“Ukraine Week” at the United Nations, marking the sad end of the first year of Russia’s illegal war, culminated in a resounding General Assembly vote against Russia’s recolonization — 141 countries demanded withdrawal versus Moscow and only six major recipients of military aid (Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Eritrea, Mali and Nicaragua). The Kremlin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine is its biggest miscalculation since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Only a few weeks after the Feb. 24 anniversary, a report from the Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine documented an array of war crimes, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law; and the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children.
These new measures carried an indisputable moral weight and added to the sixth diplomatic embarrassment in the General Assembly; these condemnations are difficult to square with the collective scratching of heads on First Avenue and elsewhere about the UN’s impotence.
The last two secretaries-general, Ban Ki-moon and António Guterres, have had virtually no public profile, and the Security Council has been largely MIA in Ukraine. Yet Mark Twain’s wisdom is helpful in maintaining perspective before tolling the multilateral death knell in Manhattan.
The first sentence of most UN textbooks rings clearly: the organization can only do what its member states agree on. And nowhere is that more obvious than the Security Council, where five countries can exercise a veto. Russia uses it to cancel discussions about Ukraine, as Russia and China do to forestall vigorous action in Syria and Myanmar, as the United States routinely does to prevent meaningful rhetorical or actual action in Palestine.
At the same time, efforts by the UN system have been essential to the welfare of the estimated eight million refugees and 5.5 million internally displaced Ukrainians — Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. While US observers focus on the high politics of Security Council paralysis and aptly moan, Ukraine’s forced migrants would be suffering even more without assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Unicef, World Food Program, International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization and other UN acronyms assisted by numerous nongovernmental organization partners.
The UN’s performance leaves much to be desired, but it has made substantial contributions to world order. Indeed, the institution has become so embedded in today’s international system that it is taken for granted. That danger was very evident during four years of the administration of Donald Trump, who was intent on destroying the rules-based international order for which the UN is a keystone, an order that the US, despite lapses and inconsistencies, has championed and sustained.
So, would the world be better without the UN? I asked that question in the same title of a 2018 book. My answer then and now: No. Would the world be better with more responsible member states and more courageous and competent international civil servants: Yes.
Counterfactuals are often dismissed as academic toys, but two “what-ifs?” can clarify our thinking.
The first counterfactual is for uncritical UN cheerleaders who are always on the defensive. There are substantial debits on the organization’s ledger. It is impossible to maintain that the world would not have been a far better place with improved performances by member states and UN civil servants. For example, if the Security Council’s permanent and elected members had acted on Rwanda’s real-time genocide in 1994, or currently in Syria, Myanmar and Yemen as well as Ukraine; or if peacekeepers had not raped children in the Central African Republic and not spread cholera in Haiti; or if more dedicated, competent staff had performed better in implementing development projects and conducting hard-hitting monitoring; or if there were fewer inter-organizational turf battles and more genuine collaboration among the members of the so-called dysfunctional UN family. And that list goes on.
In short, the current world order could have been better had the UN’s 193 members behaved more responsibly, and its 100,000 civilian staff members and a comparable number of soldiers and police been more creative, competent and courageous.
History also details how the world would have been far worse at several crucial junctures over the last three-quarters of a century without critical inputs from the UN system. This part of the argument should give pause to die-hard foes of multilateralism. Despite exceptions, including the poster child of the Trump administration, the US has led the way in creating and nourishing the liberal order and, along with other countries, has benefited. Unfortunately, there is too little appreciation now for the value of international cooperation in pursuing national interests. The pandemic and climate are the most recent illustrations of how the well-being of US citizens is linked to the well-being of others.
Denying that proposition would involve asserting that we would not be worse off, for instance, without the cooperative international campaigns that eradicated smallpox in 1977, and more recently almost polio and guinea worm; or that formulated global women’s rights; or that studied the effects of climate change; or that delivered emergency aid to war victims in Syria, Somalia and Sudan; or that kept the peace in Kashmir, Cyprus and the Golan Heights; or that managed decolonization; or that fostered alternative development thinking; or that seeks to protect cultural heritage or to prosecute war criminals. The historical record has many more examples.
Ukraine week, in February, highlighted what’s on display every day of every week. Responses to the pandemic and climate change resemble the demonstrated Security Council impotence amid the illegal invasion of Ukraine. The shortcomings reflect the UN Charter: lofty aspirations confront my-country-first — otherwise known as state sovereignty.
While lamenting that sad reality, we should not ignore crucial humanitarian action in Ukraine or the halting yet essential efforts to provide Covid vaccines worldwide or to maintain climate advocacy, a topic whose science and visibility has grown since 1987, stimulated by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its most recent unsettling report this month.
While many people clamor for transformation, the most urgent task is to reinforce the crumbling foundations of the system. The first step is not a dramatic overhaul but a fairer evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of an underappreciated institution.
As Australia’s former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, wrote: “If the UN 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 post-war order.”
Until the war in Ukraine, the European Union had lost its way and NATO was either obsolete or brain dead. And the UN was an afterthought, if a thought at all. It is certain, however, that any future diplomatic solutions — and sooner or later they will be necessary — will involve negotiations, cease-fires, observers, referenda, boundary lines and neutral soldiers on the ground. These will undoubtedly involve a combination of multilateral institutions.
Indeed, what could be more obvious than the fundamental disconnect between a growing number of global challenges and the inadequate structures for international problem-solving and decision-making? We have occasional, tactical and short-term local views and responses instead of sustained, strategic and longer-run global perspectives and actions.
US citizens would do well to go back to the beginning. The creation of the “United Nations” was not in San Francisco in June 1945 but rather in Washington, on Jan. 1, 1942, when 26 (and later 44) countries signed the Declaration by United Nations. Most observers are unaware of the label for the military alliance to defeat fascism, which entailed a parallel commitment to multilateralism as the standard operating procedure during the war; it was also to guide post-war peace and prosperity through an institution with the same name. The 1940s in many ways represented the pinnacle of global intergovernmental governance
Why go back to 1942-1945? Because almost no one questions the effort made by the US and its allies, not even the current crew of my-country-firsters. Examining the wartime UN contradicts the conventional wisdom that liberalism was abandoned to confront the Nazis and Imperial Japan; the ideals of Kant were found to be essential to the Hobbesian objective of state survival.
We might recall Samuel Clemens’ wisdom in revisiting the current weeping and gnashing of multilateral teeth about the UN’s fate. When governments decide to use intergovernmental organizations, they work. The wartime actions of the UN’s founders suggest that our current shriveled imaginations lead to second-best surrogates for more robust multilateralism. If global problems require global solutions, history counsels that we require strengthened intergovernmental organizations, especially those of the UN system.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the UN's scorecard?
Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).
Good day, please, if we all know that the recommendations made so regarding SDGs have not met the critical requirements of achieving the sustainable development goals with respect to poverty, mass unemployment, illiteracy, democracy deficits, human rights, climate change, inequalities, bad national governance systems, world currency, excessive population growth, environmental desasters, corruption, proliferation of urban slums, etc; the necessary question then is, how and what does the United Nations do right away, what innovations, in order to start action on some or all of these matters?
I have critical ideas as veritable solutions to the global catastrophic challenges, which have to be urgently and comprehensively documented in the form of many books, for which I need financial grant.
Ponle Sueez Akande
PassBlue must not die, but flourish, Amen. The United Nations is not agile as structured, and is not fit for purpose, to govern the Anthropocene, with the catastrophic challenges. The security council and the general assembly, together, Constitute the fused legislature and executive arm of the global governance system that the United Nations is. The secretary general is just the chief administrative officer. The general assembly is too unwieldy to act fast, and the security council exists in schism, since the time of the cold war. Glasnost and Perestroika were described by Putin as the worst crime against humanity. China and Russia, with many other countries are against unipolar world order or Global Governance. The G20 countries are divided on positions with or against Russia. Another Bank is being set up by the B.R.I.C.S,as against the World Bank.
The reforms being Proposed of the United Nations are therefore futuristic. The growing tensions over Taiwan are worrisome. The United Nations needs to take some emergency measures, innovations, for peace.
These innovations are what I am certain about, and for which I need financial grant to comprehensively document them in the form of many books.
Ponle Sueez Akande Email -firstname.lastname@example.org
What, Before, And When, The Ratification Of The Proposed World Parliament, International Anti- Corruption Court, International Criminal Court, World Citizens Initiative, The Resilience Council, And World Taxation be ratified if adopted?
Five months is a long and highly valuable time in the governance of the World. Some pilot schemes should be urgently designed, ratified for immediate commencement. We need to be proactive and pragmatic.
We should act as if we are in an emergency, while at the same time we continue with the SDGs Summit and the Summit Of The Future.I have critical ideas as veritable solutions to the global catasrophic challenges, but I need financial grant to comprehensively document them.
Ponle Sueez Akande
From today, the 9-04-2023, we have five months before September. What would the United Nations do about the poor international finance status?
Why do we continue to waste time?
Let the global community wisen up. Let us start action on some pilot schemes.I have ideas, yet to be comprehensively documented due to lack of facilities
Ponle Sueez Akande
No doubt, the UN is a must for rights-based international order. There is no replacement and if the UN disappeared we will have to reinvent it in some form the following day. However, this does not mean sticking to a static institution, changes are necessary to ensure the organisation/sets of loosely linked organisations are fit for purpose over time. The real question is whether global powers, dominating decisions in the global affairs, are ready for a rights-based international order. The article’s opening paragraph and listing certain events might indicate contrary to the principles it is allegedly espousing.
Adopting a zero-sum game and sleep walking into certain disaster seems to be the only outcome of the current system. We do need the UN and a lot more + efficient and effective UN as well as associated international institutions.
Although we humans are the best Representatives for a creator seemingly hidden given time that same force will be forced to either Stand Up for their weaker blood Kith ( us) or we all.. All Life Forms…were simply a joke! But l think Putin is the catalyst to amend all sorrow and as such His Life will begin such appeasement and healing. He started the tears falling so in irony his falling would assuage Sorrow personified! Bless all Mom’s. Thank you.
The UN has a long way to go in terms of being a democratic body. It is too important and it must, hopefully, keep trying to improve. Perhaps not in my lifetime.
I looked at: “Examining the wartime UN contradicts the conventional wisdom that liberalism was abandoned to confront the Nazis and Imperial Japan; the ideals of Kant were found to be essential to the Hobbesian objective of state survival.”
Today we are looking at the war of Russia against Ukraine and the potential war of China taking back Taiwan. How the ‘minds’ in these countries work could be interesting and probably depressing. The leviathan that was America (1939-42) seemed to find it convenient to let WWII go ahead with Germany in the ascendant. In a sense, it was Japan that came to Britain’s aid through Pearl Harbour bringing the USA into the fray against Germany and Japan. Similarly, the USA has much to answer for in the war against Vietnam’s bid for independence and, the equally murderous ‘Coalition of the Willing’ that destroyed Iraq and set the area ablaze. Looking from the outside there are similarities between the quasi-colonialism of America, China and Russia. As for Kant, he was possibly correct in thinking that perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation – can we ever get that far?
Excellent summary of the current stage of the evolution of the institutional framework required to effectively manage our collective affairs on our journey toward a unified and diverse world order that recognizes the reality of the oneness of humankind.