Why Does the UN Still Exist?

Over at Defining Ideas, Kenneth Anderson asks and answers a good question: Why does the UN still exist?

The rhetoric that surrounds the United Nations, the rhetoric that gives us the persistent ideal of “The Parliament of Man,” has this constant and peculiar trope. It is always looking beyond the dismal present day of the United Nations to the glorious transcendental future of global governance, always on offer, but always on offer tomorrow. Call it “UN platonism.” Or maybe call it—the non-falsifiable idea of the United Nations. It amounts to an infatuation with “global governance” as an ideal platonic form.

There are apparently no circumstances in the real world in which the ideal of the platonic United Nations could be found definitively wanting. The persistence of global hunger? Inevitably it means we must commit ever more deeply to the United Nations and give more to its development program. An outbreak of epidemic disease sweeps the planet? Clearly, we need to invest more in UN agencies and should have done so earlier. Nuclear war breaks out between regional powers? The problem must surely have been that insufficient emphasis was placed on engagement through the United Nations’ multilateral disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation negotiations. The United Nations always remains the default answer, no matter what the question and no matter how badly its own failures contributed to the problem.

If it is somehow not the answer for today, then certainly it is the answer for tomorrow. And even if it is not the answer right now, we should act as though it were in order that it may become the answer for tomorrow. For some people, this is a general proposition, directly an article of faith about global governance and the United Nations as its historical vessel. Others maintain that they have an open mind, and so the United Nations might not necessarily (as a matter of historical necessity) be the answer to global coordination. But somehow, there turns out to be nothing in fact that could alter their commitment to the institution, because of what it represents for the future or, at least minimally, because it always turns out to be the hypothesized least-bad alternative.

The first is straight-up UN platonism; the second is a functional, constructive UN platonism. However one gets there, the final result is the same. Future possibilities hold the present hostage, and so every failure must finally be excused. No matter what the question, the answer is somehow always a greater and deeper commitment to the United Nations. It has to be reckoned a non-falsifiable faith, not a reasoned judgment.


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