Despite its current malaise, with seemingly one failure after another reported in news headlines, it is premature to write off the United Nations.
The United Nations was on life support through much of the 1960s and 1970s, although there were moments of rejuvenation, such as the 1973 Middle East War, when the organization proved itself indispensable.
By the early 1980s, the United Nations had fallen into disuse, leading even a former secretary-general to lament it had become an "irrelevant" place.
Suddenly, with the winding down of the Cold War, the United Nations was called upon to play a role in managing ceasefires and rebuilding whole societies in dozens of locales around the world. More U.N. peacekeeping missions were authorized between 1988 and 1992 than in the entire previous history of the organization. In the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, a U.S.-led multinational force authorized by the United Nations punished the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It seemed a model of collective security as envisioned under Chapter VII of the Charter.
In the immediate post-Cold War era, the expectations were there but, alas, not the wallet or the will, and the promised "new world order" failed to materialize.
Now the United Nations is once again being pronounced moribund by some. A majority of member states, led by the United States, is in arrears of their dues, bringing the organization close to bankruptcy. Staff morale is low, due not only to financial problems but to government intrusion into hiring and promotion. Meanwhile, 70,000 blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops drawn from more than 60 countries are thinly scattered across the globe, in harm's way, attempting to carry out dozens of resolutions halfheartedly passed by the Security Council.
The need for global institution building is arguably greater today than ever before - to cope with nuclear proliferation, greenhouse warming, economic interdependence and assorted other planetary concerns - at precisely the same moment when central-guidance mechanisms are less feasible than in previous eras due to recent structural changes in the international system. But all is not hopeless, especially if the United States and several other major actors are willing to assume leadership.
The classic bogeyman argument is equating the United Nations with "world government." I was recently asked how I could possibly support such an "un-American" institution that was about to take away American sovereignty. I found it remarkable that a person would call un-American an institution that had been created primariy by the United States, for the United States (to serve our interests), one in which we had special powers and privileges given to only a handful of states, and whose governing charter is housed in our national archives!
By global institution building, I do not mean world government but rather improved multilateral, interstate cooperation. The historic role of the United Nations is not as a precursor to world government but to make world government unnecessary. As the United Nations goes, so goes the sovereign state system.
How much does the United Nations cost American taxpayers relative to the benefits provided? The total regular annual operating budget of the United Nations is roughly $1 billion, smaller than the annual budget of the New York City police department. …