The United Nations was the world’s great hope. Let it die with dignity.
The years immediately following the Second World War were understandably formative ones. The sheer scale of the disaster that had consumed the globe is difficult for us to imagine today. The desire to prevent such a calamity happening again was the fulcrum of the founding of the United Nations. Here, it was hoped, the nations of the world would discuss their differences as equals and cooperate for a better tomorrow. And unlike the ill fated League of Nations, the UN would have an enforcement arm, the Security Council.
Yet even then, the principle Powers has their own ulterior motives for supporting the project. For the United States, this was a chance to mold the world in its image. A world dominated by liberal free-market democracies would not only be more stable, it would also provide American companies with the export markets they craved. For the Soviet Union, a similar opportunity beckoned. The inevitable decolonisation would present the Soviets with a plethora of small, unstable and politically immature republics which could, through bribery and subversion, fall into the Soviet sphere. For an exhausted Britain and France, the UN offered a chance to retain at least some influence in a world soon to be dominated by the superpowers.
Pure, naked national interest was at the heart of every participant’s engagement with the UN from day one, and continues to this day. Iraq, Kosovo, Libya and now Syria have all followed the same script; the US and Western Europeans identify a ‘baddie’ and urge action. Russia and the autocrats bristle. China keeps quiet.
And of course if a country doesn’t find the fig leaf of a UN mandate for its actions, it goes ahead and does it anyway.
The UN structure is fundamentally flawed. You can get a two-thirds majority on the floor of the General Assembly from countries representing less than fifteen percent of the world’s population. Add to this the farce of the rotating committee memberships. Libya sat on the committee of Human Rights. Saudi Arabia chaired the committee on combating terrorism. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Crucially, the UN doesn’t have a monopoly on supra-national forums; we’ve a myriad to pick from: The EU, ASEAN, the African Union, the Arab League, the Shanghi Cooperation Pact, Pacific Islands Forum, MERCOSUR, CARICOM, IGAD, GCC, CEMAC, G7, NATO, the Nordic Council, SADC, SAARC, British Commonwealth, Organization of American States, ANZUS…….and of course everybody’s favourite, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)
If the UN can claim to do two things on a scale that others can’t, its emergency aid and peacekeeping. The PR department of the UN are worth their weight in gold. Images of food being thrown from the back of planes, blue helmeted troops from across the globe patrolling war ravaged streets and lofty speeches, have all cemented themselves in the global consciousness. And although the aid generally comes from a handful of industrialized nations, the UN famine relief agencies are at least semi competent in getting it to where it needs to be. Sadly, even if the donor countries could deploy the aid faster themselves, local politics would often delay or even prevent it reaching its destination. Despots (can just about) stomach a sack of grain with the UN crest on it. They’re less likely to with the Stars & Stripes on it.
And what of peacekeeping? The fundamental problem is that there first needs to be some peace to keep. And this is where the idea of a UN enforcement arm falls down. The UN cannot create peace by force. It has no military of its own. That’s normally delegated to the US and its NATO allies, which brings us back to the problems of national interest and the hypocrisy and double standards that accompany it.
Compare the massacres in Syria and Libya. Legally and morally there are few distinctions between the two. Yet Assad and the rebels forces are free to ply their murderous trade, while Gadaffi’s were obliterated in weeks by Western air power. The only difference was that one has a powerful friend, Russia, and one didn’t.
The other problem with peacekeeping is mission creep. What should be a short shape deployment can turn into a major commitment. Blue helmeted infantrymen have to become traffic cops, engineers, social workers, search and rescue specialists, diplomats and trading standards officers.
You can’t expect a terrified eighteen year old conscript from Nepal to do everything. It’s just not fair.
It could be argued that the UN is as good as global cooperation is going to get. Just because you can’t ‘do the right thing’ everywhere, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do it somewhere. But if that’s the case, do we even need a UN? The likes of the Red Cross and Red Crescent are apolitical and coordinate aid deliveries well enough. There are more than enough regional forums for countries to air and share their worries and issue sanctions were needed. And peace creation is only ever going to come from the same handful of nations that do it now; and again only when they want to and on their terms.
If the UN is to remain relevant, it needs to change its remit. Rather than try to be the arbiter of the world’s disputes it should focus on doing less and doing it better. Countries emerging from conflict or disaster should be able to call upon UN for police, doctors and administrators, not warriors. This rapid reaction Civil Service will be older and more experienced than troops, and will be there until a regional body takes over the burden.
By acknowledging its limitations and focusing its resources, the UN might, just, avoid the fate of its predecessor.