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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

24 October 2005

Happy birthday UN

On their birthday anyone deserves love for what is good, and fairness for what is bad. The United Nations is no exception. Few organizations get a worse press than the UN, exalted by fans, damned by critics, and usually exaggerated by both.

The tragedy of the UN is that it mixes the political with the ideal. It is the equivalent of a post-revolutionary shock where the dreams of the new order battle against the disenchantment of what has not come. And all along, there is the crowd that was uncomfortable with the whole idea in the first place.

These mixed attitudes often misread reality. The UN is a mirror of international politics, a stage for power games. As an organization, it will be stalemated by division and will be paralyzed by inaction. Without an independent budget or military, it is beholden to the moods and temperaments of its members.

The UN is neither as good as nor as bad as it could be. The bar for the UN is usually set high. This is why the question: “what has the UN done,” is not particularly useful. It is more important to ask: in what cases does the UN act as a force multiplier? What has the UN done that states would have found impossible or too costly to do on their own?

When put in these terms, the UN comes off well. It has made consultation, coordination and cooperation easier. It has created a permanent forum where disputes can be examined and maybe settled. And it offers an independent executive that can focus attention away from the narrow-minded interests of sovereign states.

But on the other hand, the UN suffers from the pitfalls of monopoly. It is inefficient. It wastes money. It has bureaucratic interests that very much color its thinking and operations. Worse of all, it claims a sole entitlement to legitimacy. This is silly, and it is dangerous, though the member states and their people are as much to blame for this as is the UN itself.

The usual angle is this: “if the UN didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.” I agree. But I would add one more thought: the invented UN would look very much like today’s UN, whatever the efforts to make it better.

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