World order dreaming: a guide to conversations about the United Nations

Perpetual Peace ... philosophers who dream this sweet dream ...

– Immanuel Kant


Soon war will simply be one chemist approaching another chemist 
at the border, each carrying a deadly phial.

– Oscar Wilde



THE MOST POTENT, confusing and mythical concept in contemporary politics is that of 'The UN'. On occasions the expression 'The UN' becomes a form of prayer. As a one-time Irish ambassador to the UN, Conor Cruise O'Brien, said '...the cynicism necessary in the approach to the United Nations, must at some point be made to yield to reverence: the reverence which is appropriate institution which is humanity's prayer to itself to be saved from itself...'

During the long build-up to the Iraq war, I was in China (Hong Kong and Shanghai) and the United States (Austin and Harvard) speaking about my novels Grand Days and Dark Palace, both set in the League of Nations in Geneva between the wars. I found discussion hovered anxiously around fears that the US go-it-alone posturing meant the 'collapse of the UN' or that the 'UN is useless', as an internationally celebrated French writer said at the Sydney Writers' Festival this year.

Although I spent some years researching the League of Nations for my novels (and, as a consequence, also researching the United Nations), I am not a scholar in the sense that international relations is my professional field of study. I am a storyteller and I suppose it is the stories we tell ourselves about the fate of the world that interest me. Of all the stories we tell about the world it is 'the world that we want', the way we want the world to be, which is one of the most potent, along with the stories we tell ourselves about the creation of the world and nature of an afterlife. To call these 'stories' is not to discredit them or to remove them from reality or feasibility but to put them in their own special realm.

It is difficult to keep the structure of the UN clear in conversation or in our minds because it is three things at once: an organisational reality – many agencies, commissions, committees and missions engaged daily in practical activities; a volatile political reality – centred on the politics of the Security Council but including Assembly committees and commissions and the agencies; -and a strange mythological ideality – it is the focus of our dreaming about the world.

When people say 'the UN is irrelevant now' they usually mean that the Security Council is irrelevant, although some people also question the whole idea of 'international aid' and of attempts by the international body to assist, reconstruct or reform nation states in crisis. But under the UN Charter, it is the Security Council that is responsible for the peace of the world.

The mythology

CONVERSATION ABOUT THE UN often slips into the mythological and only with difficulty does it struggle back to some political reality. The dreaming began centuries ago and in many minds in many countries – the dreaming of a single world political entity (or at least a global consciousness) and of perpetual peace. Perhaps the best known is that of Immanuel Kant titled Perpetual Peace: a philosophical sketch 1795 (by the way, the name the League of Nations came from this essay).

As O'Brien suggested, much of this 'imagining' of a world body is almost theological. Among some there is an elemental hankering for a suprahuman agency, above petty politics and above crude nationalism.

'I want the UN to jump in there [Bosnia] and push the two sides apart and say "Now stay there and talk",' a 29-year-old, university-educated, male in France said to me at one of my talks.

I came across another expression of this dream in popular culture. I happen to have been watchingSuperman III at 3am in a hotel room in some strange city. In the film, Superman addresses the UN Assembly (which has a black woman president) and tells the nations of the world of the 'folly of their ways' and announces, 'Effective immediately I am going to rid the planet of nuclear weapons' (what kept you so long, Superman?). In the film, the representatives of the nations of the world rise to their feet and applaud.

I find the following positions recurring in conversation: 'We have to have faith in the UN – there has always to be a better way than war.'

'We have to abandon national sovereignty and intervene when humanity demands it – and the UN is the only body with the authority to do this.'

And I hear the contra positions, which say: 'There will always be war and the need for war – it is part of human nature.' Kant believed that the natural state of the world was war – either hostilities or the threat of war. But he also believed that the world could be brought to a 'state of peace'.

I also hear it argued that ‘We can't let a body such as the UN composed of unelected foreigners dictate to us'. But national sovereignty has for a century now been increasingly modified by treaties and change in the nature of national boundaries (most dramatically in Europe with the European Union). But for liberal democracies the nation state is still the most functional political unit.

This fear of infringement of sovereignty was stated recently in an Australia newspaper in an argument against the Kyoto Protocols ‘...the prospect of Australia becoming part of an international bureaucracy, with extraordinary powers of inspection and control over the domestic economy...'

The UN is gradually developing the political sophistication of knowing when to pass a decision to the political unit multi-national, regional or local, which is, by authority, resources, and size, most suited to handling it.

The dream of higher wisdom

THE DREAMING ALSO expresses itself in our impulse to use the UN as a superior court, a place of ultimate wisdom. Here, UN means not only the Security Council but also its agencies, committees and commissions.

So the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission asked the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations to make a ruling on the South Australian Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has asked the International Labour Organisation (a UN agency) to investigate its complaints against the Australian laws on compulsory arbitration and awards.

Other appeals to UN bodies have been about issues such as the saving of the Franklin River and the defence of homosexual rights in Tasmania.

This year, a UN committee on racism was asked by an Aboriginal group to rule on a local dispute over whether the naming of a sports stadium in Queensland as the E.S. 'Nigger' Brown Stadium was racist.

Why would the UN method of making a decision be wiser or fairer than what we have in Australia? What values operate in the UN that are not in the Australian electoral ethos or our court system?

As the Prime Minister of Thailand said recently in answer to a question from a reporter about the rulings of a UN body: 'The UN is not my father.'


The dream of disarmament

IN 1932, THERE was a remarkable gathering in Geneva, now forgotten, convened by the League of Nations of almost all the nation states of the world – including USA and USSR – to adopt a plan to disarm the world.

The Disarmament Conference met to reduce the armed forces of all countries to a level compatible with national safety, ultimately to the level of police forces. The nation states had already signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war as an instrument of national policy.

As a next step, the League of Nations worked for seven years planning ways of disarming the world and finally brought together a draft convention.

The city of Geneva built two new hotels and a special conference hall to house the Disarmament Conference's 3000 delegates, lobbyists, journalists, observers and others. On the opening of the conference, the church bells of Geneva were rung and broadcast around the world and church bells were rung in many countries.

People heard the president of the conference, Arthur Henderson, ask the assembled delegates: 'Have we all genuinely renounced war as an instrument of national policy?'

He then assured the world that disarmament would be 'a Christmas present for the whole world'.

The plan was first to lock together the big powers – Britain, Japan, USA, France, Germany and Russia – to set ratios for their armies, navies, air forces and their munitions production and then, over the years, to reduce the quantities within these ratios to zero and along with it the armaments of all other countries.

International inspection teams were to travel freely in all countries to prevent secret rearmament (the US found this an unacceptable breach of its national sovereignty).

The banning of all aircraft and submarines was considered. Winston Churchill said that because of military misuse of air transport, it should be abolished. The delegates tried to separate defensive weapons, aggressive weapons and weapons of retaliation but found it difficult, if not impossible.

As it happened, Hitler was elected to power and Germany walked out because the conference could not agree to rearm Germany to the level of the great powers before disarmament could begin. Japan had invaded Manchuria and was condemned by the League and it walked out of both the conference and the League.

The conference continued in a futile way until 1935 when, with the world rearming around it, it collapsed. The UN struggles on with inspection regimes, disarmament programs – landmines, bio-chemical weapons, nuclear weapons.

The dream of the new pacifism

IN CONVERSATIONS, STREET demonstrations and letters to the press about the war in Iraq, I detected a 'New Pacifism' – that is, an impulse towards a non-military stance regardless of the given situation.

A letter from a reader of my books wrote to me after the outbreak of the Iraq war and said, 'Australia will go to war!! This is beyond words! I feel so sad! I feel angry, and I feel perplexed! Especially after reading your books in which the prime, central concern was on earth would Edith Campbell Berry [the main character in my books] feel??! ...I feel overwhelmed by all this...'

The New Pacifism, as I have called it, is not new in its sentiments – pacifism was widespread between World War I and World War II – but it is new on the contemporary political landscape. It seems to be an impulse towards always using peaceful means for the settlement of disputes, for people to refuse to join armies and to fight, for the world to disarm.

Because New Pacifism arose during the invasion of Iraq it is tangled up with an anger and resistance to American dominance and difficult to separate out.

In some ways it is a position in direct opposition to that of President George W. Bush when he said that the US was 'making war to secure the peace'. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) was one of the first to use the expression: 'We make war that we may live in peace.'

And this is the eternal paradox that pacifists have tried to break.

But if a sufficient number of nation states do come to feel that they share 'a community of fate' and if these states accept that people in crisis – disenfranchised minorities, helpless victims, the children, refugees, people caught in the crossfire, oppressed women – are grounds for overriding the conventions of national sovereignty, they will have to stomach gruelling armed interventions or, in UN terminology, 'peace enforcement'.

I am sure that if an international survey of opinion were held tomorrow it would show that most people would favour world disarmament and the calling of another international conference.

Seven (maybe eight) new political realities

  1. The Security Council has real power. When the Security Council of UN is unanimous or, in fact, when its five permanent members (the US, the UK, France, China and Russia) decide to do something militarily it is immensely powerful, unstoppable (as in Korea, East Timor and Cambodia).
  2. It is probably unstoppable if four of the Perm-5 (other than the US) vote for military action and where the US abstains from lack of interest in the issue.
  3. There is a new situation in world affairs. It is the assumed supreme power of the US - that is, the US can do just about anything it wants and cannot be stopped. However, while the US may ‘act' in whatever way it chooses, it is uncertain that it can always ‘achieve' what it wishes (as in Somalia, Haiti, Vietnam, maybe Afghanistan, maybe Iraq). But it is a dominance that the international community has to learn to live with and learn how to restrain when necessary (if that is at all politically or militarily feasible). The US in turn has to learn to live with respectable nations which disagree with it (eg France and Canada).
  4. For the first time in our lives, there are two very powerful agents in world affairs (maybe three, see item 5) - the UN Security Council (under certain conditions as outlined above) and the US. And, as happened with the invasion of Iraq, the members of the Security Council do not always share the same goals or methods.
  5. In a recent editorial, The New York Times said that international public opinion is now a 'world superpower'. Although we are better placed than at any other time in history to be able to determine the opinion of most people on an issue through statistical polling, it does not yet seem to influence the behaviour of individual nation states. It would become a significant factor if 'world opinion' translated into disaffection by senior officials in a government and in the military, changes in the mood of the domestic electorate, brought about effective worldwide citizen boycotts, or resulted in the hostile behaviour, say in the Iraq case, against US citizens travelling and living overseas.
    Kant would call this the loss of international 'hospitality', something he valued highly, that is, 'the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another'. But, despite strong world opinion against the Iraq invasion, these things didn't happen in any dramatic way (except some loss of the freedom of travel for US citizens).
  6. Despite the fact that, militarily, the US alone is probably almost unstoppable, the US still, for diplomatic or 'moral' reasons, seems to need allies -'coalitions of the willing' - and some assumed UN endorsement - for it to feel able to take military action. The US continued to claim that it had UN authorisation for the invasion of Iraq flowing from the earlier resolutions of the Security Council. In the case of Iraq, the US even attempted to buy support from some members of the Security Council with promises of aid and other inducements but those members who were approached rejected the bribes. Interestingly, Kant foresaw this sort of political behaviour and laid down as his second rule of perpetual peace that 'no independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another exchange, purchase or donation'.
  7. Militarily, the Security Council is probably impotent on an issue if the US chooses to disregard it.
  8. There are still situations where the members of Security Council may want to act but cannot practically do so because of US opposition and its use of veto, for example, the US has used the veto 35 times to to protect Israel from UN action against it (see Facts and figures).

So we have now to live in two World Orders. One where the UN can sometimes matter and a second, parallel World Order, where combinations of nation states led by the US (or the US alone) can take military action according to their perceived national interests or moral standards, where the world organisation can do nothing. This is a return to a World Order that existed before any world body had been formed – pre-UN/League of Nations – before World War I.

That is, we have to live in a world of the UN with its peacekeeping and peace-enforcing missions and in a world of ad hoc groupings of nation states that may at times act militarily – coalitions of the willing and multinational forces outside the UN such as NATO and the emerging European Union Rapid Reaction Force.


Is dreaming a form of political realism?

THE REALITY OF our world is messy and it is no wonder that people seek comfort in idealistic dreaming with its appeals to a distant partly imagined world body that has answers to all questions and can solve all problems, relieve all suffering.

Ultimately, the discomfort that believers in the UN experience is over a political paradox – whether it is better to allow a nation state to destroy and oppress and cruelly ill-treat its people or some of its people (South Africa under apartheid, Nazi Germany, Iraq) or to bring an end to this oppression through armed intervention.

We have also to face the question of whether we should use a military force to protect our economic interests upon which our values, our standard of life and way of life depend?

And there are continuing disagreements about what is just, fair and compassionate although the UN continues to establish world 'norms' for international conduct (hence the Court of International Justice – which the US has refused to join but which Australia has).

The world is still far from agreement on 'norms' – for instance, on the status and proper place for women in the scheme of things.

Is it that believers in the UN have no option but to throw the weight of their personal presence and voice onto the side of the co-operative, the compassionate, the hopeful, the tolerant and rational, as they see it?

Imaginative dreaming can produce policies, and policies can produce action. The imagination is an instrument of inquiry – lateral, feral, inquiry, if you like and the UN processes themselves can be seen as a gigantic instrument of inquiry and an experimentation into the nature of things.

Historically, we have a tendency as a species both to go to war but also to design structures of peace (the League and the UN) – so in the past 100 years we have evolved non-violent solutions to international conflict – ideas such as sanctions, peacekeeping, international mediation, international criminal courts, war tribunals, multinational forces, a range of diplomatic sanctions (non-recognition, trade embargoes), the notion of international opinion, the notion of authorised and unauthorised military actions.

The status of military action and attitudes towards war in many cultures has also shifted from a simple glorification to a sober acceptance of the place of the military in an imperfect world. The avoidance – just – of the word 'victory' by Prime Minister Blair and President Bush after the Iraq war was an interesting sign of this – a sensitivity about and uneasiness with 'triumphalism'.

Though they have not gone as far as Kant would have them go, he suggested that nations that have just successfully concluded any war, rather than celebrating victory, should have a day where they seek forgiveness for their annihilation of other human beings.

For all the cynicism about the futility of international intervention, pragmatically, people are being helped daily by the UN (see below in Facts and figures).

Even more than domestic governments, the UN is imagined to have unknown potentials.

These imaginings are also part of political reality – not in the sense that 'all things are possible' – but in the sense that we know that visionary and innovative international missions can sometimes be conceived and achieved (both inside and outside the UN). I suppose the short answer about the UN is this: the UN can do good things, which no one else can do, in some places, sometimes.


To end on a light note

KANT TOOK THE title of his famous essay Perpetual Peace from a sign in a Dutch inn and he mused whether the sign and the promise of the 'perpetual peace' and solace of alcohol was intended for those rulers 'insatiable of war' or the philosophers 'who dream this sweet dream'. Or both.



Facts and figures

  • The UN is made up of: a Security Council (five permanent members and 10 elected from the Assembly as temporary members for two years); the General Assembly which is made up of the 191 member states of the UN; the Secretariat of international civil servants, about 61,000 (for comparison the Victorian Government has 240,000 public servants), which is headed by the Secretary-General; and the 15 agencies of the UN such as the World Food Program, World Health Organisation, High Commission for Refugees and so on.

    Most focus is now on the Security Council and its five permanent members (the Perm-5) – the US, the UK, Russia, China and France – all with the right to veto any action, which any other member or members of the Security Council proposes.

    The United States has used the veto 76 times. Britain 32 (23 times with the US), France 18 (including 13 with the US and UK) and China five. The old USSR used the veto 118 times and since its collapse Russia has used it twice.

    One of the reforms under discussion is to make the Security Council more representative of the world by including India, Germany, Japan, Brazil and Indonesia (an idea being pushed by John Howard among others).

  • About 150 of the 191 members of the General Assembly are in arrears with their contributions. Twenty-six nations can be depended on to pay their contribution regularly.
  • Australia is one of the five nations that has regularly paid its dues to the world organisation since the beginning of the League of Nations in 1920 to the present.
  • The UN now has 50,000 peacekeepers serving in 15 operations. Last year it distributed $US30 billion ($46 billion) in development assistance, assisted in elections in 80 countries, gave 44 million people emergency aid and cared for 26 million refugees.

    – From United Nations sources and my research

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