Why the UN Doesn't Work

Why the UN Doesn't Work
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In a previous posting, I argue that the UN cannot be the sole competent authority for carrying out a just war because a competent authority must be a government and the UN is not a government. What is the grounding for such a claim?

The best explanation was provided over 70 years ago by the British writer E.H. Carr. His book The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939 argues that the fundamental cause of World War II was weight placed on international institutions -- most notably, the League of Nations and international law -- for maintaining order. They could not keep order, however, because keeping order is a function of government and those institutions did not constitute a government.

Keeping order requires first that most members of the political community voluntarily comply with the decisions of the authorities (the government) most of the time. It requires, second, that government have the capacity to coerce those who do not voluntarily comply, to enforce the government's decisions. These two facets are mutually dependent. Without widespread voluntary compliance, enforcement fails. Consider, for instance, speed limits and marijuana prohibitions. Without effective enforcement, voluntary compliance withers, as those who are complying come to see themselves as chumps who put themselves at a competitive disadvantage for no obvious good reason and cease to comply.

Enforcement requires the deployment of power. Thus Carr asserts that "Power is an indispensible instrument of government." Therefore, "To internationalize government in any real sense means to internationalize power; and international government is, in effect, government by that state which supplies the power necessary for the purpose of governing...Under any system of international government, policy would depend, at critical moments, on the state supplying the power on which the authority of the government depended." The League of Nations could never have been more than what the major powers of the time allowed. The same applies to the UN.

This superiority of states over the League and the UN rests upon a profound and subtle fact. "Any real international government is impossible so long as power, which is an essential element of government, is organized nationally." This notion of power being organized nationally is at the heart of the matter. Power is organized by the extraction and pooling of resources to create instruments for governments to deploy. Military forces exist because governments recruit people, train them, assign them to military units and equip and provision them. States can impose economic sanctions because their bureaucracies control the movement of goods and persons through the ports in their jurisdiction. States have militaries and bureaucracies because they have monetary resources; they have monetary resources because states impose taxes and enforce their collection. Power is organized nationally; therefore states have resources they can use. The UN does not organize power. Rather, it depends on its members to provide it with resources from the power they have organized. Therefore, the UN has no more capacity to act than its strongest members are willing to allow. It is not and cannot be a world government.

Carr's ideas show just why the UN cannot be readily reformed to become a world government. To become one, the UN would have to acquire the capacity to issue direct orders to individuals: To draft them into United Nations forces; To obey commands from UN authorities when they contradict commands from national authorities; To pay taxes to a UN taxing body. It would require that most of the world's people would voluntarily obey orders from the UN and that the UN would have the bureaucratic capacity to enforce its decisions against individuals who do not voluntarily comply. Short of that, the UN cannot be a world government.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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