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Do We Even Need the UN? An Academic’s Quest to Find the Answer


President Trump with the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, at the UN General Assembly, September 2017. Thomas G. Weiss, an academic expert on the UN, asks in a new book if the world still needs the world body. The short answer: yes. SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD/WHITE HOUSE

Would the world be better off without the United Nations? The question couldn’t be more important in the age of Trump and his rejection of multilateral institutions as well as traditional allies. Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, took on this question, speaking extensively at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs on June 12 about, appropriately, his new book, “Would the World Be Better Without the UN?”

Weiss, who has written dozens of books about the UN and is director emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, responded to his own question at the Carnegie Council in a long, erudite answer, touching on everything from Trump’s recent behavior at the recent G7 meeting in Quebec to the need for the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, to move quickly and efficiently on reforming the world body. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

Here is the transcript and an audio of Weiss’s full hourlong remarks, with a shortened version of the introduction by Joanne Myers of the Carnegie Council (below), and questions from the audience afterward. The event took place before the United States announced on June 19 that it was withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council.

Thomas G. Weiss, the author of “Would the World Be Better Without the UN?” 

JOANNE MYERS: Our guest this evening is Thomas Weiss, who is one of the foremost analysts of United Nations history and politics. He is a prolific writer and scholar of all things United Nations. He is the author of a new book titled “Would the World Be Better Without the UN?” and this book is the subject of his discussion.

In considering this question, Professor Weiss is very fair as he seeks answers. In a methodical way he evaluates whether the UN is a drain on global resources or essential to maintaining global order. In studying the pluses and minuses of this august body, he understands that geopolitics have changed. Accordingly, he looks at how the UN in the more than 70 years of its existence has addressed international peace and security, human rights and humanitarian action, and sustainable development. He focuses not just on defending the UN and the principles of international cooperation, but also writes about where the UN could and would be if it had performed better.

THOMAS WEISS: Thanks, Joanne. When Joanne asked me to speak briefly, I said sure, but I didn’t explain to her why. I’ve been at the Graduate Center now for 20 years. But during one of my last evaluations of an undergraduate course — I now have graduate students, a couple of whom are here, they tend to be more respectful than undergraduates. They have these future jobs that depend on things.

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I never was sure what to do with these questionnaires — “He talks too much,” “He talks too little,” “We read too much,” “We read too little,” so I used to add them up and divide by two, basically. But okay. There was always a final question which said sort of “anything you want to know?” I would flip through those, and I came to one which said: “If I had a terminal disease, where would I like to spend the last hour of my life?” This didn’t have much to do with international relations, but the answer was, “Weiss’s seminar, because the last one seemed like eternity.” So I will try to be brief.

Would the world be better without the United Nations? Actually, answering that question would be critical at any moment since 1945, but it’s even more critical today, so the subtitle of the talk will be “The UN in the age of Trump,” and it’s even more pressing with the appointment of John Bolton [as national security adviser], because neither Trump nor Bolton — they spend most of their time denigrating anything multilateral, have no regard for international cooperation; partners are irrelevant in a zero-sum world.

My book is about the United Nations, but I think much of what I’m going to say could be extended to the G7 minus one or the G20 minus one, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and soon the World Trade Organization (WTO) as part of multilateralism under siege. In case you haven’t read the book or haven’t bought it yet, the answer is on page 190: No, the world would not be better.

There is a foreword written by Kofi Annan, so you might say, “Well, obviously the answer is going to be no.” But I ask a really honest question, and my response involved some tough choices and some uncomfortable albeit not alternative facts that should cause unease among foes as well as friends of the world organization. The book is organized like my textbook and other things, that is, I try to talk about pluses and minuses on the ideas-norms front and on the operational front, the two big outputs, and I try to talk about the three big pillars — peace and security, human rights and humanitarianism, and sustainable development.

But the book involves two parts. The first part is counterfactual that consists of really specific illustrations of how the world would have been actually far worse off at several crucial junctures over the last seven-plus decades. This part of the argument is designed to persuade or at least give pause to the Heritage Foundation and members of the administration in their declared war on the rules-based international order that the United States established and has nourished for almost three-quarters of a century.

Please note that I don’t use the term “a” rules-based order, which was what the administration was apparently trying to sell in Quebec, but I use the definite article, “the” order that we have, that the United States and frankly everyone else has benefited from over this period of time.

What’s the evidence? The argument is that the world certainly wouldn’t be better without both the first United Nations of states and the second United Nations of staff members because denying that proposition would involve asserting among other things that we would not be worse off, for instance, without the efforts to have eliminated smallpox in 1977, almost having done the same thing with polio and guinea worm, women’s rights, study the effects of climate change, deliver emergency aid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or Sudan, keep the peace on the Golan Heights, facilitated decolonization, began halting steps to protect cultural heritage, or prosecute war criminals, and the list goes on in the book.

Frequently counterfactuals are seen as the toys of social scientists. I don’t think they are. I think they actually help look squarely at a question and be forced to come up with some answers. So it’s not inconceivable that the members of the current administration would look at this and call them alternative facts, but I think almost everyone else would say there are some real pluses on the UN’s ledger on the asset column.

But the second half of the counterfactual and the second half of the book are for a different audience, that is, cheerleaders with blue pom-poms because there are deficits on this ledger as well that are substantial.

It would be equally difficult to maintain that the world could not have been a far better place, for example, if the Security Council had been less hypocritical in Rwanda or Syria or Myanmar, and the list goes on, or that if peacekeepers had raped fewer kids in Central Africa or spread less cholera in Haiti, or if more dedicated and competent staff had performed better in implementing development projects and monitoring what goes on and conducting research, and if there were fewer interorganizational turf battles among the members of the so-called “family.” So that’s the second half of the book.

When I wrote the proposal for a grant to the Carnegie Corporation [of New York] I thought that telling stories would be a good thing to do in preparation for the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the United Nations in 2020. I think that task became considerably more urgent — and the book actually came out about a year before I had planned. Amidst the panoply of craziness — racism, tax benefits for the rich, and your list is as long as mine — most people don’t look at what I think is the coming crisis of multilateralism.

Let’s just think about what happened in 2017 alone. We started off with eliminating financing for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), which fostered girls’ and women’s reproductive rights. We ended up the year by pulling completely out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) instead of only partially out despite of the programs — if you think girls’ education is important, and protection of cultural heritage in Palmyra, and the list goes on.

In between we pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate despite record-setting temperatures for four or five years in a row; in the early fall pulling out of the compact on migration, a modest effort to make some sense of what supposedly is a crisis in the United States and lots of other places; but then ending up the year with a veto of the Security Council resolution suggesting that maybe being the only country on the Earth besides Israel to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was not a good idea, and then when the General Assembly said the same thing, the response was to cut in half the U.S. allocation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

I’m hoping that the evidence — the stories in the book — have a modest effect in countering the ignorance, narcissism and ethical shoddiness of the administration because I think there is evidence that the shots across the bow in 2017 and the first part of this year are going to be broadsides this year and next. I think the recent fireworks with the G7 — the G7 is a multilateral effort, after all — will be followed up by I suspect an even worse speech at the General Assembly this year. In a minute I’ll talk about the one from last year.

I suspect that when the World Trade Organization gives a negative judgment on the case against it by the Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans, that that will be shattered as well.

What I would like to do briefly, though, is talk about Trump’s performance and put it in a historical context. The second part will say, “Well, what does ‘America First’ mean on First Avenue?”

Let me start with the historical context with a quote from Brian Urquhart, an old friend of mine who is not very well [an under secretary-general under UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold]. When I interviewed Brian shortly after he retired — and then he confirmed this later — he said, “My dear Tom, the central problem is it’s the last bastion of state sovereignty.” He, of course, was lamenting the fact that victims of human rights violations and violent attacks caught in the crosshairs of national sovereignty and their presidents and princes and prime ministers say, “Well, that’s our business,” and for decades the United Nations actually agreed, member states agreed.

More recently, however, we’ve seen a couple of invocations of the Responsibility to Protect, which has revoked the license for mass murder by thugs. In addition, sovereign states have agreed to tie their hands in a modest number of ways. There are almost 600 treaties deposited at the United Nations.

Of course, in the face of globalization, if you’re interested in finances, technologies, and information, states are rather tied up in certain ways. So sovereignty ain’t quite what it used to be.

Nonetheless, the United Nations — and every other intergovernmental organization —remains firmly grounded in sovereignty, which Trump made crystal clear. He is not exactly articulate. He is very redundant, but he used the S word “sovereignty” 21 times in his first address to the General Assembly last year. The loudest applause, of course, came from human rights champions Russia, China, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, etc., because these countries customarily use sovereignty as a defense to ward off criticism from Washington. That’s no longer necessary.

You don’t have to be an Obama groupie to go back and read his first statement, which used the word once, and that was in the context of saying how US interests would be served by cooperation. That’s a little part of the historical context.

I’m not the only person to recall that the America First Committee draws its name from the largest and best-organized and shortest-lived anti-war group ever, founded by the likes of Lindbergh and Henry Ford and Father Coughlin just before the onset of World War II. It lasted 11 months. It collapsed after Pearl Harbor. Trump’s version has not as yet. It will, although I hope without the equivalent incentive of a December 1941.

We have this paradox at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. The United Nations is a logical location to convene conversations to address global problems. Global problems need global solutions. At the same time, the world organization’s current limitations, both its sovereign foundation and its atomized and wasteful operations, should be obvious as well to any except the blindest of cheerleaders.

How in the age of Trump can the United Nations become a little more pertinent and less of a relic? I think formulating an answer to that question would be important whenever, but I want to focus for a minute on a different period. Part of my historical context here is the fruits of another research project I did on wartime history and the origin of the United Nations, a very different moment, a very different approach by Washington, very different leadership, very different calculation of national interest in the face of a truly existential threat, fascism.

I say I think it’s important to go back and visit this period because Trump and Bolton have never met an ally or an international organization they thought served U.S. purposes. That clearly is incorrect, and this history helps draw that out.

The beginning of the United Nations, the famous story of FDR rolling his wheelchair into Churchill’s bath and the pink-fleshed Churchill coming out and saying, “What a great idea to call this the United Nations,” reflected a totally different attitude by the United States. The Declaration by United Nations, signed on the 1st of January 1942 by 26 and later 44 allies, was not only a commitment to crush Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the short run. In the longer term, it was to maintain peace, security, stability, and economic development through multilateral cooperation.

That commitment was in evidence obviously in the European-Asian-North African fronts, but it was also in evidence across the Allies and in planning departments for the follow-up to the Second World War. I think too few people certainly in this administration understand the powerful mix of realism and idealism starting with the lend-lease program and the wartime United Nations.

Subsequently, people like Michael Mandelbaum say: “Well, we don’t do social work. That’s not foreign policy.” Or Condoleezza Rice says: “Well, we don’t take kids to kindergarten. That’s not foreign policy.”

However, if you go back to 1942-1945, both social work and multilateralism were integral to every single U.S. decision during World War II. Social work: Decolonization, international criminal justice, postwar reconstruction, refugee assistance, international development, regulating economic activity, public diplomacy, and agricultural and educational policy. All of this was social work. This sustained not only the military undertaking, but it also kept the Allies together. What the planners rejected was military might and lawlessness as the solution to the world following on the second installment of what Wells and Wilson had incorrectly billed as “the war to end all wars.”

As a result of San Francisco, one sees that multilateralism in this period and immediately thereafter was not peripheral but central to U.S. decision making. Different calculations, different leadership obviously. One might have expected the fallout from the failed League of Nations to produce Hobbes on steroids. That wasn’t the solution. Multilateralism and the rule of law, not going it alone, and the law of the jungle, were what was on the planning boards. It was not 1914-minus but 1918-plus, to build on the initial experience, albeit unsuccessful, of the League.

The Trump administration has forgotten this lesson, assuming that any members actually ever studied the history, but I think what’s important here is that normally it seemed smaller, and little powers like multilateralism because that serves their interests whereas major powers pursue unilateralism. It seems to me that the wartime origins not only suggest but demonstrate the relevance of collaboration for the most powerful as well when the political conditions and leadership are appropriate.

The age of Trump on First Avenue. The first thing to say is that he’s not the Lone Ranger here. We’ve got the age of Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Modi, Duterte, el-Sisi, Maduro, and the list goes on with several Europeans now piling on. However, I still think it’s worthwhile looking at what is still the UN’s most important Member State and largest funder, which has a mammoth capacity to create financial and political havoc, so we can’t ignore the rhetoric or the actions. I already mentioned the actions in 2017.

I think it’s important to think about the savings: $70 million from the UN Population Fund; efforts were attempted to reduce the peacekeeping budget, which eventually saved about $600 million, of which the U.S. share is $170 million; UNRWA, another $65 million. Three hundred million dollars is a rounding error in the U.S. budget, and it will have a far more deleterious impact on the United Nations and on its morale. No other Member State has jumped in to pick up the tab.

In addition, however, it’s these other things that are going on outside of the purely UN context that I think foreshadow what’s going to happen also in the United Nations on trade and the environment in particular. Starting out by tearing up the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Initiative (TPP) and afterward threatening North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and now the totally outlandish claim that national security requires tariffs on allied steel and aluminum has played directly into the hands of China, less so into Russian hands, but they benefit, too.

Beijing, of course, has made the most of this opportunity presented on a silver platter. They now can set the standards for trade in Asia; they picked up worldwide trading partners. Even pessimists who thought that eventually there would be an economic power on the horizon underestimated the speed at which the U.S. stature has diminished and its credibility evaporated. A strident and unpredictable Washington seems keen to start a trade war. Meanwhile, Beijing is the calm and predictable voice of trade and stability.

Of even greater significance I think on both a symbolic and probably the actual front is tearing up the UN-brokered but separate Paris Agreement on climate change. Once again, China is a direct beneficiary of this. It’s happy to play an unexpected new role as the leading advocate of climate change. Ironically it has become the world’s greatest producer of greenhouse gases and has several cities where you don’t want to breathe. Meanwhile, however, its technology producers forge ahead, producing three-quarters of the globe’s solar panels, and it has actually succeeded in cutting urban pollution in several places by as much as one-third. Meanwhile, of course, we’re looking at coal mines and eliminating regulations, so this is certainly going to make America polluted again.

I think what’s important, however, is that there is a four-year legal limit to withdraw from this pact. By then, my hope is that U.S. electors will have come to their senses. In any case, the mobilization of communities, cities, states, and corporations to respect the agreement means that multilateral and not a unilateral approach will still be possible by 2020.

Indeed, I think it’s important that California’s economy is bigger than the country where the Paris Agreement was signed, so there is much room to continue along this path. I think it’s significant that—I don’t know what’s going to happen in this year’s G20, but last year in Hamburg the other 19, while the Trump administration pouted, basically said: “This is irreversible. We can’t go back on this.”

In the five minutes that are left here, let me try to say something about changing the institution. Reform has been a perpetual trial since 1945, when the ink hadn’t even dried on the Charter. Efforts seemingly never cease to make it more inclusive, transparent, and accountable, and the list goes on, and most importantly to pull together its excessively numerous and atomized moving parts. I would say the results have been very modest to date.

However, it seems to me that the decibel levels of this criticism are rising. This is not just in Washington. Powerful and less powerful countries and their publics appear also skeptical about intergovernmental organizations. They are likely to take a more cost-benefit and transactional approach to multilateralism.

Many sympathetic governments — I see Nina Connelly back there and I and a colleague did an evaluation of Swedish support for UN funds and programs. They too are distancing themselves in ways. They used to just sort of pay up and ask very few questions.

The multilateral narrative has much less visceral appeal than in 1945 or a few years ago. It’s in this context, it seems to me, that we need to think about a world without the United Nations. I’m hoping that the stories here have some potential traction in that respect.

If one goes back and looks at the archival record and looks at the correspondence by Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they will recognize that U Thant’s diplomacy was an essential, probably not the only essential, but an essential component in both the U.S. and Soviet stances. While that is not the only factor, I’m not sure I want to test the proposition or we want to test the proposition that we can do without this totally.

Or, if you really want to talk about cost-benefit analysis and you look at smallpox elimination, which cost $300 million, of which the World Health Organization (WHO) component was only $100 million, of which the U.S. share was only $35 million, one-third the cost of a fighter jet at the time, the savings since have been huge, billions of dollars a year in administration, vaccines, etc. It seems to me we could make similar calculations about Ebola or monitoring in Iraq or Iran, or, who knows, North Korea. So it’s important I think to take onboard this argument and emphasize the value for money that certain parts of the system represent.

The secretary-general signaled his intention to solve conflicts. I think that is not exactly on the agenda, but also the management of the system, particularly the organizational system he directs, it seems to me that that is where one could make a difference, that the waste, overlap, lack of synergy, could address the problems that high-level panels, academics, media, and everybody else has underlined for years.

My question is: Will he be able to replicate the kind of administrative slimming down and decentralization that he implemented over a decade at United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHCR) helm? [Editor’s note: Guterres led the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, not the Human Rights Council.] The signs to date are not all that encouraging. Eighteen months, that’s a long honeymoon for a five-year period. But he is aware of the political flaws, and he is well aware of all these structural problems, and so I think we have to hope that he’s not going to shy away totally from the Sisyphean task of transforming—and that’s the word, “transforming”—the way the United Nations does business.

I think there is a little evidence in his proposals about the UN development system, about their going to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and trying to create what Robert Jackson called a “central brain” in making the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) what it was supposed to be, to get donors to pay for some of this coordination, to get the UNDP out of the competition for resources.

But it seems to me that the assignment for Guterres is to take onboard Trump and others’ tightening of financial screws to do what actually has needed to be done for ages. If the secretary-general fails, a self-reinforcement dynamic will result with an additional blowback for multilateralism, and at that juncture we’re going to have a real-time test of my proposition that the world could be even worse without the United Nations.

In fact, I think one of the real dangers has become such an embedded part of what goes on that it is usually taken for granted in some of the same ways that I’ve tried to illustrate with U Thant and the elimination of smallpox. Kevin Rudd, in a report he wrote two years ago, said: “We are barely conscious of the continuing stabilizing role it”— the United Nations —”plays in setting the broad parameters for the conduct of international relations. If the United Nations one day disappears or more likely just slides into neglect, it is only then that we would become fully aware of the gaping hole this would leave in what remained of the postwar order.” I think actually that’s where we are.

Trump ended his statement by saying last September, “We are calling for a great reawakening of nations.” He seemed to have forgotten that the United States actually helped to create the world organization to curb the demonstrated horrors of nations and of nationalism. It seems to me if we took that same sentence he should be calling the rest of us as well for a great reawakening of the United Nations.

To hear the comments and questions from the audience, click here.

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Do We Even Need the UN? An Academic’s Quest to Find the Answer
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