The UN is supposed to be dysfunctional
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.