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.