by Adam Chapnick on Jul 6, 2011
Late last month, when North Korea assumed the presidency of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, critics of the U.N. reacted with glee.
North Korea, with its burgeoning nuclear weapons capacity, has been an enemy of the global disarmament lobby for years. That the Kim Jong-il regime could be placed in charge of a U.N. body responsible for negotiating an end to weapons proliferation made the international organization a laughingstock. With a North Korean in the chair, it would be impossible for the conference — which had been struggling to demonstrate its relevance for years — to make any progress. It would serve merely as an explicit reminder of the U.N.'s incompetence.
An examination of the situation with an eye to history, however, suggests that the international organization is working exactly the way its founders intended. They anticipated that some parts of the U.N. would be dysfunctional, but, curiously, they believed that dysfunction could serve a useful purpose in the long run.
In the early 1940s, the leaders of the United States and Great Britain sought to avoid the errors of the peacemakers of 1919 by designing a framework for a new international order before the Second World War had ended.
The post-First World War settlement, the Treaty of Versailles, had two critical problems: First, it did not include all of the most powerful states. Second, it was created too quickly and therefore resulted in too many shortsighted compromises.
The order to follow the Second World War would have to be dominated by the great powers. They would, in U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's words, "take all the important decisions" and retain veto power in the all-important Security Council. Meanwhile, the General Assembly and its accompanying subsidiary organizations, which were to be much more inclusive than the Security Council, would be designed, said Britain's foreign secretary Anthony Eden, to "enable representatives of the smaller powers to blow off steam."
Only the most powerful states were expected to effect real change in the global security environment.
If one is to trust the words of the U.N.'s architects, the lesser powers in the organization would contribute to international order only when they pursued approaches to conflict resolution that were consistent with the interests of the great powers.
So when North Korea's predecessor as president of the Conference on Disarmament, Canadian Ambassador Marius Grinius, criticized the organization and its decision to allow North Korea to chair as dysfunctional, his comments confirmed that the original vision was still intact.
So long as the small powers seek to make a mockery of U.N. institutions for the sake of partisan gain at home, those institutions will lack the legitimacy and influence to make a difference on the world stage.
Disarmament is one of those issues that too many lesser states like North Korea have thus far failed to take seriously. As a result, successful efforts that have been made since the Second World War, such as the decrease in the proliferation of anti-personnel landmines, have bypassed the conference altogether.
To suggest, however, as so many critics of the U.N. do, that North Korea's accession to the presidency of the conference on disarmament — not to mention the conference's failure to play a role in any recent progress on global non-proliferation initiatives — proves the uselessness of the organization misses the point.
The United Nations is nothing more than a framework through which its members can sort out their political, economic, and security-related disagreements. It cannot do the negotiating for them, but it can make it easier to negotiate when the time is right.
The failure of the Treaty of Versailles to sustain the peace brought about by the end of the First World War serves as a reminder that it is preferable to keep international structures in place in anticipation of a time when they might be used appropriately than to demolish them and then have to rebuild them when the opportunity for constructive negotiation arises.
The founders of the UN understood this, and they built a structure that was designed to be dysfunctional whenever the minor powers attempted to manipulate it for domestic gain.
Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and author of The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations (2005).