To commemorate the United Nations’ 75th anniversary since its founding, we examine how much the UN has changed the world for the better. Is it a tool for cooperation between nations, or is it one for control instead?
By Yoke Clara Yansim / October 24, 2020
Edited by: Robin Choo
“The world of 2020 is far different from that of 1945, and it’s different because it’s better. And it is so, to a large extent, thanks to the United Nations’ efforts during these three-quarters of a century to maintain international peace and security.”
This was the message that President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic had pre-recorded for his address at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly last month, but not everyone shares this sentiment.
From the Ashes of War
On New Year’s Day of 1942, at the height of the Second World War, the name “United Nations” was coined by the then United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the “Declaration by United Nations”. The document was then signed by representatives of 26 countries fighting the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis, pledging the signatory governments to the maximum war effort and binding them against making a separate peace.
It was against this backdrop that the UN was formed three years later.
In June 1945, representatives of 50 countries met at the San Francisco Conference to draw up the UN Charter. As the global conflict concluded with the Japanese surrender, the Charter came into full force exactly 75 years ago, and so began the work of the UN.
With the war still fresh in the collective memory, the UN Charter mandated that member states ensure “armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest”. Fifteen states constitute the most powerful organ of the UN: the Security Council.
Tasked with maintaining the peace and security of the world, the Security Council is the only UN entity permitted to deploy military force and empowered by the international community to impose sanctions. The Allied victors — United States, France, United Kingdom, China and Russia — became the five permanent members (P5) of the Council.
But more than just to prevent future conflicts, the UN Charter also sought to protect basic human rights, establish conditions for international law to be maintained, as well as promote social progress and better standards of living for all peoples.
The ‘United’ Nations
In “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory”, Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin wrote: “But in a world politics constrained by state power and divergent interests, and unlikely to experience effective hierarchical governance, international institutions operating on the basis of reciprocity will be components of any lasting peace.”
The UN is the liberal institutionalist solution to the question of how to encourage cooperation in a world where there is no authority superior to nation-states capable of providing order to the international system — a situation of international anarchy.
But how does the UN facilitate multilateralism in practice?
The answer: through the establishment of international norms and a rules-based system, as well as its wide acceptance by states. The UN General Assembly is a crucial instrument in this regard, as it provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of international issues among all the 193 member states that the UN currently has. However, the Security Council remains the executive body holding the exclusive power to deal with issues of peace and security.
When the UN was formed, the world was still reeling from the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear blasts. The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly in January 1946 addressed the “problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”. Collective security has thus always taken centre stage in the world agenda post-World War II.
Today, inter-state wars are rare, compared to the 20th century. The absolute number of war deaths globally has been declining since 1946. There is also evidence that the UN has been moderately successful in areas of civil conflict through its peacekeeping operations, such as in Namibia (1989-90), El Salvador (1991-95) and Cambodia (1991-93).
Areas of cooperation between UN member states also expand to tackle other global challenges beyond the traditional security issues.
In economic development, for instance, the UN’s work has been guided by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) since 2000, with virtually all funds for UN development assistance coming from donations by member states. During the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 1972, then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi highlighted the connection between ecological management and poverty alleviation.
Nevertheless, the UN is far from perfect.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — or the 17 UN objectives aimed at eliminating inequities by 2030 — are “seriously off track in many, many ways”, according to Barbara Adams, chairwoman of the Global Policy Forum. The SDGs, which officially came into effect in 2016, are an extension of the MDGs, with an added focus on inclusiveness and sustainability.
The UN’s weak enforcement procedures have also attracted much criticism. The problem of anarchy persists because there is no mechanism to empower the judgements of the International Court of Justice, the UN’s principal judicial organ. For instance, although an international tribunal in The Hague backed the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute in 2016, the tribunal could not directly enforce the ruling as China rejected the decision.
Observers view the lack of an international army, resulting from the reluctance of member states to create a common army, as a flaw. UN peacekeepers are first and foremost members of their national armies seconded to work under the command and control of the UN.
The UN’s main weakness, however, is its ineffectiveness in solving contemporary global challenges, such as transnational terrorism and illicit arms trade. As an international organisation that comprises and is a product of states, the UN inadequately acts against threats from non-state actors. Far from being united, the UN faces a collective action problem in tackling issues like climate change, explaining the failure of numerous climate change agreements.
An Instrument of Control?
With all its strengths and weaknesses, the reality is that the survival of the UN is dependent on the US’ leadership and power after the Second World War. After all, the US played a key role in establishing the UN.
The US is the largest donor to the UN by far, contributing US$679 million (S$922 million) or 22 per cent of the organisation’s regular budget in 2020. That fact, coupled with its seat on the Security Council and its immense economic and military prowess, all but guarantees its role as the UN’s most influential actor.
At times, this influence has been used to advance its interests.
Research by Better World Campaign showed that in 2018, American companies were awarded US$1.64 billion (S$2.24 billion) in contracts with the UN, by far the most of any country. The UN has also been essential to several top US foreign policy priorities. For example, Security Council sanctions on Iran have helped curb its nuclear ambitions over the years (although recent developments have put the US on the back foot).
The structure of the Security Council itself is also worth discussing.
The composition of the Security Council still reflects the power distribution of 1945, with its P5 members holding more powers and prerogatives than the 10 non-permanent ones. Several ambitious middle powers, such as India, Brazil and South Africa, have expressed their dissatisfaction in its current structure, pushing for a comprehensive reform of the Council such that it is more inclusive and equitable.
On the other hand, the way the Council is structured is also what sets the UN apart from its post-World War I predecessor, the League of Nations. The logic: granting veto powers to each of the P5 members will ensure the major powers’ active participation in the UN system of collective security, preventing large-scale conflicts as we have seen in the previous century.
75 Years On
Is the world today really better than it was in 1945 because of the UN?
That is entirely subjective. On some level, the UN has achieved what previous international institutions could not in keeping world peace. Still, it is unable to end protracted wars in Syria, Yemen or Libya, among other regional conflicts in the world.
Seventy-five years after its founding, the UN is yet again preoccupied with the greatest global challenge since 1945: the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with it, the US and China’s increasingly tense (or as UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls it, “dysfunctional”) relationship, climate change, poverty, gender discrimination, justice and human rights remain the world’s biggest issues.
At a time where collective action is desperately needed, the world is more fragmented than ever. States can clearly do more to enhance multilateral cooperation.