The United Nations and imperialism

Nov 1, 2006

The United Nations, created in 1945, reflected the world domination of imperialism from its outset.

On Sept. 20, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Unlike most of the diplomats who gave bland speeches about lofty ideals, Chávez took the opportunity to condemn U.S. imperialism’s drive for world domination.

He also argued that the United Nations, in its current state, was no longer useful. “The U.N. system, born after the Second World War, collapsed,” he said. “It’s worthless.”

Chávez proposed four major reforms: opening up permanent and non-permanent Security Council seats to new members from oppressed countries, allowing the General Assembly to enforce U.N. decisions, expanding the role of the secretary-general, and ending the ability of Security Council permanent members to veto decisions.

Chávez’s U.N. speech came just days after he attended the summit of the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement in Havana. At the NAM summit, Chávez and other member-country leaders criticized the current U.N. structure.

The proposals articulated by Chávez raise important questions about the nature of what Chávez calls the “U.N. system.” It is a vital topic because illusions about the United Nations are rampant within the progressive and anti-war movements.

Progressives and the U.N.

The main illusion within the U.S. progressive movement is that the United Nations is a neutral arbiter for international conflicts. According to this view, the body can play a role in calming world tensions.

U.N. flags and signs often appear at anti-war protests. Some promote slogans for U.N. intervention—as an alternative to U.S. imperialist intervention. Such slogans were common, for example, in the months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

This view ignores the class dynamics at play in the world. That would be natural for bourgeois liberals who do not profess to describe the world differently than the ruling class. But others who should know better also sow this illusion.

For example, the leaders of the anti-war group United for Peace and Justice, including leading members of the Communist Party USA and other groups identifying themselves as socialist, knew exactly what it meant to call for “inspections not war” before the U.S. invasion. Sowing false illusions was acceptable in their efforts to win the allegiance of some wing of the Democratic Party leadership.

Revolutionary socialists, however, view the United Nations in its historical class context. Since its inception, the United Nations has served primarily as an alliance of imperialist countries against the aspirations of the oppressed.

As a world body, it reflects the class character of the states that make it up and the balance of forces between the classes on a world scale.

The League of Nations to WWII

The idea of a world institution to manage international affairs is not new. The precursor to the United Nations was the League of Nations, set up in 1919 after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. The treaty mandated the carving up of Europe between the victorious imperialist powers. The League was set up to oversee this process.

Disguised under then-U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s hypocritical proclamations of support for the rights of self-determination, whole areas of the world were “mandated” to dominant League members. Britain and France, for example, were handed most of the Middle East.

Wilson’s “self-determination” really meant self-determination for the rich and colonial subjugation and exploitation for the oppressed. Lenin aptly described the League as a “den of thieves.”

The contradictions within capitalism were also expressed within the League. The major capitalist powers—with the exception of the U.S., which never actually joined—constructed the League as a way to regulate the relationships between states. But this kind of mechanism only works as long as states want to and need to cooperate. When the need for market expansion takes center stage and other states stand in the way, conflicts and wars ensue.

The League thus became irrelevant in the years leading up to World War II.

Near the end of the war, in 1944, the soon-to-be victorious allied powers—France, Britain, the Soviet Union, pre-revolutionary China and the United States—met in Washington, D.C., and agreed on a blueprint for a new world organization modeled on the League of Nations.

The relative strengths of these countries on the world scene had changed during the war. Britain was declining as a dominant power. The United States was rising fast with a booming war economy. The means of production that had been decimated by war throughout Europe remained untouched in the United States.

The Soviet Union’s position on the creation of the United Nations was complex. It lost 27 million people in the war, carrying the brunt of the military effort in defeating Nazi Germany. The Soviet government under Stalin’s leadership feared that the United Nations would create a “new world order” under the control of the United States, Britain and other imperialist countries. Toward the end of World War II, long and complex negotiations took place between the U.S. and Soviet governments regarding the United Nations. The two countries were wartime allies against Hitler’s Germany and Japan, but the outlines of the postwar U.S.-Soviet confrontation were already taking shape in 1944-45.

Stalin wanted to prevent the wartime alliance from devolving into open conflict in 1945. Thus, the Soviets acquiesced to the formation of the United Nations but only with the condition that the Soviet Union would be included in a Security Council and as one of five permanent members who wield a veto for any decision. The arrangement was designed to prevent the imperialist countries from using the United Nations to gang up on the one socialist country, using a supposedly “world body” to impose imperialist dictates that threatened the Soviet Union or its allies.

Later, after the Soviet government was overthrown in 1991, the United Nations reverted to its originally intended function as an essentially unfettered instrument of U.S. global policy.

The United Nations officially came into being in 1945.

Ensuring imperialist domination

The center of the organization is the Security Council and its five permanent member nations: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. It also has 10 other temporary members who change out on a rotating basis, but only the permanent members can veto the council’s resolutions.

There are 192 countries that are members of the United Nations today.

The Security Council supposedly enforces the U.N. Charter—the regulations upon which the U.N. organization was built.

The Security Council holds all the power in the United Nations. It is the body that votes to authorize the use of force, and it is the body that orders sanctions. It also oversees “peacekeeping operations.”

If the Security Council does not take action on an issue, the issue dies. Likewise, if a permanent member vetoes a resolution, the resolution dies.

For example, the U.S. government has vetoed nearly 40 resolutions critical of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. The United States, Britain and France also vetoed key resolutions condemning apartheid in South Africa for many years.

The only time that the Security Council has taken action in direct conflict with the interests of a permanent member was when U.S. troops led U.N. forces into the Korean War in 1950.

At the time, the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations because the Chinese seat was being occupied by the deposed and defeated Chang Kai-shek, instead of the victorious Communist government in Beijing—a fiction continued until 1971.

The other main body of the United Nations is the General Assembly, the organization’s main forum for debate. It is the only U.N. body that includes representatives from all member countries. Each member country has one vote.

The General Assembly can issue recommendations, but it has no power to force countries to act.

This powerlessness is what Chávez decried in his speech.

The magnitude of the problem can be seen in the U.N. resolutions against the U.S. blockade of Cuba. Despite 14 consecutive votes against the U.S. blockade—the last was 182 to 4 in November 2005—the General Assembly resolution is only symbolic. No U.N. body or affiliate has the power to enforce the resolution.

There are other U.N. bodies, like the Economic and Social Council, which oversees aid agencies, and the International Court of Justice, the main judicial body of the United Nations.

There are also affiliated U.N. agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency. This agency is the one that the U.S. and European imperialist powers in the Security Council are using to target Iran right now

None of these bodies can implement any decision without a Security Council mandate.

U.N. ‘peacekeeping’

From its inception, the United Nations has generally done the imperialists’ bidding.

In 1947, it mandated the partitioning of historic Palestine, creating the state of Israel. Thousands of Palestinians were killed in the wake of that decision, and 850,000 more were forced off their land in a cruel instance of ethnic cleansing.

There are more than 6 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. There is a General Assembly resolution mandating the inalienable right to return to their homes and land, but it has never been acted upon in the Security Council.

The United Nations also has failed to condemn or take action against myriad imperialist, mainly U.S.-led, interventions against oppressed countries and peoples.

This has been especially true in Africa. In the 1960s, the United Nations was used by the imperialists as international cover to crush national liberation movements.

The CIA worked with U.N. forces stationed in the Congo to kidnap and murder the newly elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1960.

The United Nations did nothing to stop the racist South African apartheid army and the U.S. CIA from invading Angola in the 1970s.

Overt intervention has been a hallmark of the United Nations—always in the interests of imperialism. Since its inception, the organization has intervened with “peacekeeping” missions more than 60 times.

In the late 1980s, U.N. ground forces disarmed Namibian liberation fighters while allowing South African apartheid forces to roam free, resulting in mass killings. Then, as the elections for independence occurred, U.N. and South African joint patrols terrorized the population.

More recently, in Haiti, the United Nations has provided international cover for what started as a U.S. coup and occupation. U.N. troops and fascist militias now terrorize the Haitian population.

Today, the U.S. government is pushing for “peacekeepers” in Sudan using the pretext of the internal conflict in Darfur. The history of U.N. “peacekeepers” in Africa should give progressive people pause before joining the State Department-led chorus.

Economic sanctions as a weapon

Another tactic employed by the imperialists is the imposition of U.N.-mandated economic sanctions. But sanctions are war by a different name.

The most horrific example was the 13 years of U.S.-led, genocidal U.N. sanctions on Iraq. By the organization’s own estimates, U.N. sanctions killed more than 1 million Iraqis, half of them children under the age of five.

The sanctions and blockade on Iraq that preceded the U.S. invasion in 2003 were similar to those that targeted Yugoslavia in the 1990s and undermined the socialist federation. In that case also, sanctions paved the way for the U.S.-led NATO war that killed tens of thousands.

Sanctions have also been used against Panama, Libya, Angola, the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Yugoslavia and others.

Not once has the United Nations imposed any sanctions against an imperialist country or proxy in any meaningful way. Similarly, not once has the United Nations sent “peacekeeping” forces to oppose imperialist aggression anywhere in the world.

For all these reasons, anti-war forces in the United States should think twice before looking to the United Nations as a way to defuse U.S. aggression.

U.N. restructuring

U.S. imperialism participates in the United Nations only to the extent that it can serve its purposes. Restructuring the United Nations in a way favorable to the oppressed nations of the world could only mean its demise.

Chávez’s reform proposals cannot be overlooked, however. Venezuela’s bid to become a temporary member of the Security Council would be a welcome development for anti-imperialists around the world.

Chávez has increased his role as a world anti-imperialist diplomat in recent months. From a Security Council perch, his influence could enlarge further. It could give more space and opportunity to criticize, condemn and expose the imperialist machinations happening within the Security Council.

Chávez’s agitation for U.N. reform has opened the eyes of millions around the world to the extent to which the body is manipulated and controlled by the interests of the imperialist powers, especially the United States.

A world body of the oppressed

During the post-World War II wave of independence and anti-imperialist movements that swept Latin America, Africa and Asia, there was actually the basis for a whole different kind of world organization—one that excluded the imperialist powers altogether. Socialist and anti-imperialist countries and movements could have united around the interests of the world’s poor and working people. This would have been a real alternative to the imperialist-dominated United Nations.

What developed instead was the Non-Aligned Movement, formed in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. This body has over the years been fraught with contradictions, although it has often passed resolutions condemning imperialism.

At the recent NAM summit, Cuba, Venezuela and others were able to take the world stage with declarations against U.S. imperialism.

As long as U.S. imperialism exists, the United Nations will essentially be a sword and shield used by capitalism to subjugate workers and oppressed countries all over the world. Activists who support Chávez’s call for reforming the United Nations can redouble their efforts to build a strong anti-imperialist movement in the United States, free from illusions that a U.S.-dominated United Nations can play a progressive role against war and oppression.

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