The UN: Scrap It or Mend It? the United Nations Is in Deep Trouble. Now an Unprecedented Summit in New York Must Decide What to Do. Here, Two Distinguished Writers Offer Suggestions

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An unredeemable tool of American policy

The agenda for the super-summit of world leaders in New York should contain just one item: the UN's funeral rites. All talk of reform should be abandoned, because the real choice on the table today is not between the present mess and a genuinely democratic body but between this mess and an interventionist agency that can serve as the military instrument of the new world order, just as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation are used on the economic front. That is what the United States and Britain want. Far better, in such circumstances, that the UN be given a decent burial and the "humanitarian interventionists" be left to find some other structure to wage their wars.

The rot at the UN is in the head. The conference meets at a time when the secretary general has been neutered by a corruption scandal. Any hope that Paul Volcker's report might end doubts about the Iraqi oil-for-food affair has been dashed. Two of Volcker's investigators resigned, accusing him of a whitewash, while others whisper that the US has exploited Volcker to weaken Kofi Annan. Even after publication of the report on 7 September questions remain: how was it so easy for Annan's son, Kojo, to use his father's position to gain from the private sale of oil from Iraq through the UN, profiting, in effect, from Iraqis' suffering? And how come his father acted so weakly? Annan Sr's suggestion of a vendetta, "a witch-hunt ... as part of a broader Republican political agenda", may be as true as the charges of corruption.

But what of the organisation he heads? All agree that reforms are essential, but there is no agreement on what these should be. The elite group that runs the Security Council is clearly a case for treatment. Should it be abolished or enlarged? The promise of expansion has led to unseemly competition.

Germany wants to be a permanent member, but Italy (encouraged by the US) says no, and has even exposed German bribery of some African states for support. Others say that the EU should have a single rotating representative on the Security Council. France and Britain say no. The US wants Japan to be a permanent member but China says no, that it would merely be another vote for the US, because Japan has not been permitted an independent foreign policy since 1945. India wants a permanent seat, but Pakistan says, "We're a nuclear power, too." Brazil and South Africa want to join. What makes all this more pathetic is the servility of the Germans, Brazilians, Japanese and Indians. So desperate are they to be there that they are happy to accept a veto-less, subordinate status. And so the growling power struggles carry on, obscuring some of the real issues at stake.

What are they? It is impossible to understand the reform process today without looking back at the founding of the organisation. The charter and structure were agreed as the Second World War was ending; an excellent account of what happened can be found in Stephen Schlesinger's racy history Act of Creation: the founding of the United Nations, which I strongly recommend as an antidote to those who still believe that this was a matter of idealism. Schlesinger, a professor at the New School University in New York, makes it clear that the UN was an American creation and that Roosevelt and Truman got their own way on virtually every issue. Churchill grumbled, Stalin bargained, but Truman won.

The League of Nations, the unhappy forerunner of the UN, should have been designated the League of Imperial Nations, given that most of the world at the time was occupied or controlled by imperial powers. The aim of the League's founders was to prevent inter-imperial disputes over colonies from erupting into wars that would damage imperial trade. It failed. The League was unable to prevent the preemptive strikes of the Italians against Albania and Abyssinia, or those of Hitler against the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia and Poland. …