Friday, February 24, 2006

[Foreign Policy]

What About the UN?

The bete noir of conservative foreign policy is the United Nations. There are real reasons and fake reasons for this animosity, and the fake ones are worth mentioning. Because the UN was based on a democratic model, almost every state is represented. This means, in turn, that member states like Syria and Cuba have chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights. Few controversial measures pass in the Security Council because of deadlock between rival states. And anyway, there's no UN force, so resolutions are toothless (unless, say, the US wants to invade Kuwait).

(The fake reasons are that the UN constantly embarrasses the US, exposing our obviously unilateralist, empire-building, and Israel-coddling tendencies. For the autocratic right, this kind of embarrassment shouldn't be suffered by a country so righteous as the US.)

The UN performs a number of pretty amazing non-security related functions, including research, monetary assistance, peacekeeping, and human rights work. While the most hardcore of the rightwing fringe might have a beef with these activities, I think mostly criticism is focused on the toothlessness of the organization to mediate disputes.

Particularly following the credibility-destroying Bush years, it is in the US's interest to have a body that promotes stability and democracy, and one that can clearly make moral distinctions between totalitarian regimes and those committed to human rights and stable governments. Fortunately, we already have an exceptional model: the European Union.

The EU was initially designed to make commerce easier and make member states more competitive with the US and emerging Asian markets. An unintended outcome was that a host of unstable, dubiously "free" states wanted in, and were willing to meet demands set by the EU. For economists, I think this is called "incentivizing" to produce particular behavior--sort of like late fees encourage renters to return DVDs on time. Countries in the former Soviet Union, languishing in pre-EU poverty, had a reason to install better governments and modernize their economies. Turkey, still trawling for membership, ratcheted down its human rights abuses and strengthened the democratic process. All so they could receive the economic benefits of EU membership.

Some variation on that model seems like what the US needs to promote as an alternative to the UN. Membership would require the same things EU membership requires, and benefits would include economic and other incentives. It's good to have a UN that serves a social function that no states are willing to pick up (or have the credibility to pick up). But to promote behavior amenable to US foreign policy goals, something like a political EU would be far more effective.


zemeckis said...

i really wonder if long term change is possible when the motivation seems to be economic gain

this wealthy country is certainly proving the point that wealth does not equal enlightened policy

Jeff Alworth said...

Well, it depends on what you mean by enlightened. It's hard to compare poor autocracies to the US. We mainly fail by historical standards, not absolute ones. Except in oil-producing Middle Eastern states, the correlation between wealth and human rights is pretty good.