Illusions of Power

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Review of 'Calling the Shots', Phyllis Bennis, Arris £12.99

Phyllis Bennis has written perhaps the best critical history of the UN to date. She briefly covers the foundation of the organisation, describing how it emerged from the machinations of the US State Department and its negotiations with the other victorious powers at the end of the Second World War. However, the bulk of her book covers the period since 1989, the end of the Cold War.

During the Cold War the UN was ineffective as a peacekeeping organisation. Its ability to act was limited by the American and Soviet vetoes on the all-powerful Security Council. The collapse of the USSR left effectively one superpower. Many progressive UN supporters hoped that this might break the deadlock and allow the organisation to assume its true progressive role. These hopes were dashed when Bush Sr was able to bribe and bully the Security Council into sanctioning the first war against Iraq.

The next decade saw a series of disasters under the UN flag - including the intervention in Somalia, the genocide in Rwanda and the massacre at Srebrenica, both the latter while UN peacekeepers looked helplessly on. For the American right, it was convenient to blame the UN for these failures, and the US repeatedly withheld its dues to the organisation.

Bennis brings a mass of evidence to show that these disasters have resulted not from the UN itself, but as a result of the way that the US has dominated the organisation. A combination of its economic and military power has meant that, when moved to do so, the US has almost always been able to get its own way. There are times, of course, when the political and economic effort required means that it is not considered worthwhile. In these cases, the US does its best to exclude the UN.

Calling the Shots provides a detailed analysis of the US's changing attitude to the UN over the last 15 years. In the early 1990s American officials openly admitted that they saw the UN as a tool to be used when convenient and disregarded when not. Since the latter half of the 1990s, under both Clinton and Bush Jr, the UN was increasingly ignored as irrelevant, except perhaps to provide some legitimacy after the US and its allies had bombed or invaded some unfortunate country.

Bennis has some interesting things to say about the recent Iraq war. She celebrates what she sees as the UN's defiant role in the anti-war campaign as part of 'the only triad of forces collectively capable of challenging the US drive towards empire'. The 'triad' she refers to is the UN (admittedly only for a period of 8½ months), a few occasionally supportive states, and the world's second superpower - the magnificent global anti-war movement.

Her concern is that many anti-war activists dismiss the UN as 'imperialism with a human face'. Her aim is to provide a true picture of the role and potential of the organisation. She argues that the failures of the UN are real, but result from its almost complete domination by the US.

I agree that blaming the UN would be a distraction. Its structures reflect the balance of power at the close of the Second World War. The outcomes of current debates reflect the balance of power today. The international diplomats who are nominally in charge only rarely have the room to make their own mistakes.

Despite its many problems, Bennis argues that the UN is our only hope of any form of democratic global governance. I can see the attraction of an organisation where the people of every nation have a voice, but I see no prospect of the UN becoming such an organisation. The full time representatives at the UN are appointed civil servants, never elected. Even when elected representatives take part in UN debates, like our own Jack Straw, there is no guarantee they will represent the will of their people. The only way we can have any hope of forcing these people to listen to us is by mobilising the 'second superpower'.

Despite my political differences, I can strongly recommend this book. A minor gripe would be that despite covering a huge swathe of recent history in some detail, it has no index.