Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Limits & Failures of International Governance

Steve in a comment below said (be sure to see The Iconic Midwest’s insightful comment as well):

One of their [the US's] goals has been precisely to destroy the international system that governed the cold war (a system that we ourselves set up) and replace it with an ad hoc system of alliances. This, they thought, was more appropriate to a situation of American Hyper power. Even with all of its many and great deficiencies, I think that the previous system had potentialities for developing into a quasi-cosmopolitan order.

I am not sure if Steve is referring directly to the UN here or a larger system that includes the UN. But I am going to focus on the UN. First, the “system” that governed the Cold War was not the UN but primarily a system of nuclear-armed super powers pursuing their own interest while maintaining a tenuous balance based on avoiding mutual shared destruction--a system that also involved some permanent alliances like NATO and the Warsaw Pact, various regional alliances, and other shifting alliances that operated primarily outside UN authority. Thankfully, with the fall of the Soviet Union, this global framework has dissolved.

However, without these competing forces there was not an overarching narrative to help manage post-Cold War conflict, essentially leaving the US, the remaining super power, and the UN to fill the gap. The US, prior to 9/11, did not pursue a robust policy of nation building or conflict resolution, but did not disengage from the world stage, for example the failed Oslo accords & Yugoslavia. During the Cold War, the UN had very limited success at preventing or managing conflict. Since the end of WWII there have been approximately 200 armed conflicts, only two approved by the UN Security Council. The post-Cold War UN has had a dismal record (Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sudan). It is operating under a moral cloud (the oil-for-food scandal, the conduct of Peace Keepers in Congo). And the very body that is charged with enforcing the best thing about the UN—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--has included several countries with deplorable records on Human Rights (Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, China, Eritrea, Libya, Egypt).

In many respects, the failures of world bodies like the League of Nations and the UN are not surprising. As Steven, has pointed out the US pursues a foreign policy that combines a concern for democracy/liberty as well as securing its own interest. And this bears directly on the crux of geopolitical reality—the US, China, Russia, Indian, France, Saudi Arabia, Germany and all 191 members of the UN are pursuing their own interest, but not all of these countries are concerned about democracy, freedom or human rights within their own borders, let alone truly concerned about them outside their borders. All of these countries will agree to international governance when it serves their interest and ignore it when it doesn’t. Whether under the umbrella of an international organization or outside such a body, the work mostly gets done by shifting alliances of countries whose self-interests intersect and who have the will to act. Until most of the 191 states’ interests are more aligned and they are committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law both within their own borders and abroad, I am skeptical, because of historical precedent and the geopolitical reality of competing interests, that an international body like the UN can provide much more than a framework for forming “ad-hoc” alliances, often formed by those who share a regional interest and outside actors who have their own interests and/or a humanitarian concern in resolving the problem.


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