American Sovereignty and the UN

American Sovereignty and the UN

Mini Teaser: The UN aspires to impose its moral authority on the United States in the name of international justice. The American people will not buy it.

by Author(s): Jesse Helms

Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered an address to the General Assembly in which he declared that "the last right of states cannot and must not be the right to enslave, persecute or torture their own citizens." The peoples of the world, he said, have "rights beyond borders." He is surely correct.
The sovereignty of nations must, of course, be respected. But, properly understood, nations derive their sovereignty -- their legitimacy -- from the consent of the governed. Thus, Slobodan Milosevic can hardly claim sovereignty over Kosovo when he has murdered Kosovars and piled their bodies into mass graves. Nor can Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein hide behind phony claims of sovereignty while they oppress their peoples.

As they watch the UN struggle with the question of sovereignty, however, many Americans are left exceedingly puzzled. Intervening in cases of widespread oppression and massive human rights abuses is not a new concept for the United States. The American people have a long history of doing so. During the 1980s, this policy was called "the Reagan Doctrine." In some cases, America assisted freedom fighters around the world who were seeking to overthrow corrupt regimes, providing them with weaponry, training and intelligence. In other cases, the United States intervened directly. In still others, such as in Central and Eastern Europe, America supported peaceful opposition movements with moral, financial and covert assistance. In each case, it was America's intention to help bring down oppressive regimes. The dramatic expansion of freedom in the last decade of the twentieth century has been a direct result of these policies.

In none of these instances, however, did the United States ask for or receive the approval of the United Nations to "legitimize" its actions. And yet the secretary-general now declares that approval by the United Nations Security Council is the "sole source of legitimacy on the use of force" in the world. It is a fanciful notion that free peoples need to seek the approval of an international body (a quarter of whose members are totalitarian dictatorships, according to Freedom House's 1999/2000 Freedom in the World) to lend support to nations struggling to break the chains of tyranny. The United Nations has no power to grant or decline legitimacy to such actions. They are inherently legitimate.

What the United Nations can do is help. The Security Council can, where appropriate, be an instrument to facilitate action by "coalitions of the willing", it can implement sanctions regimes, and it can provide logistical support to states undertaking collective action. As it stands, however, the Security Council has an exceedingly mixed record in being such a facilitator. In the case of Iraq's aggression against Kuwait in the early 1990s, it performed admirably; in the more recent case of Kosovo, it was paralyzed. The initial UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia was a disaster, and its failure to protect the Bosnian people from Serb depredations is well documented in a recent report issued by the UN itself. And, despite its initial success in repelling Iraqi aggression, in the years since the Gulf War the Security Council has utterly failed to stop Saddam Hussein's drive to build instruments of mass murder. It has repeatedly allowed him to play a game of expelling UNSCOM inspection teams, and has left him completely free for the past two years to fashion nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

The American people will never accept the secretary-general's claim that the United Nations is the "sole source of legitimacy on the use of force" in the world. True, the U.S. Senate ratified the UN Charter fifty years ago. Yet in so doing, America did not cede one syllable of its sovereignty to the United Nations. Under the American system, when international treaties are ratified they simply become domestic U.S. law. As such, they carry no greater or lesser weight than any other domestic U.S. law. Treaty obligations can be superseded by a simple act of Congress. This was the intentional design of America's Founding Fathers, who cautioned against entering into "entangling alliances." This is why Americans look with alarm upon the UN's claim to a monopoly on international moral legitimacy. They see this as a threat to the freedoms of the American people, a claim of political authority over America and its elected leaders.

The effort to establish a United Nations International Criminal Court (ICC) is a case in point. Consider: the Rome treaty purports to hold American citizens under its jurisdiction -- even though the United States has neither signed nor ratified the treaty. Put another way, it claims sovereign authority over American citizens without their consent. The Court's supporters argue that Americans should be willing to sacrifice some of their sovereignty for the noble cause of international justice. This, frankly, is laughable. International law did not defeat Hitler, nor did it win the Cold War. What stopped the Nazi march across Europe, and the communist march across the world, was the principled projection of power by the world's great democracies. And that principled projection of force is the only thing that will ensure peace and security on the international scene in the future.

Indeed, more often than not, "international law" has been used as a make-believe justification for hindering the advance of freedom. When Ronald Reagan sent American servicemen to liberate Grenada from the hands of a communist dictatorship, the UN General Assembly responded by voting to condemn the action of the President of the United States as a violation of international law -- and did so by a larger majority than that which condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Similarly, the U.S. effort to overthrow Nicaragua's communist dictatorship (by supporting the country's freedom fighters and mining its harbors) was declared by the World Court to be a violation of international law. Most recently, we learned that the chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, Carla del Ponte of Switzerland, conducted an eleven-month investigation of alleged NATO war crimes during the Kosovo campaign. She declared that it is fully within the scope of her authority to indict NATO pilots and commanders. In the end, she chose not to prosecute President Clinton or NATO commanders and servicemen, but the very fact that she entertained the idea brings to light all that is wrong with the UN's conception of global justice, which proposes a system in which independent prosecutors and judges, answering to no state or institution, wield unfettered power to sit in judgment of the foreign policy decisions of Western democracies.

No UN institution -- not the Security Council, not the Yugoslav tribunal, not a future ICC -- is competent to judge the foreign policy and national security decisions of the United States. American courts themselves routinely refuse cases where they are asked to sit in judgment of our government's national security decisions, stating that they are not competent for the task. Why would Americans submit such matters to the judgment of an International Criminal Court, comprised of mostly foreign judges elected by an international body made up of the membership of the UN General Assembly?

Americans distrust concepts like the International Criminal Court and claims by the UN to be the "sole source of legitimacy on the use of force", because we have a profound distrust of accumulated power. Our Founding Fathers created a government founded on the dispersal of power and a system of checks and balances. In his 1962 classic, Capitalism and Freedom, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman rightly declared,

"Government power must be dispersed. If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington. [Because] if I do not like what my local community does, I can move to another local community . . . [and] if I do not like what my state does, I can move to another. [But] if I do not like what Washington imposes, I have few alternatives in this world of jealous nations."

Today, as the UN seeks to impose its utopian vision of "international law" on Americans, we can add this question: Where do we go when we do not like the impositions of the world? Today, while America's friends in Europe cede more and more power to supranational institutions like the European Union, Americans are heading in precisely the opposite direction. The United States is in a process of reducing centralized power by taking more and more authority that has been amassed by the federal government and delegating it to the individual states, where it rightly belongs. There is only one source of legitimacy of the U.S. government's policies -- and that is the consent of the American people.

If the United Nations is to survive into the twenty-first century, it must recognize its limitations. The demands of the United States have not changed much since Henry Cabot Lodge laid out a set of conditions for joining the League of Nations eighty years ago: We want to ensure that the United States of America remains the sole judge of its own internal affairs, that the United Nations is not allowed to restrict the individual rights of U.S. citizens, and that the United States retains sole authority over the deployment of U.S. forces around the world. This is what Americans ask of the United Nations; it is what Americans expect of the United Nations.

The American people know instinctively that the UN lives and breathes on the hard-earned money of U.S. taxpayers. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, in 1999 the United States contributed a total of more than $1.4 billion to the UN system in assessments and voluntary contributions. That is pretty generous, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. American taxpayers also spent about $8.8 billion of the U.S. military budget to support various UN resolutions and peacekeeping operations around the world. Thus the United States spent over $10 billion in one year alone to support the work of the United Nations. No other nation on earth comes close to matching that singular investment.

The money America spends on the UN is not charity. On the contrary, it is an investment -- an investment from which the American people rightly expect a return. They expect a reformed UN that respects the sovereignty of the United States. The American people want the UN to serve the purposes for which it was designed: to help sovereign states coordinate collective action by "coalitions of the willing" (where the political will for such action exists); to provide a forum where diplomats can meet and keep open channels of communication in times of crisis; to provide to the peoples of the world important services, such as peacekeeping, weapons inspections and humanitarian relief.

This is important work. It is the core of what the UN can offer to the United States and the world. If, in the coming century, the UN focuses on doing these core tasks well, it can thrive and deservedly earn the support of the American people. But if the UN seeks to move beyond these tasks, if it seeks to impose its presumed power and authority over nation-states, I guarantee that it will meet stiff resistance from the American people.

Today, many Americans sense that the UN entertains greater ambitions than the efficient delivery of humanitarian aid, more effective peacekeeping, better weapons inspection, and the enhancement of great power diplomacy. They conclude from the secretary-general's declarations that the UN believes that only it can grant legitimacy to the use of force, and from the efforts to impose the ICC on America that the UN aspires to establish itself as the central moral authority of a new international order. It is an order the American people will not countenance. If the United Nations does not respect American sovereignty, if it seeks to impose its presumed authority over the American people without their consent, then it begs for confrontation and, more important, eventual U.S. withdrawal.

Essay Types: Essay