UN-real Assembly

If the United Nations doesn't start looking more like the real world, it will be doomed to irrelevance.

As the contributors to The National Interest symposium in the current issue note, there is an emergent consensus among foreign policy analysts of all political persuasions that "going it alone" interventionism is no longer a viable option for the United States, if it ever was before. Two general solutions are now frequently bandied about in Washington policy circles and both are flawed. The first is the creation, advocated Ivo Daalder, Robert Kagan, G. John Ikenberry and others of a "concert of democracies" to "legitimately" bypass gridlock in the United Nations Security Council. The second is the opening à la Baker-Hamilton of diplomatic dialogue with the rulers of regional spoilers like Iran and Syria. Both address some of the weaknesses with the current modus operandi, but they fail to grapple with the fundamental defect of the contemporary international system: its dogmatic adherence to a post-Westphalia formal equality of states and consequent lack of a forum reflecting the realities of global power.

Last week the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly opened in New York. One can only imagine what Evelyn Waugh, author of the farcical Black Mischief, would have made of a global gathering with a president hailing from a state legally known as "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and seconded by no fewer than 21 vice presidents and six committee chairpersons. On their first full day in office, the aforementioned worthies gathered as the Orwellian-sounding "General Committee of the General Assembly." Meeting behind closed doors for the first time in memory, they rejected a request by the Republic of China on Taiwan to place the question of its admission to the world body on this year's agenda. The rejection effectively ends its 15th failed bid for membership in as many years, although it was the first time the application was made under the name of "Taiwan" rather than the formal historical appellation.

As Dan Steinbock warns, President Chen Shui-bian's diplomatic maneuvers around Turtle Bay, as well as a planned referendum on Taiwan's application for UN membership timed to coincide with the island's presidential elections in March 2008, may well lead to a period of heightened tensions. While these initiatives should be approached with considerable caution, the issue that has escaped notice is the current architecture of the international system, one that is far less attuned to historical and political realities than Taiwan's quest for greater international recognition.

The classical international legal position is contained in the "Montevideo Criteria" articulated in the first article the 1933 Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: "The state as a person of international law should possess the following characteristics: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states." The third article of the convention also specified that "the political existence of the state is independent of the recognition of the other states." The doctrine contained in the treaty, which was only signed by the United States and 18 Latin American republics, is considered customary international law and has been explicitly accepted as such by international and regional bodies, including the European Union.

Judging by these criteria, Taiwan's claim to statehood and international personality is unassailable. It has a permanent population of 22.8 million, which would make it the 48th most populous state in the world (the UN acknowledges the existence of 193 states, 192 member states and one non-member state, the Holy See). It has a defined territory of 35,980 square kilometers, including Matsu and Quemoy islands and the Pescadores archipelago. It has a government which not only stands in historical continuity with that of the Republic of China, one the of founding members of the United Nations and an original permanent member of the Security Council, but is also considered one of the freest in the world. And, while the recognition of others is a not legal precondition of statehood, Taiwan has full diplomatic relations with 23 UN member states as well as the Holy See.

More important than these basic qualifications, however, is Taiwan's economic, social, and geopolitical significance in the world. With a GDP of $346.7 billion, it has the 16th largest economy in the world, and the GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) of $29,500 puts its inhabitants on par with the citizens of the European Union. With foreign exchange reserves of $261.3 billion, it is the world's fourth largest creditor nation, behind the People's Republic of China, Japan and Russia. Despite the island's imposed diplomatic isolation, Taiwanese agencies have carried out humanitarian and development work around the globe. In São Tomé and Príncipe, to cite one example, an ambitious malaria elimination program begun in 2003 has already reduced the infection rate among children, the most vulnerable group, from upwards of 35 percent to between 1 and 5 percent (the regional average is 17 percent). From the point of view of U.S. interests in the east Asian region, there is a place for increased cooperation with Taiwan, along with strengthened alliances with Japan and South Korea and new partnerships with India and Vietnam.