United Nation realities

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Nov 21 07:45:33 MST 2000

Phyllis Bennis, "Calling the Shots", (Olive Branch, 1996):

But however narrow the power-limned goals of the U.S. and its allies
throughout 1945, the stated aims for the new United Nations organization
were wide-ranging and socially ambitious. The Charter declared the
organization and its constituent institutions were to become a "center for
harmonizing the actions of nations" in achieving international peace.
Perhaps even more significantly, the founding document acknowledged the
integral links between the political, socio-economic, and military aspects
of peace, recognizing "conditions of stability and well-being [as]
necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations."

That meant creating a complex system responsive to a wide variety of
political, economic, cultural, and human needs. On paper, the new UN system
did just that. As noted UN scholar Erskine Childers describes it:

<<Taken together, the constitutions of the System gave humanity a
comprehensive international social contract for the first time. The
constitution of the new Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations (FAO) committed governments "to contribute to the expansion of the
world economy and to liberate humanity from hunger." That of the World
Health Organization (WHO) declared that "the health of all peoples is
fundamental to the attainment of peace and security." Approaching the same
web of problems with another causal insight, the constitution of the UN
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) avowed that
"since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the
defenses of peace must be constructed.>>

(Childers goes on to note that the UNESCO reference is "one occasion in a
UN document when the word men is entirely apposite.")

But despite the lofty words, that social contract was far from universal in
its application. Like the fraying social contracts of liberalized and
globalized corporate economies of the mid-1990s, entire populations were
written out of the social equation, marginalized or deemed fully
expendable. In 1945 that meant, largely, the populations of the
still-colonized nations of the global South. Their representatives were
not, in the main, present among those united nations who together created
the UN; neither did they form a collective eminence grise to hover over the
consciousness of the founders.

What those founders built was a global structure responsible not only for
maintaining international peace and security (as defined by the Northern
powers), but for implementing a broadly formulated worldwide political and
economic system that would be imposed, operated, and controlled by the
victors of World War II. "Worldwide," in this context, referred to the
decision-making capitals of the North - the world of the industrial and
military powers.

Decolonization, as an inevitable historical impulse, was not on the
founders' agenda, except for the tactical concerns of the major powers
about protecting their existing or future colonial holdings. The United
Nations of 1945, made up of only 51 countries, dominated by the U.S. and
Europe, was overwhelmingly white and virtually all male. The founders,
giving instructions to the architects drafting plans for the new UN
headquarters on New York's East River, knew that other countries would some
day join the organization. They had the magnanimity to order the architects
to build an Assembly hall big enough to hold, eventually, a total of 70
delegations (not even close to the 185 missions crowding the hall in 1995).
It was anticipated that the rest of Europe, Scandinavia, Switzerland, maybe
even the Vatican would sign up. It apparently didn't occur to anyone that
the rest of the world might also want to join the party.


With the Security Council largely paralyzed by Cold War and colonial
interests, the General Assembly was Washington's agency of choice in 1950
in obtaining the UN's credential of multilateralism to go to war in Korea.
Following the attack on South Korea by the North, the U.S. took the
initiative to bring the question to the UN. Under the terms of Chapter VII
of the Charter, the Security Council holds the ultimate power of deploying
UN military force. But the Council, by this time, was already locked in a
paralysis born of Cold War and colonial interests' conflicts, so it was
deemed an unlikely agency to provide Washington with the desperately sought
international endorsement. In fact, luck, in the form of fortuitous timing,
was on the Americans' side. At the moment the U.S. tabled a resolution in
front of the Council, its Soviet nemesis was temporarily boycotting Council
meetings, in protest over Washington's refusal to accept the People's
Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China, ousting the
Nationalist government on Taiwan.

U.S. diplomats grabbed the chance to gain the Council's imprimatur. The
result was that all countries sending troops to support South Korea were
asked to put them under a unified command under the United States - but all
those troops would fight under the UN flag. When the Soviets returned to
the Council a few weeks later, Washington turned to the Assembly,
introducing the Uniting for Peace resolution authorizing the GA to meet on
short notice in an emergency in which the Security Council could not act,
and to recommend collective measures including the use of armed force.
Inevitably, the pliant, pre-decolonization Assembly passed the
U.S.-sponsored resolution. The result was that, despite the Soviet position
that the Council's action was illegal, and the active Soviet opposition
that followed in the Council, the U.S. relied on the Assembly resolution to
legitimate its claim that its own involvement in the Korean War was somehow
mandated by the international community.


Along with the Charter and the broad issues of war and peace, the genesis
of the UN in San Francisco had included the creation of a set of agencies
designed to reshape the economic order of the post-World War II Western
world, in the image and interests of Washington, London, and Paris. The
main economic organs established were the World Bank Group, the
International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and
Trade (GATT), which in the mid-1990s was to become the World Trade
Organization (WTO). Known as the Bretton Woods institutions from the site
of the 1944 New Hampshire conference that gave them life, they were
officially supposed to be, and to function as, part of the UN system - they
were designated specialized agencies accountable, ultimately, to the
General Assembly.

But from the beginning they operated separately from, and without oversight
by, the UN organization. The ostensible mandate of the IMF, for example,
was truly global, designed to cover all countries, rich and poor. On paper
it was clear: "To carry out surveillance of the member states, to ensure
that they maintained stable exchange rates and to provide a temporary
facility that could enable a member state to overcome cyclical balance of
payment deficits." But in fact the Bretton Woods group never represented or
served the interests of the whole world - it responded to the imperatives
and demands of its powerful members.

The result was an extraordinary myopia in Washington, in which a narrowly
defined interest in controlling local markets dominated U.S. strategy in
the South, and the State Department showed little interest in serious study
of the causes of economic underdevelopment:

<<The U.S. and U.K., the two dominant powers in the immediate aftermath of
the war, went about conceiving and putting in place institutions that were
aimed at reconstructing war-devastated market economies of the North ....
The spirit of free enterprise giving full play to market forces had to be
preserved .... Two individuals close to their respective establishments,
social scientists and thinker economists in their own right - Dexter White
for the U.S. and John Maynard Keynes representing the U.K. - were to lead
negotiations as discreetly as possible, with the purpose of constructing
the post-war edifice to promote common perceived interests .... It is quite
clear that the Bretton Woods institutions were never equipped to understand
the deep-rooted causes of underdevelopment, let alone to examine them
closely enough to realize the Herculean tasks that faced humankind. The
assumption that membership of these institutions will make up for lost time
can charitably be described as myopic. The equilibrium of asymmetry based
on power play is here to stay.>>

Voting systems within these institutions, weighted according to financial
shares held by member states, are explicitly anti-democratic, consciously
aimed at insuring control by the wealthiest states. Those states are then
in a position to dictate terms to impoverished developing countries.

So the Bretton Woods group never functioned as truly multilateral UN
agencies through which the interests of all countries could be mediated.
Instead, they remained functionally outside the UN system and UN oversight,
and the General Assembly emerged as the central organ for discussion and
often heated debate over the direction of international economic and social
policies. This was in an historical period in which, despite the
devastation of Europe and especially of the Soviet Union caused by World
War II, the inequitable division of wealth between the industrialized and
the once-colonized developing countries was profound.

Louis Proyect
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