Great powers must understand that cutting off ties with the UN is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
September is known for the annual sessions of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But this time, most of the activities are being conducted virtually due to Covid-19.This year marks UN’s 75th anniversary, although the collective future of the organization is shrouded in unilateralism, nationalism and populism. The intergovernmental organization should have been the desirable multilateral forum for finding solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems—from pandemic to nuclear weapons to disruptive technologies to devastating wildfires. That is not the case at the moment. Instead, the global body has been the prisoner of the politics of big powers.
In the last three-quarters of a century, the United Nations has contributed immensely to the world’s humanity through its three core functions—international peace and security, human rights and humanitarian actions, and sustainable development. There have been spectacular achievements in some areas and mixed and disappointing results in others.
Some argue that the UN is not a relevant organization by pointing to its weaknesses and failures. Those arguments are valid to some extent but do not make fair assessment. Yes, it has not been the global government in a real sense. But people see the institution’s success or failure through their own lens, and their interpretations are inconsistent.
Be that as it may, the truth is that the United Nations endured the Cold War and became the shining city upon the hill for many nations. In the past seven decades, it has performed well in alleviating poverty across the globe, setting developmental objectives such as Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while providing global governance through its specialized agencies such as ICAO, ITU and IMF. The UN peacekeeping was a phenomenal contribution to international peace and security. These accomplishments have ameliorated many of the global problems benefitting every nation-state, including the advanced and powerful ones.
Every now and then, critics question why the UN did not immediately respond to aggression and human rights and humanitarian crises in Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, or Kuwait. And they squarely blame the UN for either not having the will to respond or being a defunct organization. Isolationists and some neoconservatives even suggest that the US should withdraw from the international organization.
They seem to ignore the fact that the UN is a ‘peacemaker,’ not a ‘war maker.’ Additionally, any decision for intervention is the prerogative of the UN Security Council, where the veto-wielding powers have the final authority to pass or reject a resolution, not the international civil servant, not even the Secretary-General. Most importantly, the UN is just an instrument or an international forum, not an actor or sovereign body like nation-states.
Those who see the UN as a failure should first blame the member states, especially the veto-bearing powers at the Security Council, rather than the Secretariat or any UN branches.
As the only superpower, the US enjoyed the unipolar moment for almost 30 years after the Cold War. As the global leader, it got opportunities and was able to shape many international policies for its own benefit and the global community. Most of the time, America successfully led the United Nations by embracing the spirit of multilateralism and consensus. However, it also resorted to unilateral actions on many occasions. Without the UN Security Council authorization, the US intervened in many parts of the world—in Iraq, Kosovo and Syria, for example. When America did not succeed in its unilateral endeavors, it called the Council a dysfunctional body and labeled the General Assembly as ‘the talking shop.’ With the rise of nationalism, the US has been decoupling from the UN and its organs. The US has left the UN Human Rights Council, withdrawn from UNESCO and, notified its withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Attack on multilateralism has been intensified under the Trump administration. This was not the case in the past. Although the US wasn’t part of it, the administration tried to undermine the International Criminal Court. It also withdrew from Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and Paris Accord. President Trump’s “America First” agenda not only isolated the US at the UN but also alienated it from its traditional allies. Portraying the UN as a globalist trying to encroach on US sovereignty, last year Trump declared at the General Assembly that “the future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
President Trump wants to emasculate multilateralism to appease his base at home.
Responsibility of powerful
In the post-Cold War era, the developed countries have been in relative peace. The fact of the matter is, whether peaceful or chaotic, they are bound to live in this mingled humanity. Unlike an individual choosing a good neighborhood to live, moving away from a slum area to avoid myriads of problems, the great powers do not have that luxury to move away from their locality and the global issues. If they want to live in an amenable community with minimal chaos, they have to make their neighborhood better. The UN is taking the onerous responsibility of making the world a better place in which the great powers have an obligation to support it.
Among other countries, the US, Russia and China have a major role to play for the success or the failure of the United Nations. The EU and the rest of the world uphold the global body. With the right attitude, the three great powers also can find a negotiated settlement on diverging issues. From a realist standpoint, it might seem the international institution is not worth of return of investment but we need to realize that the world does not function on a transactional basis only. The sole idealism might also be a bit abstract in real-world scenarios. Therefore, as advocated by the eminent political scientist Joseph Nye in his book The Future of Power, we need to have a pragmatic liberal-realism perspective to solve global problems.
Furthermore, the UN should be reformed holistically to make it a more useful organization. There are generally two aspects of transformation. First, overhauling of the UN, including the Security Council. This is a dicey proposition and needs to find an acceptable equilibrium. Second, the restructuring of the UN Secretariat and the bureaucracy of the UN. However, just improving the Secretariat does not address the main concerns about the intergovernmental organization. More effective, efficient, and agile bureaucratic structure would contribute to making it a more useful global body.
Moreover, most of today’s globalized world’s challenges—conventional, non-conventional or humanitarian—have multilateral solutions. Climate change, Iran nuclear deal, crisis in Syria, Libya and Yemen, global pandemic like Govid-19, for example, are the significant security challenges the great powers are confronting at the moment. They can be solved through multilateral or global initiatives rather than unilateral or bilateral endeavors. The collective efforts, not the balance of power, will be needed to address global security problems. The global nature of these problems demands global solutions.
Yes, the UN has not solved all of the world’s problems. Much needs to be done to make the UN a global government as globalists have imagined. However, despite all the challenges and weaknesses, the UN is still a valuable universal forum for international policy formulation and delivery of much needed global governance for the functioning of an economically and technologically interconnected globalized world.
Great powers must understand that cutting off ties with the UN is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Until now, there is no other alternative universal organization in the horizon that can effectively replace the UN.
The author is Brigadier General (Retired) of Nepal Army