Taking a look back at the last 75 years.
A time of celebration is upon us: The United Nations has turned 75 this week, and we’re here to blow the candles of the now venerable organization that has tried to be front and center to the slow, but assured, we’re told, progress of the world towards democratic universality and human rights for all.
When the UN Charter was drafted and ratified in 1945, they could not have made it any clearer.
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS
to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, andto unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.
The Purposes of the United Nations are:
To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.
The stage was indeed set. Founded as a toothier iteration of the League of Nations after the latter’s ignominious collapse when faced with fascism, it was born out of a similar expressed desire, to prevent war and aim for peace. To do so meant attempting once again to create a community of nations striving towards collective development in international relations as opposed to the realism-based balance of power that was the dominant model of thought in the era of British dominance. When taken at face value, this was a huge step forward for liberal thought and a foundational moment of institutionalism within the context of international relations.
What’s the score?
Seventy-five years later, can it be said that this grand project has achieved its goals? Far from it. Institutionalism as a proxy for peace has succeeded to an extent: New institutions have been built, and not a small number of them either. It hasn’t succeeded in undermining balance-of-power based perspectives on international politics. For the majority of its existence, the UN has been the playground of a diplomatic game pitting the United States against the Soviet Union.
While it can be argued that the UN’s mere existence allowed for this game to play out more diplomatically than militarily (i.e., as a Cold war rather than a hot one), this was in truth enforced – and perhaps more effectively – by the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. And if MAD beat the UN at its own job in terms of effectiveness, that is already not a very reassuring sign.
That is not to say that it has been outright useless; far from it. As we said, the United Nations has been a very good institutionalising force, and for the most part helped centralize diplomatic relations in a single forum – to the point that some relationships between states might not exist today if not for the opportunity for respective representatives to sit in the same room and have an opportunity to interact.
Yet, what could be a saving grace is also a damning flaw: Now, as then, the UN is a staging ground for geopolitical conflict – the nascent tensions between the US and China in their struggle for regional and global hegemony. Here again, the UN has little say in whether a peaceful resolution is reached; in fact, the infrastructure currently preventing severe outburst has more to do with economic ties than diplomatic ones, and these economic ties were largely built outside of UN auspices, and with power politics in mind, starting with the Nixon administration.
With foxes in the barn, the hens can’t catch a break
Of course seventy five years are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the laudable goal of ‘fixing the world forever’, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that we haven’t reached the finish line yet (and probably won’t any time soon either). The question remains, however, of whether the UN has been as useful an institution as it is made out to be.
To be sure, the UN framework is currently the single most significant infrastructure with regards to nations participating effectively in the global community. Even states that aren’t recognized by the majority of UN member states can have a seat at the table to lay out their qualms.
Nonetheless, there is also a significant amount of institutional subversion inherent to the UN. Both China and Russia reap enormous benefits from their permanent seats in the Security Council, and China’s financial miracle owes a great debt to its admission into the World Trade Organization which is ancillary to the UN. Speaking of China, the PRC’s current strategy of massive investments in major UN agencies like the WTO or the World Health Organization, or even the Human Rights Council, is all the more interesting given that it has demonstrated little respect for the founding values of the UN as a whole – and this, from the moment it joined.
These charges would be problematic in their own right were China the only member state conforming to neither the spirit nor the letter of the institutions; but it isn’t. The UN is a veritable Who’s Who of human rights abuses, disdain for individual freedoms, and twisted ironies.
On the one hand, China as a leading member of the WTO is implementing ludicrous protectionist measures and government intervention to give its corporations massive advantages. On the other, the Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Armenia, features such luminary members as Saudi Arabia (they also were part of the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee in 2015), Senegal, and Bangladesh, all of which have less than stellar track records in regard to gender equality.
Granted, we can’t discount the possibility that this is, perhaps, the point: Countries that would otherwise be cut off from international engagement or any contact with novel ideas cannot possibly evolve for the better, and those that are therefore brought into the fold have at the very least a passive, yet benevolent, influence of more ethical peers pushing them towards better practices.
Even given this possibility, in those instances when the UN might have been viewed as instrumental to the creation of peace, it has almost never been lasting ; the conflicting interests of its members make anything other than stalemate an unfavorable solution to some actors. In fact, competing interests of major world powers within the UN inevitably trend towards gridlock. Clashing interests have meant milquetoast resolutions for pressing crises more times than not. The participation of nations who do not respect the principles of the UN is eroding not only the organisation’s overall will to act, but also the ability of the members who do follow these precepts to enforce or encourage these ideals either.
When member states do take political action against the wishes of the gridlocked UN, it is either in exasperation, knowing that these actions will be condemned by nations that regularly flout the rules and that charges of hypocrisy will be leveled ; or in utter indifference knowing that this balance of power makes sanctions against uncooperative nations as unlikely as a snowstorm in July in the Sahara.
Just think of the Security Council permanent members and their discretionary veto power (which was originally a failsafe measure to ensure the preservation of the ideals set out in the Charter), and it’s not far until you can only assume total inaction even in the face of monstrous injustice as the norm.
This can become particularly ridiculous: Permanent members of the UNSC are functionally immune to any form of sanction given their ability to handwave it with no justification and no consequence. Worse yet, considering that this council includes the US, Russia, and China, there is practically no case in which a nation would be unable to flout human rights and thumb their nose at sanctions merely by appealing to one of the three leading security members.
Achievements and failures
So when has the UN been instrumental in a major crisis or conflict, since its inception? It was instrumental at the onset of the Korean War, since it was an UNSC resolution that authorized the United States to spearhead an armed response to the DPRK’s invasion of the Southern half of the Korean peninsula. However, it could just as well have been massively detrimental. It took an extremely unlikely alignment of stars for this resolution to pass: the Soviet Union was busy boycotting the Security Council, and likely would have vetoed an intervention; the only voice that could have echoed the USSR on the Security Council was Yugoslavia, and it chose to abstain from voting altogether. It was also instrumental in the founding of the state of Israel, but it’s no secret that this decision did not result in lasting stability in the region.
There is one UN-backed intervention that can be deemed an absolute win: The First Gulf War. That was the height of the UN’s problem solving abilities when it came to international relations, and even then, it contributed practically nothing to lasting peace, serving only as a momentary check on Iraqi ambitions and failing to address any of the underlying structural issues. Dealing with that instability would have meant taking a side in a conflict, and the UN was crafted in such a way as to make that kind of decision impossible.
Since then, UN peacekeeping has had a less than middling track record, presiding over multiple genocides, including but not limited to ex-Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. To be fair, at least one of these was also a tremendous NATO failure.
With or without UN
To make the birthday cake even sourer, on the 75th anniversary of this organisation for global peace, the greatest peacebuilding projects are coming directly courtesy of a regime that regularly mocks the failings of this august body – and is mocked in return by it.
The Trump administration has done more than the United Nations in addressing the perennial conflicts in the Middle East and the forever war between North and South Korea, much to the consternation of many other members. With that in mind, it’s difficult to discount the logic of the Trump administration’s push to reduce funding for UN peacekeeping missions – why bother when most operations designed to uphold the current international order end up falling to the US military? Instead, the United Nations has been instrumental in implementing a global push for quiet. This, as Neville Chamberlain, and Ultron, must know, is not the same thing as actual peace.
The contradictions inherent already to the structure and projects of the UN begin as early as the preamble to its Charter, which commences with an appeal from the authority of the people of the constituent nations. This is swell, as at the time of founding and now, the people have failed to participate as governing members of most of these countries. To put it bluntly, it has proven impossible to advance the interests of the democratically-minded at the expense of authoritarians when the authoritarians maintain a seat at the table and the ability to influence decision making. The United Nations as it currently stands lives up to about half of its name : there are indeed nations. This is also part of the problem, as again it leaves the decision making power vested theoretically by a nation’s constituents (as per its charter) in the hands of unelected leadership. This is a critical failure of conception that ultimately keeps us celebrating 75 years of advancement and instead led to this long critique.
A more optimistic perspective would reserve a few words to discuss the potential that still remains in the United Nations: what future good may yet come of this organisation? In our perspectives, this question misses the point : enough wishful thinking has already been spent on the United Nations. That time is better used contemplating the enormity of its failures. Only once those are accounted for could we possibly hope to build something from its rapidly liquefying foundations. The UN cannot content itself with solving only the problems that aren’t political.