Wednesday, September 24, 2003

UN cool

President Bush is due to speak today in the well of the United Nations General Assembly a few city blocks away from here.

No doubt he will string together a few well chosen words that conform to the tricky norms and decorum of the UN.

What is said is not important. At the UN it is the act of saying something that counts. I guess that’s inevitable. You can’t expect boldness from a committee of 191 members.

That’s a shame because I’m a closet United Nations fan but mainly for reasions of aesthetics.

I like the UN Building.

I see the UNO headquarters building every day on the way to work. In the morning, with the rising sun behind it looks full of hope and promise. The green glass curtain suspended between two sheer marble slabs, exceptionally at odds with the city grid, a hive of offices, and each worker bee an interesting foreigner with exotic clothing and a charmingly rich accent.

The building’s design is credited to an alliance of mediocre hero-architects. Le Corbusier, the father of all public housing disasters is often mentioned although his deadly touch is thankfully absent. Wallace Harrison, the court architect of the Rockefeller family, is also sometimes credited but he simply didn't have the imagination or talent to design such a refined and aspirational building. The real architect is Oscar Niemeyer -- even if he was muscled out of the spotlight by the more media savvy designers.

Look at the building from any angle and concentrate . . . it doesn't take long for the rancor and petty corruption of the actual UN to dissolve. Look a bit longer and the colors alternate between pastel and Technicolor, a gently samba plays . . . the music of the New Frontier . . . sophisticated, global, human, intelligent. This building speaks in the confident lilt of the New World, not the guttural cynicism of the Old World.

Think of Brasilia before the squalor of real world Brazil encroached on and devoured its pristine towers. In 1958 who could doubt that the future belonged to the energetic people of the developing world? How far back down to earth we've fallen.

Sadly the UN Headquarters Building reminds you that the future isn't what it once was.

No doubt the UNO will continue down its dead end path to irrelevance. But the consequences for the building are what concern me.

The Building evokes of time when thinking people could agree that some nations are more important than others. But the UNO says that all nations are equal members of the world community.

This of course is nonsense.

The UN is an organization of governments, not nations. And not all governments are equal.

The government Switzerland is in a different league than, say, the strutting, kleptocratic Castro dictatorship in Cuba. Yet, in UNO legalese, they are on par.

That's no way to confer legitimacy.

To live up to its aspirations the UN will have to discriminate. It should establish "tiered" membership. Full voting members would be those governments that are directly accountable to their citizens. The second tier of non-voting members would be those governments that are moving toward democracy and openness.

On the third tier would be governments that are repressive non-representative regimes. This tier would include North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and many others.

In the eyes of the UN, these non-member governments would be considered illegitimate and their sovereignty would be conditional.

Rather than excuse injustice as a "domestic matter," member governments would be charged with the responsibility for intervening in the third tier world to ensure that these nations evolve into second tier members and ultimately, fully representative governments.

This will never happen. And that's why the UN is destined for obscurity.

But the building . . . that has possibilities.

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