I was recently a guest on a TV show that had as its theme “UN: Worthy or Worthless?” It struck me as a rather misleading question as the UN for its first 75 years was both worthy and worthless. It was worthless, or almost so, if the appraisal is based either on the war prevention/prohibition of aggression master norm of the UN Charter and especially the stirring words of commitment in the 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, pretending that ‘peoples’ would have agency on such graves matters of state and suggesting the displacement of war and the primacy of geopolitics by a global rule of law. The idea that the strong as well as the weak were to held accountable for a peaceful resolution of conflict or for transgressions of legal norms was pure dream talk as became obvious by reading beyond the Preamble to the Charter text. Yet this 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 suggest. 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, valuing its membership, and staying involved during the decades of Cold War high tension that produced a deep split in world politics. It is impossible to assess whether erecting this platform providing for diplomatic contact had a significant moderating effect on conflict that helped save humanity from a catastrophic third world war that would have likely been fought with nuclear weapons. But unlike the UN did not endure the fate of the League of Nations that failed even before being tested by aggression and war. The main champion of the League, the United States, ended up not even joining and the credibility of the League was further seriously undermined by the withdrawal of such important member states as Germany and Japan, with many others following.
By contrast, the UN has achieved and maintained a universality of participation that confirms a belief of among the most cynical nationalist leadership at the level of states; 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 who continue see the global issues through the anachronistic optic of ‘political realism.’ These realists see the UN as useful enough to retain, so long as it does not encroach on the domain of vital national interests.
Framing Faustian Bargains
This mild, but essential governmental backing of the UN probably occurred because the Organization was deliberately designed by its founders to include an unconditional surrender to 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 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 mutual deterrence arising from rival arsenals of nuclear weapons. The UN was usually on the sidelines watching as a virtual spectator. [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, signaled by the fact that the five permanent members of the Security Council were also 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 the League experience, and keep major states as active participants even if discontented with what the UN was doing. In practical effect, this meant mostly persuading the Soviet Union that it was in its interest to belong. Franklin Roosevelt most notably was of the opinion that the UN would fare better than the League if geopolitical ambitions and rivalry were given free space within the Organization rather than being carried on by non-Members in the unruly jungle of world politics. FDR also naively believed that the anti-fascist alliance that held firm in wartime would stay together to assure the peace.
The Soviet Union came to appreciate 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, which had authorized a UN military operation to support the defense of South Korea. The Soviets acted immediately to take back their seat in the Security Council and never again made such a tactical mistake, but 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.
This perception has been reinforced by the behavior of these five states, each of which has conducted military operations that flagrantly violated international law as well as the 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 it by political paralysis, debilitating withdrawals, and behavioral patterns at odds with the UN Charter.
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 is to encourage lawmaking treaties covering a wide 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 respected voice of reason and empathy on the gravest issues facing humanity, but also on occasion as a gentle critic of geopolitical excess. These words from the elected periodic administrative head of the words often have weight although not sufficiently to modify geopolitical behavior in most instances.
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 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 most recently, apartheid is a further confirmation that what the US does symbolically matters, and deeply.
Although 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 in a politically fragmented world order. The imperative of global solidarity was too weak to challenge 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 seems a metaphor for the persistence of statist world order, which is 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. [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 good can replace geopolitical rivalry and ambition in the years ahead, and translate that awakening to achieve a UN oriented and empowered to serve the human interest rather than as in the past, the interplay of national interests or the manipulations of geopolitics.
*Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019). This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)