformed into the Human Rights Council, and is as flawed as its predecessor). Such committees have more in common with the trial depicted by Franz Kafka than with Kant's original blueprint.

The gap between Kafka and Kant is one in which successive generations of young idealists are lured into dedicating their best years. In many cases, their efforts do make a positive difference. The UN's humanitarian agencies, like Unicef or the World Food Program, save lives every day. But the gap between the UN's core theoretical mission and its ability to deliver on it remains at the center of its greatest failures.

Barack Obama's Berlin speech exhorting the need to strengthen the democratic alliance and John McCain's proposal to form a "League of Democracies" were both consistent with Kant's original vision. Effective global governance may remain elusive, but at a time when the forces of extremism and corruption are advancing, the world's democracies would do well to regroup around their own core principles. While we cannot hope to spread our values by force, we can nonetheless do a better job at spreading them by example. One reason the UN Oil-for-Food operation became so corrupt is that the oil industry itself is shady. Next to arms sales, the trade of that black elixir is one of the greatest sources of corruption in the world.

In requiring kickbacks on Iraq's oil sales, Hussein acted no differently than most oil-rich dictators - a good chunk of the money we pay for fuel at the petrol station goes directly into the coffers of tyrannical regimes. The recent spike in oil prices cannot be dissociated from bullish attitudes of Russia or Iran.

Speaking of which - most Western diplomats agree that the challenge posed by Tehran's progress in acquiring nuclear weapons is one of the greatest on our collective agenda. Yet our experience with sanctions against Iraq and Serbia demonstrates that the UN is hardly in a position to oversee, much less enforce, such policies - unless member states are seriously committed to them. At best, the world body offers us the illusion that we are being effective in quelling this and other perceived threats to international stability. And such illusions can be comforting, especially in the absence of an alternative. But such comfort is temporary in nature and easily gives way to shock and upheaval when reality sets in again.

The optimism that characterised the 1990s - a decade during which walls came down and democracy seemed to spread peacefully, owing to the western alliance's power of attraction - has given way to darker, more turbulent years following the September 11th attacks, during which we realised that our economies and lifestyles can be threatened by an enemy that spent less money organising the attacks than it costs the US to build a single tank.

To this realisation we must add more bad news. Our own participation in international corruption, in particular through the oil trade, weakens our ability to contain the increasing strength of oil-rich extremist regimes and stop the spread of extremist ideologies worldwide.

The first step in countering such trends may well be to awaken to the illusions we harbour about the abilities of our imperfect international institutions to advance the cause of accountability on a global scale. The second step is to do what bureaucrats are loathe to: air our dirty laundry in public. For the point of strengthening the democratic alliance must not be to simply guard us against the worst-case scenario, but to advance the cause of accountability in our collective (economic and political) relations with the rest of the world.

To the extent that corruption is at the root of much of the political violence we witness today around the world, we would do well to examine our own role in fuelling the kind of fraud and injustice that tears at the fabric of the world's most unstable nations. And perhaps that is the hardest part. For, as we strip away the illusion of control that our current international system portends to offer, we will be forced also to confront the delusion that collective actions absolve us of individual responsibility.

Michael Soussanis the author of Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy. He teaches international relations at New York University's Center for Global Affairs