As the international community grapples with the latest thundering threats from North Korea, which for the second time in three years have been accompanied by a nuclear explosion, the principal forum is the United Nations. Likewise, as Iran defiantly if fitfully moves ahead with efforts to develop a nuclear capacity, the primary mechanism for restraining hat provocative power is the United Nations.
Derided in the United States from the start by isolationists, a very powerful domestic political constituency into the 1950s, the global organization has endured and in many respects become stronger over the decades since the founding conference in San Francisco right after the Second World War.
Great credit for making the vision a reality accrues to President Harry S. Truman and his deputies, notably Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall. A very powerful ally in the context of American public opinion was Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s widow.
Today, Iran, North Korea and the few other remaining national renegades in the world are increasingly isolated – especially in economic terms – because of the comprehensive reach of UN credibility as well as membership. When outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made his farewell speech at the end of 2006, he chose as venue the Truman Presidential Library.
Equally important, President George W. Bush turned to the same forum for major policy statements, even during unilateral initial years in the White House. When North Korea exploded the first nuclear device three years ago, the initial sentence of the initial Bush public response mentioned the United Nations.
As U.S. problems mounted in Iraq, the administration turned to the United Nations for assistance. Despite the Bush base on the political right, there was never a suggestion during his two terms of getting the U.S. out of the U.N. By contrast, that goal was a very prominent slogan on the Republican right during much of the Cold War.
Very frustrating aspects of the world organization should not be glossed over or denied. The global gabfest seems to go on endlessly, dominated by diplomats whose self-importance is frequently inversely related to the actual power of their nations. In recent years, there was far reaching financial corruption associated with U.N. supervision of the Iraq oil for food exchange, though these problems were extensively investigated, addressed and then Secretary-General Annan was never directly implicated.
Practical U.N. tools include economic sanctions and the glare of global media; both dimensions will become more important as more nations adopt reasonably open elections, the rule of law spreads and political censorship fades. China’s important U.N. role has facilitated Beijing’s unprecedented strong criticism of North Korea regarding the latest nuclear test. Trials under U.N. auspices regarding crimes in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere reinforce influence elsewhere.
Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea has unusual influence. For the first time since Dag Hammarskjold in the 1950s, the United Nations has a Secretary-General not bound by Third World or Cold War strictures.
Nation states, however, maintain control over military forces in the world. If war does break out because of actions by Iran or North Korea, Washington and other national capitals must cooperate for effective armed response. Diplomacy through the United Nations remains the most promising avenue to forestall such terrible contingencies. The very costly Korean War is a raw reminder of the costs of failure – though the United Nations did successfully defend South Korea.
Arthur Cyr is a professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.