Seventy-five years ago this month, delegates in San Francisco signed the United Nations Charter. Anniversary events were supposed to culminate in the commemoration of the entry into force of the world organization’s constitution on Oct. 24. That, of course, was before Covid-19 turned the world upside-down. Like school and university commencements, the UN’s celebration will likely be postponed or held remotely.
The UN’s 75th birthday should call attention to the 1942-45 United Nations Alliance. The end of World War II — like World War I and the Napoleonic wars — resulted in an experiment with a new international organization. Yet “the scourge of war” that opens the Charter’s preamble is no longer the main threat to us or “succeeding generations.” Covid-19 is the latest in a growing list with climate change and terrorism, WMDs and inequalities.
What does the aftermath of the pandemic and the related global economic meltdown mean for the UN? Will it even be around to celebrate a centenary?
Such questions are missing from domestic politics, in the United States and elsewhere. They should not, however, get lost despite the mind-numbing national concerns — racism, corruption, lies, tax benefits for the rich, attacks on the environment and Constitution. International cooperation was missing in the November 2018 midterm elections as in the 2016 presidential campaign. Other than brief mentions of NATO, Democratic presidential aspirants were silent. President Trump’s announced withdrawal from the WHO in the middle of the pandemic elicited, finally, condemnations from commentators, including even a handful of Republicans.
As we are looking backward, let’s begin at the beginning. The “United Nations” was not established in San Francisco in June 1945 but rather in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 1, 1942, when 26 (and later 44) countries signed the Declaration by United Nations. The military alliance to crush Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was also to continue and maintain international peace and prosperity after the war.
While reform is necessary — think about peacekeepers’ spreading cholera in Haiti or trading food for sex in the Central African Republic — the UN remains essential. Indeed, after three-quarters of a century, it is so embedded in the international system that it is often taken for granted.
This is an underappreciated danger lurking since the inauguration of Trump, who aims to destroy the rules-based international order. Freezing US funding for WHO and then withdrawing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic was an extension of the schoolyard fight with China that also poisons the atmosphere in the UN Security Council.
It is, however, merely the latest foray in his onslaught against multilateralism. Trump routinely sneers at international cooperation outside of the UN as well — not only is NATO obsolete, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris agreement are worthless. Partners and allies are for dummies.
Yet the United States, despite lapses and inconsistencies, has championed and sustained the liberal order and benefited from it. That reality and realization hopefully can return after November.
Ironically, what could illustrate better how intimately the well-being of US citizens is linked to that of others than a pandemic? Let’s recall the clearest historical analogy, the international campaign to eradicate smallpox. Total expenditures were $300 million — $100 million were international funds, with the US share $35 million. For one-third a fighter jet’s cost then, the planet has avoided that scourge’s human costs and saved billions of dollars in vaccines and administration since 1977. Health is a quintessential global public good; more recently, other communicable diseases (polio and guinea worm) have almost succumbed.
The world without the UN? John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev recognized the contribution of Secretary-General U Thant’s shuttle diplomacy during the Cuban missile crisis. Would we like to test the proposition that states can do without such mediation? Other assets on the UN system’s balance sheet include formulating women’s rights; analyzing climate change; emergency aid to war victims in Syria and Sudan; peacekeeping in Kashmir and Cyprus; facilitating decolonization; alternative development thinking; protecting cultural heritage; and prosecuting war criminals. The list goes on.
What could be more obvious amidst a crippling pandemic than the fundamental disconnect between global challenges and international problem-solving? We have occasional, tactical and short-term local views and responses instead of sustained, strategic and longer-run global perspectives and actions. And now we have Trump.
So why go back to 1942-1945? Because no one questions the effort by the US and its Allies, not even the current cabal of my-country-firsters. Examining the wartime UN contradicts the conventional wisdom that liberalism was abandoned to confront World War II’s existential threat. It shows that the ideals of Kant were found to be essential to the Hobbesian objective of state survival.
As the host for the Charter conference and the first country to ratify it, Washington appreciated the UN’s value-added for US vital interests. The fallout from the failed League of Nations did not produce Hobbes on steroids. Those overseeing the Allied war machine — in Washington, Whitehall and elsewhere — were resolute: multilateralism and the rule of law, not going-it-alone and the law of the jungle, should underpin the postwar order.
The proverbial bottom line: when states decide to use intergovernmental organizations, they work. Calculations by the UN’s founders expose our shriveled imaginations, which formulate second-best surrogates instead of more robust multilateralism. If global problems require global solutions, we require strengthened intergovernmental organizations. A most urgent task, then, is to reinforce the crumbling foundations of the UN system.
The often cited, almost trite yet apt remark attributed to Dag Hammarskjold jumps to mind: “The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.” Its existence is one reason we are not in the netherworld already. But a world without it is not impossible if current political conditions continue or deteriorate further.
“We are calling for a great reawakening of nations,” is how Trump concluded his 2017 performance on the UN General Assembly’s stage. No, Mr. President, the United States helped to create the world organization to curb the demonstrated horrors of nations and nationalism run amok.
The rest of us should demand a great reawakening of the United Nations, as Trump and other new nationalists will certainly not.
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Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; co-chair of the Cultural Heritage at Risk Project, J. Paul Getty Trust; Distinguished Fellow of Global Governance at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminence Scholar, Kyung Hee University, Korea. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations,” (with Tatiana Carayannis).