Year XLVI, 2004, Number 3, Page 182
UNITED NATIONS OR DANGEROUS ILLUSION?
In the face of the crisis of the international system and the confused management of that system, and above all in the face of terrorism and the consequences of terrorism, the debate over the role of the United Nations has once more come to the fore, prompting me to make several observations.
1. First of all, I am, unfortunately, afraid to say that not only do I belong to the ranks of the UN-sceptics, but indeed that I must be counted among the worst and most radical of their number.
Here, I will not go into the various considerations that can be advanced regarding the costs of this organisation with its opulent and elephantine bureaucracy — directly and indirectly, the United Nations apparently has almost a hundred thousand employees and collaborators —, regarding its corruption, the missions it has failed in or not even attempted, and so on. Neither will I discuss its, in some cases even useful, autonomous collateral organisations (FAO, Unicef, Unesco, Gatt), agencies and various dependencies, or, for example, the various questions (currently under debate) relating to its statute. With regard to this last topic, I will merely go so far as to point out that, irrespective of any reform that might be planned or realised, if no change is introduced that modifies, at root level, the powers of and the regulations concerning the five permanent members of the Security Council, and their right of veto within it, then as far as the crucial question is concerned (i.e., that of a form of world government able to prevent the fiercest conflicts between states and to safeguard basic human rights), we are destined never get off the starting blocks.
Not even the — moreover, highly unlikely — proposals officially formulated by the European Parliament on January 29th, 2004: a) a permanent seat for the European Union on the Security Council, to replace those of France and Great Britain, b) the possibility of exercising the right of veto only jointly (by at least two members of the Council), in certain situations; or the one advanced by Helmut Kohl (that the French right of veto should in primis be put at the disposal of the European Union, the latter being allowed a brief interval of time in which to agree on the matter in question) appear to go far enough.
And this is without considering the pertinent, almost irrefutable remarks of Michael Glennon (Aspenia, n. 25): “There is no need for reform of the Council. The United Nations member states are the ones that should be making real efforts to reform; reforms generated by the United Nations, even innovative ones, will probably not be particularly effective, for the very simple reason that the UN’s capacity to influence does not extend as far as the essential causes that underlie the crisis of the current rules. For example, altering the composition of the Council would not have any impact on these underlying causes — on the contrary, it could accentuate the differences in influence between the various countries, thereby provoking even deeper paralysis and encouraging the United States, in controversial situations, even more frequently to find ways of circumventing the Security Council.”
The same thing is, in short, more or less what can be and indeed is being said by the most astute scholars and politicians in relation to the pseudo-constitutional treaty of the European Union, now in its ratification stage: no constitution, no system of rules, has any meaning at all without a power that guarantees the principles it declares and supports its application.
But, in my humble opinion, there is more: I say this to respond also to those who seem happy to accept the United Nations as a forum for the building of consensus among the states: because not only has the United Nations already shown that it is able (in the best of hypotheses and even then almost always only apparently) to contribute very little to the primary, priority, and only truly worthwhile objective (mentioned earlier) of world government; but also because I perceive very clearly the danger that this organisation, its real potential viewed distortedly, is, and has never shown itself to be anything other than, a factor of evasion and procrastination which, with regard to the much-needed, nearly always urgent, efforts to solve the issues and crises on the table, and the gravest threats facing our world, now a global village, is wholly negative. It seems that nothing has been learned from the experience of the old League of Nations (which the United States, refusing to sign the treaties that marked the end of the First World War, did not join), in spite of that institution having, I feel, a statute (Covenant) undoubtedly less pretentious and imbalanced than the one produced by the San Francisco Conference in June 1945. In this regard, I will remark only that the very existence of this illusory international organisation, the League of Nations, can indeed be considered one of the important factors that, a few months after Stresa (April 1935) and just over a year after the attempted Nazi putsch in Austria, drove Great Britain to orient its foreign policy in a completely different, unrealistic and disastrous direction, a move that led to the break-up of the Great Britain-France-Italy “alliance” and, following Germany’s by then no longer opposable re-occupation of the Rhineland (March 1936), Italy’s definitive fall into the arms of National Socialist Germany, and all the consequences that ensued from that.
It goes without saying that none of this is intended to, nor indeed could in any way be taken to lessen the absolute condemnation of the fascist policy conducted, in Africa and in Europe, in those years.
2. What, then, is the alternative — the only clear one for those seriously wishing to find the answer to the void and chaos on the edge of which the world seems dangerously to be teetering and into which it seems determined to plunge?
Knowing what it is, what it can count for, we can by all means allow — if I might dare to express myself in these terms — the UN to struggle on as best it can and as far as it might usefully be allowed to. After all, any suggestion, or even hope, that this organisation might be dissolved — of the kind voiced in relation to the League of Nations in 1946 — seems, at the present time, absurd. The future, which is already within our grasp, lies in the institutionally consecrated agreement — whatever name this may be given, and whatever use or destiny may be contemplated for the existing international agreements (the UN, NATO — the latter incapable even of sanctioning the rapid deployment of a few helicopters in Afghanistan, as even the UN recommended — ,the European Union, etc.) — among the democratic states of the Western world, preferably including Russia, which should — this is the crucial point — be open to the broadest possible collaboration with the so-called moderate, or, more correctly, “reasonable” Islamic world.
At the centre of this agreement, there could not fail to be, first among equals, the United States of America: it too, in this way, rendered more aware of its burden of responsibility and its crucial role, but also of its limits.
I refer, doubtless with presumptuous prematurity, given the effective scope for the realisation of such a solution, to an institutionally (almost “federalistically”) consecrated agreement, not only bearing in mind Hamilton (“To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties… would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages”), but also reflecting, with bitterness, on the meanness, still in relation to the end in question, of that much lauded intergovernmental organisation that goes by the name of European Union, which, despite the times in which we live, has proved incapable of conceiving and arriving at the realisation, among its members, of a common intelligence service — and this is without even touching on other, even more serious considerations.
3. Supposing, for a moment, that this does indeed represent the distant end of the — not only idealistic — road to be followed, I feel that it is necessary to focus our attention on two points, whose dramatic nature cannot easily be denied.
The first point concerns the complex situation and explosive cocktail — in the historical period we are living through — that has been created as a result, on the one hand of the existence in the world of numerous resurgences of irrational national-religious fundamentalism (where, in truth, national feeling and religious faith matter only as instruments serving a thirst for power), and on the other of the availability — now a problem that cannot easily be tackled at the level of the states or of other deep-rooted and highly structured illegal organisations — of weapons of mass destruction (and naturally I refer not only to nuclear weapons). One’s thoughts need not turn immediately to Iran, but also, for example, and as reported in the international press, to all those states that feel that they are under threat from other states, adjoining or otherwise; in addition to Israel, it is possible, at present, to cite South Korea among these; and, who knows, in the future, maybe also Japan, Taiwan, and others.
Can there really be anyone who seriously believes — I do not refer to any of the states just mentioned — that people and leaders thirsty for power, capable of taking hostage and killing whole classes of schoolchildren, and in possession of such weapons are not of using them? Hence, today, in the wake of the Beslan massacre, there has arisen, urgent and pressing, the added need at least to consider — as America’s former justice minister John Ashcroff has explicitly said — ways (what ways?) of preventing, given the era of terrorism in which we live, all analogous, not impossible, and possibly even darker threats. This also explains, while not justifying entirely, Putin’s declared intention to seek out and strike, anywhere in the world, men, bases and structures identifiable as such.
Where then, in these conditions, is the sense in continuing to waste time — let this be said with all due respect for the opinions of others — tinkering around with the United Nations, with the question of UN reform, and with other issues of similar import?
The second point is this: even the brief reflections set forth thus far run the risk of amounting to nothing more, or nothing other, than a sort of journalistic or academic explanation that serves only to conceal the real underlying problem. Because the matter in hand (without doubt one of life or death) is deeply rooted in, and has its premises in, a historical and cultural situation that extends far beyond immediate and superficial political analysis: it lies, in my view, in the crisis of identity and of certainties that currently afflicts our Western world, and according to Spengler, has most visibly afflicted it since the start of the 20th century, as indeed it has, albeit in different ways and on different terms, the Islamic world.
In both settings, highly dangerous enemies are at work from within. In the case of continental Europe these, I feel, are: Europe’s traditional factiousness, in other words its futile and querulous nationalisms; the dogmatic and ambiguous protest-style pacifist movement; and anti-American fixations. In short, a predominant accumulation of emotive and empty irrationality that spawns confused and provocative assertions on the obvious need for tolerance, on the conditions for the use of force, on multicultural and/or inter-religious dialogue — but without ever specifying the common point of reference or decisive criteria of purpose or truth, etc., on whose basis they are made. In this regard, Claudio Magris wrote as follows (Corriere della Sera, 5.9.2004): “It is futile to waste time asking oneself — taking into consideration both the positive and the negative: Alhambra, Shari’a, Avicenna and infibulation — whether Islam is a superior or an inferior civilisation. What really counts, in every situation, and in relation to concrete questions, is understanding the difference between civilisation and its violation. There can be no doubt that Islamic fundamentalism today, whatever the reasons for its rise, allows serious and sometimes very serious offences against the fundamental rights of the person, offences that ought to prompt greater protests on the part of the West’s freedom movements; indeed, we have not seen many marches against the lapidations of adulterers and decapitations of homosexuals that take place in Muslim countries.”
But can it be enough to understand, in every situation, what civilisation is (and what civilisation does Claudio Magris wish to refer to, how many does he imagine there might exist, and are they all to be considered more or less on the same level?)? An indirect response to Magris had, in the same newspaper, already to an extent been provided Magdi Allam: “What is lacking is a project for the peaceful coexistence of the West and Islam. And such a project can only be developed on the basis of clear and indisputable parameters, milestones of the shared civilisation of mankind: affirmation of the sacredness of life as an absolute and universal value, according to which there can be no such thing as good and bad terrorism, licit and illicit victims; respect for the fundamental rights of the person; basic democracy guaranteed by the peaceful alternation of power.”
But can even these clear, wholly acceptable considerations be enough to allow the crisis-ridden Western world (but this also goes for all people) to regain its belief in the values of which it is the bearer, to recover its lost soul, and to begin at least to perceive the outline of the pressing task that faces it? Pressing because, as Elie Wiesel remarked (Corriere della Sera, 11.9.2004): “Tomorrow international terrorism could resort to the ultimate violence — that is, to chemical or biological attack. Tomorrow would probably be too late.” Where is our belief in the values of which we are (of which we should still be) the bearers? It is certainly not here that this crucial question, at once simple and complex, can be broached.
But some hint is, perhaps, possible, given that it seems to me difficult to mistake the basic message of which the Western world, from America’s Pacific shores stretching eastwards as far as the Ural Mountains, is still, in spite of everything, the least hesitant bearer. Its tormented history and its equally troubled cultural evolution (from the Classical Age, to the Renaissance through to the Age of Enlightenment, and beyond, in spite of instances of severe betrayal of the values of these eras) confirm this: it is the message of liberating reason — a single reason, equal for all — that is, the acknowledgment of the absolute supremacy of reason over any presumed source or form of knowledge, should such sources or forms indeed exist.
It is, thus, the message that places at the top of the scale of values, and among the conditions for coexistence, protection of freedom and respect for the individual conscience and for its illimitable struggle against the demands, ideals and practices of all types of community and/or collective organisation (religious, ethnic-nationalist, ideological-political, etc.).