It’s perhaps worth noting on this 60th anniversary of its birth that, if nothing else, the United Nations has held up reasonably well from an aesthetic standpoint. Even after six decades of service, the body’s Manhattan headquarters still fairly glows with the notion of Progress — the building’s low curving concrete swoop giving way, like a high-jumper sprinting for momentum, to a glass-walled crescendo rising 30-some stories above the East River. This is no mean feat. It’s quite rare, in fact, that visions of the future manage to resonate well into it. More often, they spoil within the space of a generation, turning ridiculous, and then, perhaps, if they are among the lucky ones, signing on for a second go-round as kitsch.
Kofi and company (as separate from the building that houses them) aren’t quite the stuff of ironic T-shirts yet, but there is something more than a little absurd about some of their machinations. This familiar reality was once again laid painfully bare a few weeks ago as Turtle Bay hosted its big birthday summit.
It was a party in the planning for months, with the celebrant’s rebirth being the shindig’s central aim. More than simply a salute to the past, the moment was meant to be a coming out of sorts, the unveiling of a new, reformed United Nations. With some 150 heads of state expected on hand for the mid-September summit, delegates sat down to hammer out a document that, were advance reviews to be believed, would bring “sweeping” change to the world body’s way of doing business. It was, so far as these things go, a nice enough idea, sure, and certainly the place could use some changes, but in the end, “sweeping,” it seems, turned out to mean something more along the lines of “not so much.” As the smart money had likely predicted all along, before the document even hit delegates’ desks, the involved parties had begun issuing apologies for its deficiencies.
It was the sort of statement, probably familiar to anyone even casually acquainted with the organization’s past work, that might condemn terrorism but never bother to actually define it. That might sweep aside any mention of nuclear non-proliferation so as not to disturb a certain superpower’s delicate sensibilities. That might mention its “resolve” to replace the ineffectual (to be generous) Human Rights Commission with a new (and, no doubt, tremendously efficacious) Human Rights Council, but decide to put off doing the details for another day. Even in the case of what many have declared the document’s one big win — the assertion that member nations are obliged to protect civilians from genocide — a person wearies in advance of the inevitable hairsplitting and horse trading as members battle it out over which events are and are not actionable.
Stateside, much of the blame (or credit, if your opinions so tend) for the summit’s failure has been laid at the feet of US Ambassador John Bolton. And, certainly, the mustachioed one did his best to ensure that the affair ran somewhat less than smoothly, chucking some 700 or so new amendments into the works just a few weeks before the business was to be settled. In particular, he did yeoman’s work scuttling the summit’s development platform, refusing to accept specific goals for attacking Third-World poverty and disease, whistling, if eyewitness accounts are to be believed, a rousing rendition of ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ all the while.
But if Bolton is hopelessly antipathetic towards the UN’s aims (and that would certainly seem to be the case) he’s not exactly short on company. Member countries may feel the need to give lip service to the place, true, but by and large First and Forty-Six is a warren of well-dressed self-interest. That is, after all, what nation-states are all about — looking after number one. There are, at present, 191 number ones in the United Nations — a windy mix of democracies, kleptocracies, and theocracies, with a few Soviet-era dictatorships thrown in here and there just for good measure. Getting such a bunch to pass a binding resolution on where to get takeout would be a fair achievement in its own right. Asking them to save the world from itself — well, that’s a little bit much.
And yet, there’s long been about the UN a mythology more or less to this effect, an idea that the body somehow represents a grand new model of international relations. A glance or two at the reality of the matter and the scales drop from your eyes quickly enough, but still there is that notion with which every good schoolchild is raised — that the place, far from being merely an international forum of varying utility, is, in itself, a sort of tangible moral good.
After being consumed for much of the Cold War with moderating the squabbles of the world’s then two superpowers, the UN enjoyed a brief moment of glory in the early 1990s when the first Bush (in rather marked contrast to his son), used the organization to put together a coalition to roll back Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Flush with the operation’s success, some suggested that, at last, the UN had come into its own — that finally the oft-spoken of new world order was coming to be. Looking back, though, Desert Storm was more exception than rule — a brief, high-white note of international cooperation. Several years later found a half-dozen countries cheating on sanctions, the earliest rumblings of the “Oil for Food” scandal beginning, and the Clinton Administration pressuring Boutros Boutros Ghali to avoid action in Rwanda. Then, after Russian opposition to UN-action in Bosnia, came the NATO-led bombing campaign. A few years later came Bush II and Iraq, and, well, here we are.
All of which is to say, perhaps Le Corbusier should have designed a bit less dramatic a building.
The 60th-anniversary summit, Bolton said, was “an important step in a long process of UN reform.”
Reports of diplomats cheering their almost hopelessly watered-down document, though, brings to mind a different Bolton quote.
“If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference,” he said, whooping it up for the crowd at a 1994 Federalist Society forum.
One hates to admit it, but the fact of the matter is, he’s probably right.