In Slate on Tuesday, Anne Applebaum offered the bold proposition that Robert Mugabe’s attendance at this week’s emergency meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization proves that the UN is useless. As she put it:
With an unerring sense of timing, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe arrived in Rome this weekend, thereby demonstrating the profound limitations of international diplomacy. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other single gesture that would so effectively reveal the ineffectiveness of international institutions in the conduct of both human rights and food-aid policy. Even someone standing atop the dome of St. Peter’s, megaphone in hand, shouting, ‘The U.N. is useless! The E.U. is useless!’ couldn’t have clarified the matter more plainly.
First things first, I think the millions of children around the world who didn’t die of polio this year because they received a vaccination through the UN World Health Organization may dispute that. But I digress.
Mugabe’s attendance at the meeting of the Food and Agricultural Organization does not show that the UN is useless. It does, however, show that sovereignty is still a driving force of international relations–which means that sometimes heads of state we don’t like are invited to forums in which more responsible leaders also participate. It’s not like Mugabe has a veto over what can or cannot be discussed at the meeting. He’s there. He’s a gadfly. Get over it.
But she can’t. Instead, Applebaum uses Mugabe-in-Rome to bludgeon the UN as a whole.
So should we scrap the UN-sponsored war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone because Mugabe attended a meeting? Should we pull the 4,000 (mostly Brazilian and Jordanian Peacekeepers) out of Haiti because Mugabe attended a meeting? Should we stop providing food, shelter, and educational services to the millions displaced in Darfur because Mugabe attended a meeting? Should we halt anti-malarial campaigns by the World Health Organization because Mugabe attended a meeting?
To call the whole edifice of the United Nations “useless” because a tin-pot dictator attends a meeting or two is deeply irresponsible. Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and regular columnist in one of the world’s most prestigious publications. Her words and arguments matter. Yet she is dabbling in an argument of which the logical extension is to deny the millions of people food, shelter, medicine, and security–all because Mugabe attended a meeting.