This Disaster Exposes the Myth of the UN's Moral Authority

The helicopters are taking off and landing now in the tsunami-shattered villages and towns. The sick are being taken for treatment. Clean water is being delivered. Food is arriving. Soon the work of reconstruction will begin.

The countries doing this good work have politely agreed to acknowledge the "coordinating" role of the United Nations. But it is hard to see how precisely the rescue work would be affected if the UN's officials all stayed in New York--or indeed if the UN did not exist at all.

The UN describes its role in South Asia as one of "assessment" and "coordination." Even this, however, seems to many to be a role unnecessary to the plot. The Daily Telegraph last week described the frustration of in-country UN officials who found they had nothing to do as the Americans, Australians, Indonesians, and Malaysians flew missions. It will be the treasury departments of the G-7 missions that make decisions on debt relief, and the World Bank, aid donor nations, private corporations, and of course the local governments themselves that take the lead on long-term reconstruction. And yet we are constantly told that the UN's involvement is indispensable to the success of the whole undertaking. How can that be?

In a notable interview on December 31, Clare Short, the former international development secretary, explained that the UN possessed a unique "moral authority", and without this authority, the relief effort would be in trouble because ... well, after that it gets hazy.

It is obviously not because of the UN that countries like Britain, the United States, Germany, Japan, Australia, and India are donating so generously to the countries in need. Nor, even more obviously, is it because of the UN that the afflicted countries are accepting aid. Nor again has the so-called authority of the UN induced Burma to accept any aid that Burma's rulers find politically threatening.

Nor finally is the UN really quite so hugely popular as supporters such as Ms Short would wish it believed. The Pew Charitable Trusts--the same group that conducts those surveys on anti-Americanism worldwide--reports that the UN carries much more weight in Europe than it does in, say, the Muslim world. Only 35 per cent of Pakistanis express a positive attitude to the UN, as do just 25 percent of Moroccans, and but 21 percent of Jordanians.

The UN's authority is instead one of those ineffable mystical mysteries. The authority's existence cannot be perceived by the senses and exerts no influence on the events of this world. Even the authority's most devout hierophants retain the right to disavow that authority at whim, as Ms Short herself disavowed its resolutions on Iraq. And yet at other times those same hierophants praise this same imperceptible, inconsequential, and intermittently binding authority as the best hope for a just and peaceful world. An early church father is supposed to have said of the story of the resurrection: "I believe it because it is absurd." The same could much more justly be said of the doctrine of the UN's moral authority.

Whence exactly does this moral authority emanate? How did the UN get it? Did it earn it by championing liberty, justice, and other high ideals? That seems a strange thing to say about a body that voted in 2003 to award the chair of its commission on human rights to Mummar Gaddafi's Libya.

Did it earn it by the efficacy of its aid work? On the contrary, the UN's efforts in Iraq have led to the largest financial scandal in the organization's history: as much as $20 billion unaccounted for in oil-for-food funds. UN aid efforts in the Congo have been besmirched by allegations of sexual abuse of children; in the Balkans, by charges of sex trafficking.

Is the UN a defender of the weak against aggression by the powerful? Not exactly. Two of this planet's most intractable conflicts pit small democracies against vastly more populous neighbouring states. In both cases, the UN treats the democracies--Israel, Taiwan--like pariahs.

This record may explain why the UN is regarded by so many Americans as neither moral nor authoritative--and why American leaders of both political parties reject UN attempts to control American actions.

And indeed, when we talk about UN authority, it is UN authority over America that we always seem to have in mind. The UN is the stated topic, but it is American power that is the real subject of concern.

As Ms Short complained in The Independent on January 1: "At a time when the world faces terrible challenges, of poverty, disorder and environmental degradation, there is a real danger that the US government is consistently undermining the only legitimate system of international co-operation that we have." In a world that contains--among others--the EU, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and literally hundreds of regional and global governmental and non-governmental associations, it seems bizarre to describe the UN as the sole legitimate international actor. But of course the UN is the only one of these actors consistently to come into conflict with the United States. It is this bias of the UN system--and not any of the UN's meager list of achievements--that causes so many on the global Left to regard it as legitimate in a way that they do not regard, say, international treaties for the protection of patents.

Europeans often interpret American skepticism about the UN as a sign of American indifference to world opinion. Yet Americans care passionately for the good opinion of the world. Nothing John Kerry said during the 2004 campaign inflicted as much damage to the President as his charges that George W Bush had ruptured alliances and lowered America's standing in the world.

Unlike many on the European Left, however, Americans seem able to remember that the UN is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Americans see the UN not as an ineffable mystery, but as an institution invented six decades ago by human beings no wiser than their modern successors to respond to the problems of their time--which were not the same as the problems of ours.

If the UN keeps failing, the answer is not to ignore its faults, but to reform or replace it. There is growing interest in some American quarters in the idea of a new international association, open only to countries that elect their leaders democratically. At a minimum, Americans expect transparency, accountability, and some greater approach to even-handedness in the Middle East. But the real challenge to all of us, in all the democracies, is this: to be guided by realities, not fantasies--and especially not such uniquely unconvincing fantasies as the allegedly unique moral authority of the United Nations.

David Frum is a former speechwriter for President Bush and a resident fellow at AEI. He is the author with Richard Perle of An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

What's new on AEI

Rebuilding American defense: A speech by Governor Bobby Jindal
image Smelling liberal, thinking conservative
image Stopping Ebola before it turns into a pandemic
image All too many reasons for pessimism about Europe
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
Monday, October 20, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Warfare beneath the waves: The undersea domain in Asia

We welcome you to join us for a panel discussion of the undersea military competition occurring in Asia and what it means for the United States and its allies.

Event Registration is Closed
Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters

AEI’s Election Watch is back! Please join us for two sessions of the longest-running election program in Washington, DC. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
What now for the Common Core?

We welcome you to join us at AEI for a discussion of what’s next for the Common Core.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Brazil’s presidential election: Real challenges, real choices

Please join AEI for a discussion examining each candidate’s platform and prospects for victory and the impact that a possible shift toward free-market policies in Brazil might have on South America as a whole.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.