AN OPINION PIECE
Out of the rubble, despair, desolation, and industrial-scale slaughter of the Second World War arose a mighty and noble organization, dedicated to bringing the world’s many countries together and preventing the outbreak of another such global disaster: the United Nations (or UN). It originated as the formal term for the alliance that brought down the German-Japanese threat, but then evolved in peacetime into a huge bureaucracy and pseudo-government designed to foster peace and smother the embers of conflict before they erupted into war again.
The problem is, it has failed. War is a depressingly common occurrence, and has been since 1945. Some wars, like the Korean War in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s, and the Great War of Africa in the ’90s and ’00s, have been among the most heinous of all time, with millions dying in senseless carnage. Some wars, like the civil wars that have plagued Myanmar or the drug-fueled insurgency that berates Colombia, have gone on for decades. Even Europe, which many would consider the most important part of the world (at least in 1945), has not been immune to conflict: the Yugoslav Wars shocked the world in the ’90s, and war broke out in the Ukraine last year.
The UN has a secondary mission, deeply entwined with its main one: to prevent genocide. Besides the horrendous warfare, the atrocities against civilians committed by Germany and Japan’s brutal regimes horrified the rest of the world, and the dignitaries that shaped the UN expressly declared their intention to keep this from ever happening again. Alas, this was also not to be: Although smaller in scale, the Khmer Rouge genocide in the ’70s in Cambodia was in some ways more vicious and horrifying than the Holocaust. In more recent times, dire bloodshed and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Sudan went unpunished. And although not strictly meeting the definitions of genocide, human-engineered famine in China, Ethiopia and North Korea wiped out tens of millions.
Beyond its main goals of suppressing war and genocide, the UN has many other prerogatives, and has performed miserably at dealing with them. It is charged with safeguarding human rights around the world, for instance, but it has done next to nothing to improve the way governments treat their people. It is charged with restricting weapons stockpiles, but countries have only piled on weaponry since 1945. Only one country had nukes in 1945; now, 9 do (America, Britain, France, Russia, Israel, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea). Even low-level conflicts and comparatively minor wars go unchecked: diplomats just howl at each other in the Security Council, then vote to do nothing. As a peacekeeping organization, the UN is next to useless.
This has led many to give up on it. Many peaceniks and diplomats openly scorn the UN and pay as little attention to its deliberations as they can. Some will even point to the evil that the UN troops have committed, like participating in the orgy of atrocities in the Congo, setting up prostitution rackets in Yugoslavia, or spreading cholera accidentally in Haiti. America, despite being the UN’s main backer, can sometimes snub it, like when it invaded Iraq over international objections.
These criticisms are valid. The UN is often useless and sometimes deeply disappointing. Even in the face of rank violations of human rights and obvious slaughter, its diplomats will still obstruct justice. When UN peacekeeping troops are deployed, they often fail to make much of a difference.
But I don’t think giving up on the UN is right, either. Behind the scenes, it has done much good for the world. UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) supports malnourished and diseased kids in countries that can’t provide for them. The Food and Agriculture Organization channels food to places suffering from hunger and spreads useful agricultural techniques. The World Health Organization has been at the forefront of global efforts to wipe out smallpox, polio, AIDS, and cholera and is hard at work battling Ebola in West Africa. UNESCO (probably my personal favorite) helps protect sites of outstanding beauty or cultural importance and preserves the rituals, cooking techniques, crafts and performances that enrich human life. Other organs of the UN aid refugees and victims of natural disasters, spread birth control, and protect the environment. To be fair, corruption and bureaucracy, among other factors, have hamstrung some of this work too, but on the whole they have coordinated international efforts and suppressed poverty worldwide.
The other benefit of the UN is the General Assembly. While it’s often derided and ignored, the General Assembly is a useful forum for countries that are often left out of the discussion. The UN was born in a world still dominated by Europe; in the ’60s, decolonization led to an explosion in the number of diplomats in the Assembly, especially from Africa. As the number of UN member states grew and grew (it now encompasses 193, which is all the usually recognized ones except the Vatican City, Palestine and Taiwan), the UN became more and more representative of Earth’s diversity. Although the Security Council might still revolve around the Allies that won the War, the Assembly allows countries to speak their minds as equals. Watching General Assembly sessions is a great way to hear different perspectives and get a sense of what issues concern the world in any given year. Although there are the occasional looney speeches (like Hugo Chávez’s “devil” speech and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rambling rant about, well, how useless the UN is), there are also some measured, thoughtful, and worthwhile ones. I have to admit, I always admire countries that stand up to the US, despite who backs the UN and which city they’re in.
For these reasons, I like the UN and admire it. But it’s hard to deny that it’s toothless. The reason why is relatively plain: countries don’t want to surrender their power to a faceless multinational organization. Many of them see it understandably as a vehicle for American influence. Many Americans, on the other hand, resent it as a restraint on their power. Nationalism, that great scourge of the globe, holds the UN back. Nations define the world (heck, it’s called the United Nations, after all), and they have refused to reshape it into a more supranational form.
The solution: reform into a world government. I support this and yearn for the day when it comes to be. Unfortunately, that’s not gonna happen anytime soon. Besides the obvious reason — only a minority in any given country would want to surrender their power — there are practical problems. Where would this huge government apparatus be located? How would its representatives be chosen? How much power would it have? How often would elections be held? What kind of representation would it have? China and India would seethe at being treated as equals to tiny Pacific islands, but it would be difficult to come up with a formula to base representation on population. The difference between national populations is way, way different than the difference between provincial ones; we’re talking 144,741 (China) to 1 (Nauru) here. If a World Parliament was ever established, China and India would probably get multiple members, while smaller countries would have to be lumped together.
Nonetheless, I feel that strengthening the UN into some kind of world government is the only way to make it more effective. More and more issues — especially weather and environmental ones, but also including migration and trade — are international, and although countries can go on handling them among themselves (and probably prefer to do it that way), it seems more natural to me to empower a supranational organization to handle them. The current way of handling international disputes — which is either “let America deal with them,” “set up negotiations between the feuding parties,” or “hope they get resolved soon” — is obviously flawed, and giving the UN more of an army to punish those countries that offend world opinion would do a lot more to stamp down conflict.
And this leads to another issue — lack of trust. For all the talk of international brotherhood, goodwill, and peace, many countries flat-out don’t trust each other. There’s a reason wars break out (though to be fair, most of them are civil). Humans are scheming, conniving, slippery, power-hungry creatures, and the UN won’t change that. Cultural outlooks also make it difficult to find international consensus — for instance, Muslims sometimes feel uncomfortable among countries that don’t share their beliefs. And since the UN’s birth, one major fault line has run through it: the gap between democracies and dictatorships. Although this used to be called “the Free World” versus the Communist bloc, and matched up with the battle-lines of the Cold War, it’s really a gap between countries that demand a voice for the people in their governments and countries that speak only for their governments. As a result, Security Council votes have usually been split between America, Britain and France on one side and Russia and China on the other. If a world government was created, it’s hard to imagine these two sides trusting each other.
So world government remains a distant dream, and the UN will continue with its incessant bickering, red tape, and ineptitude for the foreseeable future. Nationalism and distrust will keep countries from ceding their power. But the UN remains a noble force for good. It shines a spotlight on the world’s criminals. It speaks out against racism, oppression and intolerance. Its solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 would have been wise to adopt. It intervened in the Congo when the rest of the world turned away. Its Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an inspiring document and a thudding remonstrance against countries and governments who have transgressed it. UNESCO designates World Heritage Sites, the UN Development Programme alleviates poverty. And I genuinely believe that despite the occasional cynical blind eye towards massacre or vote driven by national interest, the majority of UN diplomats care at least a little bit about human rights and basic decency. I would much rather live in a world with the UN than without it, and I’ll bet many places would be a lot worse off if it never existed.
The UN’s errors and shortcomings are pretty bad, though. Its officials should never forget what happened the last time rubble, despair, desolation and industrial-scale slaughter outraged the world and prompted the creation of an international organization to prevent such suffering again. The League of Nations, founded in the aftermath of World War I, didn’t have enough power to intervene in the wars that inevitably broke out, was scorned by countries cocky enough to commit aggression over its objections, and perished in the ashes of World War II. If World War III ever comes, the UN would probably meet a similar fate.