The UN's Failures Show Why the U.S. Is the Indispensable Nation

In the New York Times this weekend Anthony Banbury, a civil servant at the UN, told us why he was resigning. The UN bureaucracy, he has found, is insulated from political control and serves it own interests. The nation states that are in political control manipulate the UN’s operations for domestic advantage rather the promotion of world peace and security. As a result, the UN deployed soldiers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo as peacekeepers to the Central African Republic, despite their well known tendency to violate human rights. The consequence has been not peace, but the rape and torture of innocent civilians.

Banbury seems to think UN could improve if the bureaucracy had better people and the nations behaved with greater attention to the UN’s objectives. But the problems he identifies are intrinsic to the UN’s structure.  The inexorable failure of the UN instead underscores the indispensable role of the United States in providing the public goods of global peace and security that the UN claims to advance.

It is hard enough for the leaders of a nation state to control their own bureaucratic agents.  It is impossible for multiple principals, like the nations of the world, to exercise any substantial control over international bureaucrats like those in the UN, because the nations’ lack of unity allows bureaucrats huge slack. The bureaucrats then use the slack to pursue their own objectives. And, in any event, leaders of most nations recognize that they will not gain much from pursuing goals of global peace and security over which they ultimately have little influence. They find it much more profitable to use the UN for their own domestic and foreign policy objectives.

But as Ilya Somin and I have noted, the United States, in contrast to most other nations, has strong incentives to contribute to the provision of global public goods, like peace and security, or even provide them unilaterally. Since the United States is by far the world’s largest economy, producing some 20% of world GDP, public goods that further global economic growth and prosperity redound substantially to its well being.

The United States has often acted to provide international public goods since first becoming the strongest power in the world after World War II.   Today, the United States will often have incentives to take the lead in providing public goods such as free trade, a stable reserve currency, and protection against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction because American leaders recognize that these goods cannot be provided without U.S. participation.

It is thus vain to hope that the UN will produce global public goods by hiring better bureaucrats. It is far more plausible to believe that the United States will do so by electing better Presidents.