Because of a recent series of events on libertarian Twitter (this sentence starter is an ill auspice), it has become clear to me that there is some confusion about the role and mode of the UN.
Since 2022 seems to be the year that I have died and been whisked down to the infernal depths without my knowledge. Several (formerly?) well-respected people have been trying to make the “libertarian case” for the UN, though this may not be their conscious intention.
There is nothing unlibertarian about world peace, but there is little of the UN in it. But when the libertarians making the case for the UN receive push-back, they respond emotionally rather than practically.
Typically, this involves an attempt to apply a scientific method to their assessment. We have the UN. We have not had a thermonuclear war. Therefore, the UN has created a world with no Armageddon (yet) and we should continue to have the UN.
After all, any argument that the UN was not responsible for preventing the Third World War is a counterfactual, and we do not have a control group without the UN to confirm whether the UN stopped nuclear annihilation.
The Scientism Fallacy
Education inculcates a love of the scientific method in us from a young age, and for good reason. The empirical thought process is not natural and requires a good deal of training, given the human tendency to connect dots into narratives that is helpful in certain contexts and not others.
But empiricism is not the best method in all cases, and there is a cost to it. It can lead to an undue openness to experimentation. We can tell from a priori and deontological formulations that things like socialism will have an inherently negative effect on society.
Further, bad empirical and scientific method is not always incorrect. Nor is a good scientific application always going to get to the root cause of a phenomenon.
This is one reason control groups are so important to science, since one can reduce the number of causal elements that might confound observation.
However, this is also why the scientific method and empiricism often fail when applied to reality. Medical studies, for instance, can be very accurate for animals, but fall apart when humans, who will typically not cooperate with isolation in a lab for months, and ethical limitations prevent, say, infecting a bunch of people with a disease to see if a vaccine works.
The result? Increasingly messy data sets with increeasingly unclear suggestions for courses of action.
We have found ways around this, often with their own ethical baggage attached, but it lays out an important point in epistemology.
Not all methods reveal all information.
Beyond Scientific Epistemology
There is a place in reality for morality and common wisdom that is left out of the scientific method. The sum of realism and reason also contains observations of irreproducible phenomena.
Some of these methods will be valid in different contexts. For instance, in economics we explicitly reject the idea of applying the scientific method at the scale of large population groups, and always study cases precisely because there is no way to create a control group for an economy.
Once experimental setups need to be attempted in reality, something as small as the psychological state of one individual involved in a project can destabilize the results at a massive scale.
This is one reason social sciences have increasingly inched toward a reproducibility crisis as the scales of what they study change. Unlike physics, where we can safely assume that all particles of a type act similarly, by the time we move into the field of human actions we need to confront human diversity.
There is a fallacy of polylogism that might arise here. Humans will always act in pursuit of goals, some of which are universal (such as eating) and some of which are particular (such as music), and the individual’s valuation of these needs will vary based on their preferences. But they will all act to pursue their values.
What is the UN?
The United Nations is little more than a student council for nation states. While it can theoretically educe binding judgments in pursuit of an international order, when we observe the historical role of the UN, we will find that it is predominantly an instant that influences the third world on behalf of major powers.
The UN is officially an intergovernmental organization, which is a fancy way of saying that it is even less influential over member states than a confederation. That isn’t to say that states do not sign binding agreements with the UN (and by proxy all other UN members), but it recognizes and affirms the sovereignty of its members, which is a fancy way of saying that it won’t enforce its judgments by the sword (unless pushed to by member powers pursuing their own agendas) and won’t attempt to govern in place of nation states.
The UN is the successor to the League of Nations, which is widely regarded as a failure.
A Diplomatic Middleman
The role of the UN officially is as a diplomatic middleman.
This is an unnecessary redundancy. There is no reason that governments cannot discuss things openly, and no reason that they could not talk to each other without a UN.
There is a unique role as a central party to treaties and deals, but most libertarians would consider these ills in and of themselves, given that they correctly regard foreign entanglements by public entities as potential causes of war rather than their intermediaries.
However, such a body could be a mere construct and still work. If several people were to enter a shared contract, we could regard them as a corporation. The UN is little more than a corporate entity with an absolute recognition of its members’ individual sovereignty.
A Peacekeeping Force
The UN also possesses military and paramilitary forces that can function as soldiers and military or civilian police in times of crisis.
The utility of this peacekeeping force to stop war is questionable. It is more useful when voluntarily invited in to suppress unrest, but this raises questions about whether the UN is merely serving status quo interests in place of revolutionary and secessionist movements which may have equal or greater legitimacy than the existing state structures.
Most UN forces deploy under UN jurisdiction and insignia, but come from contributing nations as members of those countries’ armed forces. The UN does not have its own professional standing army, and usually the nations contributing personnel are responsible for disciplinary actions against their own people (this will be important in a bit).
The UN can also delegate its role and permit interventions by other militaries, such as NATO or equivalent organizations, giving them international blessing to take part in war-making.
The peacekeeping force has been questionably effective as a direct tool of the UN, but can be useful as a third-party.
A Humanitarian Organization
Another role of the UN is to serve as a central body for coordinating humanitarian operations. It is questionable how well it has managed this goal.
The UN has operations in many areas, but corruption and graft are their sole joining factors. Refugee camps still exist decades after the conflicts that spawned them, with no sign that the displaced inhabitants will return to normal life soon. Supplies and resources given to these camps are resold to their inhabitants for bribes or sexual favors by the UN personnel running the camps.
The fundamental difficulty is that nobody wants to police the UN, since countries are legally responsible for their own staff’s conduct. They would have to prosecute their own citizens for actions undertaken abroad, losing face. Further, it is of little concern to the inhabitants of most countries what their people do internationally—the territorial monopoly on law is presented to residents of a territory as a boon and used to control them, but it is not something that the ruling elite have an actual interest in extending overseas (as it is expensive for little yield, unless internal threats require repression).
Applied Elite Theory and Systemic Analysis of the UN
Since the major powers in the UN each have veto power, it serves merely as a check on the lesser powers.
The fundamental problem with this is that it does little to limit war. Its function means that the first-world and second-world powers can unify to oppose third-world countries with no consequence, or in practice that they can do so as desired under the banner of a neutral third-party.
The UN merely serves as a third-party of first (or last) resort.
Since the founding nations deliberately or accidentally designed the UN as a lever of power that strengthens the major powers at the expense of lesser powers, it has little functional role in preventing the actions of the major countries that influence it. If the United States wanted to launch an invasion of Belize, they could veto any UN action against them, as they have in various other third-world countries.
Failure by Design: The Unpeacekeeper
Why does the UN not do a good job at keeping the peace?
We can assess this from elite theory first. It does not have a serious interest in many of the minor conflicts, which means that it gets involved years after the crisis begins. Consider, for instance, Rwanda—the UN was involved in the civil war there and was powerless to stop the genocide. Its own commander considered the UNAMIR operations in Rwanda a “failure” despite the UN’s presence before, during, and after the conflict.
This is not a surprise. The elite class of the UN have little concern for most third-world countries, since they contribute little to the power and influence they wield (and, in fact, they can receive more power and influence from those who can provide it by ignoring minor partners to the organization in favor of larger ones).
Further, the UN is designed to have veto power in a number of key major power positions. Although the use of a veto is a concession that one does not have an effective argument in favor of one’s position, it is sufficient to keep the UN from actively pursuing a course against a malfeasant country. Given the coalitions that exist outside the UN, any major power will likely have at least one partner who can veto UN actions for any course they take, and bribery of veto-holding powers is always an option.
There is also a bureaucratic problem with the intervention process for the UN. The old adage that “when seconds count, the police are minutes away” applies to the UN. Between safeguards in its charter and the natural delays involved in international cooperation, the UN cannot respond to situations on the ground in a timely manner.
The UN has the autocrats’ army problem. Much like the Arab nations’ forces during the second half of the twentieth century, who failed miserably in every engagement against non-Arab powers, they do not select the leaders of any UN force for competent soldiery but for political and bureaucratic reasons.
In the best-case scenario, no military wants to send its top personnel to the UN, meaning that the UN’s commanders will be inexperienced or second-strand candidates, but in practice it’s also the case that the UN’s international role means that less competent leadership pools are a natural consequence of involving less capable militaries in its functional process.
As a final libertarian objection, there is no apparent reason the UN’s peacekeeping forces cannot be deployed against secessionist and legitimate independence movements in favor of regime status quo and great power interests. While I don’t see any particularly glaring examples of this, in part because checks against this are part of the inefficient structure of UN peacekeeping and its general worthlessness, it is something that we should keep in mind when considering whether such an institution can be compatible with libertarian theory.
Failure by Design: Unhumanitarian Aid
The other question here is whether the UN is effective as a humanitarian organization.
In practice, the bureaucratic nature of the system implies that it is not. As mentioned earlier, there are many cases of the UN failing to remedy situations.
The need to be perceived as an apolitical institution limits UN efforts to help to those cases where it is perceived as neutral.
Consider the Food and Agriculture Organization, which has achieved a grand irrelevancy in the pursuit to end world hunger despite its seventy-six-year tenure. Part of the reason for this failure is due to internal corruption.
The member nations immediately targeted many of the less prestigious agencies within the UN as sinecures for bureaucrats and a means of influence brokerage, since the organization can decide where funds contributed from private and nation-state donors are distributed.
This ignores the fact that there are also bureaucratic preferences driven by the desire to be seen to do something.
For instance, the UNHCR repatriated Rohingyans to Myanmar/Burma in the 1990s, despite concerns that they would face political persecution. This facilitated later ethnic cleansing.
Part of the problem here is that member states cannot wield the power of withdrawing money without facing criticism for not doing their part to support the UN.
Other private and governmental organizations that want to win public acclaim by solving problems have every reason to sabotage or parasitize UN interests, and the UN’s need for neutrality keeps it from responding effectively to these entities.
A Historical Analysis
An alternative to the scientific method-based complaints of the libertarians who seek to defend the UN is the historical method favored by the likes of Mises, Rothbard, and Hoppe.
Viewing history as a collection of human actions, historians can look at the roles people play. While there is a need to avoid psychoanalysis without evidence and other practices that can lend themselves to motivated reasoning, we can assess both minutiae and grand movements from future vantages.
When we look at the UN this way, we have a very different approach than those looking at the empirical results. We look at the contexts of the time and the actions of individuals to determine why events happened.
The UN in Historical Records
I have a background in history, though not enough to be considered a subject area expert. I could teach it at a secondary school if I did the requisite paperwork at my jurisdiction, and am familiar with both the Misesian method and standard methods of historical study.
My primary background is in European medieval history, but I have studied post-war European and Middle Eastern history both as part of a college degree program and independently because of my own interests. The Cold War is a particular subject of interest to me, especially given my study of communism and its failures.
One of the very simple things that we can use as historians is a survey of primary sources to see the relevance of certain events and elements. While careful analysis may be required to avoid falling into blind-spots, the UN is not an organization designed to have a low profile.
What a historian finds in any study of the Cold War and the post-Cold War order is that the elite theory analysis of the UN as a lever for major powers to wield holds true. Although the UN offers special opportunities for communication, it occupies no more role than diplomats did in the pre-UN world order, and it is absent from most world-altering events. Further, when world-altering events involve the US and USSR (or later the US, China, the Russian Federation, etc.) the UN can be safely disregarded as an influence.
The UN in the Third World
Most of the UN’s interests center on third-world countries, and this is the only place it has shown any merit.
The reason for this is that it permits member states to divest their interest from the affairs at hand. Whether this is a charade or an actual hands-off approach varies from one member nation to another, but it was useful, for instance, in the Suez crises.
However, the UN has been a tool of the US in the Korean War, where it was an umbrella for belligerents on one side while the North Koreans, Chinese, and Russians were cooperating on the other side, so its merits in these cases accompany realistic concerns about its ability to serve as a tool for expanding wars.
The better question for a libertarian seeking to judge the UN is whether it has ever encouraged freedom in the places where it intervenes.
The bureaucratic nature of the UN means it has a tendency to reproduce bureaucratic and quasi-democratic structures in the governments it favors. Cronyists often infiltrate these while they are being put in place, if not shortly after their formation, and symbiotic relationships form between various parties.
In the first case, there are symbiotic relationships between major powers, who now seek greater roles in minor powers as proxies in the UN. This creates a perverse incentive for countries to meddle in others’ affairs, since votes in the UN carry some prestige.
In the second case, entrenched regimes may use the UN to foster their own power. This frees them of obligations to serve their citizens, especially if they secure UN peacekeepers to suppress rebels and propagandize in favor of their rule.
The Current Crisis
One thing that is worth examining is the current crisis in Ukraine.
Russia invaded Ukraine because of US interference in Ukrainian politics. Neither of these is acceptable from a libertarian position—the Russians objected to, including other things, the potential of Ukraine becoming a base for NATO-aligned military forces right on its border, while the Americans insisted on expanding their imperial domain to a major food-producing country.
Another major sore spot for the Russians is Crimea and the Donbas, ethnic Russian regions with significant separatist movements. Ukrainian ultra-nationalists seem to have been willing to pursue an ethnic cleansing of the region, but they are a minority in the Ukrainian government and likely would not have had formal permission to do so.
Because of the separatist movements and the Ukrainian unwillingness to recognize independence of these regions, there has actually been a war in Ukraine since the 2014 Euromaidan color revolution, which removed a Russian-aligned president and replaced him with the Americans’ favorite.
If the UN were the true arbiter of peace that it claims to be, a simple solution would have been to interfere and confound both major powers’ attempts to influence the independent Ukraine. Instead, the UN is both powerless to stop the Russian encroachment because of that country’s veto power on the security council and powerless to stop the US.
From the libertarian perspective, it is hard to find anything to like about the UN.
As an organization, it has had no major successes in achieving any libertarian goals, and in fact acts contrary to them in practice, if not by design.
The UN is a massive public entity funded by taxpayer dollars and is not subject to the same levels of accountability for private donors that more traditional charitable organizations can provide. Byzantine bureaucracies and political considerations hinder its movement, and it is the crux of centralization on a global scale, which should worry any libertarians if only for the potential for future transformation into a more sinister anti-liberty front.
It is usually irrelevant in any individual event, and there is nothing stopping other neutral powers from occupying the same role it plays when it does have a role. In fact, it is often little more than a brokerage to find and select third parties to intervene, as the Suez crises show.
This is a valid function for the UN, but does not justify a multi-billion dollar operational budget (partly paid for by theft from taxpayers). Further, it is not clear whether the inherent dysfunctions within the UN even make it better than the absence of such a body, since ad hoc diplomacy could be an equivalent or faster resolution method.