Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Global Politics

With the United Nations meeting this week in New York, it seems like a perfect time for a very general political question.

President Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and even Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya (among others) gave impassioned, often rambling and ill-conceived, speeches in front of the UN General Assembly, detailing concerns for things like global economic welfare, terrorism, unjust wars, imperialism, poverty in developing countries, and cultural stability.

Today, the UN security council passed a resolution calling for nuclear weapons states to ratify a ban on nuclear testing.

So let’s hear your opinion:

How much substance is there in all this? Is the UN a potent political body, or is it all pageantry? Are the assemblies merely opportunities for posturing, or can they really address and resolve the major problems facing the global community? 

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Until the UN is willing to declare war on rogue states, this all bark and no bite. They can use sanctions all they want, but all they are hurting are the people of the nation, not the rulers. While I don’t condone war, I understand sometimes it is necessary.

  2. Most of the real problems in the world are from bad actors (North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, etc) who will not heel to anything that the civilized world does. The only thing they understand (and respect) is force/backbone, which the UN does not have (and the US is starting to lose)

    The no-nuke resolution is cute, but will carry exactly ZERO weight with Kim Jong-Il.

  3. Just having a body for communication – not even enforcing anything – creates a potent force. It’s like the political version of the internet. Sure there is a lot of crap being slung around, but it is overall a beneficial thing.

  4. I See the UN as a big family dinner: You go because you feel you have to more than you necessarily want to. There are people there you really want to see and others you wish to avoid. At some point you have to ignore the insults someone makes by telling yourself the insulter is irrelevant in the modern world.
    The same topics get discussed every time and nothing is ever resolved. The only certainty is that the people who get badmouthed the worst are the ones who don’t attend at all.
    We all still go to the UN to show that, at the end of the day, we are all still part of the family. (And we don’t want to be left out when the miserly aunt settles her will).

  5. @Sheila the Grate:

    “And we don’t want to be left out when the miserly aunt settles her will”

    I already have my name taped onto the back of the Native American Nations. I want to keep the set together. Of course, they’ll need to be reupholstered, but they’ll go great with my nuclear waste and moral vices.

  6. The UN is nothing more than a way for industrialized nations to pat themselves on the back without getting too involved. Genocide in Rwanda? Send the UN to stand around and watch. Hey, we’re there, so let’s feel good about the slaughter. I don’t condone a soldier disobeying protocol by watching another rape someone and I certainly don’t condone a direct order to not get involved when an atrocity like that is going on. To quote the Simpsons:

    “Do you kids want to act like the real UN or just squabble and waste time?”

  7. @Sheila the Grate: Perfect

    @slxpluvs: COTW

    The UN, like a lot of things, only has as much power as we give it, accept from it etc.

    Right now? Not so much. Could this change? Maybe. Should it? I don’t know… unless a better option comes along…. rather than just dish on how crappy it is… anyone have an idea of how to de-crappify the situation?

  8. In the U.S. there are a lot of paranoid people who don’t trust their grandma, much less the U.N. We need to keep talking to all countries because it is the only chance we have. Sometimes peer pressure works and eventually some ideas become accepted as a worthwhile goal, outlawing slavery is an example. Does that mean it will stop soon? No but slowly everyone will accept it because it makes sense on many levels. Compare the attitude to slavery today with the attitude 200 years ago. Things can change but slowly.

  9. The general assembly and security council really only do about 20% of the work the UN does. The economic and social council really does alot in the developing world, as well as organizations like UNICEF, UNAIDS and UNIFEM.

  10. Impotent posturing pageantries, yes.

    And for all the money that gets given to the UN to spend on needy persons here is a wasteful bureaucracy that does much worse that most any nonprofit aid agency.

  11. @Kaylia_Marie:
    The UN, like a lot of things, only has as much power as we give it, accept from it etc.

    I totally agree, I had a lot of respect for the UN and believed it was of great use, until America gave them the finger and invaded Iraq regardless of the resolution. At the time I was actually in favor of the war as I was pretty convinced there were WMD’s in Iraq….oh well..this is not a post about the war so lets not dwell on that.
    My point is that once America ignored the decision or lack of decision of the council it showed everyone else in the world how powerless they really were. How can they ask North Korea to comply when America did not?

  12. The idea of the UN, like the concept of democracy, is a great idea. The value of an idea is if, or how well, it is implemented. How well it is implemented depends on the determination of the members of that given organization. As was so lucidly outlined by Sheila above, the UN is being treated like a coffee clutch rather than a world governing body, and because of this is about as useful as nipples on a man’s chest. The most powerful member, the US, inflicts its will on the rest of the member nations and none of them have the cajones to buck the big kid on the block because the big kid holds the purse strings as well as carying the biggest stick. Conservatives seem to be proud of this. Personally, I am a bit embarrassed by it all because it demonstrates what a joke the UN is and it is our fault. There is no way the US government, regardless of administration affiliation, is going to buckle to the will of the UN if the US thinks it is not in our selfish interests. Wouldn’t it be a hoot to see the UN try to impose sanctions on the United States for War Crimes? (Iraq)

  13. A Skeptic blog talking about politics? I like it!

    Sit down, friends. This is going to be a biggie.

    The thing about the UN is that despite it’s age, it’s actually a rather young body. The Westphallian order of nation-states that dominates the world has had several centuries to develop. I’m not talking about just liberal and illiberal democracies here, but the larger definition of a ‘nation-state’ (as opposed to a city-state, feudal-land, empire etc…). It’s been around for a very long time and by the very nature of the organization, nation-states will have fundamental, irreconcilable differences from each other: The main over-arching cause of WW1 was that nation states were behaving like empires, and didn’t know how to cope with the external pressures intrinsic to the Westphalian order.

    The UN itself is an attempt at forming some sort of order out of the chaotic conflict that otherwise dominates nation-state interactivity.

    The apparent impotence of the UN comes not from any intrinsic limitations of the organization, nor are the problems necessarily systemic. The main issue is one of enforcement: how can the UN enforce its treaties and resolutions, if member-states have specific laws that won’t allow a specific motion, internally?

    The problem of enforcement goes far beyond the internal politics/laws of the member states, and it leads to another issue that almost deserves its own category: Powerful nations behaving badly.

    The United States, up until Obama, has not paid its UN member dues in decades, and who is going to make them? Canada? rrrrrright. The United States helped lead the charge to form The World Court in the 80’s, and right when that World Court brought charges up against Ronald Reagan and his *proclivities* in Nicaragua, Reagan denounced the World Court, and pronounced to the world that the USA does not recognize it is a judicial assembly. Is Italy going to say ‘boo’?

    China’s well-known human-rights abuses have been under fire from western critics high-and-low, but when it comes to the UN and the other member-states, us pretty-rich westerners aren’t going to say anything because we need their markets more than we need them to stop beating children and suppressing journalism.

    So what are the options?

    The UN could get tough. In the absence of diplomatic power (which is what the UN is lacking), one needs either an economic weapon (sanctions), or military weapon. Well, UN Sanctions have caused far more harm than good (Iraq in the 1990’s….why bother imposing economic sanctions on a warlord who doesn’t care about his people anyway?) As for a military, What countries would make up a UN military? How do diversify the force? Do you make it proportional to the available sizes of the member-state’s militaries, or do you take what you can get?

    The latter seems to be the case, and Canada, Norway, Sweden, Italy and France have often been called to the floor to effectively donate their military personnel for peacekeeping missions (such as the Cyprus Civil war of 1963-64). But these are just peacekeeping missions (or, in the case of the opening year of the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan, a peaceMAKING mission…..we had tanks and were kicking down doors to make peace….now it’s a full-on war).

    Another option would be to dissolve the UN, leaving a TERRIBLE power-vacuum that will be filled with either a) American/allied interests, b) Chinese/allied interests, or c) a multi-polar power struggle which will continue to absorb smaller powers and entities until we live in a bi-polar world again. Eventually, another world-government-like actor would emerge, and, having the youth of inexperience and competing powers, would be as comparably impotent as the UN under Kofi Annan.

    The UN still hasn’t had enough time to figure out the Nation-State system. It may never, owing to the liquid-nature of how countries change not just from generation-to-generation, but from administration-to-administration!

    The consequences of having no world-government-like structure are dire. Other people in this thread have pointed out that, at the very least, it gives a forum for even enemies to discuss. That is no small-feat!

    The UN may appear old, but many of its most powerful members are much older, and have had much more time to learn how to do things.

    Give the UN some time. It may not even be in our lifetime, but the UN will figure it out.

    Even more so than the United States of America (itself, a very impressive accomplishment at union), the United Nations may be the biggest social experiment in the history of human civilization. Lets not give up on it because it passes embarrassing resolutions and allows for silly speeches from jerk-wads.

  14. I cannot see any prospect of the UN ever being useful. Power comes down to the ability to project force. The UN cannot project force, therefore it has no power. At least the Commonwealth kicks out members who abuse human rights. The UN is little more than an ego trip for tyrants.

    Abolishing it wouldn’t leave a power vacuum. You have to have power for your absence to cause a power vacuum.

  15. @James K:

    “The UN is little more than an ego trip for tyrants.”

    That does a huge disservice to the men and women who have died defending peace on the UN’s orders.

    Your definition of ‘power’ is outdated. Power is most often defined as the ability to get another actor to do what it would not otherwise do (or not do what it otherwise would have done). A variation on this idea is that actors are powerful to the extent that they affect others more than other affect them. These definitions treat power as influence. If actors get their way a lot, they must be powerful.

    Measuring capabilities to explain how one nation influences another is not simple, however. It requires summing up various kinds of potentials: States possess varying amounts of population, territory, military forces, and so forth. Some realists (I use the term ‘realists’ in the academic tradition of IR studies, not the colloquial sense) consider the best single indicator of a state’s power may be its total GDP, which combines overall size, technological level, and wealth. But even GDP is at best a rough indicator.

    Furthermore, beyond tangible capabilities, power depends on intangible elements. Capabilities give a state the potential to influence others only to the extent that political leaders will, on diplomatic skill, on popular support for the government (its legitimacy), and so forth. Some Scholars emphasize the power of ideas– the ability to to maximize the influence of capabilities through a psychological process. This process includes the domestic mobilization of capabilities — often through religion, ideology or (especially) nationalism. International influence is also gained by being the one to form rules of behavior, to change how others see their own national interests. If a state’s own values become widely shared among other states, it will easily influence others. For example: the United States has influenced many other states to accept the value of free markets and free trade. Canada often has sought to influence other states to support diplomacy and international organizations. This has been called soft power.

    A state can have power only relative to other states. Relative power is the ratio of power that two states can bring to bear against each other…it matters little to realists whether a state’s capabilities are rising or declining in absolute terms, only whether they are falling behind or overtaking the capabilities of rival states.

    Even realists recognize the limits to explanations based on power. At best, power provides a general understanding of typical or average outcomes. In actual IR there are many other elements at work, including an element of accident or dumb-luck. The more powerful actor does not always prevail.

    Power resources are elements that an actor can draw on over the long-term. GDP, population, territory, geography, and natural resources fall into this category. These attributes change only slowly. Less tangible long-term power resources include political culture, patriotism, education of the population, and strength of the scientific and technological base. The credibility of its commitments (reputation for keeping its word) is also a power resource that a state can nurture over time. So is the ability of one state’s culture and values to consistently shape the thinking of other other states (the power of ideas). Power resources shape an actor’s potential power.

    Power capabilities allow actors to exercise influence over the short term. Military forces are such a capablity–perhaps the most important kind. The size, composition, and preparedness of two states’ military forces mater more in a short-term military conflict than do their respective economies or natural resources. The quality of a state’s bureaucracy is another type of capability, allowing the state to gather information, regulate international trade, or participate in international conferences.

    As with power resources, some power capabilities are intangible. The support and legitimacy that an actor commands in the short term from constituents and allies are capabilities that the actor can use to gain influence. The loyalty of a nation’s army and politicians to its leader (in the short term) is in effect a capability available to the leader. Although power capabilities come into play more quickly than power resources, they are narrower in scope. In particular, military capabilities are useful only when military power can be effective in gaining influence. Likewise, economic capabilities are of little use in situations dominated by a military component.

    Given the limited resources that any actor commands, there are always trade-offs among possible capabilities. Building up military forces diverts resources away that might be put into foreign aid or domestic education, for instance. Or buying up a population’s loyalty with consumer goods reduced the resources available for building up military capabilities. To the extent that one element of power can be converted into another, it is fungible. Generally, money is the most fungible capability because it can buy other capabilities.

    In other words: gold is always better than tanks because gold can be turned into tanks, but its hard to turn tanks into gold.

    (citation: Sandra Whitworth, Joshua , International Relations, Canadian ed. (Toronto: Pearson, 2006) )

    Power provides only a partial explanation.

    The United Nations has no real rival…it simply cannot, by virtue of its scope. Therefore, your power-normative explanation for the inevitable failure of the UN is inherently flawed: a) Power is only part of the equation b) Power is hard to define and is subject to numerous variables c) The Existence of the UN does not hinge on military power, but diplomatic, social, and economic power, which tends to outlast any military projection of power, d) Military power is, at best, a short-term option with no long-term viability anyway, and e) There are no known models for how an international organization of Westphalian nation-states should be organized.

  16. @Sarah:
    I totally agree, I had a lot of respect for the UN and believed it was of great use, until America gave them the finger and invaded Iraq regardless of the resolution.

    Unfortunately, Dubya has destroyed a lot of work with a few swoops during his eight years in charge.
    It all started with the “unsigning” of the Kyoto agreement (the actual correct term for something like that is “breech of contract”).

    Next came Iraq 2.0

    Although it has to be said, apart from the UK, nobody, absolutely NOBODY of significance from the UN joined the war, with all the results that followed.

    Your current economic low is a result of the burden the war in Iraq has put on it. European nations didn’t have that problem (until your banks started going bankrupt last year). We decided to stick with the UN’s standard mode of operation, the skeptikal approach, find evidence first, THEN invade. And as a result, we didn’t lose thousands of troops in what’s slowly becoming a second Korea or Vietnam fighting an underground opposition that wants little else than to get you the fuck out of their country.

    Had this been the UN peacekeeprs instead of the US, it wouldn’t have been just “the western infidels” patrolling the streets of Bagdad, and the local opposition would have faced more than people they really didn’t mind killing for free. Not to mention the financial burden would have been shared by many other nations (assuming of course there had been a reason to invade Iraq, which there actually wasn’t).

    So in my opinion, the next time the UN decides against invading a nation, it seems unlikely the US will just go ahead anyway. Through his cowboy antics, Bush has actually given the UN more power.

  17. @Some Canadian Skeptic:

    That does a huge disservice to the men and women who have died defending peace on the UN’s orders.

    Unfortunate, but ultimately that’s how I see it. I honestly doubt if any of those people (and some of them are my own countrymen) have actually died for any good reason, or at least for any reason good enough to justify their dying. Maybe East Timor, but that’s still a maybe. That’s not the fault of the people who died, its the fault of the people who sent them.

    I get your point about other kinds of power, and those are fine for some things. But at the end of the day if you want to be taken seriously as a peacekeeping body you have to be able to keep the peace. That means being able to force the belligerents apart. Sanctions do as much damage to the country imposing them as the country suffering under them, so they’re a poor tool. Social and diplomatic pressure are just scolding in more formal language. Leaders will always care more about their domestic reputation than their foreign one, so no leader will follow the UN’s lead unless it makes them look good at home. But this is not the case for the leaders who actually need to be influenced. The people of Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea don’t care much about the UN’s opinion, especially if all they hear about it has been filtered by state-controlled media.

    There basically are no options for dealing with these people, that’s why the UN is futile, it could threaten to expel badly performing members, but China and Russia are unlikely to permit that. And the few economic sanctions that are any use are under the WTO’s control (I believe that it exists independently of the UN, and if not, I’m happy to exempt it from my general “UN is useless” argument”) and those are far more useful against developed countries, not the 3rd world hellholes that actually need UN attention.

  18. My opinion on the effectiveness of United Nations Resoutions:


    Seriously, what can you say about an international body that isn’t even capable of making sure all it’s members pay their dues, has a Human Rights commission that allows nations that violate human rights to be members and passes resolutions that say it’s wrong to make fun of religion?

    Give me a break. If this is the future of the Global Community, where can I get off?

  19. @swordsbane:

    If this is the future of the Global Community, where can I get off?

    This is of course one of the other problems with global institutions. If you need to , there’s nowhere to run. Not that I think the UN is capable of doing enough harm to make running from it necessary, but its something to think about in the event a more complete global government is mooted.

  20. James K: It’s too bad our Space Program is so bworked, or I’d get off the planet altogether. It worked once… getting out and starting over… and this time there won’t be any natives to create a moral dilemma.

    I call dibs on the first colony ship.

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