Terrorists and regular armies have their "soft" targets. So do the media. When the president's self-promotion gigs get repetitive and advertisers demand sexed up ratings, gourmet news outlets pick an outrage from a jukebox of standards -- race, sprawl, something toxic or mis-educated, race -- and have at it for a few days. In October, the media's Soft Target of the Month is the United Nations, because Oct. 24 is U.N. Day and there is no more reliable taunt with which to make a nation-full of closet xenophobes peek and hiss.
"Searching for Relevance," goes this year's UN special, an on-going series by the Wall Street Journal. The magazine Prospect, Britain's version of The Atlantic, headlines its October cover story with the easy pun "U.N.CERTAIN." The American journal Foreign Policy goes with a kinder "MisUNdesrtood." The New Republic celebrated the United Nation's 50th anniversary in 1995 with a Happy Birthday-emblazoned, bullet-riddled emblem of the U.N. on the magazine cover, and a parenthetical "Just Kidding" at the bottom of the page. It's an old story. Two decades ago I clipped out a column in The Times titled "The UN's Ongoing Decline," by then-Israeli Ambassador Yehuda Blum. The U.N. has been declining for so long, it's a wonder it ever rose out of the 17 acres of slums and slaughterhouses razed for its headquarters along Manhattan's East River in 1949. Not four years later someone writing in The American Mercury began a 10-page appraisal with the line: "The United Nations, now in its eighth year, is a self-evident futility."
I'm not sure the futility of U.N.-bashing over the years has been any less self-evident. The U.N. has its aberrations. Its blue-helmeted peacekeepers are traffic cops to invading armies. The Human Rights Commission is a lounge for old habitues of repression like Cuba, Libya and Saudi Arabia. A lunch between charges d'affaires in the U.N. cafeteria leads to more action than a Security Council resolution.
But where the UN does most of its work, most of it very effective, is also where it gets the least attention: Poverty and health initiatives, in behalf of children especially, economic development, population control, education -- the sorts of things rich countries blabber about more than they do something about. (The majority of what's left of America's foreign aid is tied up in weapons deals or conditional trade agreements). Even the Security Council, which gets most of the attention and all the blame for the U.N.'s uselessness, is indispensable. The alternative is a world without its only permanent forum, without the one venue where a globe's dirty laundry can be aired and inspected, quite thoroughly at that, even if the cleaning end of the operation is nonexistent. But the UN was never meant to be a world government with its own army of superheroes. It was enough to give the world a collective conscience, which it had absolutely lacked until 1945.
Confusing moral authority with the caliber of a gun is an American specialty of late, the kind of confusion President Bush feels most comfortable with. It wasn't always so. Dedicating Idlewild Airport in New York on July 31, 1948 (John F. Kennedy's name has hijacked Idlewild's since), President Truman focused his speech on the United Nations, calling the airport its "front door." "The basis of our national effort to restore confidence and courage must be unwavering support of the United Nations," he said, words some senators find treasonous these days. Unwavering criticism has been more expedient, and "the international understanding which makes for peace" that Truman talked about at Idlewild has been replaced with Bush's version of understanding as he recently explained it to Bob Woodward: "Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel I owe anybody an explanation." He was speaking for America.
I have great affection for the United Nations. I spent my last three years of high school at the United Nations International School, 20 blocks south of the Headquarters. It's the only place I've known where diversity was more fact than contrivance, the student body being a small-scale replica of the U.N.'s membership. Once a year 11th and 12th graders were given total possession of the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations for the so-called UNIS-U.N. Conference. We'd choose a heady topic (an outrage of our own from the jukebox of standards) and go at it for two days. Famous panelists gave us their spiels. Isaac Asimov showed up one year, the managing editor of The New York Times another. We'd draft resolutions, debate them, adopt one by majority vote, all along discovering exactly why the result was so meaningless.
Our resolutions were no more consequential than those written by the delegates whose seats we occupied for two days. But the consequence wasn't the point. The process was the thing, the distiller of differences, the beginning of understanding. Most of us didn't get it at the time, so U.N.-bashing was one of our favorite pastimes, too. But we had an excuse. We'd yet to grow up.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
© 2003 News-Journal Corporation