Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Appraising the U.N. at 50: The Looming Challenge

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Appraising the U.N. at 50: The Looming Challenge

Article excerpt


In the spring of 1994, The Economist had on its cover a ghastly scene: a landscape of utter desolation, the sky and earth blood red, corpses littering the ground with a flagpole in their midst, its U.N. flag flying at half-mast and a large caption entitling the cover story, "SHAMED ME ME PEACEKEEPERS."(1) Such an iconography of failure is sadly expressive of public disappointment with the United Nations' role in world affairs in light of its inability to avert tragedy in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

Such an assessment does not provide a promising background for this year's observance of the 50th anniversary of the U.N.'s founding, which, if nothing else, is certain to generate a multitude of discussions on the past, present and future of the Organization. My aim in this article will be to account for this current attitude of disappointment and to interpret expectations of the United Nations within the larger setting of global restructuring, especially the displacement and realignment of the sovereign state.

It should be noted by way of introduction that it is the peace and security agenda that serves as the prism through which the U.N. is judged by the media and the public. This is understandable, yet misleading. It is misleading because, even considered mechanically as an aggregate of its multifold distinct activities, actors and arenas, the U.N. consists of such diverse main organs as the Security Council, the General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Secretariat, as well as a long list of specialized agencies, among the most important of which are the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Also formally part of the U.N. family, although fully autonomous in operation, are the international financial institutions, which include the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.(2) The U.N.'s range of activities thus encompasses virtually the whole gamut of human concerns. Its many constructive achievements over the years must be balanced against a plethora of shortcomings, making it complicated to evaluate any particular aspect of U.N. work.

At the same time, the tendency to conflate the U.N. in such a way that only the peace and security agenda is sharply profiled is understandable. The main goals of the Organization have always been related to the avoidance of war and the protection of weak states against aggression. That is why the U.N. response to the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait in 1990 seemed such a decisive test of the capacity of the Organization to act in the post-Cold War world, giving then-President George Bush's mobilizing call for "a new world order" much credibility, at least for the duration of the crisis. Two distinct conclusions emerge: First of all, the U.N. is a complex actor with multiple roles that have growing importance in many domains of international life; secondly, despite this diversity, the overriding test of U.N. success or failure focuses on its handling of peace and security challenges.

Overall, this emphasis on peace and security tends to give an undue prominence to the Security Council, and an unwarranted back burner status to other organizational facets of the U.N. Occasionally, the World Court will receive attention through rendering a controversial decision, as it did in 1986 when it held that the efforts of the U.S. government to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua violated international law; or the Secretary-General will make headlines by taking a strong, independent stand on a peace and security issue, such as fashioning a response to genocide in Rwanda. …

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