The United Nations is in an ongoing state of crisis. It is a crisis caused by corruption and incompetence, but at a deeper level it is a crisis of legitimacy. The UN lacks the basic ethical foundation to function with legitimate authority as a world peacekeeping body. They have turned a blind eye to genocide, engaged in wholesale fraud and deception, deployed troops to rape and murder, condemned the innocent and given comfort to oppressors. They bring chaos, death and corruption instead of the peace they promised. The continued rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, his fraudulent reelection and the willingness of the UN and other nations to negotiate with him is just the most recent reminder of the utter failure of their philosophy of indiscriminate inclusiveness.
The UN is a democratic organization. You know, democracy. That stuff the USA so energetically and enthusiastically exports to the rest of the world. How on earth could you possibly object to a working democratic organization? The problem is that while it may technically be a democracy because it votes on things, it lacks other essential elements of representative government which are necessary for fair and equitable representation.
First, in the general assembly every nation has an equal vote regardless of population or any other consideration, including whether that government is itself legitimately elected. There are no qualifications for membership except controlling land and having some sort of government. The harsh truth is that some UN members aren’t fit to govern their own countries, much less participate in governing the world. Democracy is a useful tool, but it can’t be the sole basis for government, because it is vulnerable to abuse by demagogues and interest groups and factions with very undemocratic agendas. For representative government to work, it needs to have checks and balances, protections for the rights of citizens and rules which restrict the abuse of power. This was a problem we had in the US over 200 years ago in the Confederation Congress and we were able to figure out a solution which is embodied in our Constitution.
Second, the Security Council itself is unfair and undemocratic. It arbitrarily empowers certain nations over others, in many cases with little or no justification or contrary to any kind of good sense. What’s more, some of the worst dictatorships and most abusive governments in the world are represented on the Security Council, which is absolutely unacceptable. Some of these countries shouldn’t even be let into the UN, much less be put in a position of power, but with the ten temporary members voted on by the whole body of the UN, the council strongly represents powerful factions for whom democracy and human rights are low priorities.
Third, the UN has constantly run into problems with conflicts of sovereignty. It’s not really a world government and exists at the sufferance of the member nations and their willingness to participate. It’s meddlesome and the limits on its authority are unclear. Its role in the world needs to be strictly defined, with a clear division between the scope of its power and the sovereignty of the various nations of the world in running their own affairs.
The United Nations as it currently exists is essentially an international debating society which cannot be taken seriously because of its corrupt bureaucracy and willingness to tolerate rogue nations as members and even let them form voting blocks and wield considerable power. The result has been that some of the more reasonable and most powerful nations have stopped taking the UN seriously, ignore its dictates routinely and even justifiably withhold financial support, as the United States has been doing for a number of years. Nations use the UN when they can to advance their interests and ignore the UN whenever it disagrees with them.
As an institution it has lost its legitimacy because the only people it serves are those who wish to abuse what little power it has. Of course, no one sensible would give the UN as it exists now any more power than it has, specifically because its structure makes it suitable for nothing but abuse and corruption. My first inclination would be to abandon the UN and give up on the concept entirely. The idea was a failure with the League of Nations and is a failure now, and would probably fail in the future. Yet many still argue for the need to bring nations together, so let me suggest some ideas based on practical commonality of interest rather than abstract and impractical ideals.
Any new institution which replaces the UN needs to be able to win the loyalty of major nations and command the respect of the more troublesome nations of the world. To do that it needs to recognize which nations are important, both in population and economic power, and to acknowledge the reality that some nations actually are more important than others. It needs to accept the principles on which good government are based, including representative government and basic human rights, including the right of free trade, and it needs to discourage tyranny and oppression in any of its forms, from socialism to communism to religious extremism. It also needs to move away from the institutional structures which have encouraged and supported a self-perpetuating and corrupt bureaucracy which has been indifferent to any needs but those of its own pencil-pushing elite.
The world could certainly benefit from a functional international organization, but without substantial changes the United Nations doesn’t fit that bill. If you want a working UN it needs to be restructured to represent the members more fairly and to protect the best interests of humanity and the member nations. This can be done in the following ways:
• No nation which doesn’t have a verifiable, popularly elected government, with a working legal system and a recognition of human rights, including the right to free trade, should be allowed a vote at the UN. Nations with ongoing histories of human rights abuses should not be allowed to be voting members. A committee made up nations picked in advance and written into the charter should determine what nations pass this criteria for membership and the criteria should be objective and written into the charter. The committee should consist solely of nations with long standing traditions of representative government and a commitment to human rights. Nations which don’t qualify on these standards can be provisional, non-voting members.• There should be a two-house system of government, with one house representing the populations of the member states, with 1 representative for each 10 million population in that nation, and one representative for each nation with less than that total population. There should be an upper house with representation based on GDP, with 1 representative for each $1 trillion in GDP, and no representation for nations with a GDP under $500 billion per year. Both houses should have to agree on all legislation, with the upper house proposing and framing all legislation involving spending or appropriations. Representatives to the upper house would be appointed by each national government. Representatives to the lower house would be directly popularly elected. Alternatively, if you don’t like a 2 house system, you could make representation based on a combination of population and GDP.
• The UN legislature should have the ability to determine its own taxation rate, and all members should be required to participate. Provisional members should pay a low flat fee. All others should pay proportional to GDP. How that money is raised is up to the individual nations involved. The tax should be constitutionally capped at no more than .5% of GDP per year. That would be about $72 billion for the US.
• The UN should operate an international court system, focused primarily on trade and territorial disputes between member nations. The court system should be constitutionally limited to jurisdiction only over disputes between member nations and issues which are strictly international in nature. It should be prohibited from interfering in the internal legal systems of member nations.
• There should be a prohibition against any form of standing army. The UN should have a basic military command structure, but should draw forces only from member nations.
• There should be a clearly written bill of rights applying to individuals, protecting them from each other, as well as from the UN, and from the abuses of their own governments. It should protect all the basic rights in the US Bill of Rights, as well as including specific provisions protecting property rights and the right to free trade.
• All UN offices, elective, appointive and hired, should have strict term limits. No elective office should be held for more than 4 years, no appointive office for more than 8 years and no hired position should be retained for more than 12 years. There should also be a procedure for frequent and public performance review of administrative departments. This will prevent the growth of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy and the corruption which goes with it.
• There should be a clear recognition of national sovereignty, and a federal-style division of powers between the UN and the individual member states which guarantees that the UN will not interfere in matters of domestic policy, except in cases where individuals appeal for redress of government abuse of their civil rights.
To institute these reforms, the old UN would need to be set aside and an entirely new charter would be required. Initially, that charter would probably not be popular with the oppressive and abusive nations which currently infest the UN, or with its hierarchy of bureaucratic drones. There would likely be an attempt to reject any new charter or to keep the UN operating while trying to challenge the legitimacy of any new global institution.
To prevent this problem, major nations who are essential to any world spanning organization but who are not well served by the current UN would need to sign on to the new organization and drop out of the UN. To be entirely honest, the new structure and the idea behind this new UN is to serve the interests of capitalist nations with elected, representative governments. A group of the most prominent capitalist republics would form the nucleus of the new organization, starting with several major nations from the European Union (England, Ireland, France, Poland, Germany, Italy and others), plus the United States, Canada, Australia, India and Japan. Other reasonable nations could certainly also be included among the initial group if they met basic standards of government and human rights, but the group should be kept small, and assembled based on commonality of interest. It would probably be desirable to involve no more than a dozen nations among the founders.
With these nations involved other nations would likely want to join, and those least likely to join are probably also the ones which would not qualify for membership on human rights and open government issues. As more nations were attracted to the new UN, the old body would become less and less relevant as the most important nations dropped out and others worked to qualify for membership in the new UN. The end result would be that the old UN would either be dissolved or become a marginalized tool of the most corrupt and abusive nations, which is the natural direction in which it is already heading.
The new UN would probably want to pick a different name to set it apart from the old institution. Something clearly different from older organizations like the UN or League of Nations would be good. I favor a name like the Federation of Free States. It would also need a clear and simple constitution, embodying the principles outlined here with additional necessary details filled in to create a federal government of divided powers where most power remains with the member states under the oversight of the federal government. All of the specific details of the constitution and structure of the organization should be worked out by the small group of initial member nations before inviting other nations to apply to join.
The creation of a new organization based on the principles outlined here would address the main problems with the UN. It would make the bureaucracy answerable to the constituent members. It would eliminate the problem of a membership crowded with questionable nations while still allowing those nations to be involved as provisional members. It would reduce the power of voting blocs of small nations. It would replace the arbitrary assignment of veto power to a few nations with a system where they would be represented on a more proportional basis instead. It would protect national sovereignty and also assure that the world congress was truly representative. Most importantly, it would be a positive model and a positive influence for free and open government for the rest of the world to follow.
The United Nations as it now exists is a divided and ineffectual body which has fundamentally failed its mandate to promote peace and human rights and has been become a source of divisiveness, an enabler of oppression and generally a waste of time and money for most member states. It is powerless because no one will invest power in such a disreputable body. It has become an embarrassment and should be dissolved and perhaps replaced. If it is replaced, the results will be as unsatisfactory as it has been or the League of Nations was, unless common sense ideas like those outlined here are followed to make it a more legitimate and representative body for which reasonable nations will have respect and with which they will be willing to share power.