The question ‘Has the United Nations failed the purpose of its creation?’ keeps echoing every now and then. However, it is being asked with increasing frequency, especially in the recent years, as the unending wars in almost every part of the world continue to put a big question mark on the efficacy of the world body. There are undoubtedly countless reasons for answering the question in affirmative, yet the foremost among them is the UN’s poor record in respect to carrying out its primary mission, that is, peacekeeping. This perception underlies the stated determination by the new Secretary-General, António Guterres, to make peacekeeping his top priority during his five-year tenure.
The record of the United Nations in terms of peacekeeping decidedly is a mixture of successes and failures. Although the UN has achieved some remarkable successes (e.g. the Suez Canal crisis of 1956), the past decade has been marred by successive failures. None of these failures, however, has had a more negative influence on popular perceptions of the UN than the organization’s ineffectuality in dealing with the protracted and complicated civil war in Syria, much less in bringing it to an end. Comparably baleful was the aftermath of the 2011 UNSC-authorized intervention in Libya. The authorizing resolution, which was passed by a 10-0 vote with abstentions from Russia, China, Germany, Brazil and India, was based on the widely-acclaimed “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle. The resolution authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory. Although this US-led NATO mission was supposed to undertake a humanitarian mission to avert an anticipated slaughter of opponents by the dictatorial regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the operation soon morphed into one of regime change. Resultantly, Libya lapsed into anarchy from which it has not yet fully emerged. Paradoxically, the UN appeared inept when it failed to act and more inept when it did act.
Armed conflicts presently characterize much of the Middle East and Africa; and a persistent threat of conflict hangs over additional areas now nominally at peace. The possibility of nuclear warfare is real. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, who is temperamentally mercurial and unpredictable and is no lover of the United Nations, cavalierly professes a lack of concern in regard to a renewed nuclear arms race. In these matters, the UN has not played its due constructive role. Nor has it adequately addressed the causes of, and optimal responses to, the spate of wanton acts of terrorism, especially those of 11 September 2001.
Nevertheless, seismic shifts in the global geopolitical landscape, along with a host of other existential issues, make the United Nations system more relevant today than ever before in more than seven decades of its existence. Let us review some of the major changes.
The UN in the Post-Cold War Era
Of utmost importance has been the conclusion of the Cold War during a brief period culminating into the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. This revolutionary change was presaged in a speech by the Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, before the UN General Assembly on 7 December 1988. In that address, Mr Gorbachev called for a new, peaceful, lawful and democratic multilateral world order – a world characterized by ‘the de-ideologization of international relations.’ However, distrust of Gorbachev’s motives prevented an American embrace of his vision, and, a mere three years later, Gorbachev lost power and esteem in his own country. The implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 might, conceivably, have brought an end to the military, political and economic confrontation between the Western (NATO, et al) and Eastern (Warsaw Pact, et al) blocs of nations, along with their globally scattered allies and client states. But that was not to be.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now recognize the next few years as an open era in history; one in which the United States would enjoy an unprecedented capability to shape the future. Had it chosen to do so, the US, in concert with other relatively affluent democracies, could, then, have initiated a process leading to a substantially reformed United Nations. It could have led by example in strengthening newly-emerging democratic regimes (mainly in Eastern Europe and Latin America). It could have become the prime mover of what later came to be called a ‘global Marshall Plan’ to mitigate world poverty and reduce the widening economic gap between the global North and the global South. It could have resuscitated the aborted 1961 McCloy-Zorin Accords on ‘General and Complete Disarmament.’ Finally, it could have taken on a key role as a steward of the world’s environment, a role that many hoped it would assume at the 1992 Rio Conference on the Environment and Development.
Distrust, however, dies slowly; and ideologically-driven preconceptions also impede diplomatic progress. All of the possible post-Cold War initiatives, noted in the previous paragraph, would have required trust and cooperation between the US and other nations, both within and outside the UN system. But, as recent developments confirm, a majority of Americans judge the rest of the world to be less enlightened than the USA, less financially and technologically capable, less virtuous and less trustworthy. Further, the reform agenda suggested above would have necessitated a sharing of power and quite possibly lead to limitations on the zealously-guarded national sovereignty of participating nations. So, the international aid offered by the Northern rich was usually sufficient to placate, co-opt, and shore up local elites in compliant States, though rarely enough to effect wholesale transformation of many fundamentally unjust societies.
While the engagement of the global North with other nations was not devoid of altruism, it tended to be of such a nature as to promote the economic interests of the Northern donor nations. This was especially true in their dealings with countries well-endowed with oil, natural gas and/or other strategic raw materials. Countries with left-of-center regimes generally received short shrift, while those well to the left and/or opposed to the US and the former colonial powers of Europe often became targets for political coups engineered or abetted by the CIA or its counterparts in other affluent countries.
A New American Century
Toward the 1990s, a ‘neo-conservative’ cabal of political activists became dominant actors in American politics. Uncompromising advocates of unbridled capitalism worldwide, they promoted a ‘Pax Americana,’ or a ‘New American Century.’ This presumably inevitable US global hegemony would be militarily guaranteed by ‘full-spectrum dominance,’ on land and sea, in the air, in outer space and cyberspace. To buttress the Pax Americana, a network of military bases was established in countries located, for the most part, in fairly close proximity to Russia and China, both nuclear powers and, arguably, the only two adversaries with sufficient military strength to thwart American dominance of their respective regions.
In the overweening neo-conservative worldview, there was little inclination to recognize any source of authority other than the US itself, and certainly not for a reformed UN system well-endowed with both human capital and finances. Nevertheless, given the inherent moral authority that the UN alone possesses, the US does recognize that the world organization can be useful now and then, though not as a major arbiter of how the world is to be run. That role remains in the domain of great power politics. Thus, to a large extent, the shortcomings of the UN system kept on a starvation diet by the US. Other countries are also complicit. They, too, deal with the UN system mainly in terms of how it might best serve their own interests, rather than those of the planet as a whole.
A concomitant of Pax Americana was the idea that America should be the ‘world’s policeman’ or, perhaps its sheriff, with faithful NATO allies as deputies. That notion is what keeps American troops in Afghanistan, long after meting out punishment to the Taliban for their alleged support of the al-Qaeda perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It also explains the US’ premeditated invasion of Iraq on the pretense that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. And, despite the falsification of that claim and the subsequent piecemeal destruction of the Iraqi nation, it explains calls for military intervention in Iran and other perceived trouble spots.
There are a number of problems with America acting as the world’s policeman. First, outside the US itself, no legitimate authority has asked America to assume that role. It has no moral or legal basis. Second, it is enormously costly and many American taxpayers are belatedly recognizing that the expenditure is, by no means, cost-effective. Third, the policy has not worked and will not work (witness the inability over more than 15 years to pacify Afghanistan). Finally, it has multiplied the number of America’s enemies, creating new cohorts of terrorists faster than it decimates the old groups – real and imagined.
Still, one may ask, who would wish to live in a society – global as well as local and national – without a police force? At the local and national levels, most of the world takes some measure of police protection for granted. But at a global level, anarchy persists. We fall back on inadequate ad hoc expedients. For major operations, the world may tolerate American-led operations, running the risk of unforeseen mission creep (as in Libya). Smaller jobs are typically entrusted to patchwork forces overwhelmingly recruited from the global South. The UN can and must do better. It is time to establish a standing, all-volunteer, elite, internationally recruited, rapidly deployable peace force, under direct UN command, and with both military and police capabilities. Opposition to the creation of such a force in the interest of national sovereignty has become anachronistic. The UN, not the US, must assume responsibility. Given its universality, the UN alone has the moral standing to do so.
In the preceding paragraphs, security issues with a military dimension have been discussed. It is the UN’s failure in this regard that has led to the question: ‘Has the United Nations become irrelevant?’ Although an unequivocal answer to this question is a big NO, yet it cannot be closed without calling attention to a host of additional global problems, like security, that call for global solutions. Foremost among these issues is climate change. This is also a security issue, albeit sans a significant military nexus as yet – though military responses to flows of environmental refugees are probably not so very far off.
Other problems include population growth, migration, communicable diseases – especially pandemics – the North-South economic gap, the regulation of financial flows, narco-trafficking, sex trafficking, genocide, ethnic cleansing, other egregious violations of human rights, and such mundane matters as air traffic control and weather forecasting, and so forth. In all of these matters, the UN system is playing, or should be playing, a major role. Its relevance is beyond dispute.