Happy United Nations Day! What United Nations Day?
Today, Friday, October 24, is United Nations Day. If you are in the United States, however, your reaction is more likely to be – huh? What United Nations Day? This is not a feature of a right-wing blackout to prevent takeover by the ‘black helicopters’ – neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post (I checked the paper copies, being one of the last out of town subscribers to the NYT willing to pay $650 a year for home delivery, although in the current circumstances that expenditure might get reconsidered) mentioned it at all, at least in the A sections of the papers. I might have missed something in the last couple of days, but I don’t recall seeing anything earlier, either.
What is this gap about? My anecdotal sense is that even among elites, and international law elites, in the United States, the UN is a combination of ever-so-slightly passe and a bit of an embarrassment. Everyone is in favor of it in principle, as a matter of platonic principle of the glorious future it has as the global seat of global governance – but no one really wants to get very close to the unattractive, unappetizing details of its less than glorious present. International law academics, in my highly anecdotal view, have embraced instead the world of international tribunals which, not coincidentally, are much more amenable to influence, funding, advocacy and so on by the international law community than a UN which, in its General Assembly apparatus, is simply an expression of the lockstep majority.
I suppose I tend to more aware of these issues than most US international law academics, not because I think highly of the UN – on the contrary, I don’t share the global governance platonism at all – but because, as a critic, I find I take it more seriously than do many who are platonists about it. (It helps that I am (at last) completing a short book essay on the subject, which has caused me to pay attention to the rather dismaying details. Current title is Returning to Earth: Long Term Principles of US-UN Relations.) I talked with a number of people about this after Paul Kennedy’s Wall Street Journal op-ed came out on elections to the Security Council, on which I blogged earlier – the academics I spoke with candidly said they hadn’t the faintest idea what the elections were about or whom, and didn’t think it much mattered – certainly that it mattered much less than Paul Kennedy or, for that matter, I thought it did. And they are probably right; yet if their views on the evolution of global governance and liberal internationalism are also right, there is some kind of mild inconsistency. I attack the platonist view in this Revista de Libros essay, in English, reviewing the appearance of Paul Kennedy’s The Parliament of Man, here.
Outside of the United States is a different story, as a glance at the news coverage shows. UN Day is mostly, as far as news coverage goes, a matter of poorer, often newer countries, for whom the UN is an important symbol and forum, even today, of decolonialization and the idea that it is a power center as against or, at least alternative to, the industrialized West. Outside the United States,too, there are stirrings of criticism of the UN under Ban Ki Moon – a much more low key affair than under the rock star era of Kofi Annan; while I think the ratcheting down of rhetoric and expectations for the present or the future is a good thing for all concerned, others criticize from another direction entirely, that the UN is not visible enough. Meanwhile in the United States, however, unless you are a kid in the annual elementary school parade, or a member of the Silk Road Ensemble playing for the commemoration in New York, it is mostly a non-event. I do not think that a bad thing, myself, but then I’m no great UN fan; more striking, rather, is how much it is a non-event even for those for whom I might have thought it might at least be somewhere on the calendar.