Special Report

Business as Usual at the U.N.

For the United Nations, relevance may be almost as perilous as irrelevance. In the span of a year, the Bush administration went from taunting the world body to begging for its help. A beefed-up U.N. team will soon arrive in Baghdad to advise the Iraqi government on reconstruction, social services, and human rights and directly assist with elections. At the same time, U.N. peacekeeping missions are sprouting or expanding in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Ivory Coast. Indeed, by the end of 2004, more blue helmets will likely be in action than at any time in history.

Although some U.N. backers revel in the growing global reliance on the world body, now is no time to get smug. These weighty responsibilities are landing on the shoulders of an organization that national governments have deliberately kept weak. The United Nations' 60-year-old machinery has never seemed so ill-equipped for its work, and its credibility has plummeted. As the major powers fight terrorism and dwell on homeland security, they will hand the United Nations essential but thankless tasks they might once have tackled themselves (or just ignored). Without major changes, the United Nations may well buckle under the growing strain.

The idea that the United Nations can stumble along in its atrophied condition has powerful appeal in capitals around the world -- and even in some offices at U.N. headquarters. But believing that the status quo will suffice is dangerous.

Regrettably, most of those who could change the organization have an interest in resisting reform. None of the permanent Security Council members wants to give up its veto; smaller powers delight in their General Assembly votes, which count as much as those of the major powers; repressive regimes cherish participation in United Nations' human rights bodies, where they can scuttle embarrassing resolutions; and the Western powers whose troops and treasure are needed to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping have other priorities. Even within the U.N. bureaucracy, many veterans shy away from dramatic reform -- it has taken them decades to become masters of the old procedures, and change is risky. And while U.N. officials, including the secretary-general, are quick (and correct) to blame the member states for the constraints they face, they too rarely find the courage to spotlight those specific states whose obstinacy, stinginess, and abuses undermine the principles behind the U.N. Charter.

Much U.N.-bashing is, of course, unfair. The United Nations is in many respects just a building. It is a place for states to butt heads or to negotiate as their national interests dictate. And, on the operational side, the organization performs many indispensable tasks -- feeding, sheltering, and immunizing millions, and even disarming the odd Iraqi dictator. But the organization's reputation rises and falls these days based on the performance and perceived legitimacy of three of its most visible components -- the Security Council, the Commission on Human Rights, and the peacekeepers in the field. Each is in dire need of reform or rescue.

Permanent membership on the Security Council -- granted to the Second World War victors (plus France) -- is woefully anachronistic. Britain and France can't fairly claim two fifths of the world's legal authority. The permanent five members once spoke for close to 40 percent of the world's population. They now account for 29 percent. The world's largest democracy (India) is excluded; so are regional powerhouses such as Nigeria and Brazil, not to mention the entire Islamic world. It is the permanent members who decide when atrocities warrant humanitarian intervention, but this decision is made by two of the planet's worst human rights abusers (Russia and China) and one country (the United States) that exempts itself from most international human rights treaties. While still coveted in some cases, the council imprimatur is fast losing its sheen.

The Commission on Human Rights, the 53-state forum based in Geneva, has become a politicized farce. Because the commission takes all comers (seats are allocated on a regional basis), some of the world's most vicious regimes are members. Libya chaired the 2003 commission, and this year's commission extended membership to Sudan, which is busy ethnically cleansing hundreds of thousands of Africans in Darfur. Until membership comes with responsibilities, the commission will shelter too many human rights abusers and condemn too few.

When the states on the Security Council tell the secretary-general to put boots on the ground, his peacekeepers often face impossible assignments. They march into some of the world's most treacherous conflict zones, but only those where major Western economic and security interests are not at stake. Not coincidentally, the peacekeepers invariably lack the wherewithal to actually keep peace. In the 1990s, peacekeepers who were chained to Serbian lampposts became poster boys for the international community's impotence, as Western powers dispatched lightly armed troops to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia without the mandate or means to stop genocide. To accommodate the unexpected surge in demand for peacekeeping in the last year, Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who likes to joke that "S.G." stands for "scapegoat") has appealed for more troops, intelligence resources, and logistical support -- and the ability to call upon reinforcements if needed.

Funding for peacekeeping missions has increased somewhat, but another $1 billion is needed. Even more important, the United Nations must be able to recruit soldiers from the major powers, which have coughed up only a few hundred troops in recent years. The countries that do contribute significant forces -- including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay, and Nigeria -- are often lured by the cash and military hardware they receive just for turning up. No wonder command and control of these forces often melts down. If the major powers continue to deploy peacekeepers on the cheap, the Security Council will again set up the United Nations for failure -- and endanger the millions of desperate civilians who have no choice but to rely on the baby blue flag.

To a large extent, the United States and other member states get the United Nations they want and deserve. But proponents of U.N. reform should view the quagmire in Iraq as a moment of opportunity. Rather than regarding the United Nations' new centrality as evidence of success, the secretary-general must talk some sense into the member states, who stubbornly persist in believing that a hobbled United Nations can meet the 21st century's deadly transnational challenges.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations' second secretary-general, liked to say that the United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell. Even escaping hell requires an international organization that is up to the job.

Special Report

Undermining Free Will

You don't have to read this article. But if you do, could you have chosen otherwise? You probably feel that you were free to skip over it, but were you?

Belief in some measure of free will is common to all cultures and a large part of what makes us human. It is also fundamental to our ethical and legal systems. Yet today's scientists and philosophers are busily chipping away at this social pillar -- apparently without thinking about what might replace it.

What they question is a folk psychology that goes something like this: Inside each of us is a self, a conscious agent who both observes the world and makes decisions. In some cases (though perhaps not all), this agent has a measure of choice and control over his or her actions. From this simple model of human agency flow the familiar notions of responsibility, guilt, blame, and credit. The law, for example, makes a clear distinction between a criminal act carried out by a person under hypnosis or while sleepwalking, and a crime committed in a state of normal awareness with full knowledge of the consequences.

All this may seem like common sense, but philosophers and writers have questioned it for centuries -- and the attack is gathering speed. "All theory is against the freedom of the will," wrote British critic Samuel Johnson. In the 1940s, Oxford University philosophy Professor Gilbert Ryle coined the derisory expression "the ghost in the machine" for the widespread assumption that brains are occupied by immaterial selves that somehow control the activities of our neurons. The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Dennett now refers to the "fragile myth" of "spectral puppeteers" inside our heads.

For skeptics of free will, human decisions are either determined by a person's preexisting nature or, alternatively, are entirely arbitrary and whimsical. Either way, genuine freedom of choice seems elusive. Physicists often fire the opening salvo against free will. In the classical Newtonian scheme, the universe is a gigantic clockwork mechanism, slavishly unfolding according to deterministic laws. How then does a free agent act? There is simply no room in this causally closed system for an immaterial mind to bend the paths of atoms without coming into conflict with physical law. Nor does the famed indeterminacy of quantum mechanics help minds to gain purchase on the material world. Quantum uncertainty cannot create freedom. Genuine freedom requires that our wills determine our actions reliably.

Physicists assert that free will is merely a feeling we have; the mind has no genuine causal efficacy. Whence does this feeling arise? In his 2002 book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner appeals to ingenious laboratory experiments to show how subjects acquire the delusion of being in charge, even when their conscious thoughts do not actually cause the actions they observe.

The rise of modern genetics has also undermined the belief that humans are born with the freedom to shape their individual destinies. Scientists recognize that genes shape our minds as well as our bodies. Evolutionary psychologists seek to root personal qualities such as altruism and aggression in Darwinian mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. "We are survival machines -- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes," writes Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins.

Those aspects of the mind that are not predetermined by genetics lie at the mercy of "memetics." Memes are the mental equivalent of genes -- ideas, beliefs, and fashions that replicate and compete in the manner of genes. British psychologist Susan Blackmore recently contended that our minds are actually nothing but collections of memes that we catch from each other like viruses, and that the familiar sense of "I" is some sort of fiction that memes create for their own agenda.

These ideas are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them. There is an acute risk that they will be oversimplified and used to justify an anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide. Conversely, people convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate an exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them. If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don't believe in free will.

The scientific assault on free will would be less alarming if some new legal and ethical framework existed to take its place. But nobody really has a clue what that new structure might look like. And, remember, the scientists may be wrong to doubt free will. It would be rash to assume that physicists have said the last word on causation, or that cognitive scientists fully understand brain function and consciousness. But even if they are right, and free will really is an illusion, it may still be a fiction worth maintaining. Physicists and philosophers often deploy persuasive arguments in the rarified confines of academe but ignore them for all practical purposes. For example, it is easy to be persuaded that the flow of time is an illusion (in physics, time simply is, it doesn't "pass"). But nobody would conduct their daily affairs without continual reference to past, present, and future. Society would disintegrate without adhering to the fiction that time passes. So it is with the self and its freedom to participate in events. To paraphrase the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, we must believe in free will -- we have no choice.