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Humanism and the UN: A Shared Future?

Carl Coon


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 1.

Not too long ago, I had a brief exchange with a high-ranking United Nations official in New York. I noted the similarity between humanist worldviews and those held within the UN, as expressed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others. “Of course,” he replied. “We are all humanists here.”

And why not? There is a certain symmetry between humanism and the whole idea of global governance, just as there is symmetry between patriotism and national government. Nation-states evolved out of smaller groups when the advantages of aggregation became so compelling that people became willing to subordinate the interests of their own tribe, region, or ethnic group to those of a larger and more inclusive community. Patriotism evolved as the social glue that held the nation’s individual parts together. People didn’t give up the old loyalties entirely; they just superimposed a new set on top of them. At least they did in some nation-states—the ones that are success stories today. In others, internal divisions continually tear the states apart and prevent effective governance.

The current era is one in which a host of trends and developments are forcing countries to cooperate on a global basis to cope with problems that are threatening all humanity. The threat of nuclear war and other conflicts in an era when weapons of mass destruction are becoming readily available is one of the more obvious such developments; the nuclear threat is increasingly linked to the parallel migraine of international terrorism. Growing migration and refugee problems are another cluster of threats to the stability of nations all over the world. And then, of course, there are the problems of overpopulation and the increasingly adverse impact of human activity on the environment, threatening the very water we drink and the air we breathe, not to mention the survival of most other life-forms. Economic globalization, meanwhile, holds out the prospect of an enormous increase in material welfare, but for whom? All these issues require international cooperation, and many of them can be approached effectively only if the cooperation is global.

The time has come for permanent global institutions and mechanisms that can address these problems systemically, rather than by piecemeal and in fits and starts. Old-fashioned treaties don’t meet the need. We are headed, whether we like it of not, for a stronger UN. But a newly empowered international authority can work efficiently and democratically only if people are persuaded that significant elements of national authority have to be given over to the new body. We have to give up the “them” part of the “us versus them” attitude that underlies national patriotism. We can keep the “us” and continue to root for the traditional home team, but we have to be ready to acknowledge a higher, supranational authority, and this can only come when we get rid of our atavistic hostility toward “foreigners.”

Where is this sea change in our attitudes going to come from? Not from the old religions. Not only are their value systems ill-equipped to cope with the new problems of the day, but they don’t trust each other. And the change will not come from any one region or country, even one as powerful as the United States. A Pax Americana might seem attractive to a few megalomaniacs in Washington as a quick fix for some of the world’s more urgent current problems, but nobody else will be impressed with that kind of solution, and it won’t work. No, global solutions should be backed by a truly global value system, and the only one that I know is humanism, which is based on dedication to the principle of universal human rights and on the application of reason, not faith, to solve problems.
This is why Kofi Annan’s speech when he accepted the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize sounded almost like another humanist manifesto. This is why just about everybody in that struggling organization with a clear idea of the job that needs to be done is a humanist at heart. For them, it’s the only game in town.

I refer here, of course, to the professional Secretariat, not the delegates from member states. And that is an important distinction for humanists everywhere. International humanism is the natural ally of the international civil servants who run the world’s peacekeeping, development, environmental, and relief functions under the aegis of the UN and its specialized agencies. Humanists everywhere should regard the UN bureaucracy as a natural ally that should be supported, as a matter of principle, in its efforts to build a more effective and humane world order. This doesn’t mean blind support for everything every UN agency may be doing everywhere. It means that, when humanist organizations look at specific UN activities, they should start with a general sense of approval, to be reshaped and modified as necessary when the details are examined.

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s latest book, The Choice, has an interesting observation that is relevant here. He writes (p. 149) that “Symbiosis with an established and powerful reality becomes, for better or worse, integral to a doctrine’s iden-tity.” Marxism, for example, was little more than a collection of theories espoused by an intellectual fringe until it became identified with a major player on the world scene, the USSR. Humanism, it can be argued, needs such a symbiotic relationship with an established and powerful reality if it is to become a major player in the world as a whole.

It follows that humanism’s future may well lie in developing a close and mutually beneficial relationship with the emerging instruments of global governance, starting with the UN. I have a vision of an international humanist presence in New York, many thousand times better financed than the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s present small effort, that interfaces with the UN secretariat at all levels, that coordinates with nation-

al humanist organizations around the world, and that thereby endows the UN with a means of reaching people throughout the world that is independent of the constituent national governments. In return, the voice of international humanism would be powerfully heard in the offices of the very people who are at the forefront in forging a new and more harmonious world order.

Now, that is something humanists ought to be working for. Meanwhile, I believe humanist organizations have an obligation as well as a right to take positions on the major international issues of the day and on the several approaches for coping with them that are on the table. There will inevitably be progress toward a more effective global authority, and it is up to us, as humanists, to make sure that the mechanisms that are now beginning to take shape remain broadly humanistic and democratic. That is our goal. A general attitude of support for the United Nations is an important part of our strategy for reaching that goal. 


Carl Coon is a retired foreign service officer who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal from 1981 to 1984. The themes in this piece are more fully developed in his latest book, One Planet, One People—Beyond “Us vs. Them” (Prometheus, 2004).


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