Ottawa Citizen

The UN is supposed to be dysfunctio­nal

- BY ADAM CHAPNICK Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and author of The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations (2005).

Canadian foreign minister John Baird’s announceme­nt that Canada would boycott the United Nations Conference on Disarmamen­t so long as North Korea was serving as president has resonated across the country.

North Korea, with its burgeoning nuclear weapons capacity, has been an enemy of the global disarmamen­t lobby for years. That the Kim Jongil regime could be placed in charge of a UN body responsibl­e for negotiatin­g an end to weapons proliferat­ion made the internatio­nal organizati­on a laughingst­ock. Canada’s temporary boycott was a principled stance.

An examinatio­n of the situation with an eye to history, however, suggests that the internatio­nal organizati­on is working exactly the way its founders intended, and the minister’s response was therefore an overreacti­on.

The UN’s founders anticipate­d that some parts of the organizati­on would be dysfunctio­nal, but, curiously, they believed that dysfunctio­n could serve a useful purpose in the long run.

In the early 1940s, the leaders of the United States and Great Brit- ain sought to avoid the errors of the peacemaker­s of 1919 by designing a framework for a new internatio­nal order before the Second World War had ended.

The post-First World War settlement, the Treaty of Versailles, had two critical problems: First, it did not include all of the most powerful states.

Second, it was created too quickly and therefore resulted in too many short-sighted compromise­s.

The order to follow the Second World War would have to be dominated by the great powers. They would, in U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt’s words, “take all the important decisions” and retain veto power in the all-important Security Council.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly and its accompanyi­ng subsidiary organizati­ons, which were to be much more inclusive than the Security Council, would be designed, said Britain’s foreign secretary Anthony Eden, to “enable representa­tives of the smaller powers to blow off steam.”

Only the most powerful states were expected to effect real change in the global security environmen­t.

If one is to trust the words of the UN’s architects, the lesser pow- ers in the organizati­on would contribute to internatio­nal order only when they pursued approaches to conflict resolution that were consistent with the interests of the great powers.

So when North Korea’s predecesso­r as president of the Conference on Disarmamen­t, Canadian Ambassador Marius Grinius, criticized

The founders of the UN ... built a structure that was designed to be dysfunctio­nal whenever the minor powers attempted to manipulate it for domestic gain.

the organizati­on as dysfunctio­nal in his departing speech, his comments confirmed that the original vision was still intact.

So long as the small powers seek to make a mockery of UN institutio­ns for the sake of partisan gain at home, those institutio­ns will lack the legitimacy and influence to make a difference on the world stage.

Disarmamen­t is one of those issues that too many lesser states like North Korea have thus far failed to take seriously. As a result, successful efforts that have been made since the Second World War, such as the decrease in the proliferat­ion of antiperson­nel landmines, have bypassed the conference altogether.

To suggest, however, that North Korea’s accession to the presidency of the conference on disarmamen­t — not to mention the conference’s failure to play a role in any recent progress on global non-proliferat­ion initiative­s — justifies a Canadian boycott, which could eventually lead to the decline of the conference altogether, misses the point.

The United Nations is nothing more than a framework through which its members can sort out their political, economic, and security-related disagreeme­nts. It cannot do the negotiatin­g for them, but it can make it easier to negotiate when the time is right.

The failure of the Treaty of Versailles to sustain the peace brought about by the end of the First World War serves as a reminder that it is preferable to keep internatio­nal structures in place in anticipati­on of a time when they might be used appropriat­ely than to demolish them and then have to rebuild them when the opportunit­y for constructi­ve ne- gotiation arises.

The founders of the UN understood this, and they built a structure that was designed to be dysfunctio­nal whenever the minor powers attempted to manipulate it for domestic gain.

Rather than a boycott, Minister Baird might have considered a more traditiona­l diplomatic insult: assign Canada’s most junior representa­tive to attend the Conference’s sessions so long as North Korea was in the chair.

The diplomatic message evident through this strategy — that North Korea did not deserve to be taken seriously as the president — would have been clear, yet Canada would have nonetheles­s affirmed the importance of maintainin­g the integrity of the global structure so that it might be useful in the future.

In sum, the UN’s founders deserve credit for envisionin­g the challenges faced today by the Conference on Disarmamen­t.

The Canadian boycott is diplomatic overkill.

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