What Does the Future Hold for the United Nations? Terence O'Brien Provides a Brief Selective View of Some of the Layers of Change around the World That Are Challenging the UN System

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, July-August 2017 | Go to article overview

What Does the Future Hold for the United Nations? Terence O'Brien Provides a Brief Selective View of Some of the Layers of Change around the World That Are Challenging the UN System


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


Both the role and potential of the United Nations, and the international legitimacy it embodies, are being challenged by multiple layers of change. The UN system was designed in a largely different era in order to prevent war and to foster peace, prosperity and equality. Many of its structures, notably the composition of its Security Council, are outdated or unco-ordinated. Inefficiencies abound. In practice and over a prolonged period, effective reform across the board in the United Nations has proved impossible. But the system needs to move with the times. The growing tendency for great powers to sideline the world body must be resisted.

In our world every generation believes, or likes to believe, that it exists at a time of great change. This mentality seems to be an integral part of human nature itself. Right now there are multiple layers of change reverberating around the world that challenge the role and potential of the UN system, and the international legitimacy that the United Nations embodies.

Democratic popular choices in the United States and in Europe throughout 2016, with more to come, are providing seismic shocks to the landscape of international relations. These occur in a global context where, in addition, the accomplishments of large newly emergent economies plus others are changing the worlds centre of economic and social gravity; and in the process affecting the international pecking order amongst leading nations.

This is a time, too, where technology and economics are shrinking the planet, where governments are no longer in control in quite the same ways as in the past, where non-government influence upon international relations is expanding (through single issue advocacy groups or powerful private enterprise) and radicalised violence employing the tactic of terrorism has achieved global reach.

There are, moreover, modern threats to security and well-being that are appreciably greater than terrorism. These are comprehensive in their nature and impacts--climate change, environmental disfigurement, resource depletion, foodoose migration, grave poverty and inequality and the spread of weapons, especially of mass destruction, all combine to present significant dangers. No one country or group, no matter how powerful, is able to master let alone solve these afflictions; and only one institution, the United Nations, conceptually possesses the competence and potential for comprehensive appraisal and collective action--across such a range of multiple challenges.

The UN system was designed, of course, in a largely different era in order to prevent war and to foster peace, prosperity and equality. Many of its structures, notably the composition of its Security Council, are outdated or unco-ordinated. Inefficiencies abound. The system needs to move with the times. Principal founder governments display reluctance to surrender their monopolies on influence to accommodate legitimate expectations of newly emergent nations for greater voice. In practice and over a prolonged period, effective reform across the board in the United Nations has proved impossible.

In several important government quarters an interest in, and enthusiasm for, multilateralism display marked signs of diminishing. The new US administration signals a decided preference for bilateral trade/economic relationships and alliances in order to 'make America great again'. Financial support for American diplomacy is scheduled for reduction, while military spending, which already surpasses by a huge margin spending by other countries, is programmed to increase.

Given the United States' importance in the international scheme of things, the even greater militarisation of US international relations that now seems probable will likely entail more negative consequences for the UN system. What is more the United States traditionally portrays itself as an exceptional' nation, a world leader that self exempts America from international rules, norms or conventions that are judged to infringe US sovereignty, while urging compliance upon other nations. …

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