Does the United Nations Have a Future?
June 25, 2015
Paul Kennedy / Open Forum San Francisco Chronicle
Commentary: This month marks the 70th anniversary of the historic signing of the Charter of the United Nations. At that event, 50 governments solemnly pledged to follow a new code of international conduct that would allow for a world order much better than the era of injustice and terror that had gone before. Today, however, in an age of genocide and with UN agencies collapsing under the sheer weight of refugees and disintegrating societies, the UN, at 70 years old, looks like a failure.
SAN FRANCISCO (June 25, 2015) -- This month is the 70th anniversary of the historic conference in San Francisco where the Charter of the United Nations was signed. At that event, 50 governments representing the Allies solemnly pledged to follow a new code of international conduct that would hopefully allow for a world order much better than the age of injustice and terror that had gone before.
Over the next decades, all newly established countries became members, entered the UN General Assembly and pledged to uphold the Charter. In the long history of war and peace, this was unprecedented.
Perhaps, though, people will not notice this anniversary because nowadays the UN doesn't seem so important to them. There are others who just dislike the idea of world organization in any case. And some who were dedicated supporters of the Charter have now lost faith.
In an age of genocide in the Sudan, and with permanent UN Security Council members China and Russia abusing their veto power to choke resolutions on what is happening in Ukraine, Tibet and elsewhere, and with UN agencies collapsing under the sheer weight of refugee flows and disintegrating societies, it is understandable that cynicism and pessimism prevail.
Forty years ago, UN peacekeeping missions seemed to involve so many troop contributions from Ireland, Sweden, Canada, India, Brazil. Nowadays, how many of them are pleading "donor fatigue?" The United Nations, at 70 years old, looks such a failure.
Maybe this was bound to be the case. One of the architects of the UN Charter, the British official Lord Gladwyn, noted in his diary when he flew back from San Francisco in July 1945 that the politicians' speeches at opening ceremonies had all been fine, but perhaps they were just aiming too high "for a wicked world."
It wasn't that Gladwyn was an out-and-out pessimist; it's just that the seasoned diplomat knew that nation-states and their governments would sign treaties but only follow their clauses if they were in their own country's favor. They wanted to be the judges of regulations on climate change, or on how to handle requests from the International Criminal Court. They didn't want the laws of the sea to infringe upon their national borders -- or settle quarrels over the Spratly Islands. They might not desire great civil wars in Africa (of course not), but they didn't want to assume responsibility for fixing them.
Most governments also didn't want to pay a global tax, or to have created a UN standing army. So, because the United Nations has been kept rather weak, it couldn't get much done.
In truth, it was the Great Powers themselves who failed; they failed to give direction, to provide resources, to give proper leadership.
It is probably also true to say, then, that if the present world organization did not exist, it would not be invented. The world is no longer as it was in 1945.
This is not to say that the United Nations itself is finished, but that it has reached a historical low point in its credibility. What would it take to breathe life into United Nations?
It needs to be transformed at the very top, and it needs to show itself much more effective in the field, in practical achievements, at the bottom.
For all the setbacks in certain cases, the UN has rescued failed states, negotiated an end to civil wars, rebuilt shattered societies and advanced democracy, economic growth and widespread public health.
Development economists, agronomists and international public health officials know what is needed to make poorer states improve their condition, just as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations pretty much knows what it takes to bring peace to shattered countries: better intelligence about the conflict on the ground, adequate prepositioned logistical supplies and blue-helmeted units, clearer mandates about the field operations, clearer support from the Security Council itself.
All of this can be done without great political change, without any concessions from the Great Powers, without altering the UN Charter itself. All that is needed -- this is a large demand, to be sure -- is for the member nations of the world body to increase the UN's miserably low operating budget.
If all the rich members of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation actually reached their (1977) pledged target of giving 0.7 percent of gross national income to development aid (France manages 0.41 percent, Japan 0.23 percent and the US a sad 0.19 percent), the boost to available resources would be enormous.
But change and reform at the upper level -- that is, an alteration in the Security Council itself -- is a much more difficult matter. It involves making a shift in the global power balances.
Recognizing that the world organization is now 70 years old, that it has achieved much but also failed so often, and that it is in need of repair, is at least the first stage on a path to recovery. Warts and all, we need a United Nations for this troubled world of ours. And the truth is, we need a better one.
Paul Kennedy is Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University.
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