The recent outbursts before the United Nations General Assembly by Iranian President Ahmed Ahmedinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and perhaps even more the enthusiastic applause with which they were greeted, raise in American minds the legitimate question whether the United States must put up with these antics. Why not simply withdraw from the United Nations, or at least stop paying a quarter of its expenses, or (better yet) tell it to vacate its fancy offices on Manhattan's East Side and relocate to Paris?
The idea is tempting, and not altogether unreasonable. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, it was designed to provide a dignified forum in which the world's nations could discuss their problems and their differences in a peaceful setting. A provision was made to give the world's major powers (most importantly the United States and the Soviet Union) a veto over certain actions, on the sensible theory that the organization simply couldn't insist on anything either of them firmly opposed.
On this basis the United Nations behaved reasonably well until about 1960, when an incoming flood of ex-colonial nations seized control of the General Assembly and began using the United Nations as a bargaining tool to extract various concessions (mostly money) from the two sides in the Cold War. Thereafter the United Nations became a sort of global prostitute, selling its favors to one or another of the competitors in that vital struggle.
This continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which famously left the United States as "the world's only superpower." The U.N. General Assembly thereupon converted itself into an instrument for limiting America's power and thwarting its purposes under the leadership of France and Germany, who not surprisingly sought to counterbalance the United States. The applause from the General Assembly for the fulminations of Chavez and Ahmedinejad simply reflects the noisy hostility of most U.N. members to this country.
What to do? Pulling out of the United Nations would not eliminate it. It would keep on doing its best to body-block the United States, and hostility to this country would not only continue but increase, dramatically highlighted by our solitary absence from the organization. But staying in and doing nothing is scarcely better.
Ideally, the best course would probably be to encourage the founding and growth of a new group of the world's truly democratic nations, dedicated to addressing the world's problems with their wealth and wisdom, and gradually diminish the United Nations's pretensions. But such undeniably democratic nations as France and Germany would undoubtedly refuse to go along with such a scheme, preferring to pursue their current strategy in the United Nations.
In the circumstances, therefore, the best course may be the one proposed by the late James Burnham: for the United States to announce that it will continue supporting the beneficial activities of the United Nations in such matters as world health, but henceforth will not participate in, or vote on, its deliberations involving major political issues. (We would retain, however, our veto power, to block seriously offensive actions.) The United Nations would undoubtedly continue, and probably increase, its issuance of anti-American manifestos of one sort and another, but their essential unimportance would become steadily more apparent as the years rolled by.
The antics of such anti-American fanatics as Chavez and Ahmedinejad would continue, but if the American delegation made it a practice to simply walk quietly out of the hall when truly outrageous attacks were under way, our response would be clear and telling.
The United Nations cannot be reformed, and cannot be ignored. But there is no reason why the United States must continue to dignify the antics that characterize it.