TCS Daily

The UN: The World's Greatest Trade Association

By Carroll Andrew - December 20, 2004 12:00 AM

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is under siege for allowing Saddam Hussein's government to actively manipulate the UN's oil-for-food bureaucracy and steal billions of dollars. There have been calls for Annan's resignation which Annan, quite naturally, has dismissed. Annan's intransigence is a classic PR strategy -- limit damage by convincing opponents to focus their energies on a single individual. If they fail to force a resignation, they are demoralized, and go away. If they succeed, especially after a struggle, they feel a sense of accomplishment, and go away.

Despite the focus on Annan, most people realize that problems with the UN run deeper than any single individual. The UN is plagued by both systemic corruption and a fundamental structural flaw; it makes no distinctions between governments which represent their people and governments which use the instruments of state power to repress and exploit their people. But the real problem with the UN is even deeper. The real problem is that democratic governments have joined non-democratic governments in a forum whose primary goal is the expansion of government authority.

The United Nations is the pre-eminent trade association for people involved in the business of government power. Actually, it is more focused than that. The United Nations is the trade association for the world's executive branches -- the place where executive branches come together to promote their individual interests to one another, and to promote the expansion of executive authority in general. This point is often missed by UN critics who dismiss the organization as nothing more than the world's greatest debating society. These critics confuse being voluntary with being powerless. Organizations like The American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the International Tobacco Growers' Association are all voluntary -- but certainly not powerless.

Once it is understood that the United Nations is a trade association for the promotion of executive authority, its behavior becomes almost rational. The trade association extends professional courtesy to its members -- its cardinal rule is not to step on the toes of another executive. Saddam Hussein violated this rule by invading Kuwait and displacing another executive. Hussein paid for this mistake; the UN stepped in to enforce discipline amongst its members.

But looking to the UN to protect individuals who are not government executives from abuses of government power makes as much sense as looking to the International Tobacco Growers' Association to protect individuals from the dangers of smoking. In a place like Zimbabwe, lives are threatened, but executive authority is not. Executive Robert Mugabe is very strong, so the UN takes no interest in human rights violations there. Action to protect Venezuela's democracy might limit the reach of executive Hugo Chavez's power, so the UN stays away. In the Ukraine, the UN recently announced it was pleased there will be a re-vote in the country's contested Presidential election. In other words, it does not matter to the UN who takes control, so long as there is no prolonged vacuum of executive power. Haiti is a frequent site of UN intervention because vacuums of executive power occasionally arise there. The UN is always willing to intervene to help bring strong executive authority to a place where it is lacking.

The most telling example is the Sudan. There is a well documented genocide underway in the Sudan. This past July, Congress passed a resolution calling the situation genocide, but a Congressional resolution is not a basis for UN action. The UN listens only to the actions of executive branches, and Congress is only the legislative authority, not the executive authority of the United States. Congress appealing to the UN is like a barber demanding changes in the rules of the American Medical Association. It doesn't matter how good his intentions are or how accurate his information is -- he is not a member. The American Medical Association does not listen to barbers, it listens to its member doctors. And the United Nations doesn't listen to legislators -- it listens only to its member executive branches.

Understanding the core mission that the United Nations has assumed -- the promotion of executive authority -- is the key to improving institutional international cooperation. There is a growing movement to form a democracy caucus within the UN, and perhaps create an independent Community of Democracies NGO to succeed the UN. There is no need for the Community of Democracies to succeed the UN. They can co-exist simultaneously. Nations have interests beyond the interests of their executive branches.

Just as a lawyer can belong to both the American Bar Association and the Chamber of Commerce to promote different aspects of his professional interests, a country can belong to more than one international association to promote different aspects of its national interests. Democratic populations have the right to form international associations where their representatives can come together to promote the shared interests of democracies to one another, and to promote the expansion of democracy in general. Such an organization should not threaten the UN's turf; the UN takes no interest in that mission.


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