Destroyer III: A Dream of the United Nations, Research Time, 27/05/2016

Continued from last post . . . They sure had their problems. They were never perfect. They let horrible things happen sometimes, both under their watch and even within their own ranks. But the United Nations was built as humanity’s last, best hope for peace.

And I don’t just mean the peace of leaving dictators and militaries to oppress people within their national borders, even though many have treated international law as if that was the point. The idealism that has driven the United Nations since its inception was that its forum would be a foundation for genuine world peace.

It seems that with all these flags, everyone is included.
But there are only states and governments here.
The UN was designed to be a forum for international multilateralism. A place where virtuous state leaders could build alliances to help the disadvantaged, poverty stricken, and war victims. Most importantly, a venue where negotiations between sovereign states could happen up to the last minute, to pre-empt and prevent war.

The vision of a venue for multilateral negotiating to achieve common ends was the foundational structure for the progressive ideal of global peace after the Second World War. Part of what I want to do in the most explicitly political section of Utopias is explore this concept. Because it animated Western people’s vision of global progress for decades.

Its catastrophic collapse was only recent. And I don’t really think the mainstream of progressive politics has figured out what will replace it.

There were a lot of forces conspiring against the relevance of the United Nations. And it goes a lot deeper than the fact that none of its members ever really wanted to give the organization what it needed to achieve its ideals. Like a standing peacekeeping force or a sanely structured Security Council. Or enough money.

The most important contributor to the decline of the United Nations was the transformation in the global economy and communication over the last few decades. Toni Negri describes it pretty clearly in Commonwealth: the knowledge economy escapes the control of nations, whether or not they’re united. 

The UN’s process and power depends on states being the most powerful actors in the world. I even noticed this in small details. There’s a throwaway comment in that biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, which I found really enlightening. It’s in the chapter that describes de Mello’s tenure as a leader of the United Nations peacekeeping mission during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The story of de Mello will be one of the roots that Utopias
will have in the messiness of the real world. I think a lot
of examples of idealism in action will come from his life.
The UN’s priorities were about engaging state (or aspirational state) leaders to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. In this case, de Mello’s priorities meant that he’d mix with professional diplomats and government officials from the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

But his actual guides on the ground in Beirut and southern Lebanon introduced him to the people who had real power to make changes in this situation. These were the militia heads, whether they were with Hezbollah or were just local gangsters. That’s the growing obsolescence of the United Nations in microcosm.

So the United States invasion of Iraq destroyed the power, relevance, reputation, and general self-respect of the United Nations in one magnificently malignant gesture. But it was facing the pressure of its own time passing already. 

Its effectiveness and its entire model of operating depended on the world order being a function of states, their power, and what they did. Project for a New American Century and their Presidential administration under Bush Jr failed to build a new unilateral order. But even the multilateralism of the United Nations approach was crumbling.

Bush, Cheney, and the PNAC neocons wanted the world to have a single pole of power in Washington. A pro-UN progressive would work toward building a multi-polar world, where alliances of states worked together for a common goal of peace. Even the multi-polar world that seemed at first to emerge from the Cold War of several different alliances competing with each other* would still be a fairly clear, simple, global politics.

* The usual structures are a US & EU pole, a Chinese pole, a Russian pole, a Japanese pole, and a Brazilian pole, with an African pole like maybe Nigeria to emerge by the end of the 21st century. Sounds positively simple compared to how we’ve ended up.

Instead, we have a world where power is distributed wildly over many different kinds of groups – states, corporations, charities, associations, personal fortunes, warlords, drug traffickers, terror and militia groups, activists. 

Not evenly or equally, of course. Most states are still pretty powerful, for example, but many countries are at the mercy of corporate masters or even a few super-rich oligarchs. But power in our era is no longer a simple question. 

What could make America great again in this kind of Earth? . . . To be continued.

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