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Legitimacy, Moral and Otherwise

Patrick Belton has a post up today which is part of a continuing series on Oxblog on the theme of "searching for greater moral legitimacy" at the UN and then pointing to this or that instance of misconduct on the part of UN personnel or demonstration that bad things result from deferring to the UN. Mostly, this is just cheap shots (it's not as if US government employees have never engaged in misconduct -- from Abu Ghraib to the corruption of Tom Delay to all manner of wacky antics among the younger members of the bureacracy in the District, etc.), but there was also a good point made at the beginning regarding Darfur.

The point, with regard to Darfur, is that the UN is not an effective means of combatting genocide. Most likely, it never will be an effective means of doing this barring some serious change to Security Council procedures. Leaving aside the specific issue of French, Russian, and Chinese oil interests in Sudan, the fundamental reality is that the People's Republic of China is very committed to a strong concept of inviolate sovereignty and the Russian Federal is somewhat committed to a similar concept. Since genocide almost always is an internal state matter, this means that it's very hard to imagine the Security Council giving the go-ahead to a robust anti-genocide matter. When it's clear that the leading western powers (notably the USA) have no real intention of taking robust action anyway, China and Russia will likely agree to weak action, which allows all parties to save face (the US can say, as it's saying about Darfur, that it isn't unwilling to take tough action, it's just deferring to the UN, and China can say it's not unconcerned about genocide, look at the modest actions it's approving at the UN!) but is a pretty unsatisfactory result.

I can say without hesitation that this is a bona fide problem with the main institution that currently exists to manage global security issues. Nevertheless, the UN is the main institution that currently exists to manage global security issues. When you don't have the UN, what's left are regional security organizations. In Europe (see, e.g., Kosovo) this means NATO which is a wealthy and militarily competent organization. In Latin America and Africa you have the ineffective OAS and African Union respectively. In the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia you have essentially nothing else in place.

Functionally, then, the alternative to letting the Security Council decide is having random countries running around acting as they please. Since the USA has by far the greatest capacity to project power around the world, you wind up with things like the American invasion of Iraq, undertaken despite the near-uniform disapproval of the world's population. Since foreign governments have no direct influence over US policy and since the US has made it clear that global public opinion will not deter American military action, you have a situation that the bulk of the world population and the world's governments find unsatisfactory.

One upshot is the series of checking actions currently under way or being contemplated that Steve Clemons runs down. I'll say more on this later, but I've been reading Dan Drezner's forthcoming book on globalization which lends credence to the idea that such checking can be more effective than one might think. But of course what Robert Kagan refers to as the "all-important question of power", meaning military power, also matters. No country has the ability to even begin to compete with America's conventional military power. On the other hand, as we've seen in Iraq, many countries have the ability to tie down large segments of that power for prolonged periods of time. Given the global scale of America's commitments it is, moreover, realistic to contemplate certain countries being able to out-power the USA in their immediate neighborhoods. More to the point, a nuclear weapon or two does a great deal to close the power gap, as the contrasting experiences of North Korea and Pakistan on the one hand and Serbia and Iraq on the other demonstrate. This lesson has not been lost on the government or the people of Iran.

And here you begin to see the real issue, which has little to do with "moral legitimacy" and a great deal to do with whether or not the game is going to have any rules. The US congress is regarded as a legitimate legislative body by almost all of the American people whether or not we agree with every decision it makes and even if we believe that it's underlying structure puts out favored ideology at a permanent disadvantage due to the overrepresentation of low-population states. Certain benefits accrue to all of us from treating the legislative process as legitimate -- notably we get to experience the stability, confidence, and predictability that comes from living in a rule-based system. Having rules lets us cooperate in positive-sum ways, or at least avoid negative-sum conflicts. The international system is much the same. A rule-based system would have benefits that go beyond the quality of the specific policies adopted by the rule-making body. The favored American alternative to a rule-based system is a system of unrestrained American hegemony, but this is no more a realistic alternative than is my preferred system of US governance where all the policies wind up being the ones I prefer.

Efforts to establish unrestrained hegemony by undermining efforts to create and sustain a rule-based order will lead not to unrestrained hegemony but to efforts to constrain the US by means of ad hoc confrontations. This will likely lead to everyone being worse off. Manipulating the global economy to score political points is not conducive to prosperity. Proliferation of nuclear weapons simply forces more countries to invest more in nuclear arms and away from productive assets. Given that the world's major powers do not, in fact, have any sharply conflicting interests it would be preferable for us to cooperate rather than compete. But if the only terms on which the US will agree to cooperate is for foreign countries to utterly subordinate themselves to us, we will not cooperate, and the vast majority of people will be worse off than they might have been.

November 24, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

When the facts are against you run and hide in some moral equivalency.

Posted by: Warthog | Nov 24, 2004 12:08:50 PM

At last!!! It's refreshing to read an American that sees this. Much better expressed also, than most. My favorite quote "The favored American alternative to a rule-based system is a system of unrestrained American hegemony, but this is no more a realistic alternative than is my preferred system of US governance where all the policies wind up being the ones I prefer."

Posted by: Carlos | Nov 24, 2004 12:27:18 PM

I don't get why people criticize the UN. The UN
has practically no resources of its own, no power
of its own; it isn't an agent in its own right,
it is just a structure within which the real agents
(national governments) can talk, occasionally
reach consensus, and occasionally pool resources
(e.g. peacekeeping forces) to achieve a shared
objective.

Of course if you don't ever want to talk to (or
especially listen to) foreigners, then this may not
be seen as a good thing - but bashing the UN
isn't going to make foreigners go away. You might
as well criticize the architecture of Carnegie
Hall because you don't like classical music.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Nov 24, 2004 12:35:57 PM

What rules, *besides* a negative concept of inviolate sovereignty, is the current UN prepared to enforce? To say that a rule governed world is better because it leads to mutually beneficial cooperation is true, but that presumes you could actually get such rules. But is there *any* evidence China or Russia would, for example, allow effective anti-proliferation sanctions on North Korea or Iran? To say "let the UN decide" because then we get rules ignores that the fact that because of the veto and the composition of the Security Council, the *only* rule you would get is that sovereign countries can do whatever they like in their territories, be it slaughter minorities or build hydrogen bombs.

Posted by: rd | Nov 24, 2004 12:41:44 PM

Newflash: Warthog reads first paragraph of post and spouts gobbledygook. The issue on the table is whether America can and should pursue unrestrained hegemony. I agree with Matt that we should pursue cooperation to a much greater degree that we are currently. Folks may not agree but it's a valid, non-naive position to take.

Posted by: fnook | Nov 24, 2004 12:42:22 PM

If most countries were western style democracies, respecting their citizens' liberties, and valuing the rule of law, setting up an acceptable rule based international system would be a cinch. But this obviously is NOT the case.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 24, 2004 12:43:56 PM

Come to think of it, the level of corruption even in western style democracies, as demonstrated by the problems with the EU, (Which has a criminal in charge of anti-fraud efforts!) is such that even among THEM the prospects of effective rule based international relations is slim.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 24, 2004 12:49:15 PM

Richard Cownie says: "I don't get why people criticize the UN."

If you're talking about the dislike for the UN on the American right, it seems to be not much more, at bottom, than "A buncha damn furriners ain't gonna tell us Americans what to do!"

Posted by: o | Nov 24, 2004 12:49:54 PM

The issue is not just "cooperation." Matt goes on to argue that the only effective source of rules-based cooperation is the UN. I think that's unrealistic b/c the UN is structured in such a way that the only "rule" it can generate is unlimited territorial sovereignty.

Posted by: rd | Nov 24, 2004 12:52:34 PM

"A buncha damn furriners ain't gonna tell us
Americans what to do" - that's exactly the way I
interpret it, and it's doubly sad because:

a) The US has a veto on the Security Council, so the
rules of the game are precisely that nobody can
tell the US what to do

b) If the UN was abolished overnight, "damn
furriners" would continue to say exactly the same
things and have exactly the same (lack of) power
over the US.

The people who think this way should *really* be
worrying about what happens if China decided
to say, for example "let us take over Taiwan
or else we sell all our US Treasury bonds
tomorrow" - the *real* power that foreigners have
over the US is huge, purely economic, and not
related to the UN at all.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Nov 24, 2004 1:04:06 PM

Brett,

"Which has a criminal in charge of anti-fraud efforts!)"

reminds me of putting a man convicted of abusing government power in charge of the government's Total Information Awareness program*.

The point is, even with corruption, these Western ruled-based goverments are better than the alternative.
I would set up another World governing body, that we more tightly control membership too. Set up a bunch of guidelines for having power in this new organization. At first it would be a vehicle for existing projection of power of American and British (perhaps EU) power, but it could be nurtured into he effective world organization that the UN is not.


* I am not vouching for this sight - it just popped up in Google and had the TIA logo.

Posted by: theCoach | Nov 24, 2004 1:05:36 PM

This, "the fact that because of the veto and the composition of the Security Council, the *only* rule you would get is that sovereign countries can do whatever they like" it's a mistake. The problem is not really the veto or the composition of the security council, but the very real power that some countries have. Even if you take away China's veto power, you are still unable to force China to do anything it doesn't want to do (unless you want to risk nuclear war). It's because of this "balance of power" that the rules the UN produces are pretty crazy sometimes. Besides, you can't really expect governments to resign control and authority in favor of a distant foreign institution. Try to sell the idea of a UN powerful enough and with the potential authority to overthrow the USA government, for example, to the electorate. ¿Why do you think the selling job should be easier in the other countries?

Posted by: Carlos | Nov 24, 2004 1:15:22 PM

"Set up a bunch of guidelines for having power in this new organization. At first it would be a vehicle for existing projection of power of American and British (perhaps EU) power, but it could be nurtured into he effective world organization that the UN is not." Sure, I bet China and Russia and Pakistan and North Korea would be very scared of this new institution. If you don't have enough military power now, what makes you think that a new logo will improve things?

Posted by: Carlos | Nov 24, 2004 1:22:34 PM

To theCoach's point,

The Community of Democracies is an attempt to create a world governing body that is based on Democratic governments. I believe there is also a Democratic Caucus at the UN.

Posted by: SamChevre | Nov 24, 2004 1:39:44 PM

RD underestimates the power of the UN as a talk shop and shaming mechanism. And both RD and Brett Bellmotre offers no alternative to a UN-- because there isn't really any good alternative.

SamChevre points out that there have been various attempts at democracy forums, but I see 2 obvious problems. First, who gets in? Sri Lanka? Iran? Israel? Venezuala? Algeria? Who is going to tell Armenia that it isn't a good enough democracy to get in? Picking and choosing will lead to to tremendous ill-will, causing more problems than the talk shop will solve.

Two, such a talk-shop will still have little non-American military capability,a dn will still be dominated by interests indifferent if not hostile to US interests. Lula Da Silva won't roll over for GWB. In time, Americans will hate the Forum for Democracies as much as they currently hate the UN.

Ultimately, we non-Americans are best off in a universal rules-based US dominated system. The only alternative I can see is a balance-of-power system as proposed by Chirac. I think that's definitely worse for small countries, but if the US is no longer interested in rules-based multi-lateral systems, the French proposals will probably come about.

Posted by: Ikram | Nov 24, 2004 1:57:23 PM

"Come to think of it, the level of corruption even in western style democracies...is such that even among THEM the prospects of effective rule based international relations is slim."

"reminds me of putting a man convicted of abusing government power in charge of the government's Total Information Awareness program*."


Yeah Brett, you set yourself up for that one. Iran-Contra, a House Majority Leader about to be indicted on criminal charges who changes the rules to stay in power, treaties abandoned, ethical investigations squashed by the majority, international law flouted -- we are an unruly bunch, are we not?

Posted by: Windhorse | Nov 24, 2004 1:58:48 PM

Here's a newsflash: the game has no rules. It never had, at least not permanent ones, and it never will.

The UN was a means, not an end.

The UN was not birthed out of noble ideas of nations working in partnership toward a glorious future, but as a means to consolidate the gains of the Second World War and to attempt to inject stability into a world with nuclear arms. It was birthed in a specific time and a specific place with references to specific international realities. It served those purposes moderately well, before 1990.

But there have been significant changes in the international system since WWII. This does not mean an end to "rules-based" international diplomacy, but it certainly means rethinking the current regime which is both unable to stop extra-territorial aggression or internal repression and genocide. And it should certainly countenance reworking, or utterly undoing, the UN.

You scoff at the idea of regional power coalitions, but I think that's a mistake. The UN's greatest failing is its inability to exclude nations which simply fail to meet minimam standards of human decency, let alone good governance. The larger mistake is conceptual - thinking that the wars, the genocides and all the other maladies of human nature will stop once everyone's onboard with the latest treaty. The world fought and killed before there was a UN, it has done so during the UN's tenure, and will do so when the UN passes on - as it will. The only concern from a U.S. standpoint is how to ensure that the replacement system is more responsive to, and reflective of, the new international system. This does not mean unbridled U.S. power cowing all other nations. But it does mean that the absolutely ridiculous spectre of Powell crossing the globe to woo minor nations in the Security Council to back the Iraq war, ends. As it should.

Today's UN does not, and institutionally cannot, reflect the reality of new security threats or humanitarian concerns. A new organization, perhaps less grand in scope but more powerful in practice, might.

Posted by: Greg Scoblete | Nov 24, 2004 1:59:26 PM

I would set up another World governing body, that we more tightly control membership too. Set up a bunch of guidelines for having power in this new organization. At first it would be a vehicle for existing projection of power of American and British (perhaps EU) power, but it could be nurtured into he effective world organization that the UN is not.

The fundamental problem with the UN is not which countries are members, but the fact that its decision makers are all appointed representatives of national governments. If you required representatives to an international body to be directly and popularly elected by the populations of the member-states, independently (not necessarily at a different time, but with a logically separate ballot) of any internal elections, then you would establish a body that would be far less likely to see absolute territorial sovereignty as an overwhelming issue, and actually adopt substantial rules that constrained its members to observe human rights rather than only enforcing preservation of soveriegnty. Furthermore, such a system would have greater perceived legitimacy.

A restricted membership alternative system that still was based on national governments appointing members is not needed -- and would just serve as a collective agency for action against external groups that would still not be inclined to delve much into the internal affairs of its members. In fact, there are many such groups to which the US is already a member (NATO, for instance).

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 24, 2004 2:01:07 PM

Cmdicely, the whole purpose of the UN is to avoid wars between nation-states, everything else is remote secondary. Absolute territorial sovereignty is the overwhelming issue, human rights is nice to have.

Imagine a nuclear exchange between the US and USSR in the 1980s and you'll understand.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 24, 2004 2:31:02 PM

Cmdicely, the whole purpose of the UN is to avoid wars between nation-states, everything else is remote secondary.

Actually, no. It is to prevent wars between major powers; preventing wars between lesser nation-states is a means, not an ends.

Absolute territorial sovereignty is the overwhelming issue, human rights is nice to have.

I don't debate that the UN is actually very good at serving the principle purpose for which it was founded.

There are plenty of reasons to want an international body capable of serving other purposes, however, and my recommendations suggest how to do that without, as some other suggestions (IMO) do, replicating all the limitations of the UN without most of its utility.

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 24, 2004 3:08:27 PM

I think the model to follow would have to be the colonies forming united states. The arguments of federalism, state's rights, regional power structures are all similar and would have to be hashed out.
I would bet the task in the 18th century look equally as daunting.

Carlos,
"what makes you think that a new logo will improve things?"

Frankly, I am not looking for improvement at this point. I would like to see the current ad hoc projection of US power (invasion of Iraq) formalized with an eye towrds incorporating more and more people into this formal decision making as possible. Also, I am sitting here at work writing things off the top of my head, so I do not have a well thought out plan.
As to America growing to hate a DN, I think America has proven by electing GWB for a second term that we are not really ready for any serious improvements at this point. In a better governed nation, I am sure tensions would exist, but I would hope they could be similar to the tensions existing between the states of the union, and hopefully we would learn a lesson or two from the Civil War.

Posted by: theCoach | Nov 24, 2004 3:22:46 PM

>"If you required representatives to an international body to be directly and popularly elected by the populations of the member-states, independently (not necessarily at a different time, but with a logically separate ballot) of any internal elections, then you would establish a body that would be far less likely to see absolute territorial sovereignty as an overwhelming issue"

Ah. This is the thing the right hates: the notion of the UN leading to one-world government, presumably a socialist one (democratic or "democratic"). They see it as a stalking horse.


As for popular reprensentation undermining sovereignity - then the totalitarian states will dictate who wins elections. And then you will have those rulers dictating what happens. Since population of such areas outnumbers two to one the areas where actual democracy is in place (and elections could be conceivably honest), the democracies will be promptly voted out of existence. And then they will, of course, vote en masse to appropriate everything for themselves. Then, there's a war.

You can't have system for preventing war based on anything but sovereignity since the existing systems are polarized against each other.

That rules out anything but what we got.

Unless you want to create an American imperial system wherein the US dictates everything, but then that would hardly be a cooperative rules-based system.

If you view the world as being in a 'unipolar moment' and America can dictate what it wants to everybody else, then I guess replacing the UN with something else is a good idea. Noting that then you have a war. Which is what they want.

Perhaps someone can render the probable outcome obscure to themselves if they concentrate on the rhetoric of 'moral legitimacy' and babbling on about corruption.

Blah.

ash
['Excellent post, Matthew. Really quite outstanding.']

Posted by: ash | Nov 24, 2004 3:32:37 PM

"The issue on the table is whether America can and should pursue unrestrained hegemony."


Or is the issue that the UN is too corrupt and ineffective to be in the slightest way relative to the issue you pose.

Posted by: Abdul Abulbul Amir | Nov 24, 2004 3:56:11 PM

As for popular reprensentation undermining sovereignity - then the totalitarian states will dictate who wins elections.

Well, no. Clearly, you have to set electoral standards including rules on campaigns that ensure that they are free and fair and without coercion (individual or collective) from the government or other parties in society; as a practical matter, you may want to include initially only well-established democracies and then let other people join, however, as long as the institution has an internal capacity for judging elections and standards of freeness and fairness to apply, you don't need to prevent authoritarian regimes from joining, necessarily.

OTOH, the more fundamental problem is that authoritarian regimes won't want to join, since the last thing any authoritarian regime wants is an empowered, popular authority placed over it that has standards of free and fair elections -- regardless of what it actually does. Even less so if it actually has an interest in enforcing human rights.

So I'm not entirely against the idea that such an institution will, in practice, largely be an organization of existing democracies; though some existing regimes that are not yet democratic might join, too, and might be accelerated toward democracy by doing so. But I don't think you are really going to empower any body to enforce individual human rights over sovereignty so long as its members are the appointees of sovereign states, rather than directly accountable to individual humans.

Organizations of people defend the rights of people. Organization of states defend the prerogatives of states.

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 24, 2004 4:32:01 PM

You can't have system for preventing war based on anything but sovereignity since the existing systems are polarized against each other.

This was certainly true during the Cold War; while there is a diversity of interests now, I don't see the same stable opposing polarity now.

Certainly there isn't a "democratic" vs. "totalitarian" polarity between systems, even as much as many people seem to think it should work out that way (and, I'll admit, I'm one of those); major issues don't see the "democratic" states lining up on one side and the "totalitarians" on the other. They see a group which includes both democracies and totalitarians on one side, and a group that includes both on the other. See, for instance, the invasion of Iraq.

And ultimately, institutions devoted to soveriegnty cannot and do not prevent war, because soveriegnty is inherently indivisible and no two states can be completely sovereign at once. Protecting multiple "sovereignties" as anything more than the kind of lip-service "sovereignty" given to US states guarantee war; all an institution devoted to sovereignty and composed of sovereign states can do is do a little bit to manage and direct war (itself, a major benefit compared to the absence of any international order at all).

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 24, 2004 4:40:22 PM

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