Another Perspective

The Magic Button Test

Turkey's behavior confirms again that UN involvement always makes things worse, as Amb. Jeane Kirkpatrick would have put it.

By 6.7.10

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On January 26, 1982, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's Ambassador to the United Nations, delivered an address before the Foreign Policy Association in New York called "Making Things Worse." I was her speechwriter at the time, and I prepared a draft for her which, I'm pleased to say, she did not use; instead, she drafted a far better speech of her own. Ambassador Kirkpatrick did, however, cite a book called A Dangerous Place: The United Nations as a Weapon in World Politics, written by two political scientists, Abraham Yeselson and Anthony Gaglione, that I brought to her attention (as a political scientist herself, I knew she'd go for it), and whose theme -- that the UN, designed to make things better, was actually making things worse -- became the theme of her remarks to the Foreign Policy Association. Ambassador Kirkpatrick's speech made quite a stir at the time, and after 28 years, I still believe it is the most trenchant critique of the UN ever made by a senior American official. Here is the critical part of her address:

The UN process breeds polarization which, as Yeselson and Gaglione observed in their stimulating study of the United Nations (which, like [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan's book, also was titled A Dangerous Place), "by constantly forcing states to choose up sides, progressively destroys neutral havens." Obviously, extending and polarizing conflict is the very opposite of resolving it. For as the conflict is extended, polarized and publicized, flexibility is diminished, and the possibilities of conflict resolution decrease as heat and light increase.

This process of conflict extension, exacerbation, polarization, has progressed so far that Yeselson and Gaglione pointed out: "Use of the U.N. is a barometer of the hostility existing between nations. Nations interested in reaching agreement almost always ignore or avoid the U.N…Bringing an issue to the U.N. is likely to be regarded as a hostile act." Naturally, the United Nations' reputation for partisanship and conflict exacerbation severely limits its utility for conflict resolution.

It is fortunate that Ambassador Kirkpatrick despised the State Department, and refused to submit her major speeches for clearance (as a Reagan favorite, she could get away with this). Otherwise, Foggy Bottom would never have allowed a major American official to publicly state that far from resolving conflicts, the United Nations exacerbates them.

The recent attempt by Turkey and its new Arab friends to use the UN Security Council as a means of criminalizing and de-legitimizing Israel is yet another in a depressingly long series of events demonstrating the validity of Kirkpatrick's thesis. Had Turkey wanted to genuinely defuse the crisis with Israel, it could easily have done so through quiet diplomatic channels; but because Turkey's leaders, intent on playing a major new role in the Middle East as standard-banners of Sunni Islam, are not interested in conflict resolution, but rather in conflict extension, exacerbation, and polarization (or, in plain English, in leading a lynch mob), they naturally turned to the UN to advance their purposes.

During her tenure at the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick demonstrated how an American Ambassador should conduct herself. Her speeches to the Security Council invariably injected an element of moral clarity into an otherwise degraded debate. But I don't think she ever addressed the fundamental problem her analysis raised: How can the United States return the UN to its original, conflict-resolving purposes.

For my part, I used to present my colleagues with what I called "The Magic Button Test." Imagine there was a Magic Button, and all you had to do was press it, and the entire UN apparatus would simply vanish into thin air -- would you go ahead and press it?

To my surprise and dismay, some of my colleagues refused to press the Magic Button. They agreed that the UN's major institutions -- the Security Council and General Assembly -- are a menace to civilization, but they felt obliged to support the UN's humanitarian agencies. I argued that the world's civilized states, along with non-governmental organizations, would quickly find substitutes for UNICEF, the World Health Organization, etc., so that the truly needy would not suffer as a result of the UN's demise.

To my intense regret, I never had the opportunity to pose the Magic Button Test to Ambassador Kirkpatrick. Today, however, I think it is more important than ever that we press the Magic Button -- that is, withdraw from the UN and all its works. The world is a very dangerous place. The last thing it needs is an institution like the United Nations, which mainly serves to make it more dangerous.

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About the Author

Joseph Shattan is the author of Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War.