Thinking differently about the UN at 75
Analysis Geopolitics & Global Order

Thinking differently about the UN at 75

22 Jul 2020 - 16:49
Photo: Ahead of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit from 25-27 September in 2015 and to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations a film introducing the Sustainable Development Goals is projected onto the UN Headquarters. © UN Photo
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2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN). A good opportunity to look back on its accomplishments and consider the challenges to come. Overemphasis on the work of the Security Council has led many to believe that the UN is weak and ineffective. This overlooks the critical role Global South actors have played, argues Alanna O’Malley, who examines the promise and problems of the world’s most misunderstood institution.

It was supposed to be a year of celebrating 75 years of freedom protected by multilateralism and strong institutions. Instead, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN has been markedly different as the COVID-19 virus sweeps across the world. While this has led to the cancellation or postponement of many events which were planned to mark the anniversary, it actually provides an opportunity for deeper reflection on the UN, its purposes, and its future.

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations at the UN General Assembly in 2019. © NATO
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations at the UN General Assembly in 2019. © NATO

The UN is arguably the world’s most misunderstood institution. While reform of its archaic structures, procedures and practices is essential if it is to survive another 75 years, now is a critical juncture to find a balance between national interests and the liberal internationalist agenda.

The main challenge is how to recover the attraction and allure of internationalism among the global public, conversely, by transforming it from the local level in order to infuse the ageing institutions of multilateralism with a clear and practical dynamism.

The legacy of the League of Nations
Founded on 26 June 1945 with the signing of the Charter in San Francisco among much laudation and celebration, the UN officially came into being in the presence of 46 nations and a host of civil society actors. Two previous meetings of the Great Powers (Britain, China, the United States and the Soviet Union) in Dumbarton Oaks from August to October 1944 and in Bretton Woods in July 1944, had already created a template for economic and security cooperation.

The creation of the UN was staged as a new beginning. As a rupture with the failed experiments of international organisation, such as the League of Nations that had preceded it. As the birth of a new opportunity for peace and humanity.1

The original organisation established in the ashes of WWI was nothing short of revolutionary in the ways it attempted to manage relationships between states

However, woven into the core of the ‘new’ organisation, were some of the positive and negative features of the League. The original international organisation established in Geneva in the ashes of the First World War in 1920 was nothing short of revolutionary in the ways in which it attempted to manage relationships between states. It was composed of an Assembly, a Council and a Permanent Secretariat which debated the implementation of the Covenant with the primary aim of preserving world peace.

Although the long term historical legacy of the League has been tarnished due to its failure to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War, the organisation and its associated institutions and agencies, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), established the first systems of global governance in the area of social and economic development.

On more controversial issues, such as peace and security and political cooperation, the League had few successes. Even before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the organisation proved powerless to prevent the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, the rearmament of Germany, and the expulsion and withdrawal of members such as the Soviet Union in 1939 after their invasion of Finland.

Despite these failures to temper the behaviour of the imperial powers, the League made significant achievements in what historian Susan Petersen has termed, "adjudicating relations of sovereignty".2 In her work Petersen has opened the way to examining how the League managed, negotiated and arbitrated relationships between nations and colonies with regard to the key issue of sovereignty.

The legacy of the League of Nations has been shrouded in ambiguity by the tendency of commentators to point only to its failures

This is actually the primary legacy of the League of Nations, forming the basic building blocks of the liberal international system. But for too long it has been shrouded in ambiguity by the tendencies of scholars and commentators alike to point only to its very public failures, without any effort to examine its deeper and more impactful achievements in a range of areas.

New organisation, same problems?
In many ways, this is exactly the same problem the UN has today. From 1945, for better and for worse, the organisation inherited both the intellectual, cultural and structural features of the League but also the inherent operational problems. The ‘new look’ UN retained the basic structure of the League, with the Covenant re-written as the Charter, the Council becoming the Security Council and the Assembly becoming the General Assembly.

Large amounts of the League’s ‘technical’ work in the areas of social and economic development were continued. In some cases, this was carried out by the same agencies as before, while a host of others, such as the UNHCR, UNDP, and UNESCO, were gradually created as the work of the organisation expanded.

Ezequiel Padilla, Secretary of Foreign Affairs; Chairman of the delegation from Mexico, signing the UN Charter at a ceremony held at the Veterans' War Memorial Building on 26 June 1945. © UN Photo
Ezequiel Padilla, Secretary of Foreign Affairs; Chairman of the delegation from Mexico, signing the UN Charter at a ceremony held at the Veterans' War Memorial Building on 26 June 1945. © UN Photo

The performance of these agencies has been impressive over time. For example, the UNHCR has aided 50 million refugees to rebuild their lives and has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize twice. UNESCO has educated millions of children, UNDP has provided access to clean drinking water to 2.6 billion people and the WHO has slashed child mortality rates by 62% since 1945.

Considering that the funding of these agencies has often been limited and progress on their agendas has sometimes been disrupted by the political whims of member states (such as the withdrawal of the United States from UNESCO in 2019 amid claims that the agency had an anti-Israel bias), these humanitarian achievements should not be underestimated.

The main difference between the two organisations is the structure of the Security Council where the five permanent members (P5) enjoy veto power. This has been both the source and the subject of sustained debate about the efficacy of the UN as a whole since the 1940s.

Overemphasis on the work of the Security Council has exacerbated the image of the UN as a weak, ineffective, archaic institution, paralysed by bureaucracy

Most commentators of the organisation and its affairs have focused their analysis on the problematic operation of the Security Council. Problems range from the lack of coordination amongst its members, to the failure to act in a timely manner when genocides and atrocities are carried out (such as Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995), to the inability to act at all in the face of violent conflict (such as Democratic Republic of Congo and in Syria currently).3

This overemphasis on the work of the Security Council has exacerbated the image of the UN as a weak, ineffective, archaic institution, paralysed by bureaucracy – or in the eyes of some, merely a tool of Western imperialism. Problematically, this adds to arguments from realist scholars such as John Mearsheimer about the 'false promise of international institutions’.4

Ironically, these are many of the same criticisms of the League that were actively circulating in the 1930s and 1940s. So, the question arises, how can we avoid repeating the same trite discourse and have a real and sustained engagement with what the UN is and what it could be?

Role of the Global South overlooked
The first challenge facing the revamping of the organisation’s image, is that of escaping the one-dimensional, teleological narrative of its history and origins. Traditional histories have ascribed it little influence and importance in the evolution of the twentieth century and have portrayed it as having little relevance or agency to the wider evolution of geopolitics.5

To a large extent this has happened because our histories and knowledge of the UN has been drawn from Western sources. These tend to focus on the initiatives and politics of Western states and actors, and analyse Western interests vis-à-vis how the UN has either challenged or facilitated those objectives.

The name of Upper Volta is changed to Burkina Faso in the UN Security Council, 1984. © United Nations Photo / Flickr
The name of Upper Volta is changed to Burkina Faso in the UN Security Council, 1984. © United Nations Photo / Flickr

Yet, since 1960, two-thirds of the member states are of the Global South. Despite their limited political power, lack of resources and oftentimes oppression by larger powers, these states and their representatives have been the most active and dynamic at the UN.

For example, in 1960, they passed the declaration of Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources. This denied former imperial powers and multinational corporations continued rights to the natural minerals and resources of Global South countries, which they had been mining for profit since the nineteenth century.

Over time, various coalitions of Global South countries have created a series of new institutions within the UN system, reformed others, broke ground on the spread of new ideas about social and economic development, and perpetuated a system of new norms. From 1964 to 1981, they created new groups such as the Group of 77, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Afro-Asian bloc.

They also founded lasting institutions such as the Special Committee on Decolonization (1961) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (1964), led new initiatives for global economic reform such as the campaign for the New International Economic Order (NIEO) and the Special United Nations Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED), and fostered new norms and structures for the development and expansion of human rights.

Actors from the Global South have led the structural, procedural, and normative development of the UN system

Through a range of different methods, actors from the Global South have led the structural, procedural, and normative development of the UN system. This has expanded not just the range of issues the organisation addresses, but also crucially how, when and where these challenges could be effectively tackled by expanding the scope and scale of UN activities.

Some of these key developments, themselves most often omitted from mainstream histories of the UN, have been wrongly criticised as communist-driven initiatives as part of the Cold War. In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that the globally minded states such as Chile, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico who led these campaigns, were motivated by Cold War concerns.

Rather, they were key players in global networks of anti-imperial solidarity which were focused on economic and social development. This did not just advance their national interests, but also addressed the plight of millions of individuals inordinately effected by low living standards.

Rather than the battle between the superpowers, most of the states identifying as Global South actors were concerned with addressing inequities rendered by first, colonialism and imperialism, and later the liberal international order which they invariably experienced as inherently illiberal in practice.

Security Council Discusses Role of Police in UN Peacekeeping Operations, 2016. © United Nations Photo / Flickr
Spectators at the Security Council in 2016 during a discussion on the role of police in UN Peacekeeping Operations. © United Nations Photo / Flickr

For most of its existence therefore, the UN has been shaped far more by the work of these actors, who have been rendered largely invisible by history, than by the lurching leadership of the Security Council.

After the high point of the 1960s and 1970s, a global recession and an economic downturn in the 1980s stunted progress on these issues until the resurgence of the liberal internationalism in the 1990s. Led by two African Secretaries-General (Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali until 1996 and afterwards Kofi Annan) the UN achieved important reforms with the establishment of the Department of Peace Operations in 1992 and the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993.

Additionally, with the creation of the Global Compact and the launching of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, the UN sought to work with a wider range of partners to progress the development agenda. The organisation turned to embrace different but essential actors, who up to that point had operated mostly in the shadows of global governance: multinational corporations (MNCs).

While the success of the Global Compact has been questionable, it has become part of the UN system and functions as a way of rallying and providing oversight of MNCs, especially in facilitated dialogues with agencies and local partners. The Millennium Development Goals did manage to lift one billion people out of poverty, but this success was not evenly spread among the member states.

Reaching out, taking feedback
The second challenge to changing the way the UN is publicly perceived, is to increase its relevance and communicate its importance in clearer ways. In the run up to the 75th anniversary, the organisation took some initial steps in this direction, passing a resolution in the General Assembly in June 2019 to launch a series of global dialogues around the theme 'The future we want, the UN we need'.6

This initiative encourages communities and especially disenfranchised groups such as the youth and socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society to engage with the UN. It puts the organisation in a listening mode, reflecting that it has some capacity for self-evaluation.

The feedback mechanism welcomes output from global dialogues to be communicated directly back to the Secretariat, thereby bypassing the member states entirely. This is an effort to increase the relevance of the UN to individuals by opening up the organisation to respond to their needs.

By reaching out to individuals, the UN is fostering the development of a nascent political community through a direct link between local voices and global change

Dozens of dialogues have already been held around the world with a variety of communities, some focused on specific issues or sustainable development goals and others on broader challenges to global governance. Politically, it is also an extremely important step in fostering an independent power-base for the Secretariat, which will provide an alternative source of support for these initiatives that will not be wholly reliant on the member states – where progress often stagnates in the face of national interests.

By reaching out and responding to individuals, the UN is fostering the development of a nascent political community through a direct link between local voices and global change. This should lead to greater legitimacy of the UN in the view of the general public, especially if the feedback mechanism produces workable action plans for various issues which might currently be under the radar.

The 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN in 2019. © UN Women
The 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN in 2019. © UN Women

If individuals seize this opportunity to engage with the UN above and beyond the state, using the new mechanisms to create change and accountability and activate channels of communication, it will be possible to forge new methods of more accountable, democratic and representative global governance.

The next 75 years
In the current context, we need to take account of the activities of the UN in areas beyond peace and security where far more is achieved on a daily basis. If the current COVID-19 crisis has revealed anything, it is the imperative of expert advice, the importance of decoupling material problems from geopolitics, and the urgency to empower organisations and institutions to do more, more quickly.

The scale of the global pandemic we are currently tackling has revealed the shortcomings and consequences of leaving politics in the hands of elites

It will not be possible to change the image of the UN overnight. The archaic practices of diplomacy, the self-interests of member states and general resistance towards any perceived infringement of sovereignty will continue to be bulwarks to change. But the scale of the global pandemic we are currently tackling has revealed the shortcomings and consequences of leaving politics in the hands of elites, who for too long have dominated not just how our institutions operate but also set the limits of what they can do.

Taking these twin contexts together, we can resuscitate the image of the UN from the shadowy backrooms of power politics and bring it into the light and consciousness of a humanity increasingly under threat from global crises that demand UN leadership. A system of rebalancing Realpolitik with the wider internationalist agenda, which is increasingly urgent but requires more and more international cooperation.

The question becomes therefore, how can the UN be reformed to weigh national interests within a system which requires countries to actually put these concerns aside? One avenue is certainly what has been embarked upon already: stronger institutions, more centralised power with the UN system, a more pervasive culture of checks, balances and oversight.

It also requires the participation of small and medium powers, motivated as much by their responsibility within the system as by the aura of prestige associated with being members. This is the spirit of solidarity we need to reclaim from those dynamic years of the 1960s and 1970s if we are to take the UN into the next 75 years.

  • 1. Simon Jackson and Alanna O’Malley, ‘Rocking on its hinges? The League of Nations, the United Nations and the new history of internationalism in the twentieth century,’ in Simon Jackson and Alanna O’Malley (eds.), The Institution of International Order, From the League of Nations to the United Nations, (London, Routledge, 2018), 1-22.
  • 2. Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • 3. One of the most recent examples of this view: Rick Gladstone, ‘U.N. Security Council ‘Missing in Action’ in Coronavirus Fight,’ 2 April 2020, New York Times.
  • 4. John J. Mearsheimer, ‘The False Promise of International Institutions,’ International Security, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Winter 1994-1995), 5-49.
  • 5. Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations (New York: Vintage, 2007); Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea (London: Penguin Books, 2012).
  • 6. Resolution 73/299 of the General Assembly, 14 June 2019.

Authors

Alanna O'Malley
Chair of United Nations Studies, Leiden University | Historian