Britain’s vote last week to leave the European Union — the Brexit — was a vote for freedom, a revolt against an unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels. Amid the excitement, Fox News briefly reported the story as even bigger than it was, with a TV screen banner proclaiming not that the UK was leaving the EU, but “UK VOTES TO LEAVE UN.”
Yes, some things are too good to be true, and this was one.
As parody, it would have been genius. As a piece of news reporting, the Fox mixup of the EU and UN inspired plenty of derision — a bit of comic relief, gleefully seized upon by the stricken members of a pro-EU global elite and commentariat. They cannot fathom why a majority of British voters would choose to reclaim from the commissars of the EU the full freedom to control Britain’s own borders, bananas and vacuum cleaners. In that context, Fox’s botching of a news banner helps feed the narrative that the Brexit vote was some boorish mistake cooked up by a know-nothing mob.
Except that’s false, in ways far more profound than the mistake in the Fox chyron. For an eloquent defense of Brexit, see Roger Kimball’s “Focused on Disaster Narrative, Media Ignores Obvious Benefits of Brexit.” To this I’d add that even in Fox’s erroneous UN-exit caption there was, along with the comedy, some grist for serious thought.
I’m not defending Fox’s proofreaders. Accuracy matters, even on TV. But it’s not completely daft that a copywriter in a hurry would read “EU” and write “UN.” There are some pernicious similarities between the two. Both belong to the clan of multilateral institutions set up with the mission of promoting peace and prosperity, post-World War II. Both have proved better at promoting themselves and their own backroom deals. They are clubs of governments, breeding big, intrusive and unelected bureaucracies; largely self-serving, unaccountable and in various ways damaging to and divorced from the real interests of the populations they claim to serve. As Ambassador John Bolton writes in a piece on “How America Should Answer the Brexit Vote,” peace in Europe since 1945 is a product not of the EU, but of the U.S.-led military alliance of NATO.
Both the EU and the UN have a distinct tilt toward central planning, with all the warped incentives, waste and disregard for free choice that this entails. In the EU, this takes the form of regulation. At the UN, it is packaged as an endless array of UN-orchestrated development goals, capacity-building programs and bureaucratically directed spending of other people’s money, much of it funneled through despotic governments whose oppressive misrule is the main reason for the poverty and perils the UN proposes to alleviate.
We’ve all read plenty in recent times about the troubles within the EU. Let’s take a moment to reprise just a few of the problems with the UN. A good place to start would be a June 17th article by a former Swedish diplomat and UN whistleblower, Anders Kompass, who recently resigned from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In this article, headlined “The ethical failure — Why I resigned from the UN,” Kompass writes:
Cholera in Haiti, corruption in Kosovo, murder in Rwanda, cover-up of war crimes in Darfur: on too many occasions the UN is failing to uphold the principles set out in its Charter, rules and regulations. Sadly, we seem to be witnessing more and more UN staff less concerned with abiding by ethical standards of the international civil service than with doing whatever is most convenient — or least likely to cause problems — for themselves or for member states.
Kompass ran afoul of his UN bosses in 2014, when he reported to French authorities that French UN peacekeepers were sexually abusing children in the Central African Republic. The UN accused Kompass of sharing confidential information, suspended him from his job and asked him to resign. Many months later, he was exonerated, but he writes that the UN has done nothing to address the “systemic issues of internal accountability” raised by his case.
But now, he despairs of the UN generally:
I still believe in the defence of human rights. I still believe that a universal organization is needed to improve the chances of world peace and progress. But I also believe that without great changes aimed at resurrecting ethical behavior within the UN, the organisation will not be able to successfully address the challenges of today and of tomorrow.
It would be nice to think that Kompass’s case is unusual. It is nothing of the kind. He joins a long line of disenchanted and mistreated UN whistleblowers, at UN agencies including — to name just a few — the World Meteorological Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the UN’s flagship agency, the UN Development Program — which was exposed in 2007, in the Cash-for-Kim scandal, funneling cash and dual-use goods to North Korea.
That’s just a small sampling of the staggering roster of UN scandals, abuses, cover-ups and failures. Along with the apparently chronic problem of peacekeeper rape (despite a policy of “zero tolerance”), and a bigoted fixation on condemning first and foremost the democratic state of Israel, the UN has gone from the globally corrupt 1996-2003 Oil-for-Food relief program for Iraq, to massive bribery and kickback scandals in its procurement department, to narcotics in the mailroom, to the current drama surrounding a former head of the UN General Assembly, the late John Ashe. Ashe was facing criminal charges in a million-dollar-plus bribery case, accused by U.S. prosecutors of having turned his UN post into a “platform for profit,” when — having pleaded not guilty — he was found dead just last week in his Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. home. According to the medical examiner, he was killed in an accident in which a barbell fell on his neck.
If all this sounds like the saga of a global mafia that happens to have acquired diplomatic immunity, plus an annual multi-billion-dollar entitlement from U.S. taxpayers, plus a luxurious headquarters complex in midtown Manhattan, plus a neo-colonial globe-girdling empire of offices, programs, staff, “public-private partnerships,” trust funds and influence, you’ve got the idea.
Meantime, the UN in its role as promoter of world peace has done nothing to effectively deter turf grabs by Russia and China; has given its eager approval to President Obama’s rotten Iran nuclear deal; has failed despite umpteen Security Council resolutions, sanctions and statements to stop North Korea’s nuclear missile program — or for that matter, North Korea’s hideous human rights abuses. In the UN General Assembly, the second-largest voting bloc, the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement, has been chaired since 2012 by the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran.
The UN, for all its trappings of democratic process, is a collective of 193 member states, of which the majority are not free. Their governments do not actually account to the people they pretend to represent. The UN’s system and priorities are such that there is no place for the government of the genuinely democratic Republic of China on Taiwan, but there is a seat, with accompanying privileges, for the totalitarian Kim dynasty of North Korea.
As a rule, the only member state that every so often tries to reform the UN is its chief sugar-daddy, the U.S., with some help from the British and (during the recent tenure of Prime Minister Stephen Harper) the Canadians. As another rule, the UN — with its immunities, opacity and spigots of money flowing as an entitlement from the world’s developed democracies — is pretty much impervious to reform. It’s been tried, over and over. The chief result is a UN that keeps getting bigger, not better.
What is to be done?
Calling for the U.S. to leave the UN sounds unserious. It would be complicated. A leap into the unknown. Any move by a major power, especially the U.S, to massively defund or even exit the UN — mothership of post-World War II multilateral collectives — would meet huge resistance from the same global elite now professing shock and horror over the Brexit. The standard defense of the UN is that it may be imperfect, but it’s all we’ve got.
The real question is, just how imperfect can we afford to let it get, before we start looking quite seriously for a better way? Or, as British voters apparently asked themselves, what are the opportunity costs of sticking with the devil we know? In politics, as in love, getting out of a bad relationship may not be cheap or easy, but in the long-run it can prove a brilliant move. (I’ve been wondering what immediate effect the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence had on markets, as they then were).
As the immediate panic over Brexit subsides, it is time for a serious debate not only about the future of the EU, but the UN, and what might replace these corrosive institutions with arrangements more beneficial to the modern world.