By Stephen Hoadley
The United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco on 26 June 1945 and came into effect on 24 October 1945. In the ensuing 75 years the sprawling global institution that the Charter brought into being has enjoyed triumphs that earned it a Nobel Peace Prize, but also failures such as its inability to prevent armed conflicts that have killed, injured, and displaced millions. The UN Security Council’s absences from constructive intervention in the on-going wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan are apparent failures.
Two questions must be asked, first whether or not the UN is still worth the material resources and diplomatic effort that it consumes. Secondly, on a more positive note is the question of how the UN can be reformed so that it will be more effective in the next 75 years than in the last 75 years.
To help frame answers to these questions, consider the following five perspectives.
- First, the UN is more than the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Secretary-General that attract the most attention. It includes a myriad of affiliated agencies devoted to international cooperation on issues such as food, health, the environment, finance, development, women, children, refugees, international justice, and human rights. Examples range from the Economic and Social Council, World Health Organization and High Commissions for Refugees and for Human Rights to the Development Programme, the World Food Programme, to the venerable World Meteorological Organization and the Universal Postal and Telecommunications Unions, and dozens more. Taken together these agencies constitute the globe’s most extensive and multi-faceted social welfare safety net. They supplement the social welfare institutions of the 193 member states, and some non-member governments such as the Palestinian Authority, especially in setting high standards and in managing cross-boundary problems.
- Second, the functions of the UN extend beyond just stopping wars. The UN mandate, ‘to promote international peace and security’, prioritises crisis negotiations and peacekeeping initiatives, but includes also mitigation of the causes, and consequences, of outbreaks of armed conflict between, and within, member states. The UN assumes that each conflict has underlying economic and social causes and tries to identify and mitigate these causes. And UN officials are painfully aware that armed conflicts produce innocent victims and have mobilised resources to help them in a variety of ways.
- Third, the costs of the UN are relatively modest. The United States, the largest contributor, paid approximately USD1 billion to the UN in 2020 plus USD0.3 billion to UN affiliated agencies. This compares to USD700 billion for US defence and security, or to roughly USD5 trillion in total federal expenditures, or to the US GDP of approximately USD22 trillion. In other words, the UN costs the US one thousandth of the cost of US defence, and miniscule portions of federal costs and the annual US wealth product (GDP). New Zealand’s total UN contributions (core plus affiliated agencies and special programmes) in 2020 were approximately NZD53 million or .002 % of GDP, a small price to pay for a seat – and a voice — at the world’s largest international table.
- Fourth, the UN is capable of improvement. In fact, major reforms were achieved in the early 2000s, stimulated in part by an initiative by then Senator Joe Biden (now the Democratic Party presidential candidate) with his Republican counterpart Jesse Helms. Prodded by the Helms-Biden Act that restored funding to the UN by the Clinton presidency, the UN Secretary-General undertook an efficiency review that led to the Secretariat shedding 10% of its superfluous personnel, reducing its costs by a comparable amount, and restructuring its annual assessment to reduce the burden on the US (to 22%) and increase the share paid by the newly wealthy Asian countries such as China. Additional reforms were promoted by New Zealand when we served on the Security Council, and this reform process is on-going.
- Fifth, critics should apply a realistic yardstick when assessing the UN. As a multi-faceted institution with 193 members it is not a coherent super-government but rather a venue for inter-governmental debate, negotiation and compromise. When consensus is achieved, for example in agreeing to defend South Korea against North Korean attack in 1950 or Kuwait from Iraqi attack in 1990, or in ministering to displaced victims of war, atrocity, or natural disaster, the UN is greater than the sum of its member-parts. But when the Security Council is paralysed by the veto of one of the five permanent members (US, UK, France, Russia, China) as it is at present regarding wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan, or mass human rights violations in China, Burma, India, Congo, Venezuela or Russian-occupied Chechnya and Ukraine, then members states are left to respond on their own (albeit assisted by UN affiliated agencies, regional associations, and NGOs). In short, judgement should focus on UN achievements that lie within the UN’s political and institutional mandates and the support it can rally from members, not on what was beyond its authority and capabilities. Never forget that the UN commands no police or troops or tax base; it is totally dependent on forces and finances volunteered by member governments.
A final question arises: if the UN were to be rendered impotent by policies of criticism, parsimony, or neglect such as those pursued by the Trump administration and other nationalist and populist leaders, what would replace it, if anything? There is no credible alternative in sight. So would international cooperation evaporate? Would the nations lapse into unregulated rivalry as they did in the 1930s during which the League of Nations failed and Nazi Germany and militarist Japan took advantage of their less powerful neighbours, and tit-for-tat trade barriers drove the world economy deeper into the Great Depression? Or would China impose its version of a new world order?
I am less pessimistic. Even though ‘globalisation’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘inclusiveness’ are widely criticised and are actively undercut by some governments’ tariffs, border barriers, and identity politics, transnational cooperation endures because it is materially beneficial and morally attractive. Just as the International Criminal Court has survived since 2002 despite boycotts by the US, Russia, China, India and Israel, like-minded progressive governments can establish effective institutions or ad hoc arrangements for cooperation for mutual benefit. And private firms and individuals can trade and travel across the world (assuming COVID-19 is curbed) and exchange best practices via the internet (if not blocked by isolationist governments).
It is thus possible that the many components of the UN system could disaggregate from the centre (the Security Council, General Assembly, and Secretariat) but continue their specialised functions if these were found to be useful enough to deserve funding and allegiance by enough of their subscriber governments. If one assumes that governments, firms, institutions, and individuals make rational choices more often than succumb to emotional or ideological lurches, then the logic of concerted action, that is, cooperation, will prevail in the long run.
In conclusion, I don’t believe the next 75 years will see anything so drastic as the dissolution of the UN. The UN has survived criticism, boycott, dues non-payment, block voting, veto paralysis, ideological lobbying, selfishness, outright corruption, policy evasion and neglect. It has adapted by taking on new functions and reforming its procedures and agencies while adhering to its founding principles and legitimate bureaucratic processes, as adapted to changing circumstances. Often unheralded, it has prevented several armed conflicts and mitigated much human suffering.
Nor do I expect the UN to achieve the ideal of inter-governmental cooperation and world peace in the face of selfishness and polarisation by states, leaders, and societies. The controversies, incoherence, inefficiency, and ineffectiveness of the UN are simply a reflection of those dysfunctional characteristics of the international system.
Nevertheless, it is clear to me that the world in the 21st century will be better off with the United Nations as its premier international institution than without it.
Stephen Hoadley is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in the foreign and security policies of New Zealand, Asia, the United States, Europe and the Middle East.