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The U.N. Foreign Legion

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Mar 18 2011 11:23pm

The Pope! How many divisions has he got?

-Joseph Stalin


Leave it to a brutal realist like Stalin to lay everything out in the most stark terms. A Pope with no military was not something worth paying attention to. The same applies to the United Nations.

In the recent Common Sense show we did (“Arming the Independents”) we waxed nostalgically for a UN that existed only in the minds of the dreamers who created it (and maybe not even there). A UN that could actually do what it was designed to do. A UN, for example, that could prevent genocide.

It was Winston Churchill who first suggested early in its development that the UN “should forthwith be equipped with an international armed force”. In fact, the UN charter signed by all member states obligates them to provide both armed forces, and the facilities to maintain them for UN use in maintaining peace and security around the world.

The lack of such a real force was one of the “defects” Churchill felt might make the fledgling UN as unequipped to handle reality as had been the UN's idealistic predecessor The League of Nations. And so it has. The UN faces two huge obstacles to its ability to prevent things like genocide. The first is a force capable of resisting force, the other is the willingness to use it.

The time of the Rwandan genocide is the best example I can think of when an even basic, vanilla version of Churchill's UN idea should have been able to justify its existence. During the three months of genocidal killings there, between half a million and 1.5 million Rwandans lost their lives in a conflict that could have been halted with a few thousand first-rate troops. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said he believed that with 5,000 U.S. soldiers he could have saved 500,000 lives. American casualties in Rwanda would almost certainly have been negligible. A lightly equipped French force of just over 2,000 was in Rwanda near the time of the genocide, and was virtually unassailable by any indigenous armed forces. So why weren't such forces deployed?

The reasons are complex and varied. The self-interest of individual nations often comes into play. This is precisely why if we want to have any ability to mitigate future Rwandas, we need to think of a force that is an international force, not a bunch of elements drawn from member nations simply fighting under a U.N. Flag (see Korea, 1950). The organization also needs structural reform to address the pervasive problems in its design that hamstring its ability (and willingness) to take action when the need arises. What the U.N. needs is their own equivalent of the fabled French Foreign Legion.

The Foreign Legion is a famous French elite force that takes recruits from all over the world into its ranks and turns them into superior soldiers. Historically, the Foreign Legion was often used in the past to uphold France's control of colonial areas. The UN version of such an outfit would instead be tasked with aiding desperate people who need help in situations where guns are required. There is an obvious need for this in the world.

The United Nations currently employees the troops of member nations in so-called “peacekeeper” roles. But the familiar blue-helmeted soldiers are deployed by the UN only to maintain an already existing agreement between hostile parties. The UN has no force that can be put into situations where the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians (or even millions in some cases) could be saved by the employment of a few thousand actual soldiers. In other words, UN peacekeepers are there to prevent a currently peaceful situation from turning violent, not to protect innocents in situations that currently are  violent. What this means is that the UN can maintain a peace agreed to after a genocide has occurred, but they have no force that can do anything about it while it is going on. This undercuts one of the primary missions of the organization.

So, how much would be needed by the UN to carry out such a role? Well, the obvious counter-question is to ask what such a force would be asked to do. A modern military land division usually has in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 20,000 or so troops. It is considered to be the smallest sized force that contains all that's needed within it for basic operations. A division usually has units attached to it to provide for other needs (a contingent of aircraft or armor might be a good example) and includes supporting logistical forces. The UN with even one operational division of its own capable of offensive operations is an immensely different organization than the one we have now. In answer to Stalin's question, the UN would then have one more division than the Pope.

Now, one division does not count for much in a real war. It has limited uses. In any sustained contact with hostile forces it will get worn down quickly (which is why the UN should have one reserve division as well). But in a sense, that limits its usefulness to those situations of immediate humanitarian need. It simply isn't good for much else besides going into destabilized areas and helping to protect large numbers of threatened civilians from extermination. But in Rwanda, it would have saved a million or so people from being hacked to death by a rival ethnic group.

Now, building such a force would be ludicrously easy. An advertisement on Craigslist will probably get you enough applicants to fill out the ranks (and these days they would be veteran  applicants. There's so many ex-soldiers out there capable of serving in an international force that we might as well be living in the post-Peloponnesian war era or during the wars of Alexander the Great's successors). The cost for equipment and support elements would also be ridiculously low by the average standards of military expenditures. Cost is really no factor. Will IS though.

As originally conceived the UN was a far more robust group than it actually turned out to be. What good would providing a military force to a UN suffering from the current (and long-standing) pox of inertia be? Could it ever agree to use it? And if it did, might it decide to use it in a situation where the USA (or another major nation) didn't want it to? Could one actually envision such a disagreement leading to war between the UN and a major nation?

Well, let us not forget that the 1950-1951 war in Korea was fought under the UN flag. Eventually China would fight on the side of the North Koreans in that conflict (and the USSR had been very involved from the start of it, even flying air missions for the North Korean side), so that's already an example where the UN found itself at odds with another major power (or two).

But in the 1950s, as now, the UN had no true independent military force of its own. It required others to pledge to fight for it. If they would not, the UN had no power at all. Even when the troops could be rounded up, the nations providing the military forces also had total veto power over operations. Had the U.S. not wanted to fight in Korea, there would have been no Korean War, regardless of what the UN wanted. Even if the UN been in possession of an army division or two of their own, they still wouldn't have been able to intervene in Korea. That's too small a force for an endeavor like that (The Chinese alone were said to be using a million men in the fighting).

But that's what should keep anyone from becoming too worried about a UN with troops being a danger to the vast majority of sovereign states. A division or two of top-flight, 1st class troops (on the French Foreign Legion model) is a great tool to have to deal with minor-sized problems that could kill large numbers of people (Rwanda for example). It won't be useful in wars of any consequential size between nation states. It would instead be the equivalent of an armed international police force. Unlike the blue-helmeted peacekeepers the UN uses now though, they would truly be UN troops, and they wouldn't be at all squeamish about using force if the shooting started...or to get it to stop if it is directed at large numbers of helpless civilians.

It would be intriguing to see how the major world powers reacted to the idea of an independent UN military force capable of offensive action. It seems logical to assume that if they had favored something like that, it would already be a reality. An independent UN military force hints at the idea of a more independent UN in general, which also likely wouldn't be favored by the major powers. Many countries would have to show their true cards when it comes to whether they really favor the idea of a UN, or if they only favor it when they get to be part of a special class of nations within it (such as members of the UN Security Council) that can thwart, all by themselves, whatever the world body decides to do.

Let's not pretend that's not a thorny issue for other reasons as well. National sovereignty is the direct opposite of what the UN offers the world if the idea behind it is taken to its natural limits. “World Government” is a pervasive fear in the USA, and I confess to having that fear myself sometimes. But the answer is not to say that sovereignty mandates that governments be allowed to exterminate their own people if they want to (uninterrupted by foreign military meddling), but that a UN that is going to be acceptable to major nations is going to be one with finely drawn mandates. Preventing genocide is a nice narrow mandate and I would trade everything the UN does now (UNICEF included) in exchange for the organization having the willingness and ability to stop an immanent or currently occurring genocide. In fact, I think such a move gets you closer to the original mission of the organization as it was conceived.

But what if one Security Council member vetoes the UN resolution authorizing the use of force in a genocidal situation? What about the will necessary to make such troops effective? Isn't this an institutional problem the UN has? Yes, it is  institutional. But I think it is institutional because it is structural. The Security Council has always been the rigged part of the UN. Everyone knows this. Even while hoping through idealistic eyes that the UN would halt things like genocide, the Great Powers were not willing to lower themselves to the status of just one among many nations. Hence any of the permanent members of the UN Security Council can veto anything passed by the UN that they don't like. Those nations also, not coincidentally, happen to be the victorious major nations from the Second World War. They are “Grandfathered” in to positions of special power. Every other country is limited to a temporary turn on the Security Council in revolving fashion. Because the structure of the organization is rigged, the vetoes from Security Council members usually act to stop the UN from moving decisively in any direction on the big issues of the day. If we want a UN that works, this needs to be reformed. Imagine if today, in the interest of fairness, the veto power of permanent members of the UN Security Council nations were removed. How do you think the U.S. or Russia or China would react to that? Again, it sure would force the large nations to show their real feelings about the idea behind the UN.

Abolishing the permanent Security Council membership would pose some issues. Churchill made a comment once defending the idea of the unfair Security Council design by saying something to the effect that the UN should not become a body where the weak nations dictate to the strong. Though he was trying to defend the UK's self-interest in that case, in fact he does have a broad point. Should two tiny nations really be able to outvote a very large one? It seems to me that if this is about representation, that this could be done proportionally by population as it is in many parliaments (including the U.S. Congress). Perhaps you get one vote per a certain number of citizens. To allay fears of an intervention-happy UN it could be mandated that a 2/3 vote be needed to use UN troops (or some such safeguard). The Security Council would either have to be done away with, or all positions on it would need to be on a rotational basis. There's just no good moral justification in the 21st century for the special treatment the nations that dominated the world in 1945 get in the world body.

Few will defend the UN today in terms of their ability to get their core  mission accomplished. Yet I hear few people talking about helping that flawed organization evolve into something that CAN do what it was formed to do. There's no question that the need is there. Genocide hasn't vanished from the face of the Earth. Many in the U.S. are also leery of more foreign involvement. I heard from many of them after the last Common Sense show (I am one of them myself). A functioning UN with a modern division or two of independently raised and operated troops would go a long way towards doing these sorts of humanitarian dirty jobs so that the major nations of the world don't have to.

After all, you certainly can't count on the Pope to fix things. I mean, how many division has he got?





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