There are very few inventions which are perfect at the moment of their creation, or which cannot be improved over time. The League of Nations was a new invention when it was first created after the First World War. It was the first attempt to form a global organisation whose main purpose was to prevent war through achieving disarmament and settling disputes through negotiation and arbitration. Like most new inventions, it wasn’t perfect. It failed, and World War Two followed.
However, the League did have some partial success. It established for the first time the concept of international law, the idea that there should be global laws to which every nation should conform. And it established the concept of international government, that some sort of international body should coordinate and regulate the international relationships between countries. The League failed, but it was a start; and when the United Nations was created after World War Two there was an old model upon which it could be based, and whose weaknesses and mistakes could be improved upon in the new model.
But like the League before it, the UN hasn’t lived up to the hopes and aspirations of many of those who created it. But also like the League, it has had some partial success. The concept of international law, although still poorly policed, is now even more firmly established in the global consciousness. The UN Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and several other internationally accepted treaties are fine achievements, slowly building an infrastructure of standards to which all nations should conform. So although the UN has clearly failed to create world peace, it has provided another useful stepping stone in the gradual evolution of what our planet desperately needs: an effective world government.
The UN has been very useful in one other important way: it has shown us what not to do; its failures have particular reasons for failing, and a clearer understanding of those reasons, and how to avoid them happening again, will help in designing the next stage in the evolution of world government.
The emperor is dead. Long live the emperor.
A brief glance at the short history of the United Nations quickly provides more than sufficient evidence of its main problems.
The period covering the fall of the British Empire probably started and ended with the United States. The end of the American War of Independence in 1783 was the first time a sizeable British colony successfully broke free of England’s control, and the conclusion of the Atlantic Charter, an agreement between Britain and the USA in 1941, effectively transferred control of what remained of Britain’s imperial pretensions to Washington. The Charter was Britain’s only chance of avoiding an early defeat by Germany in World War Two, and it marked the end of the British Empire, together with the birth of the American Empire. It was effectively a hostile takeover, an old and decrepit global corporation being bought out by a young and ambitious one.
Britain had started a war it had no chance of winning without American support, support they had no right or reason to think would be forthcoming. When the crunch came, and it came within the first two years of Britain’s six year war, the US found itself sitting in the pound-seats – the only nation capable of saving Britain’s neck. The US would do so, but at a price of its choosing. The Atlantic Charter was a bill of sale, transferring ownership of the planet from one grasping corporation to another.
Arrangements for the future shape of the new world order began well before the end of WW2. The first major issue to be resolved was how the new global economy would be managed — especially regarding the new global currency. Prior to the war British pounds were the most widely-used currency. After the war it would be the US dollar. British negotiators battled hard and valiantly at Bretton Woods to prevent this happening. Their lead negotiator, the famous economist JM Keynes, knowing the pound had had its day but wanting to prevent the inevitable, proposed a novel idea whereby no one country would control the global currency. But the moment had gone. If his ideas had been forthcoming and acted on twenty years earlier they might have succeeded and the war avoided altogether, but in 1945 it was too late; bankrupt, war-torn Britain had no bargaining power left, and the mighty US dollar won the day.
The next big question to be resolved was how international affairs would be administered, what new system would replace the League of Nations?
The San Francisco Conference
Delegates from fifty countries met in San Francisco in 1945 to create the United Nations. But right from the very beginning political games between the three major powers – Britain, US, and USSR – were being played. The other forty six countries were effectively little more than on-lookers. When the US emerged from the war as the most powerful country on earth, effectively the last man standing, it had absolutely no intention of equitable power-sharing. The UN would become an agent for implementing US foreign policy, or it would not exist at all. President Truman, writing in his memoirs, explained that the intentions of the US delegates to San Francisco would be to make sure the new UN would provide, “the maintenance of United States military and strategic rights… [and] such control as will be necessary to assure general peace and security in the Pacific Ocean area as well as elsewhere in the world…”
Gabriel Kolko goes on to point out:
The assumption of this statement hardly concealed the strategic objectives of the United States, for it was perfectly clear that the United States sought to advance its national interests in the guise of performing erstwhile international obligations, obligations which threatened to take it to every corner of the globe.
The position of the other main players, USSR and Britain, although individually far weaker than the US, was nevertheless significant. If the US was too blatant or greedy in its efforts to control the new world body they too could have refused to play; and Britain especially, with its crumbling but still vast imperial possessions still wielded considerable diplomatic influence around the world.
No doubt Britain mourned the loss of its imperial crown, and had to try to gain as much influence as it could with the new emperor. Fortunately both nations shared a common dread of the USSR and could see that working together would be in both their interests.
From the beginning of the postwar period until the present day, a primary aim of the leading Western states – and especially the United States and Britain – has been to render the United Nations an instrument of their foreign policies: serviceable as such when required; discarded when not…
A British Foreign Office memorandum of 1952, for example, called for strengthening the UN ‘as an instrument of Anglo-American foreign policy’.
It must also have been very apparent to the delegation from the USSR, in the early days of the San Francisco conference, that their position was especially vulnerable. They were the only communist country in existence, and were only too well aware – after the numerous shenanigans played by their so-called allies during the war – that they could not trust the new global imperium one inch.
So the compromise arrangement, which would appear to ensure no one country had too much power, was the creation of the Security Council (SC), an “upper chamber” of the UN, comprising the handful of most powerful nations, any one of which could override any General Assembly (GA) decision, or any draft resolution made by fellow SC members.
However, there can be little doubt that by the 19990s the UN had evolved to pretty much serve the purpose for which the US originally intended it:
The dominant elite view with regard to the UN was well expressed in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, who had served in the Reagan-Bush State Department: the UN is ‘perfectly serviceable as an instrument of American unilateralism and indeed may be the primary mechanism through which that unilateralism will be exercised in the future.’
But ten years later a certain arrogant indifference had developed. The UN could be useful when compliant, irrelevant when not:
[A] senior Bush administration official explained in October 2002 that ‘we don’t need the Security Council.’ So if it ‘wants to stay relevant, then it has to give us similar authority’ to that just granted by Congress – authority to use force at will. The stand was endorsed by the president and Colin Powell, who added that ‘obviously, the Council can always go off and have other discussions,’ but ‘ we have the authority to do what we believe is necessary.’ Washington agreed to submit a resolution to the Security Council (UN1441), leaving no doubt, however, that the exercise was meaningless. ‘Whatever the diplomatic niceties, Mr Bush made it clear that he regarded the resolution to be all the authority he needed to act against Iraq should Mr Hussein balk.’ Diplomatic correspondents observed, ‘Though Washington would consult other members of the Security Council, it would not find it necessary to win their approval.’ Echoing Powell, White House chief of staff Andrew Card explained that ‘the UN can meet and discuss, but we don’t need their permission.’
The UN in Action and Inaction
With over seventy years of UN history to consult there are two fairly damning pieces of irrefutable evidence showing how an organisation that showed so much promise for achieving great good has been abused and manipulated into presiding over very great evil: the record of vetoes cast in the so-called “Security Council”; and the record of trade sanctions imposed by the UN.
The Veto Record
The very concept of the Security Council (SC) veto is something which should be deeply pondered. What is the point of having a world assembly if one of five countries (the US, UK, Russia, France, or China) has the power to overrule its decisions? It’s a point that’s been raised before:
As the 1994 report of the International Commission on Peace and Food notes, ‘in no other constitution or organisation founded on democratic principles is it accepted that a few members [in the Security Council] may thus invalidate the decisions of the majority [in the General Assembly].
The record of vetoes cast in the Security Council since the creation of the UN up to recent times is interesting. According to the Dag Hammarskjold Library (a UN service) a summary of vetoes cast is as follows:
- USSR (and later the Russian Federation): 107
- The USA: 78
- The UK: 29
- France: 16
- China: 10
Interestingly, the USSR used its veto seventy eight times in the first twenty years of the UN’s life, whilst the USA didn’t use theirs at all. Ever since then, over the last fifty years, the USSR/Russian Federation have used their veto 29 times compared to the USA’s 78 times. In fact, American vetoes cast during the last half century almost equals the number of vetoes used by the other four permanent SC members put together.
The power of the veto can be immense. It is, for example, the main reason why the living nightmare in Occupied Palestine has been going on for almost seventy years, and still shows no sign of ending. There, despite numerous efforts by the UN to bring a semblance of justice to that tragic land, the US routinely prevents it doing so by wielding its veto.
The Sanctions Record
Whilst the veto can work as an effective means to prevent the UN doing something helpful and useful (as in Palestine), the use of the UN to impose trade sanctions on a country can be every bit as horrific as declaring war on it. Trade sanctions imposed on Iraq, for example, in the lead-up to the 2003 war there, are known to have been directly responsible for the deaths of over half a million children – as well as many uncounted others. Madeleine Albright, US Ambassador to the UN at the time, infamously agreed that this was an “acceptable price” to pay for what amounted to achieving a US foreign policy objective.
Looking at the data for the occasions when the UN has imposed trade sanctions on a country, a very clear pattern once again emerges.
My second edition copy of Economic Sanctions Reconsidered was published in 1990, so obviously only has information up to that time (more recent editions are available). The book does not cover every instance of economic sanctions, but does focus “on the use of sanctions to achieve foreign policy goals”.
Starting just after the creation of the United Nations, the USA imposed trade sanctions a massive seventy five times. No other country comes close. The second most prolific user was USSR, which imposed them seven times. All the other countries put together imposed sanctions just fifty times.
So it’s very clear to see, from the use of the Security Council veto, and the record of trade sanctions, how the US has used and abused the United Nations.
The “Security Council” and the war industry
It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the five permanent members of the UN’s so-called Security Council are also homes of the biggest arms makers in the world, and that the USA is by far the biggest of them all. Given that weapons of war contribute vastly to global insecurity, the conflict of interest for the five permanent members of the SC — and especially the extreme capitalist nations of USA, UK and France — is obvious to see. How could these nations possibly be striving for global security when they are the main providers of the principle means for guaranteeing insecurity? How could they possibly be active in achieving global arms reduction if their most powerful and politically influential arms manufacturers are amassing vast profits from producing weapons of war?
The enormous war machine known as NATO has engineered for itself the incredible situation where its member nations are bound to spend a minimum of around 2% of their annual GDP on “defence”. In effect this means constantly purchasing new war materials from the main providers — war materials which must of course continually be used in order to justify to taxpayers the need for this horrendous expense.
The USA is currently believed to be spending over six hundred billion dollars (about three per cent of US GDP) this year on its “defence” — more than China, Russia and the other countries on the “Security Council” put together.
Looking at the statistics, it’s stunning to compare the data for Costa Rica, for example, where a long line of zeros appear by the side of its name. Why does one country need to spend almost a trillion dollars a year on its “defence”, when another can maintain a truly peaceful existence without spending a single cent on armies? And this when wholly surrounded by countries which have been torn apart by war and revolution for many decades.
The enormous amount of money spent by the US on its war machines is a major driver for global insecurity. Given that the US, more than any other country since the end of WW2, has been instrumental in overthrowing at least fifty foreign governments, many of which were democracies, it’s very clear to see that it’s the US rather than any other country, which causes most global conflicts.
The economics of war clearly favour the US. The hundreds of billions of dollars it spends every year come from its own money, of which it has a limitless supply. Other nations must obtain their dollars (for most arms deals are done in US dollars) by using some sort of real commodity — like oil, for example. This is one reason why Saudi Arabia has one of the biggest military machines in the world. It has more oil than it knows what to do with — a product highly desired by the biggest arms maker in the world.
Nations who have every reason to feel seriously intimidated by the US – such as the USSR – are forever trying to keep up with their arch-nemesis. But unlike the US, they must sell real commodities in order to obtain the dollars they need to purchase the necessary raw materials or high-tech products in order to keep up. Wasting their precious foreign exchange this way obviously makes it impossible to spend money on more socially useful goods. This is, of course, a common problem that also effects most other nations. Kept permanently intimidated, one way or another, by the world’s biggest bully they too feel they must waste precious foreign currency purchasing vast quantities of military hardware – which must be used in artificially contrived wars to justify the expense to their taxpayers.
The Empty Vessel
The fact that the so-called “Security Council” is capable of turning UN decisions into dead letters is seriously important, but it’s only half the problem. The other issue which prevents the UN being anything other than an empty vessel is the fact that it cannot control the finances it needs for its works.
From its earliest days, UN finances have been administered mainly in US dollars, which means that the US effectively controls its spending.
So if we put together all of these factors — the use of vetoes to override the General Assembly — mainly by the USA; the use of trade sanctions as a weapon of war — mainly by the USA; the fact that the USA is by far the biggest arms dealer on the planet — the single greatest cause of global insecurity; and the fact that the US has almost total control of the UN’s finances; it’s very clear to see that not only is the UN largely incapable of performing the function for which it was intended, it has been wholly subverted by the US so that it’s no more than another agent for implementing US foreign policy — pretty much as intended by American elites since before it was founded.
Repair or Replace?
When things get old and worn out we’re often faced with a dilemma: should we repair them or replace them? Usually repairs are only a serious possibility when the damage is superficial or fairly minor. When it comes to the UN, its worst problems are considerably more serious and of a similar nature to those identified by Tom Paine, writing about the British government over two hundred years ago:
The defect lies in the system. The foundation and the superstructure of the government is bad.
Unfortunately we’re still waiting to replace Britain’s corrupt system. It’s to be hoped that the wait to replace the UN is not near so long.
Daniel Moynihan, who served as the US ambassador to the UN in the 1970s, verified what was already becoming standard practice:
The United States wished things to turn out as they did [in East Timor], and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.
There is a certain gloating smugness to his comment, as though it was something Mr Moynihan felt proud about. But the success he speaks of resulted in one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. About three hundred thousand East Timorese — a third of the population — were murdered by the Indonesian government. The fact that just one member country of the UN could ensure it was “utterly ineffective” at preventing such horrors indicates the major systemic problem of the UN, a problem which is surely beyond repair.
The Repair Option
One of the most frustrating things which surely effects every waking minute of most activists’ lives is the certain knowledge that things could be so much better, so easily. It’s not as though we knew about some comet heading for earth that would annihilate the world and there was nothing we could do about it. The problems that plague our planet are entirely man-made. We could easily do something about them — if the political will was there to do so. But it isn’t, and never has been.
For this reason it isn’t very realistic to think the UN could be repaired. The USA, being by far the most powerful nation on earth, could, if it so chose, be a real force for real good. It could, almost single-handedly, transform the UN so that it was able to work in the way that most hoped it would work. But given that there’s absolutely nothing in the entire history of the USA to suggest that it has ever done anything other than enhance the interests of its own rich and powerful elites, at the expense of the poor and powerless, we should not only not expect the US to undertake such repair work, we should expect the US to fight tooth and claw to prevent anyone else doing so either. This suggests that replacement of the UN, by others, is the best option.
The Replace Option
At first glance, replacement may seem far-fetched. But we often have to use our imaginations to find innovative solutions, to ponder “what if…”. Given that the UN is clearly no longer fit for purpose, if indeed it ever was, it’s surely time to imagine what a properly-functioning world government should look like.
Perhaps the first question to ask is do we need one at all? I believe we do, for the simple reason that mankind has not yet evolved to such an advanced state that greed and ambition, the curse of humanity, has been eradicated from human DNA. Until that happy day arrives we will need governments to try to curb the worst excesses of human nature. And no government is more important, or more needed, than an effective world government.
Our most serious immediate problem is time. Our planet is perilously close to ecological and environmental catastrophe. Species are going extinct today at a faster rate than at any other time since the extinction of the dinosaurs. This is clearly directly related to the one species whose numbers are exploding — human beings. China is the only nation that has attempted to address this issue, at first with its one-child policy, and now with a far more sensible and perfectly adequate two-child policy. Promoting this as an urgently-needed global cause, arguably even more important than the need to eradicate Permanent War, is something that only a world government could achieve — in the time we have remaining.
So if we accept that we do need a world government, what should it look like?
Fortunately we do not have to invent something that’s never been seen before. The basic concept of a world government has been around now for about a hundred years. It simply needs to be tweaked, improved on, genetically mutated as a natural evolutionary process. I don’t think very much needs to change, except for a few key functions. A handful of foundational and structural improvements may not create the perfect government, but they would surely vastly improve what we have, and that has to be a good thing.
The first thing that has to go is the so-called “Security Council”. Given its long record of vetoing many of the good works the UN has tried to achieve — like bringing justice to Palestine — together with its imposition of hundreds of cases of murderous economic sanctions, together with its total failure to hold to account the principal villains responsible for Permanent War, this Orwellian construct has without doubt been responsible for more global insecurity than any other single factor in recent history. Any new world government cannot allow any one country to have the right to veto the democratic decisions of the government — like some king or emperor overruling parliament.
The next most important requirement is for our new government to have independent economic control. It must have its own currency, which it and it alone controls, and which is acceptable legal tender anywhere amongst member nations. This money should be used to finance the operations and activities of the new government, and every member nation should automatically receive an allocated amount of this money every year, according to the size of its population, and the needs of that nation for essential goods and services.
Next up is an effective global police force. This does not need to be an army, it simply needs to be a proper police force that can work with national police forces to arrest and bring to justice anyone, anywhere, charged with contravening international law.
One other vitally important function, which is not provided for by the UN, is a reliable information service. Most nations are fed false and deceitful information all of the time by their mainstream media, mainly to serve the venal purposes of corrupt leaders. Everyone on the planet should be able to access information whose accuracy and credibility is second to none; information which is not only seen as accurate and credible at the time it is happening, but which fifty or a hundred or two hundred years later would still be viewed as truthful and balanced. A new global government could and should provide such a global information service.
Very little else about our existing UN needs to change, because much about the UN is very good. It has a fine Charter, and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights is just about perfect, as are many of its other international agreements – such as the recent treaty signed by 122 nations to ban all nuclear weapons. So most of the UN’s basic organisation is good and doesn’t need to change much. But if we could make the four changes shown above, and properly administer them, massive improvements would materialise in a very rapid space of time.
Steps to Achieve
The USA could and should be a loud voice demanding these changes, but there’s no reason to think it will be. Quite the opposite. Therefore something else needs to happen.
It’s unrealistic and unnecessary to imagine somehow overthrowing the USA and thereby reforming the UN. But could it be simply bypassed?
What if an embryonic alternative international organisation, such as BRICS, say, started to create a replacement UN? What if the new replacement was designed so that, unlike the old one, it could not possibly be used to promote and further the interests of just one country, or group of countries? What if it drafted a new constitution based on the existing UN Charter, including its UDHR, but left out the possibility of any one nation having veto powers over the democratic decisions of fellow members? What if it started its own currency unit, and created its own police force — not an army, just a police force? This principle has worked for Costa Rica for seventy years, why should it not work for the whole planet? What if we suddenly had access to good, reliable and trustworthy information about world events? What if the new embryonic government invited any country in the world to join it, to help create the world future generations desperately need right now?
Such an organisation would pose no threat to the people of the USA — or anywhere else. It would have no army, so would not be capable of invading anyone. Membership would be voluntary and open to any country that subordinated itself to the constitution. It would not take long to see that such a body would be infinitely more useful to its members, and the planet generally, than the existing United Nations; and membership of the UN would slowly become irrelevant, useful only for the fact of the rung it once provided on the evolutionary ladder to a properly functioning world government. The USA, just like any other country, should be invited and encouraged to join the new organisation — but it would have to understand that, contrary to its existing position, it is NOT exceptional, it is no more or less important than any other country in the world, and its people and their “interests” are no more or less important than other people and their interests anywhere else in the world.
The planet, as a whole, faces a very considerable danger: its fantastic multitude of species of animals and plants are being wiped out at a faster rate than at any time since dinosaurs became extinct — because of the actions of human beings. This danger cannot be fought and overcome by one country or a small group of countries acting alone — especially when one or two powerful rogue states routinely ignore the long-term health of the planet for their own selfish short-term gain. It’s a global problem and needs a global solution, a solution that could only be found, and properly acted upon, by a properly functioning world government, a government that acts in the best interests of the planet as a whole – not the best interests of a handful of super-rich individuals controlling the world’s most powerful nation.