UNdeniable Value

With the legacy of genocide in Rwanda, acrimony over the Iraq War and the oil-for-food scandal, U.S. attitudes towards the UN are close to their nadir. But taking a more  pragmatic approach to the UN in pursuit of American interests is the right p

"When it comes to thinking about the UN, swings between grandiose optimism and brooding despair are something of an American tradition", Derek Chollet writes in the current issue of The National Interest. With the legacy of genocide in Rwanda, acrimony over the Iraq War and the oil-for-food scandal, U.S. attitudes towards the UN are close to their nadir. But taking a more  pragmatic approach to the UN in pursuit of American interests is the right path, argued Ruth Wedgwood of Johns Hopkins SAIS and Lee Feinstein of the Council on Foreign Relations at a National Interest roundtable discussion on the UN's future.

"We're hopefully beyond the pro-UN and anti-UN [positions]", said Feinstein, building on his TNI article "UN-Divided." He holds the "firm belief that a strong and effective UN is in America's interest."

Wedgwood, who wrote on the subject in the Winter 2005/2006 issue of TNI and has worked with the UN in a variety of capacities, recognized several factors that grant the Parliament of Man significant value. Founding moments are hard to come by, and the UN's creation in 1945 cannot be taken for granted in an era when international powers cannot comprise on issues of far less significance. "Go with it, don't try to find another institution", she said. The UN also provides an opportunity for smaller countries unable to field diplomatic missions around the world to conduct diplomacy with the heavyweights in Manhattan. It provides a forum for states publicly adversarial to establish backchannels and coordinate policy.

The departure of the controversial Kofi Annan and the arrival of Ban Ki-moon on the 38th floor in Turtle Bay mark a fresh start for U.S.-UN relations, and Wedgwood was quick to credit his performance thus far. The secretary general's decision to publicize his financial assets on the UN website is an example of institutional transparency that was sorely lacking under Annan's stewardship.  But there have been more gradual and fundamental institutional changes at the UN in previous decades that require different approaches to multilateral cooperation. The empowerment of the General Assembly and the various caucuses that have a firm grip on country-votes underpinned Wedgwood's advocacy of private balloting, which would create opportunities for the United States to flex its diplomatic muscles in more subtle ways. This could be vital as the future utility of the Security Council is dubious, as powers like China prioritize energy politics (see deals with Sudan and Iran) above all else, Wedgwood said.

"You're going to over and over again have stalemates at the Security Council, but not for the same reasons as the Cold War", she said.

Furthermore, as the defense budgets of America's NATO allies continue to decrease, the resources for robust peacekeeping-not to be confused with the bird watching variety-will deplete. Possible solutions include pragmatically interpreting Chapter 7 of  the UN Charter as obligating member states to invest in their militaries to ensure preparedness for security crises. Wedgwood also suggested a "NATO plus"-potentially including Japan, New Zealand and Australia-as a remedy.

Feinstein rejected calls for a standing army. In military affairs, he credited Kofi Annan's progressive thinking on the permissibility of military interventions and pre-emption without explicit Security Council approval. The fundamental dilemma in UN dealings, Feinstein said, is balancing human rights and state rights, specifically sovereignty-and individual rights should take precedence. But advancing U.S. interests at the UN means intensified American engagement and a clear statement on the UN's role in U.S. foreign policy. For now, "the U.S. punches under its weight at the UN", Feinstein said. The United States should approach its relationship with the UN as it does other bilateral relationships, he argued. For Wedgwood, this would include preventing the UN from being a forum for those who incessantly demonize the United States.

But does strengthening the UN divest America its own moral authority? In a zero sum game the United States cannot ride both horses. Feinstein countered that this is a management issue, not an existential one, and its solution lies in America sitting in two saddles at the same time.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.