Each September since 1945 has delivered a delightfully awkward few days when world leaders—some of whose armies have bludgeoned each other all year on the battlefields—all converge on the UN General Assembly in New York.
The meeting inevitably provides ammunition for commentators who think the UN is impotent—“all talk and no action.” But this underestimates the impact—both positive and negative—that the UN can have around the globe.
The key to using the UN correctly is to be realistic about where it can, by nature, make a difference, and where it risks being sandwiched between so many competing interests that its leaders are forced bend over backwards to please all sides and end up pleasing none.
It also helps to understand a little bit about the UN’s history – when it was at its most and least effective. The United Nations never truly enjoyed a “golden age,” except, arguably, at the conceptual stage, in the immediate years before the organization’s official creation. Indeed, the name “United Nations” was coined by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942, during the Second World War, when representatives of 26 nations pledged their governments to continue fighting together against the Nazis and the Axis Powers. Ever since they crushed their common enemies, it was often joked that the only thing that ever truly united the United Nations was a dedication to keep Germany and Japan off the Security Council (while pretending to support their accession, of course).
Later, the Cold War forced the UN into an operational hiatus for years, bogging down the Security Council with vetoes, 271 of which were cast in all, mostly by the Soviet Union (128) and the United States (83) on almost every issue of contention. Then, suddenly, in the early 1990s, the implosion of the Soviet empire thrust the UN back into active war zones. UN officials had high hopes for its potential impact, pinned on low budgets, completely inadequate operational capabilities, and coupled with leftover confusion from the Cold War; many still believed that the organization should, or even could, remain neutral in fights that pitted states against officially designated terrorist organizations.
We learned the hard way that the UN couldn’t thrive in such a role. The bombing of our UN Baghdad headquarters in 2003, which killed 22 people and wounded over 100, was one of many resulting tragedies of that attempt at neutrality. In an effort to show its independence from the US, and please its anti-War membership, the UN ordered all US protection of its compound withdrawn. The moment the building was unguarded it was rammed by a truck bomb. At the time, the Al Qaeda attack forced the UN out of Iraq almost completely.
Almost. The coffin of perceived failure was missing one nail. That came in the form of the “oil for food” program scandal, which I saw close up during my time at the United Nations Iraq Program. In this case, the wily Saddam had kept meticulous records of every kickback and every bribe transferred under the UN’s $74 billion “oil-for-food” program before he was knocked out of power. When an Iraqi newspaper then published it, a snowball of revelations built up to the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the United Nations, nearly forcing then Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s resignation and casting what he called a “dark cloud” over the UN. Various polls showed a majority of Americans losing trust in the organization after that.
Iraq was a sort of perma-crisis that became a lightning rod for disputes at the UN, spanning the entire era between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the ‘war on terror.’ And today, Iraq leaves us once again with security and humanitarian conundrum for which, sadly, the UN does not have all the solutions. But it’s got food, and tents and sanitation kits, and regional conflicts still provide plenty of takers for those.
And here’s where we wade into uncharted territory – illuminating where, and when, the UN is actually effective. In recent weeks, as battles raged between the Islamic State and just about every minority of North-Eastern Iraq (of which only the Kurds were equipped, physically and culturally, to defend themselves) the UN was in a position to take the lead in quickly delivering aid and shelter to the refugees pouring out of Yazidi and Christian towns overrun by the new desert pirates that roam these parts waving black flags and threatening beheadings galore on all “apostates.”
At one point, I helped coordinate the activities of nine UN agencies, and saw that only a few branches of the gigantic bureaucratic octopus tended to perform well with money: The World Food Program, UNICEF, and UNHCR (which has done an incredible job taking in nearly three million refugees from Syria’s civil war to date) are top performers, and their role in assisting civilians in the aftermath of any fight against terror in the Middle East or Africa cannot be dismissed. Add to the equation occasional natural disasters, like tsunamis or earthquakes, or epidemics like Ebola and the question soon changes from whether or not we “need” the UN to how best we can “make use” of it. The UN’s pre-existing aid infrastructure is a net time saver, once crisis calls on bureaucrats to stop picking their noses and earn their salaries.
The UN system helps share the burden of intervention more widely among its members. Western democracies have domestic voters to account to, and these voters don’t want their own taxes to pay for every aspect of global security. So, short of offering the perfect alliance as a whole, the UN offers conduits to raise funds for critical assistance.
As an organization designed “to save humanity from the scourge of war” the UN has, of course, come up short. But let us not forget that the states that have slapped this organization with an impossible brief to begin are the same that often design its missions with unrealistic expectations and withhold the resources needed to let the UN do a good job. In the case of Ukraine, for example, the UN Security Council is blocked by Russia’s power of veto.
Looking back, however, at the first blueprint offered for an organization that might be capable of actually maintaining world piece, (Immanuel Kant’s treatise “On Perpetual Peace”) we are reminded that, right from the outset, Kant never set his hopes so high as to expect dictators to play a helpful role in spreading peace. In Kant’s humble opinion, only states that functioned democratically as republics, accountable to their own populations, could reliably maintain peace among themselves.
Kant advised that the only solution was for democracies to form temporary alliances to face down their common enemies. And that is as much as we can expect our elected leaders to do, using the UN as an umbrella organization when possible, and acting outside of it when universal agreement on the nature of good and evil escapes our global community.
Michael Soussan, a former UN humanitarian worker and Adjunct assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, is the author of the classic satirical memoir “Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy” (Nation Books), which is being adapted to feature film. A media consultant, he is a partner at www.GoodLoopMedia.com. This article originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.