The United Nations
We share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. That is why we have the United Nations. ~ Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan
Since antiquity, wars in Europe have been the norm, punctuated by periods of peace. On the heels of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the great powers – France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, and Prussia – birthed the Concert of Europe, which gave a respite from conflict, and created a climate for economic development in Europe.
A century’s worth of relative calm was abruptly shattered by the 1st World War, provoked by the short-sighted pettiness that pervades politics.
The 1919 Paris Peace Conference following the Great War spawned the ineffective and ill-fated League of Nations. The rise of fascism in the 1930s rendered the League largely irrelevant in its main purpose: to thwart a recurrence of world war.
Despite President Woodrow Wilson’s instrumentality in the covenant that led to the League of Nations, the US senate refused to join. President Wilson’s flip-flopping on post-war treatment of Germany and personal infirmity from debilitating strokes destroyed whatever chance there was for senate ratification.
The situation after the 2nd World War was much different. A more determined and powerful President Franklin Roosevelt coined the term United Nations in 1942 and was its principal proponent. He was assisted in garnering public support by American churches, which proselytized the worldwide peacekeeping organization that FDR had in mind.
Peace is a worldwide problem, and the maintenance of peace depends primarily on the unity of the great powers. ~ American Secretary of State Dean Acheson in June 1945
The United Nations came into being in 1945. Early on, its security council gave the impression that the UN was to be a vehicle for the great powers to maintain their spheres of influence, with a façade for democratic peacekeeping. Nonetheless, the UN matured to include 193 member states: almost all internationally recognized independent nations.
The United Nations has 5 principal organs: the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, and the World Court.
The security council has 15 members. With the exception of France, the 5 permanent seats are held by the great powers that prevailed in World War 2: the US, Britain, the Soviet Union (now Russia), France, and China. These power members can veto any substantial security council resolution, but not suppress debate.
The council is a creature of great-power politics, built on the assumption that 5 of the strongest nations have the right and duty to safeguard the globe. ~ American international relations journalist David Bosco
10 nonpermanent members hold security council seats on a 2-year rotating basis by geographic region. Immediate reelection is not allowed.
The security council is presided over by a president chosen from among council members. The presidency rotates monthly in alphabetical order by the state’s name (in English).
What takes place in the security council more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem solving. ~ American Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick in 1981
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the security council was large paralyzed by Cold War division; and so therefore was the UN, as the security council authorizes military and peacekeeping operations as well as sanctions.
The general assembly oversees the UN’s budget, appoints nonpermanent members of the security council, and makes recommendations in the form of resolutions. Resolutions do not have binding force on member nations.
The assembly may act if the security council fails to do so. This has been, so far, a hypothetical power.
The secretariat is the UN’s executive arm, staffed by 44,000 international civil servants. The secretary-general, appointed by the general assembly, is the head of the secretariat. His global position is the secular equivalent of the Pope in wishing peace, prosperity, and geniality on all humanity.
Like most organizations worldwide in suffering egregious gender bias, the secretariat cannot seem to staff itself with women, especially at decision-making levels.
The economic and social council is a toothless talking shop for its 54 members which meets during July each year.
The world court is the judicial branch of the UN. Its predecessor had been attached to the League of Nations. The world court is composed of 15 judges elected to 9-year terms by the general assembly and security council, from people nominated by the national groups in the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The world court’s effectiveness has been limited by nations’ unwillingness to submit sensitive issues to the court, and by the refusal of states to acknowledge jurisdiction or findings of the court, despite all member nations being under the court’s authority. The United States’ 1986 repudiation of a ruling against it for violating Nicaragua’s sovereign rights (including mining Nicaragua’s harbors) is exemplary. The US has repeatedly shown contempt for rule of international law, setting an example for other rogue nations to follow.
The stated goals of the United Nations are laudable. Its performance has been less so.
Glaring failures not only accompanied the UN’s many achievements, they overshadowed them. ~ English historian Paul Kennedy in 2006
UN inaction in the face of genocide and grotesque human rights violations has been appalling. When it has acted, the UN has mustered a decent record of reducing armed conflicts and keeping the peace during ceasefires. That said, the men who act as UN peacekeepers themselves have repeatedly been rapists and sexual abusers without accountability.
Peacekeeping operations by the UN unfortunately seem to be doing the same thing that other militaries do. Even the guardians have to be guarded. ~ Indian journalist Gita Sahgal of Amnesty International
The UN predominately addresses the strategic interests of the permanent members of the security council. The oil-rich Kuwaitis were protected in 1991 when Iraq invaded, while resource-poor Rwandans were left to be slaughtered in a genocidal tribal civil war in 1994.
The UN has repeatedly failed to prevent or ameliorate massacres. The violent breakup of Yugoslavia is exemplary. Though lamented by the General Assembly, the UN refused to intervene to stop the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia in 1992. The civil war in Syria that began in 2011 is another instance of UN lack of will at great human cost.
The problem of failed states is all too common, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. A failed state is one that loses its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. (This definition courtesy of Max Weber. The term legitimate is nebulous, and thereby so too the definition of failed state.)
When it has chosen to act, UN performance in nation building has been crippled by several deficiencies. 1st is the slow arrival of military units, and even slower deployment of police and civil administrators, along with wobbly unevenness in their quality. There is frequently a mismatch between the ambitious mandate and the modest means on the ground. Finally, the UN tends to withdraw prematurely, often following the 1st election following the conflict.
The UN’s vigorous post-Cold War activity has fallen well short of effective global governance. Atrocities and crimes against humanity still plague many parts of the globe. Entire countries have collapsed, and in doing so they have exported refugees, drugs, and radicalism. ~ David Bosco
It is too much to expect supranational governance to succeed in policing the world when states are themselves run by special interests with divergent agendas, and when most countries are rife with internal self-conflict based on race, culture, and socioeconomic divisions. Whereas strife commonly characterizes human sociality, coordinated cooperation is exceptional, as the UN amply illustrates.