There's a conundrum familiar within political philosophy, or at any rate within the kind of political philosophy that looks towards making the world a better place. It goes roughly like this. Do you have to hope for a change in people in order to create a better society? Or must there be social and institutional change as a precondition for improving human conduct? What comes first, the change of heart or the change in external circumstances? For if it's the change of heart, it may be that the possibility of this is blocked by the existence of corrupting circumstances. And if it's the change of circumstances, it may be that unreformed people are unwilling or unable to bring about such change or to sustain it.
I was reminded of this problem by a column of Ian Birrell's on the need to reform the UN. The UN's paralysis over Syria has only accentuated this need once again. Should 'countries with... soiled records on democracy, human rights and self-determination', Birrell asks, and should 'a corrupt oligarchy', have 'carte blanche in perpetuity to determine the rules of international engagement'? Indeed do any of the five nations with a veto in the Security Council deserve to retain it? He accepts that change will not be easy; earlier attempts at reform 'have hit the rocks of geopolitical reality'. Still:
The most hopeful solution is to bring in a second tier of permanent members [of the Security Council], then slowly strip away the right to veto of the fractious five through majority voting. And it would be good – although almost certainly impossible – to have a bar on countries that display contempt for universal human rights.
An 'almost certainly impossible' change - this doesn't understate the difficulty. Only consider the fact that, as things are, even the UN Human Rights Council is unable to exclude from membership countries with an appalling record on human rights. To reform the parent body - the UN itself - in a more human-rights-friendly direction when some of its most powerful members don't have a lot to boast about in this regard is a tall order.
This is not an argument for not trying. But, as with the more general problem I began by outlining, we have to recognize the 'blockages'. Perhaps reform of the UN depends on a greater number and weight of liberal and democratic member states. At the same time, initiatives from the UN encouraging liberalization and democratization within states are always to be welcomed. What comes first? Both.