In the last few years, we've commemorated a number of fiftieth anniversaries: the ending of World War II and its most notable battlefields in Europe and Asia. The release of prisoners from Auschwitz, and the subsequent war crimes trials in Nuremberg. The first use of atomic weapons, and the founding of the United Nations.
For those of us old enough to remember these events, it was a time of emotional, if not actual, pilgrimage into the past. And a time of intense soul-searching, perhaps never before experienced in the history of the world. I doubt that we will ever really settle, for example, the controversy over whether or not it was actually necessary to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Conversely, I hope that, despite the efforts of historical revisionists, we will never forget the lessons of the Holocaust.
Most of these memorial observances were for one-time events - even if some of these events have ramifications for the rest of time. But that was not the case with the UN's fiftieth anniversary in 1995 - the UN is an ongoing, evolving institution which is still very much a part of our everyday lives in one way or another. For all its flaws, the UN has already lasted over twice as long as its predecessor, the League of Nations. And, unlike the League, the UN has, against unprecedented odds, helped spare humanity the cost of a third, and probably final, global confrontation.
Despite the intense commitment of Woodrow Wilson to world peace, to our everlasting shame our isolationist Senate refused to ratify this country's membership in the League of Nations. Thus the UN marked the emergence of the United States as a mature political force. Europe, so long the center of international power, was in shambles. So it was virtually undisputed that this country, rather than Switzerland, was selected as the primary residence for this renewed endeavor.
Another mark of the post-war era was the advent of television. When the dramatic UN building on New York's East River had its official opening in 1951, it became a natural focus for this new medium. If you lived in New York City during the 50's, this dynamic institution was making headlines almost every day.
From the beginning, the UN built in a mechanism to achieve public awareness, by proclaiming the observance of October 24 (the day when its ratified charter became operational) as United Nations Day.
Franklin Roosevelt had literally named the UN. Eleanor Roosevelt continued her husband's commitment to world peace, and was appointed by Truman as a UN delegate, with a major portfolio in human rights. UN notables such as Trygve Lie, Dag Hammerskjold and Ralph Bunch became household names. Eventually, US political figures such as Adlai Stevenson and Andrew Young also rose to international prominence. Despite the growing interference of the Soviets, international crises such as Indonesia, Pakistan, the Suez and Kuwait found their resolution in this body. For years, a major topic of formal and informal debate was whether "Red China" should be admitted into the UN.
The UN's alphabet soup of agencies became acknowledged as the world standard: the IMF, GATT, ILO and the UN High Commission for Refugees. America's visionaries from all walks of life aligned themselves with such altruistic endeavors as the World Health Organization and UNESCO; our children helped their peers by collecting money for UNICEF on Halloween. Across the country each year thousands of us gathered with high hopes on UN Day. And our denomination was one of several mainline religious groups to establish an official UN office.
So why is it that, more than fifty years later, we hear criticism of the UN from so many quarters? Why is it that the agency that eliminated smallpox, served as a buffer in 35 peacekeeping commissions, resettled more than thirty million destitute refugees, more than tripled its membership, and focused worldwide attention on ecological concerns, famine relief, and the social, political and economic rights of women and children is now as little regarded by many congressional leaders as was the League of Nations?
Much as we may wish for a utopian panacea, I think it's fair to say that there is no perfect human institution. For one thing, the UN's initial ambitions were overblown...unrealistic in their expectation that member nations would surrender their sovereign power to wage war to a supranational force, and rally to the rescue of any country regardless of how remote the peril might be to self-interest. For another, the UN keeps asking for increased funding to support its efforts at the very time its bloated bureaucracy is on the verge of bankruptcy.
The central UN has no significant power to oversee the budgets of the many agencies - often overlapping in mission and scope - which it has spawned. Nor does it wield the power to enforce the standards it has established. Historically, the UN played only a peripheral role in such major world events as the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the Camp David Accords and the European Common Market. As with our own faltering foreign policy, the UN has yet to find a new focus since the collapse of Soviet communism.
Madeline Albright, when she was US Ambassador to the UN, stated bluntly that the UN must reform or die. As a starting point, she recommended a temporary moratorium on costly UN conferences. Further, the US State Department issued a ten-page paper on specific monetary and administrative reforms. The UN itself established a new post of Under Secretary General for Internal Oversight, and the former CEO of Price Waterhouse was put in charge of UN administration and management, with ambitions to replace the prevailing patronage system with a professional international civil service system.
But reform needs to be more than fiscal. As early as 1958 Eisenhower warned the UN that "This world of individual nations is not going to be controlled by one power or any one group of powers or ideology," advocating instead a New England "live and let live" philosophy. Nelson Mandella called for restructuring the UN to better reflect the world as it is now, including ending the monopoly of western nations to permanent seats on the Security Council.
One of the most thoughtful calls for reform was issued recently by the Baha'i faith's UN office. The cornerstone of the Baha'i faith is world peace, which they envision as coming to a final, perfect conclusion when the entire world has embraced its religion. Baha'is note that Woodrow Wilson's daughter was of their faith, and thus had a pronounced influence on her father's staunch support of the League of Nations concept. Further, they assert that the term "new world order" was first used over a hundred years ago by their prophet, Baha'u'llah, rather than George Bush. In keeping with their beliefs, Baha'is seldom get involved in day-to-day political issues, concentrating instead on long-range projects, such as the need to end racial disharmony, which delay the realization of peace and prosperity for all. Thus their statement, which calls for grassroots engagement, deserves thoughtful consideration.
While acknowledging the achievements of the UN and the non-government organizations, the Baha'i paper cautions that decision-making should be at the appropriate level, with UN action taken only in those cases when worldwide resolve is required. In a pragmatic vein, the Baha'is propose the establishment of a task force to begin a rigorous search for alternate methods of funding. That the US is presently $1.3 billion in arrears is a scandal - one which could cost us our vote in the General Assembly. Yes, the money was finally appropriated, but Congress doomed it to presidential veto by tacking on an unrelated anti-abortion measure. Thus it is a major understatement in the Baha'i proposal that voluntary payments by member nations are unreliable. They also echo Mandella's call for more realistic representation, would require that new members adhere to the International Bill of Rights, and that there be strict sanctions for members not observing these rights, as well as other UN resolutions.
The Baha'is further call for a common international language and currency. In terms of administrative functions, they would establish a special commission, rather than the World Court, to arbitrate conflicts on national boundaries, limit the use of the veto, apply the notion of collective security beyond armed conflict to such international problems as drug trafficking, food supply and pandemics, establish an International Force to hasten disarmament, and extend the jurisdiction of the World Court.
They advocate that priority UN emphasis for the next decade should be to promote economic development through programs which discourage dependency, the protection of human rights, advancing the status of women (including their increased presence at the UN), and emphasizing moral development. Towards this latter goal Baha'is contend that there exists a common set of values: rectitude of conduct, honesty and trustworthiness, altruism, respect for the rights of others, and service in the common good. And that these moral values should be taught in the world's schools with the open influence of organized religion, despite the doctrine of separation of church and state. Thus personal integrity would become the hallmark of not only the world's leaders, but of all the world's citizens.
Despite its careful caveats regarding the cautionary use of centralized power and institutions, there is much in the Baha'i proposal (as well as in the present structure of the UN) which, taken out of context, could inflame the paranoia in this country regarding the perceived take-over by the "new world order." When I lived in South Bend, a local Baptist minister burned the UN flag on the courthouse steps. In defending this ritual action, Rev. Hanel declared that the UN is a deceptive Trojan horse, bent on disarming citizens, limiting family size and making all children wards of the state, and restricting freedoms of speech and religion. Such a stance is also part and parcel of the scapegoat politics of Pat Buchanan, whose inflammatory dialog searches for images that will terrify his listeners. As such, the UN in his hands is construed as a godless force which would rob this nation of its founding virtue of individualism.
There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by returning to a self-serving isolationism. In good conscience we cannot fault the UN for lack of resolve in the early days of the Bosnian conflict, for example, when the failure was with its member nations, including our own. Would we rather leave one-world initiatives to the multi-national corporations whose only responsibility is to their own bottom lines?
There is virtually nothing that happens in any part of the world that will not have some sort of effect on our lives. The world is truly an interdependent web. So, if only out of self interest, we need to be in a position to monitor and influence as appropriate the ways of this world. But I would hope that our continued involvement in the UN would go beyond self interest. For the most part, I'm a pragmatic person. Yet with all my heart I hope that the Baha'i goals of altruism and moral responsibility and integrity can be achieved. These are goals worth working for. Peace is a goal worth working for. And $1.3 billion is a comparatively small price to pay.
United Nations Day passed quietly this year. I read of no local observances. Nothing in the national news magazines. Only the ominous report of the funding veto. Is this an institution that has outlived its usefulness? For all its flaws, as Canada's Lester Pearson said on its twenty-fifth anniversary, " If the UN did not exist, we would have to establish it." Can this nation - this world - afford to be without a major institution for peace? How many more chances will we get? Amen