Is the United Nations an odious institution?
Like a billion other columnists, I recently wrote a column considering the allegation made by a U.N. administrator that the United States is a "stingy" nation. It is "obvious," I interjected by way of counterpoint, that the United Nations is an "odious institution." Ever since, my e-mail box has been groaning to contain the angry protests.
The United Nations really is an amazing cultural fault line. On one side are those who believe that it is the last, best hope for mankind. On the other are those who think that title still belongs to America. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but I think it captures the essence of the debate about the U.N.
Of course, the institution's defenders will object to this. They will agree that, yes, sure, anti-U.N. right-wingers are raging ideologues terrified of "black helicopters" and "world government." But to support the United Nations, they demur, is an act of benevolent pragmatism. They are decent folks trying to stick up for a decent organization trying to make a better world. In fact, one typical e-mailer summarized this position succinctly: "You conservatives don't want a better world. Period."
(Sigh.) It seems lost on these anti-ideologues that assuming your opponents are hoping for a worse world is about as ideological as you can get.
If the issue is helping suffering people, why did the United Nations crowd - led by Clare Short, the former head of U.N. international development - scream bloody murder when it was announced that India, Japan, Australia and the United States would coordinate aid efforts? Short declared that any efforts to help the suffering tsunami victims outside U.N. authority would "undermine" the world body.
So much for pragmatism. Who cares who helps the needy, and under what flag, as long as it gets done?
As it happens, the United Nations' most ardent supporters are anything but pragmatists. They hope passionately that the organization might become what Tennyson called the "Parliament of Man, the Federation of the world." Or they hope with equal fervor that it may serve as an idealistic alternative to American hegemony. Or they wish for both. And that's where I start having problems.
I don't have any objection to the United Nations' technocratic functions. As a practical matter, if it makes sense to have a central clearinghouse to organize the building of water treatment plants in the Third World, OK, fine. Most of us agree that helping victims of natural disasters, inoculating children, feeding the starving and so forth are good things - just as we all agree it's a good thing for our garbage to be collected.