U.N. Power and the Middle East

The world will celebrate United Nations Day tomorrow. The Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, will release a brief note expressing cautious pride at the state of humanity while warning us about unforeseen challenges in the future. From Argentina to Harvard to Zimbabwe, ceremonies will express the sentiments and thoughts of age-old cultures; music will play, symbolizing the harmony of cooperation; politicians will deliver flowery speeches. Oh, and perhaps ten to twenty people will be killed, and many hundreds wounded, in Israel and in the Palestinian territories.

Incongruous, isn't it?

This year's celebration of the UN Day offers a unique opportunity to examine the UN's accomplishments in direct contrast to its failures. Fifty-five years ago, appalled by the horrors of World War II, the world's countries agreed to cooperate in pursuit of an international just peace. Since that time, the UN has augmented its mandate and implemented numerous programs to improve literacy, to provide food and sustainable agriculture for all, and to help children escape from poverty and slavery. A global response to something like the Ebola virus can be mounted now, an impossible feat prior to the inception of the United Nations. Yet if the United Nations is ineffectual in preventing the powerful upwelling of enmity that is submerging the Middle East, does it really serve its original purposes of establishing international peace and security? Does the UN actually do anything for world peace?


Consider the United Nations' response to the recent crisis: three resolutions that all condemn Israel. One of these pointed to Ariel Sharon as agent provocateur in this crisis and labeled Israel as an "occupying power." The second voted to set up an inquiry into the violence, and the third, passed on Friday, had 92 countries condemning the "excessive use of violence" by the State of Israel. None of these resolutions had the support of Israel or of the United States, and chances are that none will have any significant impact on the current crisis. If the crisis evolves into a war, the United Nations will appear to have gone the ineffectual way of its predecessor, the League of Nations. Or, if this crisis diffuses, these resolutions will fade into the collective amnesia of the global society--and the actions that a majority of the world's countries called for will be dutifully ignored.

It's then easy to conclude that the United Nations doesn't do anything to establish world peace. Possibly, it then follows that the only authority in the world that can bring about stability--be it in the Taiwan Straits, the Holy Land or the Persian Gulf--is the United States. Because the United States is the only global actor with any agency, the important question becomes not what the world thinks, but what America believes. No one need bother with the United Nations as a result. Peace processes should be spearheaded by the United States, because the last hopes for peace and stability can only be preserved through American intervention.

Such reasoning must be abandoned, because in addition to reducing the United Nations to its present inefficacy, this thinking has catalyzed the current explosion in the Middle East. On this UN Day, apart from celebrating the ideals and labors of the United Nations, it is important that the international community make two realizations.

First, that peace is not something that can be negotiated, because history is not something that can be forgotten. Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat did not reach a "final agreement" because it is impossible for three signatures to numb the memories of decades, centuries, millenia of internecine struggle. Peace can, however, evolve out of stability. We should not force final agreements or accords to those who don't want them, but work towards achieving a world without the terrors of Molotov cocktails, tear gas and fatal rubber bullets.

Secondly, the current military and economic supremacy of the United States does not translate into a right to keep the world's peace. The United States, like all other countries, has opinions and alliances that it values. No one can, or should, ask the US to forsake these. For example, Madeline Albright's statements that Ariel Sharon's visit to the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount "may" have caused some "tension" while stone-throwing Palestinians are "laying siege to Israel" prove an alliance that cannot be disguised by the farcical and hypocritical insistence that the US is an "honest broker." The United States has allegiances and is therefore not impartial. It cannot keep the world's peace. Better it contribute to the negotiations as an interested party than subtly skew them towards its own ends.


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