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[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of a text published in TMS (Transcend Media Service) on 5 October 2021. It assesses the record of the UN over the decades on the basis of its constitutional design, its operational experience, and the gap between UN capabilities and the global need for dramatically enhanced human solidarity mechanisms.]
Worthy, Worthless, and Harmful
I was recently a guest on a TV show that had as its theme “UN: Worthy or Worthless?” It struck me as a misleading question as the UN for its first 75 years was in different settings worthy and worthless, or actually worse than worthless. It was worthless, or almost so, if the appraisal if based either on the war prevention/prohibition of aggression master norm of the UN Charter or the stirring familiar words of commitment at the beginning of the Charter Preamble: “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.” Such a pledge could be called almost worthless, especially its apparent grant of agency to ‘peoples’ on such grave matters of state as recourse to war, as well as by purporting to have substituted a global rule of law for war as a social institution and to have displaced the primacy of geopolitics. The implication that the strong as well as the weak were to held accountable for a peaceful resolution of conflicts or for transgressions of fundamental legal norms was pure dream talk as became obvious even by only reading beyond the Preamble to the Charter text. Yet this pretense of reaching for the stars is far from the whole UN story.
To begin with, the UN didn’t ever seriously aim as high as the words of the Preamble would lead one to believe. The UN was primarily hoped to become a lasting presence on the global stage, and this it has accomplished. The Organization managed to induce nearly every country on the planet to join, and afterwards value its membership sufficiently to stay involved during the decades of Cold War high tension that produced deep splits in world politics. It is impossible to assess whether establishing and maintaining this arena providing many venues for diplomatic contact between adversaries had a significant moderating effect on conflict that helped save humanity from a catastrophic third world war that likely would have been fought with nuclear weapons. But unlike the League of Nations the fate of UN was not decided before it was even tested by aggression and war. The original champion of the League, the United States, refused to join. This stuck a heavy blow to the birthing process of the League, whose reputation was further seriously undermined by the subsequent withdrawals of such important member states as Germany and Japan, with many others following for a variety of reasons.
By contrast, the UN has achieved and maintained a universality of participation that confirms the beliefs prevailing even among the most cynical political leaderships among national governments that it is more advantageous to be active within the UN than to rely on going it alone. Understanding why this has become so, even among detractors of internationalism as is the case with virtually the entire political class of foreign policy advisors in P-5 states who continue see global issues through the anachronistic optic of ‘political realism.’ Such realists see the UN as a useful enough foreign policy tool to retain, so long as it does not encroach on the domain of vital national interests. The UN’s survival and usefulness is a partly a result of Members and high-level UN civil servants understanding and respecting the strong constaints on its effective authority.
Framing Faustian Bargains
This mild, but indispensable governmental backing of the UN probably occurred because the Organization was deliberately designed by its founders to entail an unconditional surrender to the machinations of geopolitics. First, and foremost, by constitutional design the UN gave the winners in World War II permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council the only organ of the UN with authority to reach obligatory decisions. In effect, this was an acknowledgement that the UN had neither the authority nor the intention of overriding the political will of these five permanent members, and would have to live with or without their discretionary adherence to Charter norms and procedures, especially in the domain of international peace and security, and behavioral patterns based on self-restraint and prudence. Such hopes of voluntary compliance were not entirely in vain, but often seemed so, particularly at times of geopolitical confrontation, perhaps most memorably during the Cuban Missile Crisis( 1962). Catastrophic adversity was avoided throughout the Cold War mostly by good luck, although some would give credit to doctrines of mutual deterrence and the related fear factor arising from rival arsenals of nuclear weapons poised to launch missiles if attacked. The UN was usually on the sidelines anxiously watching international crises unfold, reconciled to its role as a virtual spectator, or at most, a helpless commentator. [See definitive exploration of this assertion in Martin Sherwin, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, (2021)] In other words, the UN by its constitutional framework and its operational reality defers to the most dangerous states in the world as signified by hard power capabilities. This affinity between hard power capabilities and P-5 status was reinforced by the fact that the five permanent members of the Security Council were also the first five countries to acquire nuclear weapons.
The second rationale for this hierarchy of membership in 1945 was to make a maximum effort to avoid a repetition of the League experience. From this perspective it was imperative to keep major states involved as active participants even if discontented with what the UN was doing in specific contexts. In practical effect, this meant mostly persuading the Soviet Union that it was in its interest to belong as in the early UN experience the Soviet Union was consistently outvoted on central peace and security issues. Franklin Roosevelt most notably was of the opinion that the UN would fare better than the League if geopolitical ambitions and rivalry were given recognition and free space within the Organization rather than being carried on by non-Members acting on their own in the unruly jungle of world politics. FDR also naively believed that the anti-fascist alliance that held firm throughout World War II would stay together to assure the peace.
The Soviet Union came to a dramatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining participation when its absence from the Security Council in 1950 due to a temporary protest against the refusal of the UN to recognize the Chinese Peoples Republic as representing China meant that it lost the opportunity to veto the Council decision to condemn North Korean aggression and give its blessing to the action by Western governments to join in the operations of collective self-defense on behalf of South Korea. The Soviets reacted by immediately reoccupying their seat in the Security Council and never again made such a tactical mistake. It is significant that what they didn’t do was to threaten or actually withdraw.
In a sense, this deference to geopolitics involved a pair of Faustian Bargains. In both instances, the UN refrained from its inception to make any serious attempt to impose its authority on geopolitical actors, which introduced a gaping right of exception into all Security Council proceedings. It is mostly the operational reality of this concession to hard power that leads many in the public and media to the perception that the UN is worthless as it is seen as playing no role in wars that involve the participation of P-5 members. This perception has been reinforced by patterns of unlawful behavior on the part of these five states, each of which has conducted military operations that flagrantly violated international law as well as the more specific normative architecture of the UN’s own Charter. We cannot know what would have ensued after 1945 if there had been no permanent membership and no veto in the Security Council, but we can make a good guess. The UN might have turned into a Western anti-Soviet alliance or would have completely lost its relevance as a result of political paralysis, debilitating withdrawals, and uses of force in manifest violation of the UN Charter. Another line of conjecture would seek to imagine the likely UN evolution if the FDR image of keeping the East/West alliance vibrant with a new priority assignment of keeping the peace in the dawn of the nuclear age.
Achievements of The UN System
When we turn to the case for worthiness, the argument is on one level obvious and on anther is somewhat subtle and elusive. The obvious part is that the resources and energies of the UN System are concerned with much more than the peace and security agenda, providing guidance and valuable assistance in such varied areas as development, human rights, economic and social policy, environment, health, culture, and education. Beyond these substantive domains the UN provides indispensable auspices for the management of complex interdependence for many mutually beneficial transnational undertakings. Among the most important UN contributions is host a variety of cooperative activities comprising multilateral diplomacy of global scope. The UN has a strong record of offering its facilities and backing for lawmaking treaties covering a diverse range of global concerns including the public order of the oceans, peaceful uses of outer space, protection of endangered animal species, world trade.
The subtler case regarding the UN as a worthy contributor to a better world is its role in the domain of symbolic politics, which can be understood by regarding the UN as ‘a soft power superpower.’ The UN Secretary General is almost alone as a globally respected voice of reason and empathy on the gravest issues facing humanity, but also on occasion as a gentle critic of geopolitical excess and as a trustworthy alarmist with respect to climate change and the COVID pandemic. The periodically elected administrative leader of the UN exert some influence on world public opinion through their statements of concern, but rarely challenge directly geopolitical behavior.
More relevant is the capacity of the UN, primarily in the General Assembly, but throughout the UN System to shape perceptions of legitimacy and illegitimacy in ways that exert important influences throughout civil society. The reality of such a perception can be most easily captured by the degree to which states struggle to achieve UN approval and to avoid having the UN pass critical judgment on their behavior. The UN endorsement of the anti-apartheid campaign is one of the factors that both mobilized activism in civil society and eventually led the leadership of the South African apartheid regime to reverse course. The frantic pushback by Israel to UN-backed allegations of racism and criminality, and more recently, of apartheid is further confirmation that what the UN does symbolically matters, and sometimes deeply.
Although Currently Worthy, a Stronger UN is Possible and Necessary, although it seems Unlikely
The COVID experience exposed the essential weakness of the UN when it came to promote and protect human interests in a health crisis of global scope. The ethos that prevailed was both an exhibition of the non-accountability of the geopolitical actors, and more broadly, the prioritizing of national interests and shared civilizational values in a politically fragmented world order. The imperative of global solidarity was too weak to prevent the scandalous hoarding of vaccines, which made descriptive such pejorative labels as ‘vaccine apartheid’ or ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ This experience is disturbing beyond COVID as it offers a metaphor for the global persistence of statist world order, which is partially enacted by marginalizing the UN in the face of an acute crisis of global scale. The record of response is only slightly better when it comes to fashioning a collective response to the dire expert consensus on what needs to be done about climate change. [See Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2021)]
We are left with the haunting question of whether pressures toward unity and global public goods can replace geopolitical rivalry and ambition in the years ahead, and translate such awakening into a movement capable of achieving a UN oriented and empowered to serve, at least selectively, the human interest rather than as in the past, the interplay of national interests or the prorities of geopolitics.