Unanswered Questions at a United Nations Association Conference

I was not looking forward to The United Nations Association Leadership Summit. What concerned me was not the seminars or panels with veteran US diplomats in DC. Rather, I was concerned with the events of the conference’s last day, when UNA members would head to Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional staffers. I confess that I am rather uncomfortable among politicos and upwardly-mobile, lanyard-wearing types; but it was actually the seminars, not the lobbying, that ended up being the most concerning for me.

The Congressional staffers we met with were attentive, or were at least able to imitate attentiveness. I even feel that I made some headway with the staff of the more reactionary and nationalist Congresspeople. Unfortunately, I am less certain that I made any headway in discussions with the UNA members themselves. During the conference, I asked several questions intended to challenge what I considered to be weaknesses of the organization, to mixed results:

On the Permanent Veto

Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering led a panel titled “The State of Multilateralism”. Ambassador Pickering served as the US Ambassador to the UN from 1989-1992. The topic of this panel was largely centered on the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the world community at large: The proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget (which represents around 1% of US GDP annually), Nicki Haley’s threat to cut aid to states that don’t vote with the US, and Trump’s general inability to speak coherently to other world leaders.

A frequent complaint from Ambassador Pickering was the use of the permanent veto. The veto is a function of the UN Charter itself: Any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, Britain, France, Russia, China) can immediately halt any UNSC action by casting a vote in the negative. The ambassador cited the frequent use of the veto by Russia and China to protect its allies that commit human rights abuses.

I told the ambassador that in the course of writing my thesis, I found that the veto was in part the creation of Joseph Stalin, who wanted to continue his purges and ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe without UN interference. Given that the very inception of the veto was to allow for mass murder, why have it at all? Why privilege state sovereignty over human rights? The ambassador’s response was surprisingly satisfying: While he, as a veteran US diplomat, could not argue for abolishing the veto, he did articulate a powerful reform: Only allowing the veto in cases directly pertaining to the existence of the state. While this would not be enough to curb state-sponsored atrocities, it was still quite heartening to see a veteran US diplomat acknowledge that the current paradigm was insufficient.

On Climate Change

I was interested to attend the “Action on Climate Change” panel, as the problem of the environment is exactly what the UN was created for: a transnational issue that individual member states are incapable of solving on their own. Unfortunately, the ideas presented were rather small-bore and sometimes flat-out unhelpful.

I was especially annoyed by Elan Strait’s comments.  Strait is the Director of the US Climate Campaign of the World Wildlife Fund. He laid out a vision of climate change policy in which governmental agencies work with corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s to “green” businesses and public institutions. Against this effort, he said, stands the administration of Donald Trump. He also claimed that he had no idea why climate change denial existed. I objected strenuously to this: It is corporations like Wal-Mart who fund far-right candidates, fueling climate change denial. Why, I asked, would concerned citizens team up with the wealthy, who fundamentally are the malefactors in this case? I articulated the belief that capitalism itself is the problem. He replied that while he understood my concern that corporations “greenwash” their policies while doing nothing, it was easier to work with such people than against them.

I found this profoundly unsatisfying. I was less concerned with “greenwashing” than I was with the coming collapse of global ecosystems and the mass death that could easily result from the same. Later, moderator Julie Cerqueira, Executive Director of the US Climate Alliance of the UN Foundation, mentioned something similar, quipping about “market forces.” To me, this kind of business-friendly gradualism in the face of absolute catastrophe seemed like fiddling while Rome burns.

On US-Backed Human Rights Abuses

One of the nights of the Leadership Summit culminated in a dinner at the United States Institute of Peace, an “independent institution devoted to the nonviolent prevention and mitigation of deadly conflict abroad.” I asked the Director of Public Education, Ann-Louise Colgan, if the USIP ever studied conflicts and human rights abuses committed by US-backed regimes. “We’re Congressionally funded, so probably not,” she said. I have to admit, her honesty was refreshing.

I really shouldn’t have been as frustrated with the above as I was. The UNA-USA is, after all, an American organization dedicated to advancing the goals of the UN and promoting a strong US presence within the UN system. Its governing ideology could best be described as liberal internationalism. UNA-USA President Chris Whatley described himself as a “liberal Republican”, for instance. There seemed to be underlying assumptions among many of the speakers, namely that the world-system established by the United States and the other allies in 1945 was fundamentally good. This includes the dominance of the great powers and economic inequality.

This means that the UNA-USA, and the UN itself, is rooted in the world-system, and not in any substantive effort to overthrow said system. My politics have moved significantly to the left since I began to serve in the UNA. Therefore, the redeeming qualities of the liberal, post-1945 world-system seem less appealing to me than they once did.

At least the Leadership Summit was better than UN Member’s Day, which I attended in 2017. This was even more nonpartisan and milquetoast than USA-USA 2018. Personnel at Member’s Day asked us to mass-text Nicki Haley to thank her for her service. I refrained.

But I maintain that my disappointment with the UNA-USA Leadership Summit was not simply my own petulance. Together, the attendees grappled with some of the world’s greatest challenges, and only yielded unambitious solutions. It’s difficult to fault me for not getting excited about carbon tax credits for mega-corporations.

The reader can take some solace that on the last day of the Summit, UNA-USA members split into several teams and spoke with congressional staffers about the importance of the US’s role within the UN. The Trump administration has frequently threatened to stop paying UN dues, and as of my writing this, has pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council. But despite the above critiques, I genuinely believe the US should strive for a seat at the table at the United Nations. It brings me a little comfort than UNA-USA personnel had an effect, however small, towards that goal.

Note: Adam Michael Levin is the Vice-President of the United Nations Association of St. Louis, MO.