It Should Be Late, It Was Never Great

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

It Should Be Late, It Was Never Great


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


Khrushchev wrote in his incomparable memoirs that Soviet admirals, like admirals everywhere, loved battleships because they could get piped aboard in great style amid the respectful hurrahs of their crews. It's the same with the United Nations, now more than ever reduced to the servile function of after-sales service provider for the United States, on permanent call as the mop-up brigade. It would be a great step forward if several big Third World countries were to quit the UN, declaring that it has no function beyond ratifying the world's present distasteful political arrangements. The trouble is that national elites in pretty much every UN-member country--now 191 in all--yearn to live in high style for at least a few years, and in some cases for decades, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and to cut a dash in the General Assembly. They have a deep material stake in continuing membership, even though in the case of small, poor countries the prodigious outlays on a UN delegation could be far better used in decent domestic applications, funding local crafts or orphanages back home.

Barely a day goes by without some Democrat piously demanding an "increased role" for the UN in whatever misadventure for which the United States requires political cover. Howard Dean has built his candidacy on clarion calls for the UN's supposedly legitimizing assistance in Iraq. Despite the history of the 1990s, many leftists still have a tendency to invoke the UN as a countervailing power. When all other argument fails, they fall back on the International Criminal Court, an outfit that should have the same credibility as a beneficial institution as the World Bank or Interpol.

On the issue of the UN I can boast of a record of matchless consistency. As a toddler I tried to bar his exit from the nursery of our London flat when my father told me he was leaving for several weeks to attend, as diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Worker, the founding conference of the UN in San Francisco. Despite my denunciation of all such absence-prompting conferences (and in my infancy there were many), he did go.

He wrote later in his autobiography, Crossing the Line, that the journey of our special train across the Middle West ... was at times almost intolerably moving. Our heavily-laden special had some sort of notice prominently displayed on its sides, indicating it was taking people to the foundation meeting of the United Nations. ... From towns and lonely villages all across the plains and prairies, people would come out to line the tracks, standing there with the flags still flying half-mast for Roosevelt on the buildings behind them, and their eyes fixed on this train with extraordinary intensity, as though it were part of the technical apparatus for the performance of a miracle. ... On several occasions I saw a man or woman solemnly touch the train, the way a person might touch a talisman.

It was understandable that an organization aspiring to represent All Mankind and to espouse Peace should have excited fervent hopes in the wake of terrible war, but the fix was in from the start, as Peter Gowan reminds us in a spirited essay in the current New Left Review.

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