Thank God for the UN! by Julian Korab-Karpowicz

Korab-Karpowicz, Julian (Bilkent University, Turkey), "Thank God for the UN!" CPP Newsletter Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2004).

The plurality of sovereign states is a disturbing puzzle for the political philosopher. As individual human beings, we live in political communities, subject to their laws and enjoying the security they can provide. Yet, as members of diverse political communities over which we do not have any common authority, we live in a sort of Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ – a condition which puts all nations in a constant disposition to war. We are, in essence, placed in the middle of a potential or actual battlefield created by an international anarchic environment.

Political philosophy offers two different classical solutions to the problem of insecurity caused by the situation of the absence of a ruler, literally an-archy, on the international scene. These correspond to the idea of raison d’état (reason of the state), developed in the tradition of political realism, and to the idea of the universal empire.

In the tradition of political realism, as associated with Machiavelli and Hobbes, the impulse of states to power and self-preservation is a timeless feature of international relations. No state can be permanently secure in an international environment marked by ongoing conflict. Therefore, the attribute most essential for a state to possess is power, that is to say, the ability to maintain itself among other states. Perhaps the greatest problem with realism is that it has a tendency to slip into an extreme version. In the extreme realism of power politics, the state’s egoism and power become glorified, instead of their being merely recognized and kept within reasonable limits. In the writings of Hegel, and in nineteenth century historical thought, power politics is idealized, war is praised, and power acquires a moral dimension. In its extreme version, realism develops a violent tendency that, in the case of Germany, led to the affirmation of Machtpolitik and subsequently to two world wars.

Reflection on the conflicting character of international relations can lead to the conclusion that peace among nations can only be secured by bringing international anarchy to an end. Another solution to the problem of world insecurity is to establish a world state comprising all nations on earth. Advocates of this idea believe that what is needed to save the world from destruction is a radical transformation of the existing international system. They base their argument on an analogy with domestic societies. They assume that the conditions of an orderly social life are the same among states as they are among individuals in a Hobbesian state of nature, and conclude that what is needed for perpetual peace is to employ the social contract and to transfer the sovereignties of individual states to a global authority – one which would be as sovereign over individual nations as the individual states are over their respective territories.

Opponents of a world state have argued that the condition of states in the anarchic international system is not as desperate as that of individuals in the state of nature. States can cooperate in anarchy and are not as vulnerable to violent attacks as individuals are. They conclude that there is thus no parallel between nation states and individuals concerning their security, and hence also no need to bring international anarchy to an end. Furthermore, what is missing from the history of the formation of a world state is an account of identity change. It assumes that actors are merely rational, self-interested, utility maximizers. It does not take into consideration cultural, religious, and national identities that, when suppressed under the umbrella of a world government, could suddenly erupt in the form of revolutions and civil wars. It is therefore doubtful whether life under such a government would be good, or even tolerable. However, perhaps the greatest problem with the idea of a global authority, as it has recently been promoted in writings of Thomas Magnell, is that it tends to diminish today’s world problems and their real solutions, as they can be provided by the existing international organizations.

For the self-styled realist Hans Morgenthau, who was, at the same time, a supporter of the idea of a world government, and whose book Politics Among Nations has had a lasting influence on the theoretical framework of American foreign policy, the value of UNESCO and other agencies of the United Nations lay not in themselves but in what he believed to be their final cause, namely, the evolution of a global authority. He saw in them a means to creating a world community, “a community of moral standards and political action,” and, in his realism, he believed it was necessary to sustain a world state. He denied that any state that was expected to endure could be created by way of a social contract or a mere constitutional convention, and believed that, just as the community of the American people antedated the American state, so, also, a world community had to antedate a world state. He feared that without the support of a world community, a world state would be “a totalitarian monster resting on feet of clay” and torn apart by civil wars and revolutions.

However, if it is the case, as Morgenthau believed, that, through the work of international organizations, the interests and lives of all nations can be gradually integrated and the world order can be maintained by collective political action, then the domestic analogy that lies at the foundation of an argument for a world state no longer holds true. Anarchy, which is the central fact of international relations, cannot be identified with the Hobbesian state of nature. It was the aim of Hedley Bull and other members of the English school of international relations, whose lessons remain largely unlearned today, to show that international anarchy was unique, and could not be compared with the Hobbesian anarchy. In the anarchic international system, states could be linked to one another by mutual obligations. They could thus form an international society, a great society of nations, the fullest, practical expression of which is the United Nations.

The United Nations organization has been devised to ensure common security, and is therefore a system in which all member states undertake a common action against any country that threatens the security of another state. The logic of collective security is flawless, provided that all nations subordinate whatever conflicting interests they may have to the common good defined in terms of collective defense of all member states. In practice, however, the system of collective security of the UN can only function where there is a consensus among those major powers that are permanent members of the Security Council.

For most of the first forty years of the history of the United Nations, the principal member states did not share such a consensus in large part because of the immense ideological differences and disagreements between the United States and the Soviet Union. A green light for more efficient functioning of the UN was the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the “de-ideologizing” of international relations. In March 1987, the five permanent members of the Security Council agreed to make joint efforts to end the war between Iran and Iraq. This was followed by an agreement in the Security Council on the UN plan for Namibia’s transition to independence and on the plan to bring stability and peace to Cambodia and, in 1990, by the decision to repel by force Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

The charge frequently raised against the UN is that, despite its well-considered principles and concepts, it was not, for most of its history, very effective in realizing its objectives. Any criticism of the UN is, however, unfounded if it does not consider: 1) The limitations inherent to the structure of the organization, whose work is based on a process of collective decision making, and, 2) Possible alternatives to it.

To begin with the latter, in the dangerous world in which we live today, an alternative to the UN cannot be a state driven by selfish interests, however strong it may be, which violates the norms of international community. To put our trust in such a state is to go back to the Machtpolitik of the nineteenth century with all of its possible negative consequences. A world state is also an unacceptable alternative, since it can only amount to “soulless despotism,” (Kant) or, as noted earlier, “a totalitarian monster resting on feet of clay” (Morgenthau).

Perhaps the greatest value of the United Nations is not its practical successes in peace-making or peace-building in various parts of the world, or in providing humanitarian relief from disasters, but its contribution to the growth of the universal consciousness of humankind. The force of universality that it promotes is a challenge to national particularism. It provides us with a sense of universal moral obligation to other humans, an obligation that transcends the limits of national communities. Without the UN, the world in which we live today would be even more dangerous.

Therefore, attempts to undermine this organization by affirming individual state sovereignty and idealizing power politics are harmful to the world community as a whole. What is needed to keep the world maximally secure is not the transformation of the present society of sovereign nations into a world state, nor corruption of individual states through egotistical actions on the part of dominant ones, but, rather, the strengthening of global society by the voluntary limitation of the exercise of national sovereignty on the part of the dominant states. And, this should be done in conjunction with international institutions, and in keeping with commonly accepted obligations, and good customs.

The uniqueness of the UN lies in the fact that it can make the world safer by enacting multilateral measures. With the increased interdependence of peoples and states, international security has come to mean both protecting people from natural disasters, civil conflict, and massive violations of human rights that may occur within a given state, and, also protecting one state from attack by another. This idea of protecting states and peoples from harm can be put into practice only through sustained cooperation and an increased community of interests on the part of all major powers. It is only within a society of states that the individual state, however strong, can prosper in the long run. An international society in the form of the United Nations is the best antidote to the dangers that may pose a grave risk to humankind.

Dr. W Julian Korab-Karpowicz teaches political philosophy at the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara. The text is a revised version of his paper presented at the Eastern Division Meeting of the APA, Washington, D.C., December 27-30, 2003.

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