Proceed With Caution
The perils of trusting the United Nations.
As the world's sole superpower and its largest economy, the United States is heavily engaged in the prevailing global economic and diplomatic debates by default. There is no responsible scenario in which America could simply fold up shop and disengage entirely from the world -- whether with our allies or our enemies. The U.S. presence in the world is the unavoidable reality. Yet understandably, it has spawned a debate over what manner and to what benefit the United States should participate in international organizations -- most notably, the United Nations.
As the world’s sole superpower and its largest economy, the United States is heavily engaged in the prevailing global economic and diplomatic debates by default. There is no responsible scenario in which America could simply fold up shop and disengage entirely from the world — whether with our allies or our enemies. The U.S. presence in the world is the unavoidable reality. Yet understandably, it has spawned a debate over what manner and to what benefit the United States should participate in international organizations — most notably, the United Nations.
The American people, particularly at a time of great domestic turmoil, are skeptical about what positive role an international organization like the U.N. might play in their country’s strategic self-interest. As the largest contributor to the U.N. budget and the largest funder of U.N. peacekeeping missions, the United States has historically invested a great deal of time, resources, and lives to the cause of advancing peace and diplomacy through this organization. As a consequence of that involvement, we take risks that can actually diminish our diplomatic power or find it abused. Smart leadership is required to avoid the pitfalls of either believing too much in the power of multilateral engagement or being oblivious as to its often detrimental impact.
The United Nations has historically been a forum for thoughtful debate and interaction. But this has not made it immune from a host of international bad actors seeking to use it as a platform to bestow international legitimacy on their often tyrannical and repressive regimes; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugh Chávez are two prime examples. These two individuals have repeatedly co-opted the international spotlight to claim fidelity to open and honest dialogue even as they persecute opposition figures at home and commit violent acts against their own people — all while proffering wild, unsubstantiated allegations against others.
To regain the legitimacy and integrity of multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, the United States and its allies have a responsibility not to tacitly endorse with silence those more contemptible proclamations. Nowhere is that more important than when it involves the fragile Middle East peace process. For some — Ahmadinejad being a prime example — the U.N. has become the favored arena to slander America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel. Generally, the U.S. delegation and other allies have acted appropriately and denounced the more appalling remarks. But under Barack Obama’s administration, our allegiance with Israel has been shaken in no small part because of the manner in which that relationship has been handled in the halls of the U.N.
Most recently, the White House waited for days before agreeing to veto a Security Council resolution denouncing Israeli settlement activities. The resolution was supported by the Palestinian Authority, which claimed it would act as a pressure point in the on-again, off-again negotiations with Israel. Such a resolution, Palestinian leaders must have reasoned, would confer legitimacy on their grievances against the Jewish state by getting the United States to concede their point-of-view. After peculiar hand-wringing that only further strained our alliance with Israel and gave encouragement to that country’s antagonists, Obama’s representatives at the U.N. finally chose to stand with our ally. This was a classic example in which the U.S. position and role in the global diplomatic arena was subject to abuse by others.
Throughout its history, the U.N. has assumed its greatest authority when the United States has been willing to provide economic, diplomatic, and military assets. Otherwise, the U.N. should stick to the basics of bringing countries together to discuss grievances. Let the most congenial and the most strident among the international community espouse their thoughts, beliefs, and concerns — but at no time should the auspices of this international organization bestow legitimacy upon those viewpoints. Nor should the U.N. be allowed to act as a super-authority on the world stage. The power of diplomacy — particularly for the United States — rests in preserving our role as an effective partner in the resolution of disputes. Too much reliance on an organization like the United Nations, no matter the nobility of the cause, may lead to American diplomatic efforts becoming nothing more than expressed outrage.
The American people are naturally skeptical of ceding authority to some international body. We fought a revolution so that decisions affecting our lives on both a macro and micro level were made by duly elected members from our own communities. If we are respectful of our history and values, we should not expect that by going to the U.N. or any other international organization, America can necessarily alleviate its grievances and those of our allies, either through peaceful means or by force. This understanding of multilateralism is a compromise that protects our sovereignty while upholding realistic aspirations to see a respectful dialogue among competing nations and ideas.
Occasionally, multilateral engagement gets this balance right. The G-20 group of countries, due to its narrower focus on economics, allows for a certain level of realpolitik not often found in the United Nations. A common allegiance to certain fiscal and financial realities often drives greater cooperation.
Ultimately, the United States can and should engage in international organizations, provided we do not deceive ourselves or others into a false sense that these entities have independent authority to override the sovereignty of individual nations. If a nation seeks to use the U.N. or other organizations to justify actions or ideas that are antithetical to our values and principles, we must not be reticent or shy about denouncing them. Otherwise, our involvement in the multilateral arena, coupled with our silence, will inadvertently bestow legitimacy on those actions and ideas that are abhorrent to U.S. national identity. And worst of all, American taxpayers will have paid for the microphone.
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.