The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The United Nations Today: A Case Study in Failure

The United Nations is being flouted and ignored more often than usual these days — and the consequences are, as usual, nil.

In Syria, arriving UN ceasefire monitors are greeted with artillery barrages. Iran continues to ignore resolutions on opening its nuclear facilities to inspectors. And North Korea merrily flouts UN resolutions as it fires rockets and tests nukes pretty much at will.

The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.

The increasing feebleness of the UN reflects several developments. The first is experience; as more and more actors figure out how toothless it is and how little its resolutions actually matter, more and more governments simply ignore it. And as that happens, it looks even more toothless, and even more governments conclude that they don’t have to worry much about it.

The second is incoherence. The General Assembly is based on an absurdity: the patently false idea that the governments of the world are equal in some real (as opposed to formulaic) sense to each other. India has as many votes in the General Assembly as Chad. As the number of weak states and irrelevant states grow, the political importance of the General Assembly declines to the vanishing point. Nobody cares what a collection of micro states, weak states and corrupt, shambolic states thinks about anything.

The absurd and inconsequential nature of the General Assembly is reflected in the bodies and commissions that depend on it. Groups like the Commission on Human Rights are international laughingstocks and rightly so. At best they are irrelevant; at worse they actively undermine the causes they were, theoretically, established to advance.

The third is outdatedness. The Security Council represents a 1945 compromise between power realities and political correctness. That is, the UK, the US and the USSR were great powers in 1945. China and France weren’t, but it was convenient to pretend otherwise. Today, a majority of permanent Security Council members aren’t great powers, and there are significant powers (like India and Japan) who aren’t permanent members.

A majority of the Security Council’s permanent members are European states and ex-great powers to boot. This is farcical, and the Security Council’s growing weakness is the natural and inevitable result.

Finally, the UN punches below its weight because it is so badly run. Corrupt and incompetent governments insist on placing political favorites in UN jobs because, well, because they can. Despite commendable efforts at reform, UN bureaucracies remain notoriously poorly managed, inefficient and the whiff of scandal is never far away. The UN designs its objectives badly and spends money inefficiently in pursuit of them.

The picture of course is not all bleak. While most UN peacekeeping operations seem to be corruptly run and poorly managed, they do help tamp down on the violence in some of the places where blue helmets are deployed. And when the great powers really do want to do something together, the UN framework is a useful one for joint action.

I don’t favor abolishing the UN, but unless it figures out how to reform and restructure itself, it will continue to diminish as a force in international life. That is sad; while the world doesn’t need a world government, we could use an effective international body that facilitated international cooperation.

Published on April 16, 2012 9:26 am
  • Anthony

    WRM, has UN actually been a force in international life over last quarter century beyond a few interventions (Bosnia comes to mind)? The incoherence and outdatedness are structural issues certainly warranting 21st century attention if for no other reason than to combat feebleness. And you are correct the world could use an effective international body…

  • http://www.allenmitchum.com Allen Mitchum

    The world’s worst regimes (China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc.) have infected the various sub-institutions at the U.N. to control and dictate day to day affairs of the U.N. Combined with the non-democracy micro-states that WRM references above, this leads to either gridlock or scapegoating (i.e. blaming Israel or the U.S. for everything).

    It’s difficult to see how the U.N. could ever be reformed. The corruption is too entrenched and too many countries would lose in a re-balancing or reformation of the organization.

    The marginalization of the U.N. and the creation of a league of democracies or something similar was discussed during the GWB administration. If an international organization is indeed important, then that seems like a reasonable alternative to the current arrangement.

  • Mrs. Davis

    What is needed is meetings of the Anglosphere nations, UK,US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and perhaps Kenya to meet to discuss policy coordination on international questions. Beyond that, any supranational organization will be ineffective unless it is given a taxing power and a measure of accountability to its constituents.

    The UN funding by the US should be significantly reduced and explicitly targeted to agencies that are effective.

  • Kenny

    Time to get the U.N out of the U.S. and to cut back on America’s payments to that dysfunction and highly immoral organization.

  • matthew49

    Why don’t you favor abolishing the UN? You obviously see that it is ineffective, corrupt, and not reformable. It promotes and maintains conflicts more often than it solves them (which is never). Its peacekeeping forces commit crimes, most notably rape, on a large scale. The only bad I can see from abolishing the institution is that many useless people will lose their very cushy jobs.

  • Jim.

    If the UN framework is a useful one for joint action when the Great Powers really want it to be, it’s as powerful and effective as it needs to be.

    If you disagree, WRM, you really haven’t made your case as to why.

    On a larger topic… you haven’t really made any case, recently, as to why you remain a Democrat, or why you cleave to institutions that your essays as often as not cleave in twain.

    Why, at core, are you sticking with that? Inertia? Romantic belief that the party can change? It would be very interesting to see your thoughts on the matter.

  • Hammered at Tosca

    What? Does this mean I’m safe from those black helicopters I’ve been so afraid of?

  • Corlyss

    Back in 1968 when I was getting my degree at American University’s School of International Service, I took a course in the UN. I avoided the rush to determine the organization and all like it utterly useless in power politics terms. It could not then and cannot now do much of anything an organization like it is set up to do. But it can cost the member states a lot of money for the little it does, mostly in the form of corruption, with which the UN is rife. I have to say that back in the 90s and 00s I was completely charmed by the additional findings that the peace-keepers deployed to hot spots were mostly good for raping the local women and stealing the locals’ money. A useless NGO that does real harm into the bargain.

    Just sort of caps the whole picture, don’t you think?

  • Toni

    Well…are there salvageable parts of the diseased whole? Perhaps WHO, UNESCO, High Commission on Refugees, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and other benign data-gatherers and benevolent efforts?

    The General Assembly, Security Council, peacekeepers who don’t, and other useless functions and agencies should be made defunct.

  • matthew49

    Elvis said it best: UN nothin’ but a hound dog, just a-crockin’ all the time; UN never caught a rabbit, and UN no friend of mine!

  • Herb

    Why wouldn’t you want to abolish the UN? The UN is in the mold of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and Wilson is perhaps the country’s most overrated president. He was a pedant full of platitudes, empty phrases that sounded good to the other elites who have no sense of the real world. These beloved people do real damage. Those who prop up the UN do those of us who have to live in the real world no favors. The UN is one of those stale ideas that college professors (forgive me, Mr Mead) figure out to make themselves feel good, and they should go the way of the horse and buggy. We can only hope that the folks who design this stuff are also shuffled off the world stage in their slipper’d pantaloons, but it is hard to be optimistic about that.

  • Hayes
  • Gary L

    A few years back, The Onion figured out what the U.N. must do to again become a genuine player on the international scene:

    NEW YORK—The United Nations, a highly organized governing body bent on world peace, has obtained a nuclear warhead and intends to use the dangerous device to pursue its radical human rights agenda, sources reported Monday.

    News of the nuclear weapon first surfaced late last week when the United Nation’s own watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, released startling new satellite photos of the uranium-based device. Shortly thereafter, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a short and brazen list of demands, calling on all nations to “bow down at once to social progress.”

    “Tremble before the awesome might of this cooperative assembly of appointed representatives,” said Ban, boldly holding a stack of diplomatic resolutions in his hand. “At last, when the United Nations calls for the development of more sustainable agricultural practices, the world at large will listen.”
    Added Ban, “We will no longer be ignored!”

  • WigWag

    Professor Mead gets it exactly right. The United Nations is useless; the best thing that could happen would be to expel it from New York. Let the diplomats of the world hold their squalid summits in Mogadishu, Kabul or Grozny.

    To view the lamest of lame responses to Mead see,

    http://wherepoliticsstops.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/on-walter-russell-meads-unfamiliarity-with-the-united-nations/

    or

    http://securingrights.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/drinking-in-hogsmeade/

  • Yahzooman

    Keeping the UN intact is like appointing Bernie Madoff and his sons to run the SEC.

  • CatoRenasci

    WRM’s reluctance to admit the UN is little more than a League of Nations run far more corruptly and doing more harm than the League ever did is of a piece with his reluctance to abandon the Democratic Party. He doesn’t understand that the utter failure of the policies it represents to do any good, and the actual harm done to millions here and abroad by the Democrats and the UN, respectively, make a strong case for jettisoning the whole thing. Even if the taxpayers spend the money saved themselves on foolish things, at least no harm will be done.

    The notion of its use as a high level place to exchange ideas is ludicrous, and its agencies are riddled with the endemic corruption so common to the third world it mostly represents.

    The League lasted some 26 years from 1919 to 1946, did a bit of good with the mandates and no harm.

    The UN is now over 50 years old and has done no more good than did the League, but has stood by at least 3 genocides and had its soldiers rape and exploit hundreds of thousands. Even the vaunted Bosnian operation was and remains rife with sex trafficking.

    For Shame! thinking there is any reason not to shut down the whole joke.

  • Ralph Woods

    Just think of all the fine eateries, hotels, prostitutes and other small business that cater to the UN members and staff that would suffer if it were to close shop.

  • RebeccaH

    I say dump the UN and reform a coalition of democratic states. Dictators need not apply.

  • willis

    “In Syria, arriving UN ceasefire monitors are greeted with artillery barrages.”

    A practice I heartily recommend adopting everywhere!

  • Charley

    On the UN, I would recommend

    http://http://thediplomad.blogspot.com/2012/04/thank-you-instapundit-and-un-reprise.html

    The Diplomad 2.0 blog is written by a former US Foreign Service Officer.

  • Charley
  • VA Teacher

    As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think that the UN today has a lot in common with the US government under the Articles of Confederation: weak, irrelevant, unrepresentative, incapable of internal reform.

    I suspect the best way forward is similar to what happened in 1787. The countries that have shared values and a shared vision of how they should work together should announce that they are forming a new organization better suited for today’s world. Those countries that wish to join and meet the requirements could be invited to do so, those that don’t can be left behind.

    The US should announce its intention to spearhead this effort and give notice that in five years, we will withdraw from the UN. The “New” UN would be based on shared values and include provision for proportional representation and provision for countries that do not respect basic human rights to be expelled. Not a world government, but a permanent “coalition of the willing” to give the US a respected international vehicle to work through without having to put up with the nonsense and corruption of the current UN.

  • Bohemond

    ” the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s”

    Largely because in the 40s and 50s the UN’s membership comprised real nations, not the rogue’s gallery of postcolonial despots, kleptocrats and thugarchs who infest Turtle Bay today.

  • Mr. G

    The UN is so bad it is now a Rorshack test on how someone feels about institutions in general. Any pro-UN feeling is simply regretting what would happen if an international body would disappear. A bad organization is better than no organization at all is pretty much the thinking.

    The truth of the matter is corrupt ideologically captive organizations like the UN are not able to meet a real emergency. The sooner we jettison a failed experiment the better. Trying to salvage the UN is simply waiting for a true crisis to occur to gauge how poorly the so-called international community responds.

  • fred baumann

    If I thought that the United Nations was held in as much contempt as it deserves, I wouldn’t much mind living with it. What’s one more corrupt, incompetent and financially wasteful institution that we can’t make ourselves tolerate it? What bothers me is that among New York Times-reading, NPR-listening bien pensant folks the United Nations still has some Wilsonian cachet, so that even its General Assembly resolutions carry moral (and often therefore immoral) weight, as expressions of the “conscience of mankind.” That tends to do real harm in American and also European public opinion by, for instance, fortifying the new “progressive” anti-semitism.

  • gringojay

    Un-plug the UN from life support & face the reality that unity only happens in science fiction movies.

  • william pace

    WRM analysis is so ill-informed and over-the-top – more New York Post than intelligent. The UN tried to prevent the US and UK from invading Iraq. The US prevented the UN from trying to stop the Rwanda genocide. The US and other major UN powers dominate the placement of unqualified political appointees in charge of the UN. Adding more permanent members to the Security Council would be disastrous and is the dream-come-true of the P5 because it will deflect attention to their failures in the Security Council for 30 more years. The Chad and India comparison in the GA is like saying that giving me or another average American the same voting power as Bloomberg or Romney or Trump is ridiculous – when in fact it is a fundamental democratic principle. When the UN is responsible for a major achievement, governments and individuals take credit; when – like Iraq- governments make catastrophic errors – it is the feeble UN that is failing. The reality about the strengths and weaknesses of the UN are much more complex than Dr. Mead can apparently imagine.

  • Doc

    The General Assembly may be a joke, but the Security Council is power politics. The permanent members are exactly the world’s major declared nuclear powers. So if the Security Council passes a resolution that affects you, that’s something you need to think about very carefully. The General Assembly, not so much.

  • Mike McElravy

    The UN is an intelligence bonanza for the US. Other than that it is just a place to talk, talk and talk.

  • Tom

    @william pace: Leaving aside the rest of your post, your comparison of the relative voting power of Chad and India to the relative voting power of an ordinary American and Michael Bloomberg is disingenuous at best. A better equivalency would be if the entire legislative branch consisted of the Senate, which would mean that the 568,000 people in Wyoming would have the exact same political clout as the 37,691,000 people in California.
    And before you bring up the UN Security Council, may I remind you that there are only fifteen seats, five of which are permanently held.

  • Kirk Parker

    I don’t favor abolishing the UN…

    At the very least, then, you owe it to us to support renaming the United Nations and giving it a much more honestly descriptive title. How about “The Useless Debating Society?”

    Meanwhile, real issues can continue to be address by that most maligned by generally effective body, the Ad-hoc Coalition of the Willing.

  • Madoc

    The UN is a tool. It has always been a tool. It was created by the Allied Powers in WWII to make the Axis look bad and to give formerly neutral countries the “internationalist” political cover necessary to jump into the war on the Allied side and thus share whatever spoils could be had.

    After WWII the UN was useful as a tool to humiliate the Soviet Union and Communism in general. If an action proposed by the western powers succeeded then it was proof of its acceptability to the “international community.” Anything blocked by the Soviets was proof of their anti-humanitarian nature. Thus, a win / win for the west.

    After the fall of the Soviet Union the United Nations has pretty much become irrelevant. The major powers no longer have a single opponent threatening them and thus feel much freer to pursue their own interests and not always side with the US / UK / France.

    Still though, the UN remains a convenient tool for the world’s major powers. It allows them to wrap themselves in that “internationalist” cloak to justify their doing what ever they were going to do in the first place or it allows them to hide behind the UN and blame it for their not doing what they didn’t want to do to begin with.

    Thus the US, UK and France were “blessed” by UN in their desire to oust Khadaffi. And thus it is the _lack_ of UN support which has kept the open sore of Darfur and open sore.

    Personally, I think we should eliminate our funding of the UN and kick it out of our country. This, while still retaining our seat on the Security Council to always vote down anything and everything that even remotely affects our national interests. Let the professional bureaucrats infest someplace else.

  • Rich K

    Its his blog and he says what he thinks so kudoes for that I guess.In case we all forget, Walter is just another,although very erudite, speaker of things we find interest in.Dont like it,go make your own mark in the world. I see Walter as an observer of all things ,with an eye for speaking the view from his own mind,whether tainted or not, with all the fallabilities we all have.And its well formulated and concise in most respects. Ooops, I just reviewed His style,Sorry.
    Anyway, The UN [stinks] and should be relocated to Alcatraz,just to make the point of who actually works there.

  • william pace

    I think the lack of appreciation of what the UN has achieved is extraordinary. Almost all of the advances in international law, human rights, international justice are due to mostly the General Assembly and ECOSOC, and also [i have to admit] to the Security Council. I doubt if any parliament in the world comes close to achieving the advances achieved through the GA in the last 67 years. On the issue of representation, it has been argued since Einstein’s letters to the GA in 1947 of the need for a UN Parliamentary Assembly – or at least a proper ‘weighted-voting’ arrangement in the GA. One should also keep in mind that the Governor of Wyoming has 50% more of a budget than the UN Secretary-General. Of course, the UN need massive improvements and strengthening of its program – tragically governments fund the personnel but not the programs of the UN system-which is happening at all levels of governance. The sooner the international community funds global governance properly, the less it will take; the longer it is delayed the more expensive and dangerously intrusive will be the laws. Keep in mind that the EU costs about 200 billion for 27 states with 500 million; the US federal govt is [what??] 4000 billion for 50 states and 310 million citizens. The achievement of regional international organisations in the last 40 years is also astounding-anyone who would have predicted how ECOWAS and the Arab League have evolved would be considered bonkers. Overall, the hatred of the UN is a reflection of massive misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Again, Wyoming’s governor has authority of 50% more funding than the UN SG – people need to balance their perspectives. WWIII has not occurred since 1945 – over 100 of the 193 nations are democracies – almost all since 1945 – 40-50 more are aspiring to this governance model. It is not because of the bull-shit propaganda of the US/UK/France – but it is because of 1776 and 1787 and 1789, and anti-slavery, and civil and human rights, and women’s rights, and self-determination. We should strive for a balance in our evaluations.