WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- For the past eight decades, the advocates of a universal international organization as the primary guarantor of peace and security have lurched from one excuse to another to justify the continued failures of their vision.
But now it is time to ask whether the League of Nations-United Nations model has ever been a valid way to approach the problem, and whether the experiment with that model should any longer be continued.
The advocates first argued the refusal of the United States to join the League of Nations vitiated that organization, while flaws in its constitution rendered it even more weak and indecisive. Then came the Cold War, and Soviet-American antagonism buried the expectation of the organization's founders in bipolar gridlock.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the stage seemed set for a final vindication of the internationalist vision. A democratic Russia and a reforming, economically ambitious China had more reasons to cooperate in making the Security Council work than to frustrate it.
Without the gasoline of Cold War antagonism, the flames of regional ethnic conflict could (according to the vision) be gradually quenched by peace processes, U.N. observers and generous international assistance. This was the original vision of the New World Order, a phrase which today only lingers on the lips of black-helicopter conspiracy theorists.
A decade later, this vindication is more elusive than ever, and with fewer excuses for failure than ever before. Peace processes from the West Bank to Belfast are hanging by a thread, or less. The United Nations stood by helplessly in the Balkans until NATO, meaning primarily the United States, stepped in. In Rwanda it stood by helplessly and nobody stepped in.
Collective action against aggression, seemingly demonstrated by the Security Council's actions authorizing the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait and the disarmament of Iraq's programs for weapons of mass destruction, has led instead to an ineffective disarmament action that has left missiles and nerve-gas warheads in Saddam's possession. Sanctions, once thought to be the internationalist's answer to military action, have themselves become the target of bitter criticism. If sanctions result in a dictator diverting funds from children to weapons, apparently it's the fault of the sanctions, not the dictator.
Internationalists, and their postmodern descendents the transnational progressives, having run out of plausible excuses for the failures of their institutions, now advocate fixing them by intensifying their problematic characteristics. They have failed to convert international law from a set of rules of the road upon which most nations find it beneficial to agree, to a law seeking to bind and command the actions of nations. So of course they now seek to bind and command individuals directly, bypassing the national structures about whose actions such individuals might possibly may some say.
Citizens of serious nations (those in which such citizens can call their governments to account) have already for the most part abandoned the United Nations as a means of achieving necessary goals in the world. At most they seek some form of U.N. approval for needed actions in the national interest. They don't actually expect the United Nations to do anything, or expect that any other nations will obey a U.N. resolution without some additional form of encouragement.
More and more commentators are suggesting that the United Nations, like the League of Nations, is fundamentally flawed, and may need replacing. A new organization may fix some of the flaws in the United Nations' structure, as it itself was an improvement over the League of Nations. However, it may be the fundamental idea of an international organization that is both universal, in admitting any sovereign state, and effective, in that it may authorize specific actions by majority votes of various bodies, may be attempting to square the circle.
It may be that any attempt to reform or replace the United Nations will fail so long as it continues to mix members of very dissimilar characters. Roger Scruton has recently discussed a distinction between states with a "personal character" -- those that genuinely reflect a national community, and thus can represent at least from time to time a consensus of national opinion -- and those that are little more than structures for rule of an area by a particular dictator or ruling clique. (I have written about such a distinction in terms of strong, weak, or nonexistent civil societies.)
The U.N. ambassadors of America, France, or Japan actually represent national communities; when they seek to represent views at odds with substantial numbers of their inhabitants, the latter have ample means of protest to their governments. The U.N. ambassador of Iraq, in contrast, is nothing more than the personal representative of Saddam Hussein; any congruence between his opinion and any Iraqi's is pure coincidence. Protest inside Iraq is likely to bring arrest or worse.
Such highly dissimilar entities can only belong to a common organization regarding which only extremely minimal expectations can be held. Effective and useful international organizations should at a minimum restrict their memberships to nations with some minimum level of civil society.
They should seek to proceed primarily by coalitions of the willing, rather than majority vote. They should not seek to control the actions of individuals, but exist primarily to work out rules of the road for state-to-state cooperation. Nations with strong civil societies sharing common values and assumptions are experimenting with means of linking their civil societies more deeply across their boundaries; this should be encouraged and learned from.
In short, international peace and understanding can ultimately be encouraged primarily by spreading and strengthening civil societies around the world, but it is cooperative organizations, not the League of Nations-United Nations model, that will accomplish those goals.