House of Cards Season 3 made its debut on Netflix last week, bringing everyone’s favorite sleazy Washington politician back to our screens for another round of Machiavellian storytelling. This season, Frank Underwood is now President of the United States, and there is a heavy focus on foreign policy and international affairs. As part of the show’s foreign policy plot lines, the United Nations takes on a central role, which is at the same time exciting for the discerning global set, like UN Dispatch readers, who don’t often get to have an IR slant to their favorite TV shows. But it’s also a little bit cringe worthy, as reality was – not surprisingly – stretched and shaped to suit the show’s narrative.
Here are some ways in which House of Cards gets the UN wrong.
1. The UN General Assembly Approves a Peacekeeping Mission in the Middle East Instead of the Security Council
While it’s true that a UNGA resolution from 1950 – Resolution 377, or “Uniting for Peace” – exists to facilitate prompt action by the General Assembly in the case of a dead-locked Security Council, the mechanism has only been used 10 times since its inception, and only once in the context of a peacekeeping operation (the resolution was invoked in 1956 the General Assembly established the first UN Emergency Force in the Middle East, in the wake of the Suez Crisis.)
In the world of realpolitik, it seems dubious – if not fanciful – to imagine the US leading the charge to circumvent the Security Council to allow the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, particularly, of all places, in the explosive Middle East. Foreign policy is a long game, and this kind of action would lead to long-term repercussions – like Russia blocking every single US-supported resolution for the foreseeable future. In terms of ensuring the medium and long term viability of state cooperation and diplomacy, this story line is far-fetched. In fact, the notion of a peacekeeping mission itself in the Jordan Valley, which would include US and Russian troops, is borderline science-fiction.
2. The Secretary-General Has the Power to Control Peacekeeping Operations
The UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security – the Secretary-General of the United Nations does not direct peacekeeping missions in a way that is akin to how a head of state would control a national military deployment. This is primarily because the UN, and especially the peacekeeping department, relies on the contributions from UN members; it does not have its own troops or forces, and the commanding of peacekeeping missions is devolved to the military apparatus of member states. So when President Underwood talks about “calling the Secretary-General” in relation to the peacekeeping troops in the Jordan Valley, it seems he is expecting the SecGen to take some kind of action – which of course, in the real world, he would have no ability to.
3. African Command of a Peacekeeping Operation is a “Poison Pill”
For some reason, Israel tries to derail the peacekeeping operation by insisting that Zimbabwe take control of the military command of the operation, which is described as a “poison pill” – indeed, with African command, it seems understood that the peacekeeping mission is doomed to fail. In the real world, African military leadership of successful peacekeeping missions are very common. Currently, for instance, nearly half of the current UN peacekeeping missions have African military leadership (the peacekeeping operations in Sudan, South Sudan, Liberia, the Central African Republic, Mali and Pakistan – for example.)
4. The US Ambassador to the UN Wields All Kinds of Power in Washington
This one is less about the UN then about the influence of the UN ambassador in politics. In Season 3, much of the story centers around the appointment of Underwood’s wife, Claire, as the US Ambassador to the UN. While there are precedents for the unlikely recess appointment depicted in the show (John Bolton, under George W. Bush, was similarly appointed and never confirmed), the amount of power and influence Claire Underwood wields as US Ambassador to the UN is extremely unlikely. The power is more derived from that she’s the First Lady than her position as Permanent Representative of the United States at the United Nations.
It suits the storyline well for Claire Underwood to be in every top-level cabinet meeting or with the joint chiefs of staff, but, in the real world, big foreign policy decisions are not generally made by fiat of the UN ambassador.
Of course, as with every show worth watching, viewers have to suspend disbelief – after all, this is a fictional story. What do you think? Is there anything that House of Cards does capture accurately about the United Nations?