Why Chuck Hagel Supports the United Nations

If Chuck Hagel is confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense, we can expect in the Pentagon chief a strong supporter of the United Nations and international cooperation.

The former Nebraska Senator has some fairly nuanced and developed views about the proper role of the United Nations in global affairs, and the value of American support for the United Nations.

Here’s a passage from his book, America: Our Next Chapter. 

The United Nations can play a central and critical role in forging connections. The global challenges of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, hunger, disease, and poverty require multilateral responses and initiatives. The United States should therefore take every opportunity to help strengthen global institutions and alliances, including the UN. Like all institutions, the United Nations has its limitations and problems. It needs reform. Too often, the UN, especially the General Assembly, succumbs to the worst forms of political posturing. Nevertheless, the United Nations has played an essential role throughout the world in postconflict transitions, supervising elections, providing humanitarian programs and assistance, 22 peacekeeping, and offering international legitimacy and expertise of the kind that have helped stabilize Korea, Haiti, Liberia, East Timor, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and a number of other regions.

Helping bring security to those troubled areas required an 27 immense international effort. Although many of these hot spots are still troubled today, each is more stable than it was, reducing the risk of further violence and regional escalation. More importantly, each has some hope for a peaceful future—although it may take years before that hope is realized. No international conflict is simple or easy to deal with, but each requires attention and the United Nations is the only international organization that can help bring the consensus that is indispensable in finding solutions and resolving crises.

One of UN detractors more consistant criticisms of the world body is that some members states are not liberal democracies; that is the UN is a club that includes monarchies, autocracies or effective dictatorships. Some people, like Senator John McCain have suggested that the UN be replaced with a more exclusive League of Democracies.

In a 2008 New Yorker profile Senator Hagel’s offered a thoughtful defense of the United Nations, despite the flaws of its member states. He argues that the UN’s universal membership is a feature of the UN–not a bug.

Critics have suggested that McCain’s League of Democracies could diminish the role of the United Nations. When I mentioned this to Hagel, he said, “What is the point of the United Nations? The whole point, as anyone who has taken any history knows, was to bring all nations of the world together in some kind of imperfect body, a forum that allows all governments of the world, regardless of what kinds of government, to work through their problems–versus attacking each other and going to war. Now, in John’s League of Democracies, does that mean Saudi Arabia is out? Does that mean our friend King Abdullah in Jordan is out? It would be only democracies. Well, we’ve got a lot of allies and relationships that are pretty important to us, and to our interests, who would be out of that club. And the way John would probably see China and Russia, they wouldn’t be in it, either. So it would be an interesting Book-of-the-Month Club.

“But in order to solve problems you’ve got to have all the players at the table,” Hagel went on, his voice rising. “How are you going to fix the problems in Pakistan, Afghanistan–the problems we’ve got with poverty, proliferation, terrorism, wars–when the largest segments of society in the world today are not at the table?” He paused, then added, more calmly, “The United Nations, as I’ve said many times, is imperfect. We’ve got NATO, multilateral institutions, multilateral-development banks, the World Trade Organization–all have flaws, that’s true. But if you didn’t have them what would you have? A world completely out of control, with no structure, no order, no boundaries.”

Over the past 5 years, President Obama and his foreign policy team have demonstrated a commitment to international cooperation as a means to leverage American power to advance American interests.  Hagel’s defenses of the United Nations largely reflects this worldview. That’s good for America and good for the United Nations.