Forgotten Issue and Major Candidate Concern: The United Nations and “Publicity”

[1] The coming decade looks to be a time of testing for the United Nations and for the U.S. relationship to it. In the current political debate period discussion about this occurs only in coded, veiled, and vague speech revolving around unilateralism and multilateralism or global leadership and “no ‘global test’ under my watch,” and the like.

[2] Influential conservative political commentator George Will states his case boldly: “The United Nations is not a good idea badly implemented, it is a bad idea.” Clearly Will seeks to end it, not mend it. To the right of Will are the leading neo-con, “hegemonic” theorists of the Project for the New American Century and the like. They equally disdain the U.N. but are shrewder. They promote only an “expedient” multilateralism and an expedient relationship to the U.N. They seek neither to mend it nor end it but to use it and in reality to abuse it for imperial purposes.

[3] In The Structure of Nations and Empires Reinhold Niebuhr states that power and prestige are the two structuring components of nations and empires, what Harvard’s Joseph Nye calls “hard power” and “soft power.” If it is ethically sufficient that the structure of nations and empires should depend upon only a healthy dialectic of power and prestige, then it is unlikely that the United Nations will be sufficiently mended. This leaves the “enders” and “abusers” in the driver’s seat. Indeed, given only these two components, was Niebuhr able qualitatively to distinguish between nations and empires, or was this distinction merely one of quantitative size? And if the nation/empire distinction is only a quantitative distinction, is it ethically OK for the United States to advance its calling as an empire? And if so, then what becomes of the U.N.?

[4] Perhaps to Niebuhr’s “power and prestige” we ought to add a third indispensable component. I suggest “publicity.” Of course, publicity cannot be understood in the sense of public relations ploys functioning as propaganda. Rather, a public ethic of “publicity” promotes the full public accountability-transparency, truth-telling, and testing-of nations to each other within the United Nations, to the international rule of law, and to the wider global civil society. A robust public ethic of publicity provides the needed ingredient to mend, not end and not abuse, the United Nations. Doesn’t our United States of America need the same and in spades? A robust public ethic of power, prestige, and publicity distinguishes clearly between nations and empires, becoming thereby a basis for a sorely needed public vocation of “one nation among all the nations under God.”

Gary M. Simpson

Gary M. Simpson is Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.