The United States, the United Nations, and the Future of the Nation-State


The United States, the United Nations, and the Future of the Nation-State

June 27, 2003 36 min read
Sir Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton
Professorial Research Fellow, Humanities Research Institute, University of Buckingham


MATTHEW SPALDING: Our lecture today is part of the Russell Kirk Memorial Lectures series, named for Russell Kirk, the author, scholar, critic, and political essayist. It consists of several lectures each year about what Dr. Kirk often referred to as the permanent things: community, religion, knowledge, wisdom, literature, history, virtue, the family.

One might have thought that one of those permanent things is the nation-state, whether we are speaking of the modern constitutional state or the ancient city-state of the Greeks. Some sort of territorial community seems to have been an institutional prerequisite for what we call Western civilization.

There is also an argument, grounded both in theory and practice, that the nation-state is past its prime, old school, bound for the dustbin of history. This argument has been made for some time, but it has become more prominent of late, and not just because of the international debate concerning the war in Iraq.

The debate between the United States and its coalition of the willing and the United Nations and, in particular, France about the war in Iraq is, at the end of the day, a much larger argument about the very legitimacy of the nation-state, the alternative status of international organizations, and the future of both. The war in Iraq is not the first, and will not be the last, time this question arises. Thus, it behooves us to think through, as Abraham Lincoln once said of another perplexing question, "where we are and whither we are tending."

Our topic today is "The United States, the United Nations, and the Future of the Nation-State. Our speaker is Roger Scruton, one of the most prominent writers and thinkers today, not just in England. He has been a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College in London and at Boston University in Massachusetts and has held various posts at other universities around the world. He is currently a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck.

Roger Scruton is the founder of the Conservative Philosophy Group, which helped to change the climate of opinion in Britain during the 1970s and '80s. From 1990 to 2000, he was editor of the Salisbury Review, a prominent journal of conservative thought in his home country. He is the publisher, founder, and director of Claridge Press. His more than 20 books include An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, Thinkers of the New Left, and, just recently, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, published by our friends at ISI Books. In his spare time, he writes opera. He is also a regular contributor to the BBC program "Moral Maze." He notes that this is not a proud part of his career, but someone has to do it.

He now lives in the English countryside in Wilkshire with his wife Sophie, who joins us here today. Please join me in welcoming Roger Scruton.

Matthew Spalding is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

ROGER SCRUTON: The United Nations, as its name implies, is founded on the assumption that the world divides into nations, that political decisions are made by and on behalf of those nations, and that it is possible to bring the nations of the world together in a common forum in order to settle their disputes by negotiation. Yet, in the minds of many people--including the architects of the European Union--the division of the world into nations is precisely what caused those disputes in the first place, and a true global order will not be international but transnational, discarding the nation-state as a relic of atavistic ways of thinking that have no place in the universal society of the future.

This attitude, which has its roots in the Enlightenment and in Kant's original project for a "league of nations" as the way to "perpetual peace," was reinforced, for many people of my parents' generation, by the experience of the Second World War. And it persists as a refrain in all official pronouncements of the European Commission, which identifies no evil in the modern world greater than the "racism and xenophobia" that it perceives on every side.

In fact, the division of the nations of the world into would-be nation-states, and the assembling of those states in a common forum, is a product of Western ways of thinking and Enlightenment values which have little authority in many parts of the world. Africa was divided into states by colonization, and the boundaries between many of the African states represent the limits of rival European claims rather than historically vindicated lines of settlement.

Because the U.N. was formed in the wake of colonization, and as part of an attempt to decolonize in a peaceful manner, we are forced to treat Nigeria, for example, as a single state and therefore as one among the many "united nations." Yet the country of Nigeria has been settled for centuries by three distinct peoples: the Yoruba, who inhabit the coastline; the Ibo of the internal regions; and the Hausa, who border the desert trade routes. These three groups are divided by territory, by language, and also by religion, the Hausa having been Islamized for a thousand years, acquiring with the religion the language, literature, and civilized ways that divided them starkly from the pagans to the south of them.

Some try to understand this situation by contrasting nations with tribes, arguing that the nation is really a European idea, derived from patterns of settlement that are special to our continent and its diaspora, while elsewhere the tribe, conceived as an extended kinship group, is the natural form of social order. There is truth in this suggestion, but it is not the whole truth, as the example of Nigeria illustrates. Neither the Ibo nor the Yoruba see themselves as single tribes, even though there are tribal entities comprised within both groups. The two peoples are distinguished by territory, language, and inherited institutions, just like the nations of Europe. And although they are both now Christian, this is the result of colonization, which has imposed a common jurisdiction, common political institutions, and a single religious faith on people who, until the arrival of the Europeans, regarded each other as aliens.

Equally instructive is the case of Rwanda, which existed for centuries as an independent kingdom. The people of Rwanda were divided not according to tribe, but according to function, the dominant minority--the Tutsi--raising cattle while the majority--the Hutu--tilled the land. These people have shared language, institutions, and political allegiance for long enough to constitute a territorial and political unity; but the effect of Belgian rule was to divide the Tutsi from the Hutu and elevate them into an administrative elite while undermining the authority of the Rwandan king and eventually engineering the coup that deposed him. Subsequent massacres of the Tutsi are perceived in the West as the result of tribal antagonisms too deeply rooted to yield to political solutions. In fact, they are the result of importing Western ideologies and class divisions into a society that had long ago risen above any merely tribal idea of membership.

Of course, it would be wrong to attribute the chaos of modern Africa entirely to the grid that colonialism drew across the continent. The picture drawn by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness has more than a grain of truth, and there is no reason to think that the artificial boundaries would not have become natural boundaries in time had the colonial powers continued to maintain them. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the new political elites of Africa possess territories and systems of government that often engage with no historical loyalties and no prepolitical conception of social membership. The African states are by no stretch of the imagination nation-states on the European model, and even when they have stable governments, it is implausible to suppose that those governments represent the people over whom they rule.

Matters are more complex in the Middle East, but no more reassuring. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire led to the creation of modern Turkey as a genuine nation-state. While Kemal Atatürk was necessary for this achievement, he was not sufficient. Turkey could emerge as a nation-state only because it already existed as a nation, with a common language, a vestigial territory, and a prepolitical loyalty founded on the long experience of empire. Nationalities had begun to emerge in other areas of the empire through the monarchical claims of local emirs and khedives, and through the slow emergence of territorial boundaries along historic lines of force.

Thus, Lebanon--the mountainous region shared by Maronite and Druze in a continuing history of defiance towards the Sultan--had considerable claim to independence long before this was granted by the Western powers in their breakup of the region. Egypt too, since the days of Muhammad Ali, had taken advantage of French and British competition to shape its identity as a nation, ready for independence as soon as the empire should withdraw. And Morocco was already an independent kingdom when the French took charge of it in the early years of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, those embryonic nations have failed to achieve what Turkey has achieved, which is enduring legal order and democratic government. And without the vigilant presence of the Turkish army, and the continuing efforts against Kurdish irredentism, the democratic order in Turkey would probably not endure for long. In particular, it has depended until now on an enforced secularization, which has involved not merely excluding the 'ulema from power and denying them a place in state institutions and schools, but also outlawing Islamic dress and Islamic marital customs. Turkish law is itself a European import, and in this it established a pattern that has been followed throughout the region, with new civil and criminal codes being adopted and adapted from French, German, and Belgian sources in the hope of achieving the kind of jurisdiction that puts secular above religious authority as the source of legal order.

And here begins the trouble that culminated in the war against Iraq, which was not a war against Iraq at all. Indeed, the Bush Administration tried to represent it as a war for Iraq, on behalf of the Iraqi people, and against the tyrant who had usurped their national rights. Both descriptions are wrong. It was a war neither for nor against Iraq, since in a very real sense Iraq does not exist.

Iraq is a purely legal entity created by the division of the Ottoman Empire--a division carried out by two adventurous diplomats, one French and one British, in the wake of the First World War. Lines drawn across the map in the interests of the two Western powers grouped together, under an imported Hashemite grandee, who was henceforth to be known as king of Iraq, the Kurdish-speaking and sectarian peoples from the Eastern borders of Turkey with the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates basin, who were Arabic speakers, the majority being Shi'ites who had been neither recognized by the Ottomans as a legitimate religious sect nor granted any share in the traditional forms of government.

Like other artificial states generated under the Sykes-Picot accords, Iraq contained substantial Christian and Jewish minorities, Kurdish Sufis, and survivals of the various Islamic sects such as the Druze who had buried their heresies in mumbo-jumbo, the better to protect them. None of the people thus grouped together had any conception of allegiance to a single nation-state, still less to a single monarch who, in the nature of the case, was bound to give precedence to his own tribe, his own sect, and his own circle of cronies in enjoying the unexpected gift of a vast and oil-rich region.

Well, we all know what happened. These extraordinary assets, which were supposed to be the shared inheritance of a nation-state, were treated as private property by the ruler, who was soon deposed by his own military. With the help of the Ba'ath Party--shaped on Leninist principles and perfected as an instrument of social control--the new despots of Iraq and Syria were able to hold on to power more effectively than the feeble monarchs who preceded them, and the territories under their sway retained their principal character as private property, distributed to an elite of loyal (or at any rate elaborately well-treated) followers.

In Syria, this elite has been chosen from the Alawite minority, with the majority Sunni population virtually excluded from power. In Iraq, the elite has tended to be chosen from the Sunnis, Saddam Hussein's secular vision notwithstanding, with the Shi'ites having no part of the spoils. In both places, Jews have been persecuted and driven into exile, the Ba'athists promoting their philosophy of "Arab nationalism" through racist propaganda of a kind that has to be read and seen in order to be credited.

All in all, the idea that Iraq or Syria are nation-states, whose people share a common national loyalty and recognize a common territory as the source of their jurisdiction and their collective home, has been shown by recent events to be the fiction that historians have always known it to be.

We could move around the world, taking stock in this way of the various fragments of defunct empires and the muddled hinterlands where tribal and religious loyalties still take precedence over any political process, and come quickly to the conclusion that the United Nations, as currently constituted, has no real claim to represent the people of our planet.

Ambassadors sent to the U.N. are sent by the people who have obtained power, by whatever means, in the territories recognized by that body as sovereign. But the processes that raised these territories to sovereignty often made little or no reference to the historical loyalties of the people who lived there and usually did nothing to guarantee that the rulers of those territories would have any real claim to represent those people or any real interest in doing so. In effect, the U.N. simply legitimizes whatever elites and tyrants have gained power over the particular "nations" named in its list.

This doesn't mean that the U.N. has no useful function and cannot serve as a peace-keeping institution. But it does mean that it can also help to perpetuate unpeaceful forms of social order, and therefore in the long run contribute to local and regional conflicts.

There is no doubt in my mind that the U.N. granted to the Soviet Union the kind of legitimacy that it could never have acquired through the conduct of its leadership, and enabled it to play a role on the world stage that it could not have played on the strength of its own miserable achievements. The Soviet Union used the U.N. and its ancillary institutions as a front. It supported the capture of the United Nations Association (an independent nonprofit organization which was founded to rally support for the international idea) by the peaceniks and encouraged the transformation of UNESCO into an instrument of leftist and anti-Western propaganda. It did not value the U.N. for its peace-keeping function but, on the contrary, recognized it only as a way to neutralize Western defenses and confer retrospective legitimacy on its own colonial ventures in Ethiopia, Angola, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

In short, the U.N. was an integral component, in the Soviet view, of diplomacy as--to invert Clausewitz's famous dictum--war by other means.

Likewise, the U.N. has helped the Arab despots to stay in power long after they could have been overthrown in a world that refused to recognize their legitimacy. When Syria can be a member of the Security Council, and when the U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights can be appointed by Colonel Ghaddhafi, even the most resolute defender of the U.N. institutions might begin to wonder whether everything has gone according to plan.

Add to such anomalies the well-documented corruption of the U.N. bureaucracy1 and the seeming ineffectiveness or counterproductivity of U.N. resolutions in settling the conflicts of recent decades, and it is understandable that people should have begun to question whether we should go along with an institution whose claim to our respect is founded in so much wishful thinking and so few seeming achievements.

But there is another--and, in the new situation, more serious--defect of the United Nations.

The institution emerged in the wake of a world war in which the victor powers were anxious to ratify their victory and to ensure that the balance of forces then achieved would not be disturbed. Although one of those powers--the Soviet Union--had shown scant respect for such niceties as law, negotiation, compromise, territorial sovereignty, and human rights, the illusion prevailed that the Soviet Union would simmer down in time to become a normal member of the community of nations. The fact that it was not a nation, and had even managed to elevate one of its constituent nations--the Ukraine--to independent membership of the U.N. General Assembly, was overlooked in the interests of diplomacy.

Most urgent at the time was the need to secure the peace by putting the victorious powers in charge of it. And threats to the peace came from sovereign bodies who claimed legal and political monopolies over the territories where they exercised power. Granting the Soviet Union a permanent place on the Security Council was simply a realistic way of acknowledging the fact that the Soviet Union was capable of undermining the peace. That it was neither a nation-state nor a constitutional government was a regrettable but irremediable fact; the U.N. was therefore compelled to accept Soviet membership on terms that to some extent undermined the declarations made in its Charter--a Charter, incidentally, which was drafted by American and British diplomats, and which promises freedoms and rights that have seldom endured for long outside the English-speaking world.

Since that time, things have changed in two very radical respects. First, the Soviet Union has collapsed, leaving the Russian Federation in possession of its ill-gotten corner of the Security Council. Second, new powers have emerged in the world, which claim neither legal authority nor territorial sovereignty but which simply exert their force wherever they can and in defiance of all who would oppose them. Major threats to peace and stability in the modern world come from terrorist organizations which, by their very nature, can play no part in the dialogue of nations that the U.N. is supposed to represent.

Of course, the sovereign powers could do much to control such organizations by refusing them any kind of recognition, attacking their sources of funds, and outlawing them within their respective territories. But it is only since September 11 that even the U.S. has thought of doing such a thing, and U.N. conventions on asylum and refugees operate in any case to guarantee protection to terrorists in just about every country where they do not commit their crimes. Indeed, it is thanks largely to U.N. conventions that terrorist networks have been able so easily to internationalize themselves.

Hence, it is no longer important for terrorists to gain control of a sovereign territory. Power can be achieved and deployed more effectively without assuming the burdens of the nation-state. Terrorists used to aim at obtaining sovereignty, as Lenin and Hitler did. Even the IRA (in its original form) was aiming for such an outcome.

Increasingly, however, terrorists use sovereignty purely as a mask, either by imposing themselves as guests on sovereign states to whose future they are more or less indifferent--like al-Qa'eda in Afghanistan--or by establishing global networks that can evade all national jurisdictions while freely operating anywhere. In this they are little different from the multinational corporations which, thanks partly to the World Trade Organization, can ignore or dissolve national sovereignty in their relentless pursuit of markets.

Institutions like the U.N. and the WTO arose from the need of nation-states to live together peacefully, respecting each other's sovereignty, and allowing each to pursue its own path to "self-determination." But these very institutions have put national sovereignty at risk, either by conferring legitimacy, in the manner of the U.N., on the usurpers or by construing sovereignty itself, in the manner of the WTO, as a barrier to trade.

In the Middle East, terrorism has been a fact of life since the Middle Ages, with terrorist organizations--from the original "assassins" (hashishin) to the Muslim Brotherhood--exploiting the fact that sovereignty has never been properly defined or properly maintained in the region, and therefore can never defend itself for long. American protests against states like Syria are hardly likely to be effective against regimes which look on their terrorist guests and think, "There, but for the grace of the U.N., go I."

Little distinguishes the Ba'ath party from Hamas, other than the successful strategy of its original leadership in aligning terrorist power with political legality. Grant sovereignty to Hamas and it would use it as the Ba'ath party has used it, as one more addition to the terrorist armory. Meanwhile, however, the terrorists have discovered that sovereignty is not necessary--indeed, is a positive disadvantage in the prosecution of their kind of war.

For these reasons, it is impossible to believe now, even if it was possible to believe before, that the U.N. contains the institutions and procedures that can guarantee world peace. The principal terrorist factions are not represented in the U.N., and those states that harbor terrorists cannot be effectively coerced by the sanctions that the U.N. is able to apply to them. As the experience of Iraq demonstrates, U.N. sanctions hurt populations but increase the power of elites, who can always evade their impact on their own lives, and who can use them to widen the gap between the power that they enjoy and the enfeebled masses over whom they wield it.

Furthermore, the end of the Cold War has not abolished the distinction between those powers who wish to use the U.N. to establish legal order and human rights and those who see law and rights as a threat to their power. One may be skeptical of the Utopian ambitions of those who drafted the Charter; one may even acknowledge the dangers to stability in a declaration of "human rights" that claims precedence over all local jurisdictions and all inherited ideas of legal order. Nevertheless, the fact remains that conventions upholding human rights can be incorporated without pain into Western legal systems, since those systems are instruments for defining and protecting rights. That, however, is the legacy of Roman law, Christianity, and the common law jurisdictions of Medieval Europe. Elsewhere, no such legacy exists, and the continuing insistence on human rights falls on deaf ears.

This means that, while U.N. resolutions and sanctions will guide the conduct of Western states, they will be ineffective against those states which in fact pose the most serious threat to peace. For they will be demanding a change of political order that cannot be effected without removing from power those who are supposed to be bringing it about.

Whether the U.N. could be reformed so as to become a genuine peace-keeping institution, respected as such by all its members, I do not know. But Rosemary Righter has powerfully argued that the Utopian outlook enshrined in its Charter is precisely what most impedes the U.N. from having any real effect, other than to create lucrative gravy trains for the bureaucrats who work in it.

The U.N., to put it bluntly, shows the error of optimism when addressing the real conflicts of human beings. The experience of world war notwithstanding, those who drafted the Charter were inspired by an abstract liberal philosophy which sees the end of government as the maintenance of human rights. They refused to countenance the possibility that government is more a device for controlling base instincts than a means to foster noble freedoms. The necessary gloom and misanthropy, without which no serious government is possible, failed to visit those who were planning the "world after fascism," and the result, to put it bluntly, was a set of "mind-forged manacles" which tied the hands of peace-loving people while leaving the villains scot-free.

What this has meant in practice can be seen from the effect of European decolonizations in Africa and elsewhere. The U.N. Charter guarantees a "right of self-determination" for the peoples of the world. The intention is evident: to create a worldwide system of nation-states, represented by sovereigns who really are regarded as the legitimate rulers over the people whose territory they claim.

Many of the Western powers, anxious in any case to shed the burden of colonial administration, accepted that their colonies should be granted the right of self-determination. They therefore established institutions and jurisdictions which would, they hoped, ensure that representative government emerged after their departure.

The Soviet Union encouraged this attitude, and sought to hasten decolonization by every possible means. But the Soviet intention was not to encourage self-determination by the new fledgling nations. It was to replace the old, open, and largely benign forms of colonial administration with one-party states obedient to Soviet strategy.

This is what happened, for example, following the British grant of independence to Aden in 1967. Within five years, Aden was a Soviet base, annexed by the new "People's Democratic Republic of Yemen." Soviet agents operating from Yemen were busy engineering a coup in neighboring Ethiopia, which placed the Russian-trained Haile Mengistu in power, and by 1974, the horn of Africa was effectively a Soviet colony, with legal order extinguished, famine rife, and human rights nonexistent. The same happened in neighboring Somalia. And for the past three decades the region has endured unspeakable suffering and a gradual crumbling of all local forms of sovereignty.

The U.N. acted only to encourage decolonization by the civilized nations. It did nothing to prevent recolonization by their uncivilized rivals and merely conferred legitimacy on whatever offered itself as a "government" over territories which were effectively without one.

Where does this leave us today? It is worth recalling that the League of Nations, the predecessor of the U.N., proved entirely powerless to stop war from breaking out in Europe, or to prevent that war from spreading around the world.

True, those who drafted the U.N. Charter believed that they had learned the lesson taught by the League of Nations' failure. But they worked in unusual circumstances, after a world war which left only a few competitors still standing. Since that time, many new states have emerged or achieved prosperity and military power, many new dangers have begun to make themselves manifest, and animosities have nowhere really dwindled. Furthermore, the long-standing alliance between Europe and the United States is beginning to show signs of strain, and recent attempts by the U.S. to take effective action against terrorist states have been impeded by the U.N., often with the encouragement of America's European allies.

In addition to conferring legitimacy on despots, the U.N. has acquired the habit of substituting liberal pieties for hard-headed judgements when faced by the serious threat of war. Its institutions and bureaucracies give sanctimonious Scandinavians of the Blix and Bruntland variety their longed-for opportunity to put us all in our place, and its secretaries general are usually more anxious to preserve their reputation as moral figureheads than to dirty their hands by violent actions, however necessary they may be.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest danger now presented by the U.N. is its ability to confer the status of Realpolitik on the dangerous illusions of the European elites. Without exception, the European opponents of the Iraq war invoked the U.N. as the authority for their claims that British and American intervention was "illegal." This spurious invocation of a legality recognized by no member of the U.N. apart from the few who are intrinsically obedient to it has been used to solidify an anti-American posture towards the world and an exaltation of the "European" way, as the way of law, as opposed to the American way, which is the way of force.

As Robert Kagan has pertinently argued in Of Paradise and Power,2 the rhetorical dichotomy between virtuous Europe, pursuing solutions through international law, and vicious America, imposing solutions by force of arms, is fast becoming internalized by the European elites as a way of painting their inability to act as an exalted refusal to act. Without the U.N., this posture would be seen for the priggish nonsense that it is. The fact is that U.N. resolutions concerning the real threats to world peace have been ineffective, or effective only when they have coincided with American resolve to do something, as in Bosnia.

All that is painfully apparent to Americans in the wake of the Iraq war. Saddam Hussein represented an undeniable threat to world peace; he was in breach of U.N. resolutions and violated every item of the U.N. Charter, not least in his persecutions of the people over whom he ruled. He had murdered his opponents or driven them into exile. And yet--despite the determination of the U.S. to unseat him--the U.N. merely prevaricated while offering the French and the Germans the opportunity to display their newfound moral virtue.

It took a nation-state, acting in pursuit of its own perceived interests, to achieve what the U.N. refused to undertake on its own behalf. And the U.S. had only one secure ally in this process, which was the U.K., acting spontaneously to affirm the obligations of our long-standing alliance. Despite being a member of that alliance, France offered comfort and even military information to Iraq.

Now, there is nothing inherently surprising in the behavior of France and Germany. The leaders of those countries were acting in response to popular feeling among their citizens, and also in accordance with perceived national interests. The U.N. acted as it did because French and German voices prevailed in the forum of diplomacy. But they did not prevail in the field of battle, and the battle was quickly won.

Now that the smoke has cleared, we can see that the U.S. acted rightly to secure its interests in the region and that those interests really are different from the interests of France and Germany. The alliance that held our four countries together was an alliance forged by a common threat--which was the military might and ideological frenzy of the Soviet Union. That threat has gone and, unsurprisingly, the alliance has begun to fall apart. The ambition of France and Germany to build a European military force and a common foreign policy will hasten its disintegration, and within a few years NATO will have ceased to exist as an effective voice in the world.

All these momentous changes are coming about without any real input from the U.N. And that is because they result from the shifting interests, alliances, and alignments of genuine nation-states--the states of Europe and its diaspora. There is no real need for such states to consult the U.N. when their vital interests are at stake, and if they do consult it nevertheless, it is because bien-pensant orthodoxy still requires lip service to be paid to "world opinion," a commodity supposedly on sale at the General Assembly.

But, as the French and the Germans know as well as we, the General Assembly does not offer world opinion at all: The voices that sound in it include many that have effectively silenced the people for whom they claim to speak, and, indeed, only the nation-states can be said to send to the Assembly people who represent the interests of their nation and not the interests of some faction within it. For it is only in nation-states that any kind of representative government has taken root.

Here, someone might take exception to what I have said, drawing attention to the seemingly inexorable spread of democracy through the world since the founding of the U.N. and identifying the U.N. itself as the catalyst. Surely, it might be said, when "emerging" nations have to vindicate themselves in a forum where the democracies have the dominating voice, they feel a pressure to emulate those democracies in the matter that confers such ungainsayable legitimacy on their representatives. The message is relayed to the rulers back home: Democratize and enjoy the favor of the world.

There may be some truth in that. But it is by no means the whole truth. As Fareed Zakaria has argued to great effect in Illiberal Democracy,3 democratization comes about only when liberties are in place, and these liberties depend on an upwardly mobile middle class for their protection. Moreover, it is not democracy that causes people to live side-by-side in peace, but the mutual respect for liberty, something that might be as much threatened as protected by the franchise--as we have seen throughout the Middle East in recent years. The U.N.'s commitment to democratization as the title to political maturity is as likely to generate conflicts as to solve them.

Here, it seems to me, is the real lesson to be drawn from recent events, and it is a lesson that I try to spell out at greater length in The West and the Rest. We in the West are heirs to a political culture that has placed individual liberty at the center of things and which has perpetuated the Roman idea of citizenship as the primary form of political loyalty. This has enabled us to take effective collective action in the face of threats and to form governments that are genuinely representative of those whose interests they claim to serve.

For all their faults, the Western democracies act on behalf of their people, through states which have genuine corporate personality--both in the legal sense and in the moral sense of being answerable for their faults and bound by a relation of trust to their members. They have been able to separate political loyalty from religious conformity, from tribal allegiance, and from family affection, and by this means have given reality to the idea of citizenship as a reciprocal web of rights and duties which confers freedom on the individual in return for obedience to secular law.

Imperfectly though this ideal has been realized in many Western states, it has been scarcely realized at all elsewhere, save in places where Western imperial powers have implanted the vestiges of representative institutions and territorial law. It is held in place by the fact that Western states do not merely occupy territories: They define their fundamental loyalties and political duties in terms of those territories. It is to France that the Frenchman's loyalty is owed, just as mine is owed to England and yours to this land of America.

Land has been exalted by our political process into the repository of our hopes and values, the place in which we can be at home with strangers, the place which is the seat of our jurisdiction and the object of our common concern. Our law is territorial law, applying to all who reside in a certain territory and to every act committed there. It makes no reference to the religion or clan of the citizen, but on the contrary detaches him or her from those more personal loyalties and discounts them in all its procedures.

Needless to say, a long history led to the emergence of this kind of jurisdiction, and it is a history that has not taken place everywhere. Although it is normal to refer in this context to the European Enlightenment and the retreat of religion that then occurred, my own view is that this simplifies the historical record and also places an obstacle before our attempts to understand the sources of current conflicts.

The rise of the personal state, the rule of law, and the separation of political from religious authority are all connected. Their emergence was facilitated by the Christian religion and its situation under the Roman Empire, when the newfound religion could survive only by conceding legislative authority to those who did not believe in it. The enduring territorial jurisdictions of Europe were built on the twin foundations of Christian renunciation and Roman law, and held in place in modern times by national loyalties in which territory, language, customs, and religion all played cementing roles. The emergence of the nation-state has been a natural consequence of this and has occurred everywhere in the world where the European communities have settled.

Here and there, nation-states have emerged from conflicts in which the European idea has been forcibly exported--notably in modern Japan. But in Africa and the Middle East, in much of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, there is little hope that national loyalties will ever replace the ties of kinship, tribe, clan, and religion as the foundation of civil order, and little hope that genuine rules of law and representative governments will come into being.

For it is my view that national loyalty and representative government are mutually dependent. Until national loyalty replaces its competitors, there is no hope of a shared obedience to a common rule of law. In the U.S., it took a civil war before national loyalty emerged as the dominant prepolitical source of social unity. And the European countries have experienced similar upheavals. Nevertheless, once national loyalty is in place, there is hope for a durable rule of law and representative institutions.

The U.N. was invented by people steeped in the ethos of the nation-state, and it is designed to resolve conflicts between such states. It erects into a transnational goal the notion of a rule of law as this has developed under the impetus of territorial sovereignty. And there is no doubt that nation-states which subscribe to its Charter are, on the whole, eager for legal solutions to conflicts and for a shared obedience to an "empire of laws." That is why the U.S. and Canada can exist peacefully side-by-side, despite their disputed border.

Elsewhere the search for legal solutions may often be little more than a sham. Syria's occupation of the Lebanon certainly shows how a conflict may be resolved; but it was a conflict caused by the party that solved it, and the solution was conquest, in which the sovereignty of Lebanon was effectively extinguished by an occupying army. This is the way conflicts in the Middle East tend to be settled. For how can a state be trusted to seek legal solutions when it is not itself governed by law, but only by factional interests under a resolute dictatorship?

Hence, to grant equal status in the U.N. to dictatorships like Syria, Libya, and Sudan, and personal states on the Western model, is to put an obstacle in the way of negotiated solutions of a kind that it is increasingly difficult to overcome. The democracies of Europe and its diaspora do not normally fight one another, since they recognize the binding nature of legal agreements. If they have fought in modern times, it is largely because they have passed through periods of dictatorial government, such as that imposed on France by Bonaparte and on Germany by Hitler. Were dictatorships to re-emerge in Europe, then they would no doubt lead to renewed belligerence, and the U.N. would cease to be effective as a conflict-resolving medium on our continent, just as it has been ineffective in Africa and the Middle East.

But that leads naturally to the question whether we need the U.N. at all? And, if so, in what form? When we ask such a question, it is interesting to note that "we" denotes the Western powers. We are not asking whether the world needs this institution, or even whether the Third World needs it; we are asking whether it adds anything to the peace-keeping efforts that we, the nation-states of the world, are engaged in.

As for those other states--the dictatorships, totalitarian states, religious states, and failed states--we have little confidence in their commitment to peace, and certainly little concern to advance their interests. The question in our mind is always whether the U.N. is a useful means of dealing with them, not whether it gives them any means of dealing between themselves.

And the example of Iraq suggests that it is no longer useful. U.N. sanctions proved ineffective, and the Security Council and General Assembly combined to delay the necessary military action to the point where it was far more costly than it should have been. By impeding George Bush Senior from pursuing the Gulf War to its logical conclusion, the U.N. ensured the repression and massacre of those involved in the uprisings at Basra and elsewhere. By failing to endorse George Bush's pressing decision of Realpolitik, it has made the task of reconstructing Iraq and winning the confidence of its people so much the more difficult. Its effect on the whole decision-making process, in short, has been negative.

Moreover, the resulting quarrel among nation-states is not one that the U.N. can do anything to resolve, or even one that it can affect. It will be played out in NATO, in the EU, in the revision or repudiation of long-standing deals and treaties which depend upon the fact that the parties to them are fully responsible nation-states, able to decide on their future for themselves.

Of course, the fact that the U.N. continues to exist as a forum of argument and discussion may be valued, if only because it informs us of the character of the various governments that wield the power of the state in the various territories of the globe. But there is another--and, in my view, more dangerous--effect of the U.N. institutions, and one that is insufficiently pondered by our politicians.

Both the U.N. and many of its ancillary and subordinate institutions have legislative powers. They can use the original force of the Charter to bind national legislatures to measures that may be profoundly against the national interest. These measures will often be a huge burden to law-abiding states but no burden at all to dictatorships. Yet the dictatorships have as much right to press for them as the law-abiding states. In effect, the lawless have acquired, through the U.N., the power to bind the law-abiding in chains that they themselves escape.

One pertinent example is the U.N. Convention on refugees and asylum, ratified in 1951, which obliges every signatory to offer asylum to those fleeing from persecution. This means that Western states, which are bound by their own laws, are forced to admit hundreds of thousands of unwanted immigrants every year, simply because well-briefed lawyers invoke the convention on asylum on their behalf. Most of these immigrants stay even when their claims to asylum are exposed as bogus. The result, in Europe, is a demographic crisis that threatens to rock the foundations of domestic policy.

Now, of course, the dictatorships don't have any problem in accommodating asylum seekers: They have never had any. On the contrary, the convention on asylum enables dictators to export their opponents without earning the bad name that would come from massacring them. The entire cost of the convention is borne by the law-abiding states, whose legal systems, moreover, are jeopardized by the increasing number of people who settle within the jurisdiction while acknowledging no loyalty to the nation-state that is founded on it. The worst of our Islamist agitators in Europe are also people who have been granted asylum from the regimes whose violence they import.

The example is of vital concern to all of us in Europe, and it shows the way in which the grant of legislative powers to a transnational body poses a serious danger to the nation-state. Delicate matters, over which our legislators and judiciary have expended decades of careful reflection and decision-making, are thrown into instant disarray by a measure imposed on us by fiat. Like the EU, the U.N. confronts its members at every juncture with an absolute choice: Accept the edicts or leave the club. And few politicians have the courage to take the second of those options.

But has the time come to do so? Should we now extricate ourselves from the U.N. and its subordinate institutions, and begin the task of peace-keeping from some other starting point? What other starting point is there?

History suggests an answer to that last question. Peace-keeping has been effective in the past when carried out under the imperial aegis.

  • The Roman Empire brought peace--the Pax Romana--to the Mediterranean basin and to the West of Europe, and this peace lasted.
  • The Hapsburg Empire brought peace to its territories and made a commendable effort to permit the emergence of nation-states while maintaining an overarching rule of law to which they had to comply.
  • The British Empire did something similar and, for all the routine criticisms now made of its excesses, undeniably secured more peace and prosperity for its subject territories than they would have otherwise enjoyed.4
  • The Ottoman Empire likewise created more pools of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East than have existed in the years since its demise, even if it encouraged frequent local massacres and--in its final years--an act of genocide.

The United States came into being as a kind of protest against imperial government by people who found themselves too far from the source of imperial power to be adequately represented there. For this reason, Americans have always been reluctant to pursue imperial ambitions, despite Kipling's appeal to them to "take up the white man's burden."

It seems, though, that the failure of the U.N. to deal with the threat posed by Iraq has prompted a genuinely imperial response from the U.S.--a unilateral imposition of order on people who have shown no capacity to impose it on themselves. But this is imperialism with a difference. The desire is to impose order and then, having achieved it, to withdraw, leaving the country to govern itself.

But what if order is not achieved, or collapses immediately as soon as the Americans withdraw? This is a real possibility for the very reason that there is so little evidence to suggest that Iraqis have a common loyalty or a shared interest in democratic government--government, that is, which offers equal participation to those of another religious sect, another tribe, or another family. Clearly, the imperial path is fraught with difficulties and dangers, and the temptation will be to eliminate the dictators and their weapons but to do nothing thereafter to provide new forms of government or to ensure that the dictators remain things of the past.

What should we conclude concerning the future of the U.N.? It has probably outlasted what usefulness it had as a peace-keeping institution. Moreover, it has begun to impose intolerable burdens as old decisions, hardened into law, impact on new problems that they were not designed to solve. Its bureaucracies and subordinate networks are rife with corruption. And the major disputes between nation-states proceed outside its reach.

A strong case could therefore be made for its abolition. Multilateral treaties agreed between individual states, securing areas of the globe against war, and guaranteeing mutual aid in times of crisis might be far more effective at doing the work for which the U.N. was designed.

It is certainly true that nothing has more effectively kept the peace in Europe than NATO; and even if NATO is now destined for destruction, it
is probably a healthier state of affairs when alliances and treaties can both live and die in response to the shifting interests of the nations than when a treaty is immortalized and inoculated against change, like the Charter and Conventions of the U.N.

1. Well-documented by Rosemary Righter in Utopia Lost: The United Nations and World Order (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1995).

2. See Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Random House, 2003).

3. See Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).

4. See Jan Morris, Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (New York: Harcourt Trade Publishers, paper, 2002, and the lively recent survey of the Empire and its alternatives by Niall Fergusson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003).


Sir Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton

Professorial Research Fellow, Humanities Research Institute, University of Buckingham