Reviving the UN spirit
It is a world of profound transition. It is also a world where we see renewal of east and west tensions, renewal of geopolitical tensions. They are at a peak after decades. Many times countries are obliged to make a choice. When talking of geopolitical tensions, we are also looking at tech wars between numerous countries. Technology has become the new arena between big powers. Then there is also the emergence of anti-globalization forces, the erosion of the European project. There are questions about what EU’s future is going to be and what is the diplomatic way? When the Security Council meets to discuss its primary responsibility—is maintaining international peace—we see that it is often paralysed. Because the Security Council remains deadlocked and paralysed on core issues, long-standing issues such as Kashmir and Palestine are left in a state of inconclusiveness. Whether it is Lebanon, which does get discussed or whether it is Libya or Syria, or even tensions on the Korean Peninsula, they may be discussed but we don’t see a conclusion or solutions because of the disagreements among the Security Council members.
In addition, asymmetric warfare has replaced the high-stakes balance of power that marked the heyday of the Cold War, with attacks on the streets of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East now so frequent as to seem almost humdrum. The old threat of nuclear proliferation has raised its head once again, accompanied by the new dangers of global warming. In these precarious times, the UN’s promise as a global forum for resolving conflicts has dimmed dramatically since the powers that emerged from the ruins of World War II hatched the idea at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
Following the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, global politics entered a new era with the victorious powers of World War II in a position to help shape the norms, values and institutions of international relations for the coming decades.
The United States in partnership with its wartime allies, as well as Germany and Japan, put into existence the fabric of the so-called liberal world order, with the UN and its affiliated funds, programmes, agencies and departments occupying centrestage in this endeavour. As of today, the UN has approximately 40,000 employees working in various UN organs around the globe and a yearly budget of approximately $40 billion.
These figures are modest compared to many other international and regional organizations in charge of much narrower tasks and responsibilities. The UN is also running many peacekeeping operations in different conflict-riven geographies having around 100,000 troops under its command. Though the UN Charter does not include peacekeeping operations among its duties, the organization has undertaken many such operations since the second half of the 1950s till now.
Better or worse?
Compared to the Cold War era, the last 25 years have witnessed a steep increase in the number of such operations given the evaporation of bipolar tensions between two power blocs and the growing intrastate challenges to international security.
Each September, within the framework of the UN General Assembly, all UN members gather in New York to discuss global issues of concern and to share ideas on how to restructure the UN to make it more adaptive to the current dynamics of global politics.
Such annual summits also provide leaders with opportunities to mingle with each other on the sidelines of official gatherings. Many informal bilateral talks among countries, and the speeches that leaders of the most powerful members of the UN deliver at the podium of the General Assembly attract attention of the global public opinion.
The UN has had both realist and liberal underpinnings at its foundation. The maintenance of international peace and security as well as the improvement of human rights constitute its main functions. Helping preserve order and security among its members, achieve sustainable economic development, improve human rights, protect the global environment, and reducing poverty and hunger are the UN’s core tasks.
While the composition of the Security Council with its veto-holder permanent members having a privileged status reflects the realist logic of the UN machine, the General Assembly, with its egalitarian membership, the Economic and Social Council and the International Court of Justice, embody the liberal spirit of the organization. The UN’s Secretary-General is in charge of the entire UN bureaucracy and holds the main responsibility for striking the right balance between the UN’s realist and liberal characteristics.
The realist goal of achieving peace and security on the basis of the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in internal affairs has always been in tension with the liberal goal of improving human rights on the principles of achieving universal standards and the “responsibility to protect.”
The UN’s failure to have bridged the gap between these two goals has become more conspicuous in recent years, as the primacy of Western powers has become increasingly contested by the rising non-Western powers in an emerging multipolar world order.
In finding the most appropriate solutions to different challenges confronting the UN’s institutional capacity as well as maintaining the cohesion among UN members, one needs to underline that “the UN was not created to bring us to heaven but in order to save us from hell.”
Dag Hammarskjold, the legendary UN Secretary-General between 1953 and 1961, made this statement in the face of the Cold War-era confrontation between Western and Eastern blocs. This suggests that all efforts to be undertaken with a view to coping with challenges lying at the doorsteps of the UN should reflect a high degree of modesty that was present at the foundation of the most important bedrock of global peace and security.
The UN has never become and will never be an organization that could bring an end to interstate rivalries and conflicts as well as guarantee the emancipation of human beings from all kinds of yokes, impediments and chains that apparently curtail their freedom and dignity.
That said, the core function of the UN should be to help pave the way for a particular international environment in which global solutions to global problems are found easily and in a cost-effective way. For this to happen though, some steps need to be taken without any delay.
Calls for the US
First, the leading global power and the main financer of the UN system, the United States, should preserve its commitment to the UN’s multilateral and consensus-oriented spirit.
It is already known that a good portion of the American public and many conservative elites alike abhor the UN and the constraints that international organizations in general put on US’ decision-making authority.
With US President Donald Trump now in the White House, the American commitment to the UN’s multilateral mechanisms can no longer be taken for granted. Trump’s “America First” mentality has already proven its deleterious impact on global warming and free trade. His decision to withdraw his country from multilateral agreements and inclination to solve problems in bilateral platforms do not bode well for future US commitments to the UN’s institutional legacy. Not only the US but also other rich members of the UN should contribute more to the UN budget.
Security Council’s role
Permanent members of the UN Security Council should not see the UN as a platform through which they can protect their realpolitik security interests and spheres of influence across the globe in a zero-sum mentality.
The more they do this, the more the UN itself and its potential contributions to global peace and security would be subjected to national vetoes. Despite all its deficiencies and shortcomings, the UN appears to be the most legitimate international institutional setting in which countries of different power capabilities, geographical locations, national identities and political values could potentially feel at home.
For the UN’s legitimacy to survive in the emerging century, its liberal and multilateral characteristics should be respected mostly by its veto powers. In a time of great upheavals and given that the principle of universalism has increasingly eroded in recent years, the UN remains one of those race institutional platforms that could still be of value in this regard.
Room for global dynamics
Different UN organs and agencies should be redesigned in such a way to make more room for the emerging/rising powers of the non-Western world. The UN should reflect the emerging power dynamics of today’s world. Why do the United Kingdom and France still hold veto power within the UN Security Council whereas Germany, India, Japan, Brazil, Turkey and other rising powers can only join the Security Council as temporary members for two-year time periods pending their elections by the General Assembly?
The UN’s structural reform should target more inclusivity and justice, and not be kept hostage to current permanent members’ caprice and jealousy. Non-Western powers should also be given more voting rights in other UN-affiliated international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and their nationals should be appointed to more influential positions within the UN bureaucracy. As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan frequently states, “the world is bigger than five.”
Time of renewal
The UN should be restructured in such a way to make more room for non-state actors in their efforts to steer the course of international developments as well as offering solutions to global challenges of different kinds.
In a globalizing world, people of different identity groups, national belongings and religious denominations should be allowed to mingle with each other under the UN’s institutional roof. The UN could cure the illness of illiberalism, exclusionary practices, xenophobia, populism and particularism.