The United Nations: U.S. Sidekick for 64 Years

I have no reason to believe that this Heritage Foundation “Backgrounder” from last week, on reforming creating unnecessary new international institutions, has made any splash in the foreign policy world whatsoever, but at the least, it reveals the interesting founding myth that Heritage has concocted for the UN.

The United Nations was supposed to enable Western powers like the United States to lead the world in securing peace; yet after the addition of scores of new members to its political body, the General Assembly, it has seemed more intent on curbing rather than
accommodating U.S. leadership.

Get that? The point of the UN, from the get-go, according to author Kim Holmes, has been to “enable” and “accomodate” the United States. As equal members of an organization formed with the vision of harnessing global cooperation toward peace and prosperity, the other original 51 member states — as well as the 141 since — may reasonably object to Holmes’ blithe characterization of the institution as an American puppet.

The United States is undeniably the world’s largest power. As such, it carries the unavoidable responsibility — and opportunity — of global leadership. And in 1945, as in 2009, the UN looks to and relies on that U.S. leadership. But the UN is not merely a vehicle for U.S. superpowerdom. Just as there is much for which the UN looks to the United States, the U.S. clearly needs the United Nations for various important global projects, ones that, like, say, peacekeeping in Lebanon or eradicating world hunger, the United States should not or cannot accomplish on its own. While U.S. leadership can help on some of these issues, it is by no means a prerequisite for all, and, though Holmes might not like to admit it, other member states also often emerge as important leaders in UN initiatives.

One of the more widespread criticisms of U.S. policy toward the UN in the early Bush era, climaxing with John Bolton’s tenure as ambassador, was that it too often treated the UN as, at best, a plaything to be used only when its legitimacy could be leveraged to support U.S. causes. Typically, defenders of this policy will demean the UN as ineffective, unnecessary, or ornery; rarely does one see a justification as blunt as Holmes’: that the UN exists solely to support — “accomodate,” again, is his shocking word — U.S. objectives. His attitude is one of paranoid indignity, at the rubber stamp that dared not defer to its supreme benefactor.

Not only is this cursory assessment an utter mischaracterization of the UN’s work and purpose, but it creates an entirely unproductive dynamic in UN policymaking. Even a cynic would concur that not every decision at the UN boils down to a choice between “curbing” or “accomodating” U.S. leadership. Most decisions are in fact based on what each country, for whatever its reasons, views in its best interests. And sometimes — particularly when the United States acts as a willing partner and an eager, but not presumptive, leader — these countries can work around their differences and push policy in a direction that just might actually benefit those it is supposed to benefit.