Earlier this week, on NBC's Today Show, Katie Couric, America's favourite wake-up gal, saluted the fallen heroes of the Columbia: 'They were an airborne United Nations - men, women, an African-American, an Indian woman, an Israeli....'
Steady on, Katie. They were six Americans plus an Israeli. And, if they had been an 'airborne United Nations', for one thing the Zionist usurper wouldn't have been on board: the UN is divided into regional voting blocs and, Israel being in a region comprised almost entirely of its enemies, it gets frosted out from the organisation's corridors of power; no country gets so little out of its UN membership. Say what you like about Abu Hamza, Britain's most prominent cleric, but in claiming the fate of the shuttle was God's punishment 'because it carried Americans, an Israeli and a Hindu, a trinity of evil against Islam', he was at least paying attention to the particulars of the situation, not just peddling vapid multiculti bromides.
Miss Couric could have said the Columbia was an airborne America - the 'Indian woman', Kalpana Chawla, is the American Dream writ large upon the stars: she emigrated to the US in the Eighties and became an astronaut within a decade. But somehow it wasn't enough to see in the crew's multiple ethnicities a stirring testament to all the possibilities of her own country, so instead Katie upgraded them into an emblem of a far nobler ideal: the UN.
In the days before Miss Couric's observation, there were two notable news items about the United Nations, informing us that: 1) The newly elected chair of the UN Human Rights Commission is Libya; 2) In May, the presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament will pass to Iraq.
But, as Katie demonstrated, no matter what the UN actually is, the initials evoke in her and many others some vague soft-focus picture of Danny Kaye, Audrey Hepburn or some other UN 'special ambassador' surrounded by smiling children of many lands. There were many woozy Western liberals who felt - and still feel - that the theoretical idealism of communism excused all its terrible failures in practice. The UN gets a similar pass but from a far larger number of people. How else to explain all those polls in Britain, Australia and even America that show popular support for war contingent on UN approval? 'The UN' means the Security Council; 'the Security Council' is a negative - it means anything which doesn't prompt France, Russia or China to use their vetoes. I mentioned a few months back those Anglican churchmen who've redefined the Christian concept of a 'just war' to mean only one sanctioned by the UN, and said I couldn't see why it should be left to two atheists and a lapsed Catholic to decide whether this is a war Christians could support. But amazingly the Anglican position has now been embraced by huge majorities of the British, Australian and American peoples: only the UN can confer moral respectability on the war.
I can't see it myself. UN support for the war presently depends on Washington giving certain understandings to France. Nothing very moral about that. Some of us think the Iraqi people should be allowed to decide for themselves whether, post-Saddam, they want anything to do with the dictator's best pal, M. Chirac. But no, apparently the moral position is to hole up in the smoke-filled rooms until Jacques comes around.
So I find myself in a position the pollsters don't seem to have provided for: I support a US-led war against Saddam, but not a UN war. My reasoning derives from the first Gulf war: as Colin Powell explained in his memoirs, one of the reasons for not pressing on to victory was that to do so would have risked 'fracturing' the international coalition. In the multilateralist paperwork, the members of the coalition get alphabetical billing, so the United States comes last. You know who's first? Afghanistan. What did they contribute? Three hundred mujahedin. Don't laugh, that's more than some Nato members managed. Ninety per cent of the countries who made up Bush Sr's Stanley Gibbons collect-the-set coalition - Belgium, Senegal, Honduras - wouldn't have been involved in taking Baghdad and storming the presidential palace, but all claimed the right to act as a drag on those who would have. So the UN-ification of the first Gulf war is a big part of the reason it ended so unsatisfactorily. Those Republicans who think making Bush dance through the UN hoops this time round is merely a harmless interlude had better be confident that the same pressures won't again undermine American purpose at a critical stage in the conflict.
But that's not the main objection. When the first President Bush sought UN blessing for the liberation of Kuwait, he was attempting something very bold: he wanted the organisation to start living up to its founding ideals after the 45-year stalemate of the Cold War. Now that the great ideological conflict of the late 20th century had been settled, the UN could turn the lofty charge of its charter's vision - to preserve 'international peace and security' - into reality. Instead, what happened is that it remained as sleazy, corrupt and devious as ever, but now with an absurdly inflated sense of its own importance. More to the point, as all those polls show, George Bush Sr's solicitude towards the UN redefined the word 'multilateralism': it now means the UN and nothing else; no matter how many dozens of allies the US has, unless it goes through the UN it's acting 'unilaterally'. Indeed, it's now 'illegitimate' to go to war unless under the auspices of the UN. This is a very recent fetish - it wasn't an argument you heard during the Falklands or Grenada or Panama - and the blame for it attaches mostly to the first Bush and the first Gulf war.
It's easy to make criticisms of the UN, starting with the familiar one that its Security Council structure is the second world war victory parade preserved in aspic. Fair enough. But in 1945, when they were passing out the vetoes, they at least reflected the geopolitical realities of the day. (Aside from the French veto, that is, which was largely unearned. Canada would have been more deserving, given our respective contributions to the war effort.) When the Cold War began, the UN structure quickly ossified into two mutually obstructive veto-wielding blocs: whatever its defects, this too neatly distilled the political realities of the age. But since the collapse of the Commies, the UN has reflected not the new realities but a new unreality, an illusion.
In the real world, Libya is an irrelevance. So is Cuba, and Syria. In the old days, the ramshackle dictatorships were proxies for heavyweight patrons, but not any more. These days President Sy Kottik represents nobody but himself. Yet somehow, in the post-Cold War talking shops, the loonitoons' prestige has been enhanced: the UN, as the columnist George Jonas put it, enables 'dysfunctional dictatorships to punch above their weight'. Away from Kofi and co., the world is moving more or less in the right direction: entire regions that were once tyrannies are now flawed but broadly functioning democracies - Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America. The UN has been irrelevant to this transformation. Its structures resist reform and the principal beneficiaries are the thug states.
The Libya vote is instructive. There are 53 members of the Human Rights Commission. Thirty-three voted for the Colonel. Three voted against - the United States, Canada and Guatemala (God bless her). Seventeen countries abstained, including Britain. Is that really the position of Her Majesty's Government? Not really, and they've all manner of artful explanations for why the vote went as it did - it was the Africa bloc's turn to get the chairmanship, they only put up one candidate, the EU guys had all agreed to vote as a bloc, they didn't want to appear to snub Africa, blah blah. So the net result of filtering Britain's voice up through one multilateral body (the EU) into another (the UN) is that you guys are now on record as having no objection to the leading international body on human rights being headed by a one-man police state that practises torture and assassination and has committed mass murder within your own jurisdiction.
That's a microcosm of everything that's wrong with UN-style multilateralism. There aren't a lot of Gaddafis, but their voice is amplified because of the democratic world's investment in UN proceduralism. Some of those abstainers are just Chiraquiste cynics: any time the Americans don't get their way is a victory for everybody else. Others believe the world would be a genuinely better place if it was run through global committees staffed by a transnational mandarin elite of urbane charmers: that's an undemocratic concept, and one shouldn't be surprised that it finds itself in the same voting lobby as the dictatorships. In an ideal world, you'd like the joint run by Mary Robinson and Chris Patten, but at a pinch Gaddafi and Assad will do: transnationalism is its own raison d'