Recent headlines about the U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council have me thinking about the Reagan years and the time I spent at the United States Mission to the United Nations (USUN) as ECOSOC (The United Nations Economic and Social Council) ambassador, under the leadership of our Permrep Jeanne Kirkpatrick; and subsequently as IO assistant secretary, working out of the State Department. My experience there certainly validates the notion that diplomacy is sometimes simply war by other means. Though originally founded on lines that reflected the democratic republican principles of the United States, the U.N. has, from the start, been a battleground on which those principles are constantly targeted, along with countries like the United States, with forms of government that aim, in fact, to implement them.
From that time to this, some people who are aware of my experience with the U.N. approach me to ask, in some form of words, why the United States ever got involved with the United Nations in the first place. The answer is quite simple: We did not just get involved with the U.N.; we conceived, sponsored and earnestly promoted its existence.
Accurate knowledge of our nation’s role in the U.N.’s origins is far harder to find these days, particularly among members of the oncoming generations. For several decades Americans have been used to viewing the United Nations in strictly adversarial terms. We see this in reports of the recent summit between President Trump and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. They cast the meeting in terms that barely highlight the fact that South Korea’s existence and success are a monument to the American vision of the world that produced the U.N. It is a world in which mutual respect for the basic rights of humanity secures the peaceful pursuit of happiness by peoples of every nation, protected in their freedom to select and periodically change the administration of their nation’s government.
Americans are less likely to think of this because our leaders no longer uphold and apply the moral understanding of our nation’s creed proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence. We suffer from a species of moral dementia. Obsession with the pursuit of selfish personal passions and ambitions eclipses the common sense of moral purpose that best informs our common identity as Americans and justifies, with good results, the decent pride we all can take, who share in it.
For the core of our national heritage is not some material object, fact or circumstance. It is a spiritual good. It takes root from a sense of right and justice all human beings are made to share, and to which any one of us may contribute by following the inclination to do right, with which God endows all humanity. In this sense, our identity as a people has always transcended material tokens and lines of demarcation commonly associated with nationhood. In prospect, as now in fact, we have always been a nation of nations, a people of peoples, conceived in a way left open to all others of goodwill, no matter the portion of earth from which they come.
The idea of the United Nations is thus ours in a sense that goes beyond possession; a sense that encompasses the belonging that defines, sustains and hopes to realize the idea of community implied in the very being of God, whose perfect union of one and all human nature is supposed to reflect.
Of course, like humanity itself, this union is nowhere perfectly realized in one instance or individual. Indeed, some individuals stand apart from it in a way that transcends material separation, a way that rejects the very idea that parts as flawed as we so often seem to be could ever come together in a whole worthy of the name perfection. This rejection has given rise to awesomely destructive ideas and ideologies. As they see it the only wholeness that befits our worthless human state is a holocaust of hate, inexorably pulling all it touches across the event horizon of death and annihilation.
For all their blather about peoples, unions and workers’ collectives, the left and right wing socialist ideologies of the 20th century have always had this horizon of death in common. They practically disregard all concern with human rights. They do so because, at their core, they see nothing right about humanity except the fact that History will someday discard it, leaving nothing would to be remembered by the unimaginably perfect, all-consuming State that finally brings its worthless trials and errors to an end.
Consumed in the labor of giving birth to this State of perfection, humanity will be no more. According to these ideologies, the worthlessness of its being at the time of its anticipated end seems to confirm the rightness of consuming all the merely human lives it will take to bring that perfect State into existence. Their end, justified as the means to make it so, is therein also deprived of any meaning History needs to comprehend.
For those who make this end of History their sine qua non of righteousness in action, human rights have no significance but as a sleeping-draught, administered to make their public hecatombs go smoothly. Such were the death-dealing coadjutors of the Angel of Death, whose rise and fall involved the 20th century world in war.
Almost in the course of that war, a stroke of death was made, by merely human thinking, that threatened to dwarf their little offerings. Like Tolkien’s ring of power, this deadly stroke of Death came into the possession of a people still accustomed to view dying in a guise that was, ironically, a harbinger of life triumphant. This was a people who saw one beaten man, enthroned upon a cross, as a king crowned all in sorrows – a sovereign healer and perfecter of human life, fulfilling the goodwill of their Creator.
The American Creed rests on the promise of sovereign virtue conveyed by this improbable symbol of enthroned power, in the form of lowly, beaten and bereft humanity. In a world where nothing short of irresistible force had ever before won praise from self-styled “greatness,” this vision of commonalty enthroned was indeed “the world turned upside down.” It was at first a lonely view. Then, for a brief intermission, it seemed poised to appear throughout the earth. But many of its heralds shouted false praise, while working to cut off the projector that transmitted it in highest definition to people everywhere who had the goodwill and courage to display it.
During the Reagan years, the United States was that projector: though, even then, we often stood alone. Why was it worth it? Why did we not withdraw, abandoning the information of right to those who had no use for it but wrong? Because even if all the rest of the world despises our cause, we Americans uphold a creed that sees the hand of God seeding the thirst for His justice into the heart of all humanity. We believe that the spirit of our creed, like the spirit of God’s Word made flesh, commends itself with the words “Into Thy Hands, O Lord.” There the fate of our nation has been entrusted, since the first generation of Americans appealed to “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.” It was to God they looked for the righteous determination to declare and keep our nation free, and secure in such right as God endows.
We believed that it was an aspect of this national vocation to share that sense of right with others who feel our natural inclination to heed and uphold it. Have we now ceased to trust in others; or in ourselves? Is this bad confidence the reason we now appear to shrink from our vocation, just because we must stand, almost alone, to undertake it? Or is it our trust in God we have forsaken: the trust that makes us – however diverse we seem to be – one people, one nation, one willing, adamant and even proudly human race?