January 5, 2011

Self-Reflection is the UN's Remedy

When the United Nations was first conceived to replace the League of Nations, its founders inadvertently stumbled upon a vision of the future. Having supplanted Woodrow Wilson and Edward House’s experiment after its inability to halt a second World War, the UN was naturally designed to prevent a third global catastrophe. But the resulting body foreshadowed what would become the real threat to global security: fourth-generation warfare.

Ironically, the UN’s integration and globalization of political, economic, social structures - the world’s non-military spheres - has reduced the threat of another “world war.” Meanwhile the UN’s track-record in this new, unintentional cycle of warfare lies shattered across the world's hot spots.

Many factors played equally critical roles in minimizing the odds of a third World War. Exhausted by two in three decades, the world never seemed as close to another as it may have felt. Fear remained pervasive for justifiable reasons. However, with World War 2 ending on a finality unlike World War 1, the ensuing Cold War between America and Russia reached an unrealistic, mutually-destructive level. In Korea and Vietnam, Washington’s decision-making often rested on China’s reaction, a factor that limited the spread of regional warfare in Asia.

When 1980’s South America morphed into the proxy battleground between America, Russia, and China, it did so because each country again sought to avoid open confrontation. And the relative weakness of Middle East and African governments favored proxy insurgencies with the West, not state-on-state aggression.

Thus the UN has also lucked out by dodging a potential World War 3. Its inherent weaknesses are still liable to cave at the moment of pressure, Sudan and Iran being the most imminent examples. Interdependent economics continue to apply an invisible hand to global stability rather than the UN’s military capacity to restrict large-scale or unconventional warfare on the ground.

Yet it is precisely the UN’s non-military emphasis that should extend its reach when it comes to fourth-generation conflicts and political resolution. Unfortunately the UN has miserably failed the world’s oppressed.

While global powers remain in a relatively stable equilibrium, much of the developing world is trapped in what could be an 80-year cycle of insurgency. These polarities necessitate each other as developed nations must wage subversive war through proxies. And while punishing state actors isn’t an automatic process, non-state actors both evade the UN’s law and call upon it to protect them from the governments they fight against. If UN resolutions aren’t falling apart in Africa, Afghanistan, and the Korean Peninsula (North Korea verges on a quasi-state), some super power is obstructing peace out of self-interest.

And therein lies a primary dilemma for the UN, if not its fatal flaw.

The UN itself isn’t the problem so much as the states who pull its levers. Consider some of the world’s longest, bitterest political disputes: Tibet, Kashmir, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In every conflict a super power - which is supposed to lead the UN by example - impedes resolution. Beijing may never allow the international community into Tibet; no Chinese leader can view the map any other way.

As for Kashmiris and Palestinians, the common denominator between India and Israel is obvious. Through their geopolitical advantage, political clout (lobbies), military partnerships, and economic incentives, two of America's most vital allies have successfully employed the U.S. government and corporations to tie these conflicts into favorable status quos. This full-spectrum warfare should have been the UN’s specialty after a 60-year head start.

Sadly it is not.

Predicting major upheaval in the UN can appear a foolish game. Sometimes institutions fall rapidly, other times they defy crisis and outlast expectations. The concept of a “UN” isn’t going anywhere. But it’s possible that the next decade, or however long it takes to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian and Kashmiri disputes, could result in significant changes to the 21st century’s power-structure.

India’s handling of Kashmir can be summed as follows: only India believes the territory is an “internal dispute,” only America believes it a bilateral issue with Pakistan, and the rest of the world, through the UN, recognizes Kashmir as an international dispute. Little wonder that New Delhi’s peace efforts remain deadlocked, that separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani told reporters from house arrest, “It is the moral duty of the U.N. to implement its resolutions, or it should be disbanded or it should work out an alternative mechanism.”

Now even Kashmir’s moderate separatist, chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), has lost his faith in the UN. Farooq and Geelani orchestrated an propaganda assault in October and November, but protests and a letter campaign to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon failed to produce any results. Ki-moon had his finger bitten off by New Delhi - he was forced to disown a statement on Kashmir after overwhelming Indian criticism - and shows no willingness to risk another attempt.

“The Kashmir issue had a solid base because of the U.N. resolutions, but it is a failed body now,” said Farooq at a seminar organized to debate the UN’s future role in Kashmir. “Either it should be closed, or there should be a parallel body... So we do not have much expectation from the U.N.”

Other variables exist, but the fact that America has left a weakened Pakistan to deal bilaterally with rising India, rather than through the UN, currently dictates the dispute. Obviously the UN doesn’t guarantee anything by itself, as the Israelis and Palestinians can attest. There might even be an advantage to resolving a conflict “out of court.” But all New Delhi and Washington’s strategy has produced in Jammu and Kashmir is a festering, frozen revolution.

At some point Kashmir will reach a truly unsustainable level, and India will have no choice except to confront the dispute. That point is likely to come when New Delhi launches a sincere campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council, and splits one of two ways. Either India and Pakistan reach an agreement with Muslim Kashmiris, which likely entails an independent Kashmir, or India refuses to let go of its crown jewel.

New Delhi’s decision could affect the balance of power in Asia and thus the West. The Eastern Hemisphere would begin to realign with America and India working in tandem against China (Russia flirts with both Beijing and New Delhi), and possibly the UN would undergo its own transformation. A negative response could empower China’s hegemony over the hemisphere.

But Kashmir’s resolution appears further off. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the other hand, wields the potential to immediately shock the UN. As the Palestinians methodically step towards statehood on their blooming international recognition, it may seem that the UN has finally fulfilled its role: the Palestinians cleaning the system by utilizing it to isolate Washington’s virus.

Except Washington isn’t so easy to quarantine. While Palestinian leadership works the global circuit for every last ounce of support, the White House and Congress are preparing legislation to withstand their onslaught in the UN, whether they come for Israeli settlements or their own statehood. Despite America and Israel’s bilateral negotiations - hardly a neutral mediation - they vehemently warn against unilateral measures on the Palestinian side.

If push comes to shove, Washington may break its relationship with the UN, and attempt to change it if possible, rather than amend its own futile policies.

It’s easy to view the UN as a failed body; Israel’s perspective is no different than the Palestinians in this regard. Yet those states leading the UN present the major hurdles to a peaceful world. Replace the body with another - and without curing its present ills - and it will deteriorate just the same. The UN would certainly benefit from its own upgrade, but constructing a more functional system necessitates policy change at the state level: a deeper understanding of fourth-generation warfare and a decentralization of power from the military-industrial complex.

Otherwise no international body is strong enough to protect humanity from itself.


  1. Im a history major at UC Berkeley and have been reading your site for a while now..
    This is a fantastic article that leads to some really intriguing questions about the future of the post-Cold War international system...

  2. Appreciate the compliment. Only scratching the surface, admittedly, as this was a response to Farooq's briefing. Would like to get deeper into the topic as time allows.

    What area of history are you majoring in, if you don't mind me asking?