Last Friday, when Saudi Arabia was offered a 2-year membership by the United Nations Security Council (an inner circle of the most powerful and influential nations in the world), it took the unprecedented step of refusing the honor, citing the UN's failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the war in Syria.
In 1946, a year after the United Nations had been established, George Orwell was one of the few observers to point out what was to him the obvious:
"In order to have any efficacy whatever, a world organization must be able to override big states as well as small ones. It must have power to inspect and limit armaments, which means that its officials must have access to every square inch of every country. It must also have at its disposal an armed force bigger than any other armed force and responsible only to the organization itself. The two or three great states that really matter have never even pretended to agree to any of these conditions, and they have so arranged the constitution of U.N.O. that their own actions cannot even be discussed. In other words, U.N.O.'s usefulness as an instrument of world peace is nil. This was just as obvious before it began functioning as it is now. Yet only a few months ago millions of well-informed people believed that it was going to be a success."(1)
Orwell knew the importance of the UN, but doubted that it would be allowed to perform its mission, which was to defuse further wars. In 68 years, one has only to look around the world to see that the UN has failed to fulfill its mission. The list of its more spectacular blunders is a long one: Sri Lanka, the "veto power" used by obstructionist regimes in China and Russia to stop much-needed interventions, the Srebrenica Massacre, Cambodia's Killing Fields, Darfur, and Rwanda. The latest disgrace was "inadvertently" committed by UN soldiers from Nepal sent to Haiti to assist in the nation's reconstruction after the 2010 earthquake. The soldiers dumped human waste into a river that was used by Haitians for bathing, washing clothes, and water to drink. A cholera epidemic erupted that has so far killed more than 8,000 people and sickened nearly 400,000. The UN, while acknowledging responsibility for the deadly mistake, now insists their charter makes them immune from criminal liability.
It is a terrible legacy, and yet when Saudi Arabia announced its rejection of the Security Council seat, all the experts could say was that Saudi Arabia's king is old and out of it, that it is a rich but decaying kingdom. I interpreted it as the first admission of the truth of the UN's uselessness. Its timing may have been suspect (the UN had just finished criticizing Saudi Arabia's human rights record), but its truth is undeniable.
But why must every effort to limit war or to make war untenable end in failure? Despite all of its shortcomings, its many embarrassing compromises and miserable failures, the UN as an ideal - even an impossible ideal - remains a perfectly sensible one. It seems to me the inevitable solution in a sane world to the threat of military aggression. War would be unthinkable if every nation, even the smaller, "emerging" nations, contributed money and manpower to an international organization whose sovereign power could override that of any single nation, big or small. Nations would be bound, not by just treaty but by common sense, not to interfere with the territory, trade, or treasury of its neighbors simply because to do so would impel every other nation, in the form of one united body, to come to its defense. It would require, however, a partial surrender of national sovereignty, which the most powerful nations of the world have refused to do.
Clearly, the UN has only so much power as its member states choose to allow it. Many Americans - the ones who call themselves "patriots," even though they're actually nationalists - oppose the UN on principle, believing that the United States must never relinquish any of its sovereignty because to do so would bring about the destruction of the American way of life. Their argument has always seemed out of date. The parallel wars fought by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rebellions in Libya and Syria, in which many Americans have felt obliged to intervene, have seriously weakened Americans' appetite for being the "policemen of the world." Someone else will have to be called on to fulfill that role as long as the UN remains powerless to resolve world conflicts.
(1) "In Front of Your Nose," Tribune, 22 March 1946.