On Walter Russell Mead’s Unfamiliarity with the United Nations

I was prepared for a quiet morning today, as I assumed that after last weekend’s flurry of activity at the Security Council, I might have a bit of a respite. Oh, there’s a new Presidential Statement on the DPRK that was approved today, the first monitors are arriving in Syria as part of the resolution that passed on Saturday, and Sudan bombed a UN peacekeeping mission’s camp in South Sudan. But nothing other people couldn’t cover. Then I was linked to this piece on Walter Russell Mead’s blog, titled “The United Nations Today: A Case Study in Failure”. And my blood pressure skyrocketed. Rather than sputter incoherently at the screen, as was my initial plan of action, I’ve decided to go through the article paragraph by paragraph, in true Fisking style, and point out each and every bit of wrongness in this article. I hope you enjoy.

The United Nations is being flouted and ignored more often than usual these days — and the consequences are, as usual, nil.

…And we are off to an amazing start. With this opening line, we clearly establish the tone that we’re going to see from the rest of the article, one that stresses that the United Nations is an organization of decreasing relevance on the world stage. You can see why I might have a problem with this.

In Syria, arriving UN ceasefire monitors are greeted with artillery barrages. Iran continues to ignore resolutions on opening its nuclear facilities to inspectors. And North Korea merrily flouts UN resolutions as it fires rockets and tests nukes pretty much at will.

It is true that the ceasefire on the ground in Syria is shaky at best, though the scores of dead daily we’ve seen in recent weeks has ebbed into an estimated 14 dead yesterday as a result of an ongoing crackdown. However, it  has to be noted that the purpose of observer missions runs on parallel tracks. The first, the one that most often is associated with such missions, is to shame and pressure the instigators of violence into halting their efforts. The second, less considered, is to have a neutral set of eyes on the ground, able to report cogently on the actual situation. Previously, thanks to limiting journalists freedom of movement, governments have had to either rely on opposition movements’ numbers or the reports of the government in Damascus.

As for the Iranian point, negotiations this past weekend went off better than expected, with a new round set for May. That these talks are occurring at all is due to the incredible pressure that has been brought to bear on Iran since its nuclear program was first found in contempt of the IAEA. Four rounds of sanctions have been placed on Tehran, each stronger than the last, sanctions that were enacted by the Security Council as a consequence for defying the resolutions Mead mentions. And, as noted, the sanctions levied upon the DPRK for its previous missile tests are set to be strengthened by the Sanctions Committee of the Council that deals with North Korea in the wake of its most recent provocation. All of these actions against Iran and North Korea are because the international community, and the Security Council in particular, have found them in contempt of the law.

The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.

Oh dear, there’s a lack of media coverage of the United Nations. Clearly, that must mean that it’s less important than it was when it was first created. This argument makes little sense to me, as I doubt there’s a correlation between the ebb of front page coverage of the General Assembly and a lack of prestige of the United Nations writ large. And while I would love if Security Council meetings were covered live in prime-time once again, I don’t think that the lack thereof indicates a weakening of the institution.

Further, regarding the point made about the impact Cold War resolutions had, this is correct, but only because we existed in a bipolar world at the time. The Council was almost permanently gridlocked, save on the few issues where neither the United States nor Soviet Union had pressing interests. So when the United States and USSR both agreed to something, it was essentially a done deal, as the two greatest powers on Earth had come to an accord. But apparently the fact that we live in a world with more distributed nodes of power works against the UN.

The increasing feebleness of the UN reflects several developments. The first is experience; as more and more actors figure out how toothless it is and how little its resolutions actually matter, more and more governments simply ignore it. And as that happens, it looks even more toothless, and even more governments conclude that they don’t have to worry much about it.

I disagree with the premise of the ‘domino effect’ described here. First, the majority of states that wind up “ignoring” resolutions are paying no mind to those passed through the General Assembly and its corresponding sub-organs and committees. These resolutions have never been taken as binding law, unlike those of the Security Council. The concepts within General Assembly resolutions can become international standards, or actual law through multilateral treaty, which are often organized through mechanisms of the General Assembly. They also serve as helpful precedent for international legalists when attempting to determine the opinion of the majority of states on Earth. As noted earlier, states that ignore the Security Council’s resolutions do so at a cost.

The second is incoherence. The General Assembly is based on an absurdity: the patently false idea that the governments of the world are equal in some real (as opposed to formulaic) sense to each other. India has as many votes in the General Assembly as Chad. As the number of weak states and irrelevant states grow, the political importance of the General Assembly declines to the vanishing point. Nobody cares what a collection of micro states, weak states and corrupt, shambolic states thinks about anything.

Of all the nerve! How dare we have one forum in existence where all states are equal?! What nonsense to have a place where Vanuatu dare talk to a Great Power as though they were each sovereign states as provided under the Treaty of Westphalia and the basis of the state-based system which international relations has existed under for centuries! Also, by the argument laid out here, the General Assembly was strongest during the colonial period when European powers controlled most of the people on Earth. Those “micro states” and “weak states” are the result of decolonization and the explosion of UN membership in the 1960s and 1970s. So noted, Mr. Mead.

The absurd and inconsequential nature of the General Assembly is reflected in the bodies and commissions that depend on it. Groups like the Commission on Human Rights are international laughingstocks and rightly so. At best they are irrelevant; at worse they actively undermine the causes they were, theoretically, established to advance.

The lack of research here is stunning. The UN Commission on Human Rights hasn’t existed for years. As for what they may have meant, the UN Human Rights Council, I’ll just leave this here.

The third is outdatedness. The Security Council represents a 1945 compromise between power realities and political correctness. That is, the UK, the US and the USSR were great powers in 1945. China and France weren’t, but it was convenient to pretend otherwise. Today, a majority of permanent Security Council members aren’t great powers, and there are significant powers (like India and Japan) who aren’t permanent members.

I will concede that Mead has a point here. The Security Council certainly does require reform of some sort to reflect the realities of today’s geopolitics, rather than those of 1945. Good luck though trying to get states to come to some sort of agreement of what that would look like, barring another World War-scale event to reshape the political landscape. Maybe Mead would like to lend his support to the Small 5’s proposed restructuring of the Council. (I will also note that while Roosevelt wanted to groom China to Great Power status as a way to keep Japan down, the potshots at France are actually pretty legitimate).

Also confusing is the statement that a majority of the Permanent Members are no longer Great Powers. I assume the first two he means would be the United Kingdom and France, which is up for debate in my opinion. That leaves Mead one shy of a majority. If he means that Russia no longer is worthy of Great Power status, I’m extremely curious about the metric that’s being used. Militarily, economically, the ability to project force into neighboring regions, the possession of nuclear weapons, I’d say that Russia still warrants the title.

A majority of the Security Council’s permanent members are European states and ex-great powers to boot. This is farcical, and the Security Council’s growing weakness is the natural and inevitable result.

First, I disagree that the Security Council is experiencing a “growing weakness” in the least. Even if such a weakening did exist, I doubt that the make-up of the Permanent Five would have anything to do with it. The Five are still the five legal nuclear states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and each still possesses a considerable degree of military and economic power. That three of them exist (mostly) in Europe is inconsequential to the actual strength they weild.

Finally, the UN punches below its weight because it is so badly run. Corrupt and incompetent governments insist on placing political favorites in UN jobs because, well, because they can. Despite commendable efforts at reform, UN bureaucracies remain notoriously poorly managed, inefficient and the whiff of scandal is never far away. The UN designs its objectives badly and spends money inefficiently in pursuit of them.

I’ve said before, and will continue to say, that reforms are needed to enhance both the prestige and operational capacity of the United Nations. I’ll continue saying it, until it happens. But a car that requires a tune-up isn’t unusable, to use a stretch of a metaphor. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has proved to be a vocal advocate for change in the processes of the Secretariat. I’m looking forward to seeing what more the Secretary-General can accomplish in his second term, particularly related to hiring practices.

The picture of course is not all bleak. While most UN peacekeeping operations seem to be corruptly run and poorly managed, they do help tamp down on the violence in some of the places where blue helmets are deployed. And when the great powers really do want to do something together, the UN framework is a useful one for joint action.

And we have reached the only paragraph that I agree with. It took long enough.

I don’t favor abolishing the UN, but unless it figures out how to reform and restructure itself, it will continue to diminish as a force in international life. That is sad; while the world doesn’t need a world government, we could use an effective international body that facilitated international cooperation.

The facilitation of international cooperation is precisely what the United Nations does, as noted by the fact that we haven’t had a Great Power war since 1945. As David Bosco argued in his book “Five to Rule Them”, the UN Security Council acts as a pressure release valve for the Great Powers to vent their concerns about global situations, as well as providing a forum for coordination of response. Also, cooperation is seemed to very narrowly here refer to “prevention of armed conflict”. Anything actions taken by the United Nations not related to international security is cast to the side in this piece, as highlighting successes in eradicating diseases and providing shelter to refugees goes against the premise of massive failure.

In the initial tweet broadcasting this article, the United Nations was referred to as “The League of Nations, Round 2”. While its mission to get more people to click the link and read the article was successful, the premise is entirely misleading and false. The League, with its many structural deficiencies, was unable to prevent the Second World War, while the UN has thus far managed to keep us from a Third, all the while working tirelessly to improve the livelihood of the poorest and most in need. The United Nations needs work, that’s clear to anyone with eyes. But to label it a failure is to ignore both facts and history, something I would expect of a lesser scholar than Mead. I suppose that I have to forgive him; it’s clear from the many glaring errors and falsehoods that he just isn’t all that familiar with the UN.


7 Responses to “On Walter Russell Mead’s Unfamiliarity with the United Nations”

  1. “How dare we have one forum in existence where all states are equal?! What nonsense to have a place where Vanuatu dare talk to a Great Power as though they were each sovereign states”

    Because the very notion is preposterous; that delusional sentiment encapsulates in a nutshell the cloud-cuckoo land inhabited by the UN’s dwindling number of fanboys.

    If one needed any further proof of the Reality Distortion Bubble, I give you “As for the Iranian point, negotiations this past weekend went off better than expected, with a new round set for May. “

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for the link in your second comment. While I’ll admit that I’ve yet to work at the actually UN, I’m always interested in hearing about former employees’ experiences, even if they were from over a decade’s worth of reform ago.

      Now, as to your points. I’m curious about the fallacy you mean. That under the principle of sovereignty, states are created equal? Or should we return the pre-WWII codes of diplomacy, where lesser states weren’t granted ambassadors, only ministers. I don’t see the problem with having one forum where each and every state has the ability to have its peoples’ voices heard. Why deny independent people a place where their government can talk to ours and other Great Powers? Is it this equality you have a problem with?

      Or do you have specific troubles with Vanuatu? I can’t say I blame you, that set of islands is too gorgeous for its own good.

      Now, as for Iran, I fail to see where you’re coming from. The talks did go better than expected. Last attempt at coming to a solution ended in everyone going home before the second day. And the fact that theres even a “bomb free” option on the table is because of the UN. Unilateral sanctions by the US and it’s allies are well and good, but the multilateral sanctions through the UNSC are what have driven Iran back to the table. If this isn’t your cuppa, I’d love to hear your proposals for a solution

  2. This is a great post, but I want to take issue with your characterization of the League of Nations. You say:

    “The League, with its many structural deficiencies, was unable to prevent the Second World War, while the UN has thus far managed to keep us from a Third, ”

    There is nothing in the organizational structure of the UN that provides us with reason to think that were another leader like Hitler (or governing coalition like the Nazi party and its supporters) to rise today in a country with proportionate military and industrial capability to Germany, the UN could “prevent” another world war. There are lots of reasons that the UN is superior to the League of Nations but none of them are that the UN could have prevented WWII.


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