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The UN’s Failures Show Why the U.S. Is the Indispensable Nation

In the New York Times this weekend Anthony Banbury, a civil servant at the UN, told us why he was resigning. The UN bureaucracy, he has found, is insulated from political control and serves it own interests. The nation states that are in political control manipulate the UN’s operations for domestic advantage rather the promotion of world peace and security. As a result, the UN deployed soldiers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo as peacekeepers to the Central African Republic, despite their well known tendency to violate human rights. The consequence has been not peace, but the rape and torture of innocent civilians.

Banbury seems to think UN could improve if the bureaucracy had better people and the nations behaved with greater attention to the UN’s objectives. But the problems he identifies are intrinsic to the UN’s structure.  The inexorable failure of the UN instead underscores the indispensable role of the United States in providing the public goods of global peace and security that the UN claims to advance.

It is hard enough for the leaders of a nation state to control their own bureaucratic agents.  It is impossible for multiple principals, like the nations of the world, to exercise any substantial control over international bureaucrats like those in the UN, because the nations’ lack of unity allows bureaucrats huge slack. The bureaucrats then use the slack to pursue their own objectives. And, in any event, leaders of most nations recognize that they will not gain much from pursuing goals of global peace and security over which they ultimately have little influence. They find it much more profitable to use the UN for their own domestic and foreign policy objectives.

But as Ilya Somin and I have noted, the United States, in contrast to most other nations, has strong incentives to contribute to the provision of global public goods, like peace and security, or even provide them unilaterally. Since the United States is by far the world’s largest economy, producing some 20% of world GDP, public goods that further global economic growth and prosperity redound substantially to its well being.

The United States has often acted to provide international public goods since first becoming the strongest power in the world after World War II.   Today, the United States will often have incentives to take the lead in providing public goods such as free trade, a stable reserve currency, and protection against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction because American leaders recognize that these goods cannot be provided without U.S. participation.

It is thus vain to hope that the UN will produce global public goods by hiring better bureaucrats. It is far more plausible to believe that the United States will do so by electing better Presidents.

Reader Discussion

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on March 22, 2016 at 08:20:34 am

You had me until the last paragraph. If you really think Trump can and will be as globally disastrous as you imply, you ought to make the claim straight up and follow with an argument. None of which has to do with the UN.

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Mark Baughan
on March 22, 2016 at 11:08:42 am

"Today, the United States will often have incentives to take the lead in providing public goods such as free trade, a stable reserve currency, and protection against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction because American leaders recognize that these goods cannot be provided without U.S. participation."

Really - I wonder if you might name those *leaders* - I thought we were now wholly committed to "leading from behind" and negotiating *non-treaty-treaties* that encourage nuclear proliferation.

Anyway, if you get rid of the UN, you still have its younger cousin, the EU, to deal with.

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gabe
on March 22, 2016 at 11:17:09 am

[T]he United States, in contrast to most other nations, has strong incentives to contribute to the provision of global public goods, like peace and security, or even provide them unilaterally. Since the United States is by far the world’s largest economy, producing some 20% of world GDP, public goods that further global economic growth and prosperity redound substantially to its well being.

1. Fair enough – with the acknowledgement that “peace and stability” is distinct from enthusiasm for human rights or autonomy. Appocraphally, the US has been perfectly content to support any son of a bitch provided he was OUR son of a bitch. Self-interest is self-interest.

2. That said, this analysis provides a useful perspective from which the US should evaluate the UN’s effectiveness. While the UN may seem ineffectual relative to perfection, it may seem more effectual relative to a world in which the US must police the entire world’s peace and stability without the UN.

Do UN peacekeepers engage in abuses, especially sexual abuses? Sure – they’re young men far from home; even US soldiers engage in sexual improprieties from time to time.

But under the guard of UN peacekeepers, the Central African Republic’s economy went from shrinking 37 percent in 2013 to growing 5 percent in 2015 – the highest rate of growth they’ve had since 2000 – and they’re just had peaceful elections.

Would we have preferred there to be no UN, and thus have US troops supervising all of this? Or leaving the Central African Republic to the mercies of its armed rebel groups?

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nobody.really
on March 22, 2016 at 12:30:38 pm

Correct re: Central African Republic - although the increased growth may not be directly attributable to the efforts of "peacekeeping" troops - but it did ameliorate an abysmal situation and thus allowed for some semblance of orderly civil interaction.

On the other hand there is the case of the UN's outright bias against Israel and its open support for the PLO, Hamas, etc. Verified reports are available of UN peacekeepers, Human Rights types actively supporting Hamas / Hezbollah terrorist / narratives

This is a clear violation of the UN Charter and, quite frankly, decency.

Thus, I guess, it is a mixed bag.
Yet, there is a value in keeping US troops out of every stupid conflict that arises from the interactions amongst / within nations. If only the UN could / would live up to its proper mission.

But let me ask you this, nobody: Would you really want the UN making tax decisions, legal determinations and other policy prescriptions for us here in the US? I suspect that you may not want to live with that -( although apparently the little Justice from the ACLU, Ruth Bader Ginsburg does). Me, I am too much of a mean old nationalist to accept that.

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gabe

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