Seventy years ago, the five victors of World War II and 46 other signatory nations ratified the United Nations Charter, thus making the U.N. an official international body. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is using the anniversary to celebrate its accomplishments. He says, “The year 2015 is a once-in-a generation opportunity.”
It is indeed. The year is a chance not only to look back on the history of the organization, but to think about its future. The U.N. has accomplished many things; it also has been a disappointment in many areas. The organization, and the rest of the world, should use this anniversary to better understand its successes and its failures.
Purpose and Power Politics
During World War II, many nations, led by the Allied powers, convened to discuss ways to avert and minimize the devastation of war. The first official declaration regarding the United Nations came on Jan. 1, 1942, in Washington. There, 26 representatives of nations that fought Germany and Japan signed the “Declaration by United Nations.” This was the first time the term “United Nations” was used, at the suggestion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In April 1945, 50 nations gathered in San Francisco to draft the charter that went into effect six months later.
The United Nations grew out of the Allied powers’ war effort. The creation of the Security Council that made the victorious powers in World War II—the U.S., Soviet Union, China, United Kingdom and France—into permanent members (P-5) reflects this reality. It was also a conscious decision to avoid the idealistic mistakes of the League of Nations, which had been long on utopian goals of peace and short on enforcement. The Security Council was the compromise between the idealism of universal peace, which requires the goodwill of international cooperation, and the realistic demands of global power politics. The P-5 nations were recognized as custodians of the new peaceful order, even though some may have been undertaking that role for their own national interests.
Although cooperation between all nations is a founding principle of the U.N., so too is the idea that the great powers have a stake in and responsibility for the new international order. The subsequent breakdown of cooperation between the West on one side and the Soviet Union (and communist China after 1971) on the other put this principle to the test. The Cold War largely relegated the Security Council to a position of bystander in great power politics.
But the fact remains that the framers of the United Nations were no starry-eyed utopians. They recognized that power politics mattered in establishing international peace, and that sometimes force had to be taken to defend nations. Therefore, the Security Council was given the right to call on countries to make war, while also recognizing nations have a right to defend themselves. Article 51 in Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter explicitly states that, “Nothing in the present charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations.”
This hard-nosed understanding of power politics and its role in the enforcement of international peace has long since faded from the United Nations. The Security Council may still have its original permanent members and the U.N. Charter its original words, but the culture at the Security Council and the U.N. is completely hostile to the notion that the United States or any other great power nation plays any special role in maintaining international peace and order. If anything, the U.S. is often treated as if it were a threat to international peace.
The political heart of the U.N. long ago shifted from the Security Council to the General Assembly, where 193 countries, most of which are not democracies, vie for attention and act out their grievances against Western countries. Often, the U.S. and some of its allies, especially Israel, are singled out in the General Assembly and its subsidiary commissions, committees and programs for disproportionately harsh criticism.
The ensuing decades have seen another profound change: The shifting definition of human rights. The U.N. was founded on Western principles of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted on Dec. 10, 1948, in Paris was largely a list of the political rights that evolved from the American and French Revolutions. More left-leaning social and economic rights have been added to the U.N. agenda over the years, especially by the General Assembly’s adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966. This drift has diluted the definition of human rights in a harmful manner because the U.N. system regards all human rights as “interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.”
Values and norms on how to treat people’s freedom and dignity have grown decidedly more hostile to Western liberal traditions over the years at the U.N. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was blatantly hostile to freedom of information and the press. The U.N. Human Rights Council (which replaced the Commission on Human Rights) regularly gives human rights abusers such as Cuba and Iran a pass, while focusing its ire on a democracy like Israel and, occasionally through its special investigations, on the United States. The Human Rights Council agenda leans to the left, focusing on involving governments to resolve issues such as climate change and the rights of children and the disabled.
Its biggest problem is a lack of focus on the fundamentals upon which the U.N. was founded—namely, the principles of freedom and democratic self-government established by the Universal Declaration. Instead, one finds mandates to study issues such as how to improve the enjoyment of human rights for people with albinism or other causes dedicated to preening people’s identities rather than making them politically free. When the U.N. endorses a right to peace or a right to Internet access and, by extension, equates such rights with the right to life or freedom of expression, this cheapens the very notion of human rights.
Not everything the Human Rights Council does is trivial. In the past year, it has belatedly focused on threats to human rights that the Islamic State group and other terrorists pose, including violence against people based on their religious or ethnic affiliation. And it does, with the right leadership, occasionally focus the world’s attention on some of the worst human rights abusers—as long as it is not an influential country like China. But it is still a far cry from being a body that places a high priority on political freedom, democracy and Western values of the rule of law. By its very nature, since it comprises rotating elected members representing regional blocs of nations, it can go only as far as its member states allow.
A Mixed Record
The United Nations has had its successes. On largely technical matters such as civil aviation, health standards, postal, meteorological and telecommunication issues, its specialized agencies and other related organizations perform useful services to the international community. They help set and coordinate international rules and norms. The International Monetary Fund is useful in providing debt relief.
Moreover, although they are not the most efficiently run organizations in the world, the U.N.’s relief agencies, especially the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and programs like the United Nations Children’s Fund, have done good work. The International Atomic Energy Agency can contribute to countering nuclear proliferation, especially in terms of helping to verify the technical aspects of nuclear weapons development, although it can be politicized like any other U.N. body.
United Nations peacekeeping is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the U.N. undertakes peacekeeping missions that others, including the United States, are unwilling to do. It can help create international consensus and funnel resources into containing conflicts when no one else is willing to take the lead. Nevertheless, it can also help perpetuate conflicts by short-circuiting their actual resolution. Some missions, like those in East Timor and Liberia, have contributed to preserving the peace and paving the way toward democracy. Still, most U.N. peacekeeping operations in places such as Darfur, South Sudan, the Golan Heights, Western Sahara and Cyprus have done little to resolve the conflicts.
The U.N. gets into trouble when it engages on issues that are primarily political, especially controversial ones. It is a political body, and its strengths and weaknesses are derived from this fact. The Security Council operates well only when there is concord among the P-5 members. During the Cold War, with deep divisions between the U.S. and the USSR, it was largely dysfunctional. The council operated fairly well in the 1990s after the Cold War ended, mainly because the U.S. and Russia buried much of the Cold War axe. But it is today sinking back into irrelevance as relations between the West and Russia and China deteriorate.
Heavy Political Influences
Since most of the agenda today is set by the General Assembly and its affiliated bodies, most of the politics of the U.N. is dominated by two heavy influences. One is from the developing world, largely through the Group of 77 or the 120 members of the so-called non-aligned movement, but also from individual countries within the GA’s five regional voting blocs, many of which are also represented in the G-77 or the NAM. The second is from the Europeans, exercised largely through the coordination of votes by the European Union. These countries account for the decidedly leftist tilt in political, social and economic affairs at the U.N.
It is not only that developing countries tend to look upon the U.N. as a stage to redress their grievances against the West and to use these grievances as a means to shame it into providing more foreign aid. It is also the fact that Europe’s dominant liberal culture of social democracy tends to prevail in the workings of the U.N.’s social and economic bodies.
Groups of countries with similar political cultures and large numbers of votes, like the EU and the Islamic countries through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, exercise great influence. The United States has the power of the veto in the Security Council, but so does Russia, China, France and the U.K. Washington can stop bad things from happening, but as we saw in the votes leading up to the Iraq war, it still needs the approval of nine members in the council, plus no vetoes, for its positions to prevail. Thus its positive power to get resolutions approved is considerably less than is often realized.
The real power in the United Nations is the unofficial but effective regional voting blocs, particularly Asia and Africa, that together constitute a majority of the General Assembly. These groups coordinate their votes to give themselves maximum political influence inside the U.N.’s bodies. The United States, on the other hand, has only a meager observer’s role in the ignominiously named “Western European and Others Group,” with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Israel being the “others.” Often, the United States is told by a friendly European nation that it cannot negotiate with it until the official European Union position is known.
The United States contributes more than any other country to the funding of the United Nations. Officially, it pays for 22 percent of the regular U.N. budget and 28 percent of its peacekeeping budget. You would think this would give Washington a loud voice in deciding the U.N. agenda, especially its spending habits. It does not.
U.N. budgets are adopted by consensus in budget committees under the jurisdiction of the General Assembly. The clout the U.S. wields in the Security Council is useless in budget decisions. The outcome of U.N. budget deliberations is determined by the number of country votes, not the amount paid by its main contributors. The U.S. and Japan account for a third of the U.N.’s regular budget, and yet their votes count the same as Vanuatu and Tuvalu, both assessed at 0.001 percent of the U.N. budget.
Because there are far more developing countries that pay virtually nothing than there are countries that foot the bills, the incentives for an ever-increasing budget are high. In 2006 and 2007, the consensus rule for budget decisions was broken. Recent U.N. regular budgets have seen only small increases. But this is due to the financial strains on the budgets of major European countries that had seen poor economic growth in recent years and that lent their support to the U.S. and Japan in the recent budget battles.
A huge disconnect exists between what the U.N. promises and what it delivers. There are many reasons that this is the case. In Europe and some political circles in America, the U.N. is treated more as an idealistic cause than as an organization obligated to maintain standards of performance. It does not matter how well it spends its money or whether it actually delivers peace and stability. It is the cause and the good intentions that count. This puts a premium on high-minded rhetoric and unrealistic expectations of programs. Diplomats are rewarded for soaring idealistic speeches, not green-eyeshade efficiencies, and a large number of non-governmental organizations in the wings sing their praises and occasionally receive U.N. aid checks.
Moreover, most of the smaller countries in the General Assembly are there not to save money or promote good governance, but to attract foreign aid and attention. Although the U.N. may be a backwater for U.S. diplomats, for countries such as Burkina Faso or Burundi, it is the big leagues. It gives them their “day in the sun,” and they take it very seriously. So, too, do some of the bad actors in the world.
Among the best diplomats at the U.N. are the Russians, Cubans and Iranians, who pull U.N. levers to trap their opponents and get their way. Iran has run circles around the International Atomic Energy Agency, and no country is more a master—except perhaps for France—of the machinations of the Security Council than Russia. The Cubans for decades have used the U.N. as a venue to attack the U.S. while shielding itself from criticism for its human rights abuses.
None of these countries has any interest in the U.N. succeeding as we Americans would normally understand it. Russia often uses the Security Council as a spoiler of U.S. initiatives. So, too, does China. The G-77 and the Islamic blocs have used their influence to invent noxious international concepts such as “Islamophobia” to undermine freedom of expression. The African bloc often defends members like Zimbabwe who are gross human rights abusers. Latin Americans routinely run defense for Cuba in the Human Rights Council. Every country has its own interests and values. The purported standard of “international” values is in practice largely a fiction. It is whatever the votes will allow on any given U.N. resolution.
One of the most problematic legacies of the U.N. and its affiliated bodies has been its impact on international law. The U.N. claims that “upholding international law” is among its top five priorities. But its record is spotty at best. The International Court of Justice has made some positive rulings, helping for example to settle maritime and territorial disputes. But it also has made highly politicized rulings against the United States.
In 1986, it ruled against the U.S. and in favor of Nicaragua over the Contra issue. In 2004, it found the United States had breached its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations because it had not informed arrested Mexican citizens of their right to meet with the Mexican consulate. The International Court of Justice’s decisions were made in spite of the rulings of U.S. courts and the opinions of the U.S. solicitor general about the constitutionality of U.S. actions, and the unique constitutional challenges of federal versus state law in the U.S. legal system.
A problem for the U.S. is that international legal bodies undermine the legitimacy of its own constitutional order, which rests not only on the presumption of U.S. national sovereignty but also on the fact that federal and state governments in the United States enjoy significant sovereignty over their citizens under the U.S. Constitution. A more general flaw in the international justice system is that it treats the sovereignty of all countries—from Sudan to the United States—the same.
Its claims of legitimacy is derived from the universality of all participating states regardless of their domestic arrangements. But this represents a profound confusion: The constitutional and legal order of the U.S. is infinitely more legitimate than that of authoritarian states like Sudan or North Korea. True legitimacy rests on the nature of domestic governments and whether they are representative and respect human rights and the rule of law, not on the false democracy defined by the equality of states, some of which are dictatorships.
Waning U.S. Influence
This brings us to the most fundamental challenge that the U.N. and other international bodies pose for the United States. The international order created after World War II, including not only the United Nations but also the general rules for trade and even international law between states, was based on the assumption that the U.S. was not only a positive force in the world but also, because of its wealth, power and democratic values, a trusted leader in maintaining that order.
That assumption is long gone. The best that can be said about international organizations is that they are happy to accept U.S. funding and U.S. cooperation to enact an agenda. But they clearly have no use for any special role for America in the world. In fact, in more cases than not, the General Assembly treats the United States as if it is part of the world’s problems, rather than part of a solution.
It is true that the world of the late 1940s no longer exists. And it is equally true that we should not be surprised that, as the U.N. grew in membership, it took on a more “global” perspective that is inclined not to be deferential to the interests and values of the United States. It would be pointless to think we can create the conditions of the immediate postwar era in today’s highly complex and increasingly “multipolar” world.
But the U.N.’s “global” view is hardly the last word on America’s role in the world. The fact remains that the United States still plays a major role in maintaining peace and stability in the world—a fact rarely acknowledged in the halls of the U.N. It is not only its military power and alliances that help maintain order. It also is the huge role it plays in international financial, economic and trade affairs.
America’s economic power, exercised overwhelmingly through private channels, dwarfs the meager aid efforts and budgets of the United Nations. Moreover, U.S. armed forces, especially the Navy, play a huge role in facilitating trade and travel through its commitment to freedom of navigation. It is a role also that surpasses the capacities and activities of the U.N. and is an incalculable contribution to the global economy.
As we look back on these 70 years of the U.N.’s history, there is much of which to be proud. Peacekeeping operations have saved lives. Misery has been averted, and the health and security of millions improved. The U.N. has even worked with ad hoc coalitions to stand against aggression, as it did against North Korea in the Korean War and against Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But disappointments abound. No organization can be better than its members, and many of the nations of the world are led by corrupt and petty tyrants. Although this is true, the U.N. can still do a better job. It could be less a place to sharpen political axes and more one that actually resolves conflicts. It could better spend its money and organize its affairs. It could be more welcoming to democracy and freedom and less obsessed with an endless array of divisive national, ethnic, racial and other identity grievances. And it certainly could be more open to cooperating with the United States rather than trying to cut it down to others’ size.
Above all, it could remember its founding principles. Seventy years ago, after the most horrible war the world had ever seen, there was hope that the values of freedom and democracy—values that today are often dismissed as too “ideological” inside the U.N. system—would be the foundation of the new world order. In many ways, that vision did come true as Eastern Europe threw off communism and as countries throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa democratized and liberalized their economies.
But they did so largely without the inspiration and even help of the U.N. Perhaps 70 years from now it will change. Maybe by then the ones who actually control the U.N., and its member states, will have each evolved to the point where, as democratic nations, they will demand an international institution that truly reflects the ideals that were the foundation not only of their own liberations, but of a new and more democratic world order.