Annan to Constructivism: "Drop Dead!"

Ever since I posted this longish quote from Dick Holbrooke about the U.N., I’ve been thinking about it. Particularly, the part where he says:

The large number of disputes and wars that the U.N. has
been unable to prevent or solve since 1945 are a clear demonstration of
the limits of the organization. But this is a result of the actions of
the member states themselves, not something called “the U.N.” What happens in the U.N. is
simply a reflection of the positions of its 191 members, whose
ambassadors take positions under instructions from their capitals.

Every time I read that paragraph, it kind of got caught in my mental throat (ew!), and I think I only just now realized why.

Holbrooke is right. The reason he’s right is the reason the U.N. isn’t working now, and the reason that I’m highly optimistic about Kofi Annan’s planned reforms. The problem with the U.N. is
that, although it was conceived in the sweet afterglow of democracy’s
triumph on the European continent, it’s a fundamentally constructivist
institution. For those unfamiliar, constructivism is the school of
international relations that sees the world about the same way we
imagine a group of people: Their actions are shaped by their views of
themselves, and their views of one another. (Contrast this with
realism, where nations’ actions are shaped mostly by the ineffable
certainty that everyone is trying to kill them.) But one of
constructivism’s vital components is that the international world order
has no particular direction in which it is inexorably headed. It sees
the world as a giant, Mill-ian free market of ideas where the dominant
ideologies are simply those with the best salesmen. All it takes for
Naziism to triumph is for Hitler to be a more persuasive ideologue than
you. All it takes for radical Islam to triumph is for Bin Laden’s ideas
to look better than yours. Constructivists see no hard-wiring to
history; the dynamic itself is completely malleable.

The reason Holbrooke’s statement bothered me so much is this: The U.N. has
a stated goal of promoting ideas like political freedom, peaceful
conflict resolution, and human rights - ideas that tend to flourish in
democracies, and wilt under dictators. Structurally, though, the U.N. is
designed to shrug and embody the consensus of its members, even when
this consensus is decidedly opposed to these fundamental goals. It is,
just as Holbrooke said, simply an aggregation of the preferences of its
member nations. At one point immediately before the Iraq war began,
Iraq was set to head the U.N. Disarmament
Commission. In January 2003, Libya was given the chairmanship of the
Human Rights Commission. Whatever you think of these nations, this
seems a little bit like putting, say, Alberto Gonzales in charge of our
torture policy. The U.N. simply has no
institutional bias towards accomplishing its own goals. Plainly, if it
is ever going to be as effective as it should be, this has to change.

That’s why Annan’s reforms, and the conversation they are starting, are so encouraging. Creating a U.N. Democracy Caucus, which enjoys surprising bipartisan support, would go a long way. All indications are that Annan wants to make the U.N. more
responsive to American goals; whatever you think of the Bush foreign
policy, no nation can do more to encourage democracy worldwide than we
can. In fact, this should be especially good news for liberals. It is a
chance for the U.N., and our multilateralist instincts in general, to begin regaining much-needed moral credibility.

Annan is, in effect, telling the United Nations to stop being constructivist, and start getting real. I, for one, hope it works.

- Daniel A. Munz

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