The United Nations as a 20th Century Myth


United Nations: The Myth Of The 20th Century

Irish Neutrality

Ireland preserved a general right of neutrality until 1955, and then relinquished it. Since 1956, it has only had a right of neutrality with regard to conflicts on which the Security Council is divided. By joining the United Nations, it signed away its soul to the five great military powers which, under the Charter, have control of that body. It agreed that it would, when called upon, provide cannon fodder for the wars of the Security Council, just or unjust.

Garret FitzGerald states what is indisputable when he says:

“We may have reservations about many aspects of the Gulf War, but we are not entitled to claim the right to pick and choose which U.N. Security Council decisions we will accept” (Time To Face Up To Our Responsibilities, Irish Times, 26.1.91).

Article 43 of the UN Charter says:

“All members of the UN … undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage.”

Article 45:

“In order to enable the United Nations to take urgent military measures, Members shall hold immediately available national air-force contingents for combined international enforcement action. The strength and degree of readiness of these contingents and plans for their combined action shall be determined, within the limits laid down by the special agreement. .. , by the Security Council with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee.”

Article 48:

“The action to carry out the decisions of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security shall be taken by all the Members of the United Nations or by some of them, as the Security Council may determine.”

By signing the Charter, Ireland made a contract to fight in wars declared by the Security Council without having any right to be consulted about whether war should be declared. (The clause about special arrangements has no bearing on the principle. In the nature of things a general obligation is met in a particular case by a particular arrangement for putting it into effect.)

Anyone who can read a set of rules and envisage an organisation functioning under them should be able to tell from reading the Charter what sort of organisation the United Nations is. And yet professional commentators (i.e., people who are paid to give their opinions and who therefore might be expected to do an elementary thing like reading the Charter) are almost all of the opinion that the United Nations is, or was intended to be, something which the Charter carefully arranged that it could not be. The Corkman is the only paper I have seen which opposed the War on Iraq straightforwardly, and felt no need to make ritual obeisance to the supposed ideals of the United Nations while doing so.

Illusive UN

Even Dr., FitzGerald, while pointing out that Ireland has no right to support only just wars waged by the Security Council, expresses illusions about the UN. He says:

“The United Nations is not and never was intended to be a kind of tame pussy cat confined to patrolling peace lines after conflicts between states had ended with one or other side victorious. It was established to enforce the rule of law.”

It is perfectly true that the UN was not intended to be something harmless. It was not intended to be a peace-keeping influence on states which were at war, but as a body which would make war in its own right. Its originator, President Roosevelt, devised it as an organisation by means of which the dominant military Powers of 1945 would control the world, and would bomb into submission any state which challenged their dominance:

“The President related the conversation which he had had with Clark Eichelberger with respect to the League of Nations Association. He suggestion the name be changed to ‘The United Nations Association’ … The central idea involves a situation where there are four policemen in the world-the US. Great Britain, Russia and China-charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace. The rest of the world would have to disarm … Inspection would be arranged by the four policemen in all the countries to see that they did not begin to arm secretly… As soon as any of the other nations were caught arming they would be threatened first with a quarantine and if the quarantine did not work they would be bombed: (White House Memorandum, 13 November 1942. Published in The Roosevelt Letters. France was added as a fifth policeman on Churchill’s insistence. China was given a Permanent Seat because it was then an American sphere of influence but, after the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, the new Chinese Government was kept out of the UN for more than 20 years).

The structure of the UN was systematically worked out in accordance with Roosevelt’s blueprint. When Stalin was asked to participate, he objected that the League of Nations had condemned the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939 and tried to arrange international intervention in support of Finland. The British and American leaders explained to him that, under the rules of the United Nations, such a thing would not be possible. The General Assembly would have no power of action, and the Security Council could not act against the interests of any of the Permanent Powers.

Roosevelt did not pretend to be establishing a system of international law. His aim was to establish a mechanism of order under the military dominance of the world by America, Britain, and Russia. The world was to be organised into a system of order which suited the interests of the three great military Powers and was to be kept that way by the authority of those Powers.

Law Or Order?

Order was not to be maintained through the medium of law. Law and Order are very different things. Order may or may not result from law. In the United States itself, which is the country where law plays the greatest part in society, orderly behaviour is far from commonplace. And, in some of the most orderly societies, there is little recourse to law by individuals.

Fine Gael got very confused about Law and Order in 1927-31. It got into a state of paranoia about the development of the anti-Treatyites into Fianna Fail. It tried to check its growth by ‘law and order’ harassment. But the law to which it resorted was increasingly emergency law. And emergency law is almost a contradiction in terms. Emergency law is a measure which over-rides the law. (When the British Government found it necessary to break the law for the purpose of maintaining order, Parliament made it immune from prosecution by Indemnity Acts. I think that Indemnity Acts do less damage to law than rule by emergency laws does.)

Fine Gael has never recovered from its ‘law and order’ rampage of 192 7-31. The middle ground shifted away from it then because order maintained by emergency law is brittle. Fianna Fail became the major party because it knew the difference between Law and Order, and had the political ability to maintain order through the medium of ordinary law.

Perhaps it is understandable that Dr. FitzGerald, a product of Fine Gael culture, should look at the United Nations and see its purpose as being to enforce the rule of law, because in his vocabulary law and order are synonyms. But there is nothing in the structure of the UN which would mislead anybody who knows that law and order are different categories of things into supposing that it is an institution based on law. Perhaps people projected onto the UN ideals which had nothing to do with it, but it must be said in defence of the founders of the UN that they did not attempt to deceive anybody about what they were setting up.

(Switzerland is the most democratic, though not the most progressive, state in the world. It is the oldest democracy. It developed itself as a democracy, while being surrounded by powerful and hostile feudal or absolute states, therefore it does not use the phrases of democracy as the small coin of political banter, as the vast majority of other states do. Switzerland refused to join the United Nations and armed itself to maintain its independence against the world. It is the only state of any consequence which is entitled to be neutral in a Security Council war. All other states are under contractual obligation to support the Security Council.)

If the UN had been designed to function within a system of international law, neither Russia nor America would have joined and, if Britain had joined, it would have been with Jesuitical reservations. President Wilson in 1918-19 had devised the League of Nations to function as a framework of international law, and the Congress had refused to let the USA join it. Congress is the guardian of the absolute sovereignty of the USA. To get its approval for joining the United Nations, Roosevelt had to make it crystal clear that it would not thereby be placing itself under a system of international law.

The United Nations cannot be the framework of a system of international law because its Charter leaves the five most powerful states in the world free to do as they please, and it often pleases them to invade other states. And, with the Permanent Members of the Security Council themselves giving such bad example, the United Nations is also unfit to impose order on the world by moral authority. The present war against Iraq, which everyone knows is a one-off affair, serves neither a purpose of law nor a purpose of order. The human spirit, which has resisted the systematic use of massive power, is unlikely to prostrate itself before one exceptional and disgraceful use of it.

Perhaps an individual within a state may collapse morally in the face of capricious use of power against him. Britain and America (and Douglas Hurd in particular) seemed to believe in August 1990 that states would bow the head to lawless intimidation as a large proportion of individuals will do within a state. I ventured to differ with them:

“A clear and consistent application of a law is more necessary, not less necessary, where the subjects of law are states rather than individuals. States cannot be overawed by the sheer power of police when the law is capricious, as individuals might be” (p. 5, The Crisis Jn Iraq, Bevin Society, August 190).

If there was a system of international law in operation in the world, I’m sure Iraq would not have occupied Kuwait. If Kuwait had been a real state, and not a concoction for retaining Western control of Arab oil after the formal ending of colonialism, I’m sure Iraq would not have occupied it. If Kuwait had not behaved with particular malice against Iraq after Iraq had saved it from the fundamentalist wave from Iran, there would have been no invasion. If America had made it clear through diplomatic channels that it would go to war if Kuwait was invaded, there would have been no invasion. And if, after the invasion, America and Britain had taken the attitude that Iraq should withdraw in return for a new frontier settlement, the system of international law would not have collapsed, because no such system exists, or had existed even in aspiration since 1939.

But, given how the USA and Kuwait had behaved up to 2nd August 1990, it was not realistic to expect that Iraq would subsequently behave as an individual might in the face of threatening behaviour by policemen who had tricked him.

War And The English

England is without a doubt the most militaristic nation in Europe. I state that as n obvious fact, not as a criticism. It is a fact which may be to its credit or its discredit. I am only concerned to say that it is a fact.

The last threat to English national security was in 1588. During the four centuries since then, various European nations have gone through a militaristic phase. Only in England, which had the least cause for it in concerns of self-defence, has militarism not been a phase but a permanent condition. From which it follows inescapably that the English are the most warlike people in Europe.

Spain declined as a military Power within a generation of the Armada. Since then the Dutch, who had to develop a considerable military capacity in order to establish themselves as a state, have been militarists for a while, as have the Belgians. The Swedes were briefly one of the greatest military Powers. The Germans roused themselves out oflethargy for two hundred years. Only the French continue, after a fashion, to emulate the permanent militarism of the English. And, for the past six months, the English have been jeering at them as wimps because their warmongering has been comparatively sluggish.

The English revel in warfare as only a people which is neither volatile nor vivacious can. As a people they are dour and parochial, though humorous. They have no national culture and therefore they cannot have a system of national education. Their flair for living all went into Puritanism. It is not exhilarating to be amongst them, as it is to be amongst the Italians, French or Spaniards, nor does it induce a philosophical feeling of well-being like a German environment. England is a conglomeration of parishes unified by a gentry, and that pattern of life is so strong that, as the traditional gentry decline, Yuppies are gentrified by the expectations of the peasantry.

A digest of economic statistics tells us little about the real life of England. That is, it does not enable one to anticipate how England will behave. For the purpose of anticipating behaviour, it is best to think of England as it was two hundred years ago, and to assume that the peasantry will follow the lead which the gentry give, and that the gentry will give the lead which the peasantry expect, even though, in terms of economic abstraction, there are hardly any peasants in England today and none of the gentry are genteel.

Very few ideas have gripped the dour, parochial and comical imaginations of the English. The idea of warfare is one which has. The English peasantry, by which I mean the lower middle class and a large part of the working class, still sees itself slogging it out with foreigners and getting the better of them through sheer pig-ignorant stubbornness.

The English have contributed little or nothing to military tactics. That is not their way. They do not see themselves as being clever. They despise cleverness. On the other hand, it would not be right to say that they take pleasure in the sheer brutality of warfare, because they are largely insensitive to that brutality. But their way is to slog it out, line against line, without any great concern to get it over with.

The three years of trench warfare, from 1915 to 1917, is one of the most appalling things in human history. England declared war on Germany without any reason of national security for doing so. For Germany, encircled by hostile states with immense armies, preparation for war was a matter of survival. It tried to win with a speed and flair and minimum human losses all round. And its opening manoeuvres almost finished the war. But England had made careful preparations to counter that manoeuvre. And, once the German sweep into France had been stopped, all Germany could hope to do was establish a defensive line against superior numbers and armaments and inflict sufficient casualties on the attacking force to get a peace move more or less on the lines of the opening status qua. But England wasn’t interested in peace. It designated Germany as evil incarnate in order to rule out thought on the matter, and declared its intention of doing the only right thing with evil, which is to wipe it out.

For more than three years, England assaulted the fortified German trench lines, disdaining even the use of machine guns. They assaulted with rifle and bayonet, because it is a well known fact that fancy foreigners don’t like it up ’em. They themselves were slaughtered in droves, but that didn’t seem to matter much to them, because they had taken on a collective existence, like ants. They made homes in the trenches and sang funny songs.

I saw Frank McGuinness’s play, Behold The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme in Belfast last year. It was painful watching a nationalist Irish mind attempting to envisage the human element which made the Somme possible. As the moment for going over the top approached, the behaviour of the little platoon (which is the scene of play) becomes increasingly bizarre and volatile. And that got it as wrong as could be. The Somme, and the half-dozen other battles like it, were the culmination of the English method of warfare, and they were possible only because the English imagination takes that sort of thing in its stride. And the really dreadful thing is that the war was won by battles like the Somme.

The French had no stomach for it. But for the English, the war would have ended half-way through under some arrangement which would have been much more conducive to long-term peace than the arrangement made in 1919. But the English were determined to outlast the forces of Evil and to parade in smug, self-righteous triumph over them, so they filled up the spaces in the line caused by French mutinies, and soldiered on to victory and the catastrophic Treaty of Versailles. (England is much better at starting wars than at concluding them with a functional peace settlement.)

English Existentialism

England is at war again in 1991, and therefore it is at ease. The problems of existence, which have been a source of profound depression to it for a number of years, have been shelved for the time being. It is back in the familiar and reassuring routine of warfare-and historical experience tells it that a war, if it is big enough, can ward off problems of existence for a very long time. It is therefore doing its utmost to expand this war far beyond what anybody supposed was intended by the Security Council Resolutions.

Labour’s Neil Kinnock, who is trying hard to be English, declares that the destruction oflraq-that is, of the state which exists in the region called Iraq-is not a war aim: it is much better than a war aim, he says, because it is a peace aim. But that is a much too lucid form of gibberish. The incomprehensible patter of War Secretary, Tom King, is much more in the traditional English style. He slithers all over the place, but in the process establishes the feeling that the world East of Suez needs to be reordered, and that the war provides the opportunity for getting a grip on it again.

Fortunately, it is not down to the English this time.

The war will last as long as the Americans want it to. And, though the Americans are not less warlike than the English, they are warlike in a different way and for a different purpose.

England needed this war because the development of the Common Market was starting to prey on its mind.

Though the English pioneered industrial capitalism, they are not an industrious people. As militarists they opened most of the world to their manufactured goods, but their industry was quickly overtaken once other peoples, more sociable in character, got the hang of capitalism.

England has a declining economy, on which Thatcherism has made little impression. Thatcher’s concern was with money rather than with industry, and the easier the money was got, the better. The City of London was her province. English manufacturers realised years ago that she was not on their wavelength. Sterling was all-important to her, both as a symbol of national sovereignty against the Europeans and as a source of accumulation of wealth by money-changing. To the manufacturers, the maintenance of sterling came to be seen only as an obstacle to trade with what was supposed to be a Common Market.

England has not flourished economically in the Common Market. But the development of the Common Market, combined with the loss of Empire and the emergence of strong capitalist economies in the least expected places, means that it cannot hope to make its own way in the world economically, without accelerating its economic decline. The signs of desperation in traditional ruling class circles have been much in evidence these past few years.

Thatcher might say “No, no, no!” in Europe, but everyone knew that, if she did not give way each year on what she had said the previous year she would not give way on, Europe would just detach itself from England.

A year ago she had her notorious secret meeting with ‘experts’. Her great concern then was to ward off the unification of Germany. She was relying on Gorbachev to do that for her. But Gorbachev had given the go-ahead for German unity by the time the minutes of the Chequers meeting were leaked.

The hope then was that German unification would cause a rift with France and disrupt European development. When it became clear that France accepted German unification, and Germany remained committed to European development, the only hope for England (for the bulk of the Tory Party and for much of the Labour Party, whose belated Europeanism was hardly skin deep), was some massive external diversion which would mess up the Common Market.

England determined on war on August 2nd, because it needed a war. It decided on war long before America did. And they are telling no lie when they say the war is not just about oil.

Thatcher, Hurd and King saw the occupation of Kuwait as one of those acts of Providence with which the prayer of the National Anthem is periodically rewarded. They did not act as if their concern was to secure a return of Kuwait to the strange nation of Kuwaitis. They acted as if they were determined not to let the possibility of having a war over Kuwait escape. And the Labour Front Bench rowed in behind them: indeed, Kaufman and Kinnock have usually been making even more warlike noises than the Government, while the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been more warlike than the Americans. The President had a long struggle to get Congress approval, but the debate in the Mother of Parliaments was only put on for show.

England is at war because England was finding it impossible to cope with peace.

But now, for the first time ever, the English cannot afford the cost of a therapeutically necessary war-or so they say, and there is probably some truth in it. So they are going around with a begging bowl to pay for the cost of bombing Baghdad. They’re having a whale of a time, but they just can’t afford the bombs.

The Germans were required to pay the cost of the 1914 war because they fought. They are now being required to pay the cost of destroying Iraq, because they decline to take part in a massacre.

If the world does not recoil from this terror bombing by the United Nations, and it becomes the pattern of the New World Order, it would seem a good arrangement for the English just to become mercenaries in German pay.

UN: Carte Blanche

As the United Nations mode of warfare gathers momentum, quibbles are raised about how the war is being conducted and how i is being controlled. But United Nations enthusiasts can rest assured that everything is as it should be. The Security Council (the Five Permanent Powers) gave carte blanc he to America and Britain to do as they please. And the authority of the Security Council within the United Nations is absolute. If the founders in their wisdom had not intended that the Security Council should have absolute power, it would have established a mechanism through which its conduct might be challenged. There is no such mechanism. Both the General Assembly and the International Court are inferior bodies to the Security Council.

The war has seen a collapse of the mainstream British Left-indeed it has become the pacemaker for the Government. Its flimsy world outlook had collapsed during Thatcher’s second and third terms and was finished off by Gorbachev’s game of skittles with his East European puppet states. Tony Benn, after a long delay, began to be critical, but, since he long ago reduced himself to eccentricity, his opinions carry little weight with public opinion. Only Ted Heath has had the moral substance to go against the stream from the start, and it is almost entirely because of him that the British public has heard views differing from the propaganda of the Government.

Clare Short, the rebel from Crossmaglen, has become part of the Imperialist consensus. As a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party, she voted, on January 30th, for a pro-War resolution, which went far beyond the liberation of the tribal despotism of the al-Sabahs. It lists as “a peace aim” the dismantling of Iraq as a state-the destruction of its nuclear potential, its chemical industry, etc., and the reduction of its conventional army to a token force. It declares that the “regional superpower status” of Iraq must be ended and that no other state must be allowed to take its place. The only practical meaning of that declaration is that America,

assisted by Britain (in other words, the United Nations), must ensure that no Middle Eastern state shall in future be allowed to become strong enough to act independently of them. And it means that Israel is to be maintained as a regional superpower, because not a word is said abut the fact that it is known to possess nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them.

(In the publicity of the past six months there has been reference to Israel’s “occupied territories”, as if nothing had happened since 1967. In fact, Jerusalem and Golan are not occupied, but annexed. Israel annexed them in defiance of UN Resolutions, and apparently for the purpose of making it clear that it recognises no UN limitation on its sovereign right to do as it pleases.)

Clare Short not only voted for the NEC resolution, but appeared on Radio Four’s Any Questions on 25th January, and behaved as part of the consensus.

Since Ireland is not actually involved in the War, and a passive public opinion is more or less evenly divided about it, it is easy to be critical of the War in an Irish context. Mary Holland has been very critical of it in her Irish Times column. She has one thing in common with James Connolly, in that she has a British as well as an Irish dimension. But there the resemblance ends. She appeared on the Any Questions panel on 1st February, and took care not to upset the applecart.

Brendan Clifford Irish Political Review February 1991



This article is one of six that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.  It was also republished in July 2014, in Issue 15-16 of Problems magazine.  The original title was ‘The UN War On Iraq, 1991’

Irish Political Review is a magazine which has been in existence in 1986. It was a follow-on from the Irish Communist.

You can find more at the Problems page on the Labour Affairs website.[1]  A PDF of the whole magazine is available there.