Years ago I asked my father why a ratty old sofa was still in the house. He replied simply: It's there because it's there.
The words had a strange finality about them. Almost metaphysical in their profundity. What we were talking about was a sofa purchased years ago, used and abused by the family, and then unceremonious shunted into an obscure room when the newer model arrived. As I recall on delivery day there had been talk of carting away the ratty old sofa. The haulers had offered to take it -- for a price. My father balked and so it has remained. A dusty old sofa living out its days, slowly crumbling into the parquet.
The philosophy of furnishing a suburban home is important. It reveals something about the human psyche. When we spend a lot of time and effort bringing something into our lives, we become reluctant to dispense with it. When that particular something is a big and bulky item, requiring much effort to remove, lethargy places its death grip upon it. Think of how many things in your life where you can say: It's there because it's there.
Gingerly moving from the life of individuals to the life of nations we run into the same problem. Things that are there because no one has bothered to get rid of them. In the dim and distant recesses of the national memory a purpose was once understood. That purpose is long done and gone. Habit and lethargy defend the otherwise indefensible. This brings us to the ratty old sofa of geopolitics: The United Nations.
In one of those fits of New Deal liberalism that has cost America so much in treasure -- and occasionally blood -- it was resolved after the Second World War that world peace would be secured by creating a council of nations. This was supposed to be a new and improved version of the League Nations. The much maligned League had been set-up after the First World in a fit of Wilsonian liberalism. It too was designed to secure world peace. Rather than junk the original concept entirely the United Nations simply tweaked it. As generations of history textbooks have wisely explained the neo-league had a Security Council which recognized the reality of Great Power politics.
This is why the United Nations succeeded and the League failed. Because the UN is realistic and the League was too idealistic. These are sophomoric cliches though they still find currency in foreign affairs circles, more out of lethargy than actual scholarship. The ratty old sofa approach to diplomatic history. The more blunt reality is that both the League and the UN have been abject failures. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war but only if you're dealing with civilized people. The League failed to save Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the UN did nothing to help Afghanistan in 1979. Apparently thugs and tyrants think that, to paraphrase Churchill, "war-war is better than jaw-jaw."
What has secured general world peace for seventy years is the United States nuclear deterrent. What has preserved some semblance of order in the Middle East is the understanding - deeply weakened under President Obama - that if things really go crazy the USAF will appear overhead. Thugs respond to force not talk. These are not terribly difficult concepts to grasp in our daily lives, yet when the same principles are applied in global affairs our logic fails us.
Surveying the dismal record of the UN back in the 1960s Ayn Rand quipped: "What would you expect from a crime-fighting committee whose board of directors included the leading gangsters of the community?" Exactly. If someone was to seriously suggest having Al Capone and Elliot Ness working together to fight crime he would be laughed at. If you suggest that Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin should work together for peace you'd be hailed as a statesman. The trick here is to engage in some simply rebranding. The gangsters call themselves President and the crime syndicates pass themselves off as nation states.
The UN has been far more successful than the League of Nations in one very important way: It has survived. The most important thing for any bureaucracy is to survive. Accomplishing it's intended goal is secondary if not outright dangerous. If the War on Poverty had been won why would we need three-quarters of the federal government? If complete world peace existed then the UN would look even more pointless than it does now.
The key to the UN's survival has been one thing: Guilt tripping the United States. Suggesting that if the US failed to fund the UN it would lead to war and devastation through out the globe. Financially the UN cannot survive without American largesse. Diplomatically it exists at the sufferance of the American government, occupying prime Manhattan real estate in defiance of economics and common sense. Had they put the General Assembly building in Newark perhaps the foreign diplomats would have all gone home by now.
2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. The rap-sheet against it is very long indeed. In the rare moments when it is not paralyzed by factionalism, it is proving moral cover to some of the world's worst regimes. A sick joke of a place that puts Iran and Saudi Arabia on its Human Rights Council. If today American membership in the UN was put to a Congressional vote it would very likely fail. With that failure the UN would likely slide into the history books as ignominiously as the League did way back in 1946.
The thing about ratty old sofas is that - after a time -- they become very mouldy.
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