The governments in Russia and China very much want to uphold the principle that every now and then, the state must crush people who want freedom. That is why they worked together to veto a fairly toothless U.N. resolution condemning the regime in Syria and calling for President Bashar Assad, the lipless murderer who runs the place, to step down.
The free world, still nominally led by the United States, erupted in outrage. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced the U.N. Security Council veto as a “travesty.” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the U.S. was “disgusted” by it. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the Russian-Chinese veto was a “moral stain.” A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed that “Russia and China are protecting a regime which is killing thousands of people. We find their position both incomprehensible and inexcusable.”
Although I agree that the veto was disgusting and a travesty, I’m at a loss as to why so many people are shocked - or at least are pretending to be shocked.
Isn’t this what the United Nations is about?
I’ve never quite understood the idealistic enthusiasm people have for the United Nations. First of all, it’s a club pretty much anyone can join so long as you have a government, internationally accepted borders and someone willing to vouch for your existence. As far as organizations go, that’s a pretty low bar - like a club exclusively for humans with a pulse.
The whole thing stinks from the top down. The Security Council isn’t a democratic entity; it’s based on brute force. Russia and China became permanent members when they were totalitarian dictatorships. They have seats because they are powerful, not because they are decent, wise or democratic.
I think part of the confusion stems from a category error. We tend to anthropomorphize countries by talking about them as if they were people. U.N. members vote for stuff, so people think the United Nations is somehow democratic in more than a procedural way. But that’s not true. There is nothing in the U.N. Charter - at least nothing that has any binding power - that says a government has to be democratic or even care for the welfare of its people. When the ambassador from North Korea claims to speak for his people at the United Nations, it has no more moral legitimacy than a serial killer speaking for the victims he has locked in his basement.
But those who fantasize about creating a “parliament of man” overlook all of that, in no small part because they see the United Nations as a useful counterweight to the United States.
Less-idealistic supporters of the United Nations insist the place is important - nay, vital - because America must engage the world, and the United Nations is the place where deals get done. That’s true, but it’s not a moral case for the United Nations; it’s an instrumental one.
None of this is an argument for getting rid of the United Nations, though I would certainly be happy to see it go. But it does point to the stupidity of expecting nobility and idealism from it. Sure, the United Nations does good things from time to time, but that is because good nations want to see good things done.
What would be so terrible about giving those good nations someplace else to meet? By good, I mean democratic. A league, or concert, of democracies wouldn’t replace the United Nations, but it would offer some much-needed competition.
We have had to go around the United Nations before, and usually we go to NATO. That was what President Clinton did in the Balkans and what President Obama did in Libya. Now Mrs. Clinton wants an ad hoc “friends of a democratic Syria” similar to the coalition that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein.
That’s all fine, but there are problems with making these things up as you go. NATO is a military alliance. Many friends of a democratic Syria are not, themselves, democratic.
A permanent global clubhouse for democracies based on shared principles would make aiding growing movements easier and offer a nice incentive for nations to earn membership in a club with loftier standards than mere existence.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.