Living With the UN – Now Available at Amazon

I’m pleased to note that my book, Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order, is now available at Amazon and also at Barnes & Noble (including as a Nook book; a Kindle version will be up soon).  Which is to say, the book is out there in the way that truly matters – and since Hoover Press has adopted the radical (in the publishing world) of selling only online, you won’t find it in brick-and-mortar shops.  As I said in an earlier post, part of my aim is to make the book cheap enough that it could be offered with a clear conscience as the “critical alternative account” of the UN in international relations, political science, international law classes – and at $13.50 to start, I think we’re doing okay.  Meanwhile, Hoover Press has made available a condensed excerpt, taking a couple of bits from the book together, which is available here.  Here’s a short bit from the introduction:

We need ways of explaining the United Nations so as to explain and predict how it will evolve and whether and when that evolution will support U.S. ideals and interests or conflict with them.  So let us shift to another, quite different means of explaining the United Nations. The master issue, in this explanation, is the institution’s source of legitimacy. The key to relations between the United States and the United Nations is to address their contrasting—sometimes supporting and sometimes competing—legitimacies. The peculiar limits of U.N. legitimacy contribute to the institution’s most persistent large-scale feature: paralysis, a very particular kind of paralysis because it consists of marching, constant marching, but marching in place.

The United Nations consists of deep contradictions. More exactly, it consists of antinomies—profound, connected opposites that are “baked into” the institution’s structure, history, incentives, and motivations. So:

  •  The United Nations is an independent institution with independent global claims to govern; the United Nations is a mere instrumentality of the member states.
  • The United Nations is an institution based around the sovereign equality of states participating in a universal institution; the United Nations is committed to certain values and yet, at least in principle, there are standards to be met by states as a condition of joining and participating.
  • The United Nations is the talking shop of the nations; the United Nations is a genuinely shared society of the world and not just the meeting ground of states’ politics.
  • The United Nations is merely the humble servant of its states; the United Nations is an independent governmental actor directly representing the “peoples” of the world.
  • The secretary-general is merely the ministerial servant of the member states of the United Nations; the secretary-general is something approaching, albeit weakly, the “president” of the world.
  • The United Nations is about global governance; yet it is said to be governance without a global government.

But the most powerful of the United Nations’ many and varied antinomies is the one that ironically turns the institution’s very failures into its most potent source of legitimacy. The distinctive salience of the United Nations is that it is a failure today—and a hope for tomorrow. And this is so even though it is always a failure today, each and every day—and yet always a hope for tomorrow. Return to the image of the United Nations as a sickly sapling. Feeble as it is today, it still holds out the promise of growing to become a glorious overarching tree—the glorious sheltering tree of global governance—but tomorrow, and always tomorrow.  Everything the organization does today, no matter how ineffective, ineffectual, corrupt, rent seeking, or just plain wrong, has to be excused on the basis of what the organization will someday be ….

The deepest of the United Nations’ failures is the way in which future promises lock in failure today. 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 U.N. platonism—an infatuation with “global governance” as an ideal platonic form. Or maybe call it the nonfalsifiable idea of the United Nations.

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 U.N. agencies and should have done so earlier. Nuclear war breaks out between regional powers? The problem must surely have been the insufficient emphasis 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 contribute to the problem. And even if it is not the answer right now, we apparently are supposed to act as though it were in order that it may become the answer for tomorrow. But that hope is worse than useless.

Over the next couple of months, I’ll be talking more about what this book says, claims and counter-claims, and talking about specific points in the book, particularly in relation to what’s going on in the current flurry of activity of the US in the Security Council – the one place in the UN constellation, unsurprisingly, where US engagement is always the right policy, something that cannot be said of lots of other UN activities.  (Added a couple of paragraphs to the quote to make the thesis a little more plain.)