Of what use is the United Nations?

Posted: Jan 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Of what use is the United Nations? Sometimes, it seems the answer is: none at all.

 The U.N. Oil for Food program, we learn from the reporting of Claudia Rosett in The Wall Street Journal, was a rip-off on the order of $21 billion -- with money intended for hungry Iraqis going instead to Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, to bribed French and Russian businesses and, evidently, to the U.N.'s own man in charge, Benon Savan.

 The United Nations General Assembly is largely a forum for denunciations of Israel. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has been chaired by, of all nations, Libya. The United Nations Security Council, by the veto of France and Russia, refused to approve military action in Iraq in January 2003 -- even though Saddam Hussein's regime violated Resolution 1441 passed only two months before.

 U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has unhelpfully criticized the military assault on terrorists in Fallujah as "illegal." U.N. peacekeeping forces in Africa and elsewhere have committed sexual assaults on a vast scale. U.N. officials dispatched to aid victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami have been seeking first-class hotel lodgings, while American military forces and relief organizations from the United States, Australia, Japan and many other countries have been working long hours to help those in need.

 No wonder that angry voices on the political right are calling for the United States to leave the U.N. and evict it from New York. And no wonder that the voices on the left celebrating the U.N. as a force for human rights and world peace sound increasingly tinny.

 Nevertheless, there is a place for the United Nations in American foreign policy. Useful guidance to that place can come from history -- specifically, from two of the founder spirits of the United Nations, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 Franklin Roosevelt more than anyone else created the United Nations, but he did not do so out of some naive belief in world government bringing universal peace. He spoke words of idealism but was also a cynical observer of the way the world works.

 No one knew this more than that other cynical observer, Charles de Gaulle. In his memoirs, de Gaulle tells how Roosevelt described his vision for the U.N. in 1944, at a time when France was not slated to be a permanent member of the Security Council: 

A four-power directory -- America, Soviet Russia, China and Great Britain -- would settle the world's problems. ... Roosevelt thus intended to lure the Soviets into a group that would contain their ambitions and in which America could unite its dependents. Among the 'four,' he knew, in fact, that Chiang Kai-shek's China needed his cooperation and that the British, in danger of losing their dominions, would yield to his policy.

 Roosevelt did not intend the United Nations to be an independent arbiter. He intended it to be an instrument of U.S. power -- "a permanent system of intervention that he intended to institute by international law," in de Gaulle's words. This is what the United Nations has usefully been in the Korean War in 1950-53 and in the Gulf War of 1991. It could have been so again in Iraq in 2003 if we had chosen to take the words of Resolutions 678 and 1441 as authorization for war rather than go back, at Tony Blair's behest, for another resolution.

 But it will not do for an American president to say out loud that the U.N. is America's tool. And here we come to the contribution of Eleanor Roosevelt. As described in Mary Ann Glendon's book "A World Made New," Mrs. Roosevelt was the chief architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. Less cynical than her husband, Mrs. Roosevelt was still not naive enough to think this document was self-enforcing, nor was she unaware that the Soviet Union was a tyranny. But she believed, correctly, that statements of principle, solemnly endorsed by sovereign nations, would have some force in world affairs.

 When George W. Bush appeared before the U.N. in September 2002 and demanded that it hold Iraq accountable for violating the U.N.'s own resolutions and when he spoke of Saddam Hussein's violations of human rights, he was using the vocabulary provided by Eleanor Roosevelt in the service of Franklin Roosevelt's purpose.

 Certainly the bureaucracy of the United Nations needs cleaning out, and the Oil for Food scandal needs to be fully aired. But the United Nations does have its uses.