TCS Daily


By Stephen W. Stanton - March 27, 2003 12:00 AM

"The war against Iraq violates international law." Everyone has heard this argument. Those who preach it claim that all military action apart from self-defense must have explicit authorization from the United Nations. Further, military action cannot be considered self-defense if soldiers are do not have their home soil underfoot. That is the theory, anyway.

Of course, not everyone shares this rather strict interpretation of international law. Certainly no government does. World leaders exploit the UN when it serves their interests, and ignore it when it does not.

Dysfunctional by Design

There is a good reason it is difficult to take the United Nations seriously: It is dysfunctional by design. It is cumbersome, undemocratic, and ineffective. The UN is to the world what Brussels is to the EU: A creeping supranational bureaucracy that supercedes national sovereignty in defense of what a few unscientific elites consider "the greater good". Whatever nine of the fifteen members of he security council decide becomes "international law".

The process may sound democratic, but a decision made with fifteen ballots does not constitute a democracy in a world of 6.2 billion people. The current Security Council membership represents less than 33% of the world's people. The nine votes needed to pass a Security Council resolution can be achieved with nations collectively representing less than 3% of the world's population. France can block the otherwise unanimous will of the world with a veto though it has less than 1% of the world's population. You can check the numbers for yourself here or here [PDF].

The main problem, of course, is the unequal and arbitrary representation in the UN. Consider two current Security Council members: Angola and the U.S. The U.S. has 23 times as many people as Angola. Yet apart from the veto, both nations have the same power on the council.

However, Angola's small population and lousy economy can work to America's advantage. Per capita income [PDF] is 29 nine times higher in the U.S. The U.S. economy is over 653 times larger than Angola's. If every American gave ten bucks to Angola, that nation's gross national income would go up by 19%. In other words, Angola's vote can be bought cheaply.

Accepting such payoffs is not unethical from Angola's perspective. Angola's government has a duty to promote the general welfare of its people. To them, a huge infusion of American cash matters a lot more than whatever happens in Iraq.

Such payoffs make sense from the American perspective as well. The United States can buy UN support for measures vital to our national interests for less than the spare change an average American loses in his couch every year.

Of course, this does not make China too happy. The world's most populous nation is home to more than twenty percent of the world's people. China has more citizens than all fourteen other Council members combined, yet it has only seven percent of the voting power. China can easily be outvoted. In addition, its economy is only a fraction of the American behemoth. In close votes where money can tip the scales, China can easily be outspent.

While the UN does not give the people of China a proportional voice in world affairs, the people of India are almost completely ignored. India holds 17% of the world's people. Like China, India is more populous than fourteen Security Council members combined. India has more inhabitants than the US and Europe combined, including non-EU nations. Yet India is not represented on the Security Council at all. It only has one vote in the General Assembly, a diplomatic jobs program.

In both the Security Council and the General Assembly, the rules are simple: one nation, one vote. While this system treats all nations as equals, it treats people unequally. (What is more important, a nation, or its people?) For every person to have equal standing, future UN voting might follow the American electoral college system, giving each state a vote weighted in proportion to population. As this chart shows, some nations are more equal than others in terms of population. While population-weighted voting may not be as closely representative of world opinion as a direct referendum of all 6.2 billion people, it would be much more practical to implement.

However, there is an obvious downside to population-based voting: adverse incentives. The most rapid population growth often occurs in the poorest and most oppressed nations. Countries with the most undesirable governments would increasingly influence the course of international affairs. To the losers go the spoils.

Alternatively, voting privileges could simply reflect a nation's ability to contribute to civilization. For example, voting authority could be based on GDP. Nations that have figured out the secrets to economic prosperity would guide international policy. This would also rob oppressive despots of their influence in the UN. For example, as Kim Jong Il sends his economy down the toilet, he would flush his international authority along with it. Unfortunately, there are significant problems with an income-based voting schemes. For example, this graphic suggests that Africa and Oceania could be safely ignored in many policy decisions.

A variation of this idea would be trading dollars directly for influence: proportional financing and representation. A nation that contributes 2.3% of the UN's budget would have 2.3% of the voting power in the UN. The richest nations would no longer funnel a few million dollars here and there to buy off governments on the Security Council. Instead, they would invest directly in the UN to increase their voting power. It would be much harder to game that system than the current practice of slipping cash to Angola and Cameroon. Ambitious governments would need to cough up enough money to matter to the whole world, not just a few impoverished backwaters.

Apart from the arcane voting system, another key failing of the UN makes this discussion nearly moot. The UN does not deal with the people of the world. It deals with governments that claim to represent those people. In the democracies of developed nations, there is rarely a pronounced and enduring difference between a government's official positions and popular opinion. However, much of the world's people are led by unelected dictators, monarchs, bureaucrats, and theocrats. The UN only strengthens these illegitimate rulers by according them the same respect as an elected prime minister. Even as Saddam tortures his people, the UN affords him the full protection of international law as the rightful ruler of a sovereign nation. A meaningful UN would recognize a hostage taker when they see one.

The UN has not fulfilled its mandate. Its flawed design guarantees that it never will achieve then ends for which it was created. The people of the world deserve better. Indeed, given the gathering dangers, people need something better.

Consent of the Governed

The U.S. Declaration of Independence offers a solution to the problems of this supranational government: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it"

The UN does not operate with sufficient consent of the governed. (The people of Bulgaria have 135 times the proportional representation as the people of India.)

The UN has become destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. Its waffling is largely responsible for the current military conflagration in Iraq. Its inability to act allowed hundreds of thousands to die needlessly at the hands of genocidal despots.

The UN is broken. As Jefferson so rightly tells us, it should be fixed, or it should be abolished. In this column, I suggested several ways to address its fundamental shortcomings. So far, nobody has even tried. The debate has not even begun.

It may be time to scrap the UN and start over.

WWJD: What Would Jefferson Do?

If you do not think so, perhaps you might want to reread some of the grievances Jefferson listed about the King of Great Britain. As you read, replace the word "HE" with "The UN".

HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

The Security Council trumps our laws. Our national defense interests must be approved by Cameroon and France. Libya chairs a UN Commission on Human Rights that targets the US.

FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

Even after our Senate unanimously rejects the Kyoto protocol, the UN Secretary General and other Council members insist that the US must acquiesce and adopt the imprudent policy.

HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance.

The UN is an inconceivably large bureaucracy, with thousands of diplomats and bureaucrats spouting anti-American bile and actively subverting American interests. Plus they dodge millions of dollars in parking tickets.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.


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