Barack Obama has authorized the first U.S. veto on his watch of a UN Security Council resolution. The vetoed resolution would have condemned Israeli actions. No surprise there: The U.S. has a long record of protecting Israel in the Security Council by using its veto power. There is some surprise, however, because of the content of this most recent resolution: It condemned Israeli settlements as an illegal obstacle to peace. In other words, it merely reiterated the U.S. government's own position.
Yet the U.S. vetoed it and threatened unstated reprisals upon the Palestinian Authority for defying the U.S. and insisting that the vote be taken; that is, insisting that the U.S. be forced to choose between angering Israel or embarrassing itself on the world stage.
It must have been at least a bit of a difficult decision for the president. One wonders what went through his mind. Did he think about the role of the Security Council as Franklin D. Roosevelt originally imagined it in his mind? Probably not.
But suppose the White House kept a staff historian on hand for just such occasions. It’s an illuminating little exercise in fantasy (and would be a good idea in reality, too). The staff historian’s briefing might have gone something like this:
When FDR envisioned a United Nations Organization, he assumed that the Security Council would do all the heavy lifting. The General Assembly would be merely a place for little nations to blow off steam.
The Security Council would have four permanent members. In private Roosevelt called them “the four policemen,” each charged with keeping order in its own part of the world. The key to order was preventing aggression. But the key to preventing aggression was disarmament.
FDR had long asserted that "armament is the real root of the world disease,” as he wrote in private letter in 1937, “and all other difficulties are resulting symptoms.” Three years earlier he had told his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, that disarmament agreements, mandating “inclusive” supervision and inspection, were "the only answer." Of course, Hull was convinced that non-discriminatory “free” trade agreements were the only answer to global conflict and war.
For FDR, though, the two went hand in hand. “Don’t forget that the elimination of costly armaments is still the keystone—for the security of all the little nations and for economic solvency,” he wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle during the planning for the UN. “Don’t forget what I discovered—that over ninety percent of all national deficits from 1921 to 1939 were caused by payments for past, present and future wars.”
So, as Roosevelt developed plans for the UN, he insisted that “the rest of the world would have to disarm. … Inspection would be arranged by the four policemen in all the countries to see that they did not begin to arm secretly.” If they were found to be arming they “would be threatened first with a quarantine and if the quarantine did not work they would be bombed.” That’s what he told his close aides Grace Tully and Samuel Rosenman.
To impose order, the “policemen” would have to “build up a reservoir of force so powerful that no aggressor would dare to challenge it,” he told prominent administration staffer Arthur Sweetser; if any nation nevertheless dared to challenge a policeman, one of the aggressor’s cities would be bombed each day until the aggressor agreed to behave. At that time Roosevelt was already authorizing enormous sums for the Manhattan Project, betting that by the war’s end the U.S., at least, would have atomic bombs in its “reservoir of force.” So, with atomic-armed policemen, one of a postwar aggressor’s cities could be destroyed each day.
Of course FDR also recognized the specific economic benefits to the United States of a world order preserved under America’s thumb. He was promoting his postwar program, he told journalists candidly, “because it will pay.” Hull’s replacement, Edward Stettinius, put it more elegantly: “The United States will need the greatest international trade our country has ever had following the war. The State Department must be prepared to establish by international agreements and otherwise conditions under which private industry can develop it.”
Everyone in the Roosevelt administration knew that after the war the U.S. would be the world’s greatest power in economic, geopolitical, and military terms. Those few who knew about the Manhattan Project understood U.S. military preeminence even more clearly. Though the “four policeman” might be nominally equals, they would all be expected to work together to preserve the kind of world the U.S. wanted and needed to perpetuate its hegemony: a world free for prosperity achieved through free trade because it was no longer enslaved to armaments and aggression.
By the time our imaginary White House historian got to this point in his briefing, Obama might well have interrupted him, asking “Okay. But what has all this got to do with my decision today?”
A very apt question, the historian might answer, because Roosevelt had no expectation that his fine global system preserved by the Security Council would still be intact in 2011. He sometimes spoke of maintaining global peace for twenty-five or thirty years, and on a rare occasion fifty years at most.
Of course even that hope turned out to be far too optimistic. There was so much he did not foresee: the Cold War above all, which quickly destroyed the harmony of the “four policemen,” but also the demise of U.S. hegemony as signaled by the Vietnam War. During that war, Nixon and Kissinger realized that the U.S. could no longer police the “free world,” even with the help of Britain and France. So they appointed a series of regional policemen, with Israel and Iran named to oversee the oil-rich Middle East.
A few years later, when the shah was deposed in Iran by crowds decrying the U.S. as the “great Satan,” Israel remained as our predominant cop on the Middle East beat. Taking no chances, though, U.S. administrations armed a number of compliant states throughout the Middle East with advanced weaponry—a far cry from FDR’s plan to deprive all but the “policemen” of aggressive arms.
But the underlying assumptions of Roosevelt's vision have generally remained intact: The economic interests of the U.S. and the global capitalist system will be preserved by U.S. geopolitical and military dominance exercised through a variety of means, including the UN Security Council. At a deeper level, all U.S. administrations have maintained FDR’s basic assumption: When conflict erupted it would always be easy to know who was guilty of aggression, and the U.S. would always be ready to step in, either directly or by proxy, to resist the aggression and preserve the status quo—which would be, presumably, in the U.S. national interest.
There, our imaginary historian might conclude, is the toughest rub. Despite all that has gone awry, we could still be in fairly good shape diplomatically if everyone agreed on who is to blame in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the rest of the world is now convinced that Israel is the aggressor and disturber of the status quo, while U.S. policy treats Israel as a victim whose security depends on maintaining the status quo. Although we publicly complain about West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace, we privately condone them, tacitly endorsing the Israeli argument that they’re needed to ward off the threat of future aggression.
If we still used the Security Council the way Roosevelt expected us to—as a venue for perpetuating U.S. economic, geopolitical, and military power—despite all that has changed since his time, we would have joined the rest of the Council in voting for the Palestinian’s proposed resolution. Even though that would mean disturbing the status quo, it would be, from every angle, the obvious route of national self-interest.
But we must grapple with one more development that did not figure in Roosevelt’s planning, in this case the most crucial of all: domestic political forces dictating to the administration how it should define aggression and identify the aggressor. Our domestic public discourse has been based, for decades, on the premise that Israel is always an innocent victim. To defy that premise would run a huge political risk for any administration. So this administration, like its predecessors, makes policy as if it were obvious that Israel must be the innocent victim of aggression.
To conclude, then, our imaginary historian might muse about the fallibility of even the greatest politicians. Who should have known better than Roosevelt that public opinion might very well conflict with a president's view of national interest? His years of his political battle with the anti-interventionists were ultimately about the question of who could, and should, define the national interest.
But since our historian is paid to give practical advice, he or she would schedule another lesson with the president, to teach him how Roosevelt masterfully turned public opinion around from 1939 to 1941, even though the anti-interventionists were at least as powerful and well-organized as the right-wing pro-Israel lobby today. But that lesson must wait for another day.