Two Cheers for the Peacekeepers

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At the brink of war, the world suffered a spectacular outbreak of foolishness last week. Few countries or institutions were spared. The absurd adventures of the Bush Administration, the British, the French and the Guineans have been widely reported. Donald Rumsfeld's latest act of indecent exposure — he insulted our closest ally, Britain — was duly noted (but publicly ignored, once again, by the President, who seems not to mind such behavior). Assorted Europeans, celebrities and the New York Council worked themselves into a fatuous lather over the arrogance of American power. And American conservatives blamed it all on the U.N. "As each day passes, the evidence mounts that the U.N. inspections regime is not about containing Saddam; it is about containing America," the Wall Street Journal opined. "The U.N. is proving daily that it is in fact another League of Nations."

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The Journal's editorial page, long an avatar of market Messianism, was joined by the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine, which announced the "implosion" of the U.N. on its cover, and the syndicated columnist George Will, who wrote, "The United Nations is not a good idea badly implemented, it is a bad idea." These sentiments were not expressed in isolation; the desire to "break" the U.N. was whispered in some of the lustier precincts of the Bush Administration as well. Indeed, the anti-U.N. campaign seems just the beginning of a grander conservative project: the scrapping of the old world order — the treaties and institutions that America helped create to stabilize the world after World War II.

What on earth has happened to American conservatism? It used to be a reliably dour movement, a sober restraint upon the wishful thinking of mushy-minded liberals. But it has slipped, somehow, from realism to utopian fantasy. On the domestic side, there is the sugarplum delusion of endless tax cuts and untrammeled government spending. In foreign policy, there is a wildly idealistic pro-democracy jihad. (Iraq will be the first of many dominoes to fall, it is said.)

The conservative argument against the U.N. is similarly radical. It conforms, strangely, to the central assumption that the U.N. has failed as an agency of global governance. The Security Council is too structurally obtuse to make war, prevent war or even to enforce its own resolutions. The paralysis of the Soviet era has been succeeded by a tyranny of the irrelevant — with France, and its anachronistic veto, as Exhibit A. There is, of course, a fair amount of truth to this: the U.N.'s performance in Bosnia and nonperformance in Rwanda were disgraceful (although the U.S. had a hand in the latter). The French were never serious about enforcing any of the 17 Iraq-related resolutions, including 1441 (but then we were not exactly truthful, either: regime change, not disarmament, was always the real American goal). The U.N. wastes gazillions on bureaucracy and inane conferences. The sappy rhetorical globaloney of the place is gagging; the wimpy blue flag is a metaphor. Even UNICEF has had its embarrassments.

Unfortunately, the case for the U.N. is relentlessly pragmatic. The threshold argument is as compelling as tapioca: it exists. You can't just quit. Everyone belongs, which was not true of the League of Nations. It is where you go to make a formal argument to the world — as Adlai Stevenson did during the Cuban missile crisis, and as Colin Powell tried to do last month. It's nice to have a place like that; on rare occasions, the unofficial discussions among countries can yield some benign results. And on the rarest occasions — the first Gulf War; Afghanistan — there may even be enough consensus for a resolution supporting the use of force. Ultimately, the U.N. may be the place to litigate global problems like environmental depredation and AIDS. But don't hold your breath. For now, the strongest argument for the U.N.'s continued existence is that it can do the things Americans don't like to do. The division of labor is obvious; indeed, it was a staple of George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign — Americans, he said, should be peacemakers, not peacekeepers.

There is recent precedent for this. In 1999 the U.S. knew that Russia would veto any resolution authorizing the use of force against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo, and so the Security Council was skipped. But quiet negotiations with the Russians — before the first bombs fell — produced an agreement that established the U.N. as the immediate source of humanitarian aid and civil authority after the war (the Russians even agreed to be part of the peacekeeping force). And now the U.N. is quietly planning humanitarian aid for post-Saddam Iraq. There is some debate about who will manage the oil supply and supervise the reconstruction of Iraq's government — the U.S. seems to want to run things — but don't be surprised if the U.N. is eventually asked to step in. These will be thankless tasks, not likely to be noticed by the American public. And this is not a very romantic argument for a flawed institution — it is merely an argument for stability, prudence and practicality, values that conservatives used to celebrate.