75 years ago today, the United Nations officially came into being with a small staff and budget, and 51 member states. Now, 75 years later, the organization has expanded dramatically, with a total of 193 member states, a vast bureaucracy, an annual budget of $3 billion, almost 40.000 staff members, and over 90.000 peacekeepers deployed across the globe.
Undoubtedly, the anniversary will be an occasion to celebrate the UN’s many achievements. Apart from the fact that there have been no more world wars (which was, after all, the organization’s main goal), there is indeed a lot to be proud of: the organizations has made large strides towards ending world hunger, promoted human rights, and strengthened multilateral cooperation, to name but a few achievements.
At the same time, there have been many failures as well. The UN Security Council’s inaction in Syria, failures in Rwanda and Bosnia, and the inefficiencies of the organization’s bureaucracy all count as valid criticisms. With renewed tensions between an increasingly assertive China, a retrenching US, and a recalcitrant Russia, moreover, the UN Security Council has become ineffective and powerless at fulfilling its core function to maintain peace and security. This was made very clear by its long delays in endorsing the Secretary-General’s proposal for a worldwide COVID-19 ceasefire.
The mix of celebrations and criticisms, which all have their grounds in truth, underline that the track record of the UN is a mixed story. How could it be differently? The organization consists of 193 member states with different interests, backgrounds, and visions for the future, while the Security Council has five states with veto rights. We should not be surprised that the UN is at the same time a success and a failure.
There are many scholars, states, and activists who seek to remedy these failures. Like every UN anniversary, the UN’s 75th’s birthday has been accompanied by numerous proposals for reform. Many (and I mean many) reports have been published about how the UN can be revamped so that it can remain fit for purpose, with key proposals being made about how the organization could increase its role in mitigating climate change, countering pandemics, and fighting terrorism.
Many of these proposals reflect a sense of hope, an ideal that the world’s states can find new and better avenues for cooperation, that this imperfect organization can function more efficiently, and that – despite the crisis of multilateralism – the world can still come together and usher in a new era of cooperation.
These ideals are, of course, laudable, and there is plenty of reason to exert the effort to try and implement the various reform proposals. But what they sometimes seem to forget is that the UN is, and will always remain, an organization of member states. In other words, a too strong focus on ‘the UN’ obscures the fact that the organization can be only as effective as its member states want it to be.
As such, the UN operates at the intersection of high-minded values and hard-nosed interests, against a background of tensions between states’ willingness to cooperate and their emphasis on sovereignty. Although the pendulum between these two ends may swing back and forth, the room for maneuver, the means that it can use, and to a large degree, its chances at success, are determined by the willingness of member states to cooperate with each other. Without the political will to cooperate, there will be no large, transformative improvements to the UN.
If we want the pendulum to swing towards the world’s ‘better angels’, therefore, the US and the EU – but also African, Asian and South American member states – need to show leadership. They need to defend and promote human rights and democracy, and push back against those states promoting authoritarianism and sovereignty. They need to counter the trend whereby China and its authoritarian allies are making use of the vacuum of leadership to promote its own authoritarian values throughout the world, and are trying to recraft the international order in its image.
If no one is there to push the pendulum back, the UN will either be forced to take on a very limited role or will be seriously curtailed in promoting liberal and democratic values.
In sum, when looking forward to the organization’s next 75 years (if these come to pass), we should not be surprised to see this same tension between values and interests, between idealism and realism, between cooperation and unilateralism. This is the inevitable result of an organization that represents the world. It mirrors both its beauty and its ugliness. It are those who make up the organization who define the way it looks.