The myth of a United Nations
Stalemate over Syria symbolizes self-interest over common cause

General Assembly by Shutterstock

Article Highlights

  • Whatever one thinks U.S. Syria policy should be, there is no dispute the Security Council has been a bystander

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  • The larger the UN Security Council, the more permanent members, the less effective it will be

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  • The UN is simply a collection of nations pursuing their respective interests

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The U.N. General Assembly’s 68th session will open its annual “general debate” in New York on Tuesday, with leadoff speakers including President Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. There is every prospect that Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani will exchange the handshake Mr. Obama has longed for ever since his 2009 inaugural address.

For some, that handshake alone justifies the U.N.’s existence, as though the financial costs the United States bear (assessed contributions of 22 percent of most U.N. agency budgets), relentless political attacks against us and close friends such as Israel, assaults on free expression under the guise of religious tolerance, endless treaty negotiations where the hidden agenda is constraining America’s flexibility and influence, and countless other intrusions on issues properly decided by our own constitutional system were of little consequence.

Indeed, those enraptured by an Obama-Rouhani encounter don’t really need evidence of U.N. effectiveness, and they couldn’t care less about its costs to America. For decades, their support has been faith-based, almost religious in nature, and unquestioning.

In actual operation, however, the U.N. provides harsh lessons in reality, even for its altar boys and girls. Hovering above the General Assembly will be the U.N. Security Council’s failure to address, for nearly two years, the international conflict being fought out through the mechanism of Syria’s civil war.

The Security Council has done precious little about this struggle, which has produced mounting civilian casualties, massive flows of refugees and internally displaced persons, and incalculable destruction of property and productive enterprise. Three times, Russia and China have used their veto power to block enhanced sanctions against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime or any other significant step to resolve the conflict. Even the fanciful agreement to have Syria surrender all its chemical weapons for destruction was negotiated outside the council; within its limited responsibility for implementing the agreement, dissension is already well entrenched.

"Whatever one thinks U.S. Syria policy should be (aid the opposition or stay away, strike the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons or not), there is no dispute that the Security Council has essentially been a bystander." -- John Bolton Whatever one thinks U.S. Syria policy should be (aid the opposition or stay away, strike the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons or not), there is no dispute that the Security Council has essentially been a bystander. There is a reason for this outcome. The council has always been merely a reflection of the larger world. U.N. members’ conflicting interests do not change simply because the clash among them is taking place in Turtle Bay.

The U.N. cannot (and should not) act meaningfully without direction and control by its members. If it could act separately from its members, it would mean we had ceded a considerable portion of our sovereignty, something only a trivial fraction of Americans is prepared to do. Here is where U.N. acolytes hit the wall of reality, and rarely has it been harder than for the Obama administration.

Now, however, because faith is strong, U.N. supporters are predictably arguing that the problem lies not with the U.N. itself, but with the Security Council’s outdated composition. Change the council, they argue, and all will be solved. If the administration pursues this path, much of its second-term foreign policy will be frittered away chasing an unattainable objective. That would at least lessen the chances for doing damage on policy issues actually important to the United States.

The Security Council’s membership, however, will not change. Of the five existing permanent members, Britain and France linger on despite the pleas of many European Union members to replace them with the EU itself as “Europe’s” permanent seat. No change is coming there. Russia justifies its permanent membership only by its status as having the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

I once said that by any objective standard, justification existed for only one permanent member; namely, the United States. The U.N.’s Greek chorus was greatly displeased, but William F. Buckley paid me a high compliment, saying, “You violate the same rule we learned as children that I do: no jokes in church.” China, however, now clearly deserves a permanent seat, so I amend my prior estimate accordingly.

Even more problematic is the substantial number of other countries thinking they deserve permanent membership: Japan, India, Pakistan, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and more. There are proposals for “regional” permanent seats (e.g., one for Latin America) rotating among the regional states. The permutations are endless, but all involve expanding the council beyond its current 15 members (originally just 11 in 1945). The larger the council, and the more permanent members, the less effective it will be.

Active debate about Security Council expansion has been underway for decades. No progress has been made, and none is likely as far as the eye can see, given the clash of ambitions just described. That brings us back to fundamentals: There is no such thing as the United Nations. It is simply a collection of nations pursuing their respective interests, from time to time led by the United States.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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