The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation. . . . It cannot be a peace of large nations – or of small nations. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.
--Franklin Delano Roosevelt
When Franklin Roosevelt spoke these words in 1944 – the world still at war, embroiled in a struggle between the forces of freedom and tyranny – the United Nations was but a vision resting on the ideals of international cooperation and the belief that the nations of the world could work together to promote peace and foster human rights. Although Roosevelt did not live to see the liberation of Europe and the Allied victory over Japan, his vision of international cooperation was implemented on October 24, 1945, when representatives of 51 countries assembled in San Francisco to sign the UN Charter, thereby formally establishing an organization whose purpose it was to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and promote respect for human rights. Since its founding, the UN has often fallen short of its ideals, but the international activism of the UN has nevertheless accomplished many positive things consistent with its Charter, including extraordinary acts of humanitarianism – alleviating hunger, preventing disease, and mending broken nations – and contributing greatly to the decline in armed conflict, particularly since the end of the Cold War.
Since its first peacekeeping operation in 1948, when it monitored the Arab-Israeli ceasefire, the UN has implemented 63 peacekeeping missions, many of which have brought stability to previously volatile regions. Its international peacekeeping efforts collectively won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, and a 2005 study by the RAND Corporation found that seven out of eight UN peacekeeping missions have successfully maintained the peace, or enforced ceasefires, in areas of major conflict.
The humanitarian efforts of the UN have been even more impressive, reflecting a model of collective world action in efforts to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease through such UN entities as the World Food Programme (which helps feed more than 100 million people a year in 80 countries), the World Health Organization (which implements mass vaccination programs), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and UNAIDS (which treats and helps prevent HIV infections in countries the world over). The UN also provides food and shelter for international refugees and displaced persons rendered homeless due to civil war and famine; monitors international elections in newly democratic states; and promotes economic development in the Third World through such institutions as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Not surprisingly, as an organization dependent on the funding and actions of 192 member nations, some of whom use the UN for political obfuscation, it has a mixed historical record. Subject as it is to infighting and bureaucratic bungling, it has at times been a frustrating, corrupt, and incompetent institution that has disappointed as much as it has helped. Its glaringly unfair treatment of Israel – the only member country ineligible to sit on the United Nations Security Council – has compromised its institutional effectiveness on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and resulted in a tolerance of anti-Semitism within its walls. And infighting among the Security Council has rendered the UN negligent in several major international crises, its inaction failing to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, the massacre in Srebrenica, and mass starvation in Somalia.
Due in part to a philosophical opposition to its mission by conservative elements of the Republican Party, the United States has not always been a strong supporter of the UN; indeed, for eight years under President George W. Bush – who selected as the UN Ambassador a man, John Bolton, who believed in its complete demise – and prior to that, under President Reagan in the 1980’s, the United States failed to pay its bills and worked at times to undermine the UN’s mission. These actions, unfortunately, undermined the moral authority of the United States on many issues of importance, and caused us to lose diplomatic influence and effectiveness on the world stage.
Its imperfections notwithstanding, the UN has done much good in the world, and lacking anything better, it is humanity’s best hope for promoting peace and understanding among nations. It was thus refreshing to hear President Obama’s remarks before the UN General Assembly last Wednesday, in which he defended the ideals of the UN and articulated a vision of international cooperation consistent with that of FDR’s. Obama suggested that “the time has come for the world to move in a new direction,” one that embraces “a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” He acknowledged that many nations had recently “come to view America with skepticism and distrust,” believing that the United States, on certain critical issues, had “acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others,” and he promised that the United States is “determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad.” Although the United States will not apologize for defending its interests, both military and economic, “in the year 2009 – more than at any point in human history – the interests of nations and peoples are shared,” whether in the fight against global terrorism, poverty, climate change, or in joint efforts to promote economic growth and prosperity. Obama’s words bespoke a true spirit of cooperation, noting that, while “we come from many places . . . we share a common future.”
Obama embraces an idealism that envisions hope and collective action prevailing over conflict and despair, but he is not naïve. He recognizes that the UN has “sadly, but not surprisingly” become at times “a forum for sowing discord instead of forging common ground; a venue for playing politics and exploiting grievances rather than solving problems.” Obama rightly believes, however, that:
[i]n an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.
Obama thus imagines “a generation that chooses to see the shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promises embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations.” In his speech to the General Assembly, he identified four pillars that are “fundamental to the future that we want for our children” and which the world must collectively work towards:
• Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and seeking a world without them. With this, Obama expressed a bold vision that must begin with a strengthening of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and collective efforts to combat nuclear smuggling and theft, for “we must never allow a single nuclear device to fall into the hands of a violent extremist.”
• The pursuit of peace. Obama declared that we must “recognize that the yearning for peace is universal, and reassert our resolve to end conflicts around the world.”
• Preserving our planet. The United States in particular must confront the reality of climate change and enact policies that cut emissions, promote renewable energy and efficiency, and share new technologies around the world.
• Creating a global economy that advances opportunity for all people. Economic growth and prosperity cannot be limited to the rich nations of the world, and we must “set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.”
Consistent with his past emphasis on individual responsibility, Obama appealed to the moral imperative of national responsibility, the principle that each nation shares in the obligation to make the ideals underlying the UN Charter a reality. Unlike President Bush and other naysayers of international cooperation, the imperfections of the UN and its past struggles to live up to the principles of its founding are not a reason to walk away, but “a calling to redouble our efforts.” Only by working to create the conditions for genuine dialogue among nations – founded upon mutual respect for the dignity of all human beings and cultures – may the world ever be in a position to resolve outdated grievances, alleviate poverty and hunger, and recognize and enforce universal principles of human rights, including equality, freedom of speech and religion, and the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny.
As the President reminded the General Assembly, the concept of the United Nations “was rooted in the hard-earned lessons of war; rooted in the wisdom that nations could advance their interests by acting together instead of splitting apart.” I could not agree more. We live in a dangerous world, where the seeds of discontent and conflict are deeply embedded in a complex web of history, religion, culture, and economics. From the threat of a nuclear Iran, to the continued menace of al-Qaeda; from threats of genocide, mass starvation, and civil wars in Africa, to revolutionary fervor in Latin America; from rising HIV infections in Russia and Asia, to a nuclear meltdown between India and Pakistan, the threats we face are daunting and, at times, overwhelming. But if we truly seek to rid the world of nuclear weapons, eliminate global terrorism, wipe out poverty and oppression, and advance the cause of human rights to all nations, we must recognize that none of these goals stand a chance if we act alone and fail to acknowledge our shared humanity. Only if the international community is united in purpose and in action may FDR’s dream of world peace and security ever be realized.