ON APRIL 26, 1945, diplomats convened in San Francisco to establish the United Nations. Sixty years later, it has never looked a bigger failure. Its founders would be amazed at the Frankenstein creation that now sits on Manhattan's East River.
The horrors of World War II had led statesmen from countries great and small to devise a council of nations to prevent the worst excesses of international conduct. An admirable ideal, but it has not worked out that way.
Many blame the cold war for stunting the world body, but that confuses symptom with cause. With the anniversary and the raging debate about John Bolton's fitness to be U.N. ambassador, here are some reasons for the U.N. delinquency:
• The General Assembly is not a democratic body.
Members represent not people, but governments, many squalid dictatorships. In U.S. terms, imagine a presidential ballot with every state represented by an equal number of electoral votes, and the voting in many states determined by cliques of gangsters, not the people, and the fraud on democracy is obvious.
• The Security Council is beholden to the veto power of five very different permanent members.
Undoubtedly, this prevents the U.N. from doing much that's wicked but also most that's decent. The rare occasions on which the U.N. came to anyone's rescue - South Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1991 - were made possible by a Soviet boycott (never repeated) in one case and a rare abstention by China in the other.
• Blocs of nations connive to render the U.N. impotent.
For example, no discussions are held, resolutions passed or action taken on China's obliteration of life and culture in Tibet.
For another, France, Russia and China were able for self-interested reasons to prevent the Security Council from enforcing its own resolutions on Iraq, leading the U.S. and its allies to do so on their own. A third: the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference effectively vetoes any definition of terrorism that does not exempt the Palestinians.
• Lack of democracy and human rights is no barrier to U.N. membership and participation.
Thus, its Human Rights Commission has lately included six of the world's most politically repressive regimes (Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Libya, China, Vietnam) one of which (Libya) recently presided over it. The committee overseeing women's rights was recently headed by Iran, a country known for so-called "honor-killings" of wives and daughters. And while Saddam ruled in Baghdad, the committee on disarmament was presided over by Iraq.
And fatal structural flaws have rendered the U.N. ineffective and corrupt. Thus the oil-for-food scandal, whereby providing humanitarian aid for Iraq degenerated into a network of graft that enriched Saddam and a host of middlemen, including U.N. officials. In the tsunami disaster, it was the U.S. and Australian navies that swiftly deployed forces to assist the millions of survivors. The best the U.N. could dispatch in that time were a group of concerned bureaucrats.
U.N. peace-keeping operations have also been conspicuously ineffective. Thus the disarming of Muslims in Srebrenica, leading to their slaughter and expulsion while their authorized protectors stood by. Or the enforced passivity of U.N. forces at the vital moment in Rwanda, permitting the massacre of up to 800,000 people, for which failure responsibility lies credibly at the door of the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
A satirist could scarcely conceive so perverse a record. Embroiled in multiple crises (U.N. personnel raping women and minors in African countries is another), Annan has made a beeline for the drawing board and returned with a package of proposed reforms - a new panel to critically assess U.N. performance, new procedures for staff misdemeanors, etc. Less-well publicized is the fact that these ideas and others are a rehash of measures already proposed and supposedly implemented by Annan years ago.
In short, there is little to celebrate 60 years on and even less reason to expect positive change. The U.S., which provides a quarter of the U.N. budget, should consider new ways to spend taxpayer money, holding the U.N. to performance standards before disbursing funds, backing a new caucus of democratic nations and reallocating funds to external initiatives that do some good, to name a few.
Daniel Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia and author of "H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist" (London: Routledge, 2004).