I have traditionally been an apologist for the United Nations, but lately I have been forced to question my unconditional support. While the U.N.’s mission is entirely laudable, its execution — particularly in regards to peacekeeping — seems to fall short. We have seen U.N. failures in Korea, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and more. What has brought this about? Is the whole system flawed? Who is more to blame — the bureaucracy or the nations that are “united”? Perhaps these are not the questions to ask. Instead, I suggest that we ask — where is the grassroots appeal, and where is the recognition of human spirituality?
I do not pretend to know the answer to the former questions. But they are questions that the apologists amongst us must ask. At the same time, the black-helicopter-paranoid, isolationists, and general U.N.-bashers in our midst should recognize the many good works of this body - particularly through the UNHCR, UNICEF, and UNESCO, as well as the establishment of various international laws that have real effects, everyday (cf Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). While the world was (is?) slower to react on Darfur than many of us would like, the situation would be far worse today if it weren’t for UNHCR’s early and consistent work in the region, bringing food, medicine, and shelter to hundreds of thousands who would not otherwise have access to them.
Because of work like this, I will continue to support the U.N. even if it turns out that Kofi Annan’s son illegally benefited from Iraqi oil sales, even if Kofi Annan himself turns out to be blind in the face of French, Russian, and Chinese collusion with Saddam Hussein, even if the Security Council is impotent in the Israel-Palestine situation.
Nevertheless, I realize that the system is not a panacea and that it may be that both the people/nations in the system and the system itself are flawed. This extends beyond the U.N. to most of our international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. I will make the bold claim that there are two essential and related aspects missing from the current attempts at creating international order - grassroots appeal and recognition of the inherent spirituality of mankind.
Consider the difficulty any human organization faces in achieving “buy in” for a new idea. Whether we speak of a business large or small, a government national or local, or any other formal or informal grouping of people, they tend toward the status quo unless they buy in to a proposed change. Buy in comes from a real grasp of the situation “on the ground,” from a careful analysis presented in an intelligible fashion to the agents of change. That is not something governments are particularly good at achieving. Rather, that is the realm of grassroots involvement and activism.
With regards to spirituality, you can dismiss it as an evolutionary-oddity whose time has passed or as the summum bonum of reality. Individual opinion about the matter aside, the great mass of people, even within the United States, still regard spirituality in some form as a meaningful aspect of their lives. Yet almost all international peace and justice work seems to focus purely on material aspects of life without recognizing essential psycho-spiritual dimensions.
Appeals to spirituality, to the best in man’s nature and core beliefs, can result in real change. Look at the change that Christian faith brought to our current President. Approve of him or not, it is hard not recognize that his faith was responsible for overcoming the addictions of his youth. At the same time, faith can be and is used to justify intolerance, harassment, and even violence. These problems will not be solved by a purely secular approach. The waters of science cannot quench the fires of fundamentalism. Only faith in itself can regulate fundamentalism.
Further, the two concepts of grassroots activism and appeals to faith can affect powerful, positive changes in society even on a relatively short time span, as evidenced by the mid-twentieth century Civil Rights movement in the United States. International organizations would do well to study these areas and adopt policies to promote their reinforcement. Indeed, there is some movement in this direction: the establishment of the World Council of Religious Leaders as an advisor to the U.N. and all nations in 2002, and the birth of the United Religions Initiative (URI) in 2000.
Both bodies hold great promise for assisting in the process of advancing civilization beyond our current violent and inequitable state. The URI in particular holds within itself both an emphasis on a constructive meeting of spiritual ideas as well as a movement for local and trans-national grassroots activism. But it can only work with those who are open to the call for interfaith cooperation — that is where the World Council can play a strong role, encouraging religious leadership to guide their co-religionists toward a more peaceful future.
Of course these are but two of the many inter-religious organizations that are taking an active and increasingly important role in achieving the peace for which the United Nations was developed. Each has a role to play; each can contribute to the individual changes that may soon spill over into real social change, and, in turn, into achievement of a more harmonious future.