The Multilateralist

Can Conservatives Reconcile with the United Nations?

With the ambassadorship at the United Nations changing hands, the U.S. relationship with the UN is likely to get some fresh attention. I spoke recently with two well informed conservatives about the often fraught dynamic between U.S. conservatives and the world organization. Kenneth Anderson teaches international law at Washington College of Law, American University. He’s ...

With the ambassadorship at the United Nations changing hands, the U.S. relationship with the UN is likely to get some fresh attention. I spoke recently with two well informed conservatives about the often fraught dynamic between U.S. conservatives and the world organization. Kenneth Anderson teaches international law at Washington College of Law, American University. He’s a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Brookings Institution and author of Living with the UN: US Responsibilities and International Order. Brett Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation. He edited ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives. Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Multilateralist: What do you see as the central differences between liberals and conservatives on the United Nations?

Brett Schaefer: In general, those on the right are willing to concede that the UN can be useful, even vital, in certain circumstances, but are convinced that the UN also has profound flaws managerially, budgetarily, and diplomatically. Conservatives also feel that the U.S. doesn’t wield enough influence over budget issues, especially since America is assessed 22 percent of the regular budget and 28.4 percent of the peacekeeping budget. The U.S. is assessed more than 180 other U.N. member states combined and 22,000 times more than the least assessed countries. Yet, under U.N. rules, the 129 member states that contribute 1.5 percent could pass the budget over the objections of the countries paying more than 98 percent. Conservatives want to address these problems, but there is a profound cynicism that the organization or other member states wish to do so. So there’s a tendency by a number of conservatives, having seen past reform efforts fail,  to give up and condemn the UN as being beyond saving.

Most people on the left take it as a given that the UN is a good institution, that the motives and activities of the organization are profoundly good. They see criticism of the UN as arising from bad faith—you’re not giving the institution the credit it deserves. I believe there is a sense from many in the UN and among its supporters that, when criticized, they are under siege. They become defensive rather than engaging in cooperative efforts to address problems. For the more politically minded on the left, there is a belief that if they acknowledge the flaws of the institution, they’re giving currency to those on the right who they believe wish to damage the UN. So there’s a concerted effort to try to excuse, minimize or otherwise protect the institution from criticism.

We need a more honest conversation about the organization. I believe there are some reforms—such as enhancing transparency and accountability, protecting whistleblowers, punishing and preventing sexual abuse and criminality among peacekeepers, and even budgetary restraint—that should concern both the left and the right. But any time there’s an effort to address these issues in a meaningful way, i.e. one that may affect U.S. policy via Congressional action, the underlying political dynamics take over and that conversation is stunted.

Kenneth Anderson:  The divide goes even a step deeper. There are people who in their heart of hearts are liberal internationalists—people who believe ultimately that international law and organizations exist to overcome the anarchy of state-to-state relations. They see this as the arc of history. It’s both a deep idealistic belief that this is where things ought to go as well as a kind of Whig history view that this is where things inevitably are moving, just in very slow motion. That means many liberals have a view of the future that encourages them to always excuse the organization in the present because you’re looking at what is going to come down the road. You have to protect the organization from people who would do it harm.

On the other side, plenty of conservatives are quite accepting of multilateralism—but multilateralism that is not liberal internationalism and not part of some deeper global governance project. This multilateralism may be weaker or stronger but it never sees itself as going beyond the sovereign-state system and their horizontal relationship with each other. I imagine that most conservatives, for example, are pretty happy with the World Trade Organization.

Multilateralist: The WTO is really interesting because one of the complaints you hear often about the UN on the right is that the organization threatens U.S. sovereignty. And yet the WTO has the power to impose trade and economic policies through its adjudication mechanism. But you rarely hear conservatives raise the sovereignty objection about the WTO. This leads then to what might be the liberal response to what you’ve said about the UN: U.S. conservatives don’t like the UN because they believe the organization generally pursues left-of-center goals.

Anderson: Here’s a response back.  Conservatives see security issues as fundamentally different from trade issues. There is a sort of fallacy in the more left-oriented literature from people who look at trade cooperation and then say this is how global governance writ large can work. Conservatives say no: war-and-peace is really different.

There’s also a difference between an organization that has ambitions to broad global governance and one that doesn’t. For the United States, part of the complaint about the UN will always be about efficiency. But sometimes the organization has simply got bad things in mind. We wouldn’t want them to be more efficient. Mark Steyn made this argument years ago: be careful about wishing for a more efficient UN because a more efficient UN would be a more efficiently anti-US organization.

Schaefer: In the WTO, you’re entering into a contract in which states agree to mutually cede privileges or freedom of action in a very specific area: trade. You can rationally have a conversation about sovereignty when the costs and benefits are clearly defined.

It’s much less defined in an organization like the UN and its related organizations whose responsibilities extend to security, economic, political, and regulatory issues. Frequently, over time, previously understood boundaries are stretched. Even some of the allegedly technocratic organizations in the UN system—like the International Telecommunications Union—have made grasps for expanded power. When the ITU goes after the internet or the World Health Organization expands from combating immediate priorities such as epidemic diseases into "lifestyle" diseases, such as substance abuse, high blood pressure, cholesterol, tobacco use, and obesity, that’s when you start getting pushback. There’s a perception that the rules of the game, the originally agreed terms, are being changed.

Multilateralist: The alleged anti-Americanism of the institution is a clear element of the conservative critique. But I think it strikes many non-Americans as strange because the US has a veto in the Security Council and, in general, is very successful at getting what it wants in the organization. Many non-Americans have a hard time squaring that reality with the conservative perception that the institution is out to get the United States.

Schaefer: I don’t see why it’s remarkable to note that the organization is composed mostly of states whose objectives are different from U.S. objectives. Every state seeks to advance its own interests and no other state has the same interests as the United States.

Multilateralist: But by that definition every multilateral organization is anti-American.

Schaefer: Every multilateral organization is political. In the UN General Assembly, that means that there are routinely votes in which the majority is opposed to the United States. It’s not always anti-Americanism that is driving this. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s economic or regional dynamics. The clearest examples of anti-Americanism are evident on votes involving Israel or Cuba or specific U.S. actions that elicit hostility on the part of the majority. On development issues, for example, it’s not about anti-Americanism, it’s that most developing states want more resources, and they want to use the moral authority of the United Nations to pressure Western states to deliver those resources. That’s not anti-Americanism, that’s just rent-seeking. But anybody who says that the United States should not take action to advance its interests at the General Assembly is living in a fantasy world.

Anderson: The United States has a different global role that creates stresses at the UN. The United States is both the power with the largest influence inside the UN system but it also has an external role as the hegemonic power that essentially guarantees the international system from the outside. From a game-theory perspective, submission of disputes to dispute resolution can work in the economic context in a way that it can’t in the security realm. Collective action problems will always overwhelm the system.

If that’s the case, you can ask why the UN hasn’t already collapsed as the League of Nations did. I think it’s largely because you can pay the system lip service but you don’t actually have to rely on it. Our closest friends don’t rely on it when it comes to their fundamental security concerns. The fact that you don’t have to take the UN at face value has helped save it. If you didn’t have a hegemonic player out there, and you had to look to the UN to fulfill its promise, the world would look a whole lot worse.

Schaefer: That’s of course why NATO emerged. In the economic and financial realm, you’ve seen all sorts of alternative forums created to more effectively or directly address the inadequacies of the UN. The international system has a way of filling gaps.

Multilateralist: If we took away the issue of Israel, would you say the UN is still anti-American in key respects?

Anderson: Yeah, I would. I think Israel has served as a kind of antenna for energy and anti-American sentiment, but that energy would still exist because the United States is such a gigantic target. Without the Israel issue, you’d see a lot more agitation about the hegemonic role of the United States, although it might be more dispersed.

Schaefer: The same dynamics would apply. Israel was not the driving force behind opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq, for example. Nor did U.S. support for Israel prevent UN support for NATO intervention in Libya. If Israel did not exist, the G-77 would still demand that the U.S. increase it development assistance to 0.7 percent of GDP. Not everything is about Israel.

Multilateralist: What’s your take on the Obama administration’s approach to the United Nations?

Anderson:  There was some real game-changing that went on early on. Half of the incoming folks really did believe the liberal internationalism stuff, although many of them believed primarily in using multilateral mechanisms as a way of impacting U.S. domestic debates. This would certainly be the standpoint of someone like Sarah Cleveland—appointed by the administration as a counselor to the State Department. I don’t think she would be hesitant to say that.

However, another part of the administration learned a different lesson from the Bush administration and was headed back to realism in a big way. But these new liberal realists are really interesting in terms of the United Nations and multilateral processes. In contrast to traditional realists, their approach is to sign all sorts of international agreements and treaties, mainly because they don’t think these things matter much. They don’t believe that words mean much.

You can contrast this with the realism of someone like John Bolton. One of the striking things about him is how much he believed that words matter. He would negotiate UN reform issues word for word like he was a lawyer from a high-powered firm. I think the Hillary Clinton folks thought this was the dumbest possible approach because it generates friction over instruments they’re perfectly willing to sign but don’t think  matter much.

Schaefer: There are definitely those in the liberal establishment who are true believers and want the UN to evolve into a global government. But most liberals recognize that’s not likely to happen soon, if ever. That doesn’t mean they don’t support granting the organization more authority in less ambitious ways either through resolutions or international agreements.

I agree with Ken on the difference between Bolton’s approach and the Obama administration’s approach. Bolton wanted to be extremely careful about what the United States endorsed. He thought our signature or support had meaning. This is a conservative way of approaching these issues. Even with non-binding General Assembly resolutions, he was extremely cautious. He understood that other countries used minor changes in language to build toward more sweeping changes down the road. It’s like coral growth that builds up over time into something that can be massive. The U.S. looks at the end result and wonders, ‘how did we get here?’ It’s also important to point out that even if other countries don’t take these resolutions or commitments seriously, they know that the U.S. generally does. They are very adept at using our previous votes to press for future action.

More spefically though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the support Ambassador Joseph Torsella has received from the administration in pushing for budget restraint and management reform. In other areas, however, there have been baffling failures. Take the issue of defamation of religion, for example. This has been a key issue for the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) for over a decade. The Bush administration made a concerted effort, assisted by a number of NGOs, to undermine support for defamation of religions in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. As a result, this language was steadily losing support in UN votes. Then, suddenly, the Obama administration cut a deal with the OIC that essentially rescued them. The administration supported a compromise in resolution 16/18 that, while better than the previous defamation of religions resolutions, still allowed the OIC to claim international support for its position.

I think the administration wanted to show that their joining the Human Rights Council could have benefits, which is understandable, but I wish they had selected some other issue that was not damaging to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. And, overall, while the United States has made a marginally positive difference on the Human Rights Council, the progress is not nearly as significant as the administration claims. The Council remains fundamentally a flawed, unreliable body that shields rights abusers as much as it condemns them.

Anderson:  Several European diplomats talked to me after the defamation of religion compromise and were appalled. They said that we rely on the United States to be the immovable rock. The United States cutting a deal with the OIC completely undermined us. The United States thought you could essentially trade off the symbolic issues for more substantive ones, but it didn’t realize that when you’re the hegemon, you can’t do that without a cost. If you take the hegemonic role seriously, you’ve got to take the small stuff seriously.

Schaefer: There’s another point here. Conservative administrations are held to a very different standard when it comes to their actions and rhetoric in UN contexts. In 2012, President Obama went to the General Assembly and essentially advocated restrictions on free speech in the case of the anti-Islam video. It was stunning. It was a uniquely damaging thing for the United States to do considering our history of defending freedom of expression. If President Bush had gone to New York and advocated restrictions on free speech, imagine what human rights groups would have said.

This double standard operates at other levels as well. Bolton got all sorts of flak during his 2005 nomination for his allegedly undiplomatic style and for his past statements. But Susan Rice, Madeleine Albright, or Richard Holbrooke all said very undiplomatic things and were all as or more abrasive in UN contexts than Bolton ended up being. They didn’t get much grief for it because it didn’t fit the narrative. Will Samantha Power be held to the Bolton standard? I suspect not.

Multilateralist: One of the most important products of the United Nations is peacekeeping. Through the Security Council, the United States obviously approves of all these missions. What’s your impression of their impact and relationship to U.S. interests?

Anderson: Peacekeeping is one of the brighter spots for the United Nations. The United States has an interest in ensuring minimal stability in places and in doing it in the most cost-effective way possible. But these operations have to be in places where they don’t too directly implicate any of the great powers’ interests. And if we’re entering a world where there’s more great-power competition, there are going to be fewer places where those interests aren’t implicated and so less space for peackeeeping.

Schaefer: If a proposed peacekeeping mission harms U.S. interests, the U.S. blocks it. So I think it’s fair to say that these missions do not undermine U.S. interests. But they don’t always advance them either. UN peacekeeping missions can be very useful in the right circumstances. But history shows that they can also be disastrous in the wrong circumstances. Most missions fall in between. In a significant number of cases, peacekeeping missions don’t help resolve the underlying problems as much as they preserve them in amber.

Think about Cyprus, Western Sahara, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, Kashmir, and other long-standing UN missions. They have not fallen back into overt conflict—although the Golan mission is being hard pressed by the Syrian civil war. But they have not really moved toward resolution or peace either. If the situation remains the same after decades of UN peacekeeping, I think thought should be given to a different approach. If the goal is simply status quo for political reasons, then those missions should be funded primarily by the states involved rather than according to the peacekeeping scale of assessment. There’s precedent for doing this. Today, Cyprus and Greece together pay over a third of the cost of UNFICYP. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia and Egypt jointly paid for the UN Yemen Observation Mission, and the Netherlands and Indonesia evenly divided the costs of the UN Temporary Executive Authority.

Multilateralist: Do you believe the conservative-liberal dynamic on the United Nations is likely to evolve much in the future?

Schaefer: I hope so. I think it is unfortunate that the political divide impedes applying U.S. pressure to facilitate reform. It’s unfortunate because we know American taxpayer dollars are not being used as efficiently or effectively as they could be. Moreover, it’s unfortunate because the UN could be using its existing resources far more effectively to meet the goals assigned it by the member states.

There should be many areas on UN reform where liberals and conservatives agree: efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, and holding individuals and the organization to account for wrongdoing whether that involves incidents of peacekeeper abuse or introducing cholera to Haiti. Conservatives should support this from a good governance perspective, but liberals should see the appeal of burnishing the UN’s reputation and effectiveness.   

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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