Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Would the World Be Better without the UN?

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Would the World Be Better without the UN?

Article excerpt

A tourist navigating the security barriers separating New York City from the iconic UN headquarters on First Avenue innocently asks, "How many people work here?" The tour guide snidely replies, "About half." Yet the widespread impression about an inept bureaucracy and its politicized deliberations is often met with a different trope: "If the UN did not exist, we would have to invent it." (1)

It is essential to think about them in the wake of Donald Trump's contested election victory. The US. president is a man seemingly intent on destroying the rules-based international order of which the United Nations is a keystone and which the United States has championed and sustained. With the administration's denigrations of other highly successful multilateral experiments--the European Union and the "obsolete" North Atlantic Treaty Organization, although NATO subsequently was declared no longer so--the universal UN may be an easy target. Indeed, one of his opening salvos in his first week in the Oval Office was the announcement of two possible executive orders, one calling for a review of ongoing and pending multilateral treaties and another for halting funding to UN organizations that recognize Palestine. And the first organization targeted was the UN Population Fund because of its support for women's reproductive rights.

Where might we find ourselves in the early twenty-first century if the United Nations had not been created at the end of World War II? The planet totters on the brink of succumbing to life-threatening disasters as preparations are underway to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the UN's founding in 2020. Former secretary general Kofi Annan labeled these menaces "problems without passports," which range from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to pandemics, from terrorism to climate change, and from mass atrocities to debilitating poverty. (2) At the same time, few would dispute that the UN system has helped keep the lid on conflict cauldrons, eliminated small pox, delivered life-saving succor in war zones, spawned crucial development ideas, and executed useful social projects.

In pondering whether the United Nations is a waste of resources or, despite failures, essential to global order, it is helpful to draw on illustrations of achievements and shortcomings from the three substantive pillars of its activities: international peace and security, human rights and humanitarian action, and sustainable development. While counterfactuals are often dismissed as academic contrivances, they can serve to focus the mind. Two "what-ifs" are crucial: one, where would the contemporary world be without the UN? Two, where could it be had the UN performed better?

To fast-forward to the bottom line, the current world organization, while it leaves much to be desired, has made substantial contributions. Indeed, it has become so embedded in today's world order that it is taken for granted. "We are barely conscious of the continuing stabilizing role it plays in setting the broad parameters for the conduct of international relations," former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd points out. "If the UN one day disappears, or more likely just slides into neglect, it is only then that we would become fully aware of the gaping hole this would leave in what remained of the post-war order." (3)

The Trump administration's myopia makes robust multilateralism more, not less, compelling. The world, as Richard Haass tells us, is in "disarray," which calls for altering sovereignty and multilateralism. New forces, challenges, and actors indeed require what he calls "World Order 2.O." (4) However, there is a desperate need to reinvigorate and update rather than jettison the universal organization that is essential to the current operating system.


One way of considering the UN's impact is to imagine where the globe might be without it, or, more specifically, where the world would be with a body solely set up to act as an arena for discussions, with no autonomous capacity for generating ideas, norms, and principles or for helping to test or implement them. …

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