Is the United Nations doomed?

Is the United Nations doomed?

Much of the analysis of this year’s UN General Assembly meetings has depicted an organization fighting for relevance, fending off obsolescence, and trying to keep new international fora—notably the G-20— from displacing it. Count me as skeptical about the skepticism. No organization has ever been declared dead as often as the UN. Just in the post-Cold War period, a host of crises have been cited as the effective end of the organization: from Bosnia to Rwanda to Iraq and Darfur. Looking at the broad sweep of the organization’s history, there have been much, much darker periods. The mid-1980s, for example, were particularly grim years for the organization.  

One particular thread of the declinist conversation has the G-20 effectively displacing the UN. A case in point is this analysis from Bloomberg. It cites the decisions of leaders like Brazil’s Lula, Britain’s Cameron, and Russia’s Medvedev to skip the General Assembly meetings as evidence of the organization’s decline:

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose countries both sit on the UN Security Council, won’t be in New York. Nor will Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Chinese President Hu Jintao is skipping the UN week, handing off the duty to Premier Wen Jiabao. “The UN is where you give a speech but there’s no group meeting,” said Jeffrey Shafer, who organized Group of Eight meetings as President Bill Clinton’s “sherpa” or personal representative to the gatherings. “The G-20 will have a more focused agenda than the UN, and it shows the primacy of the economic agenda.”

First, the case for the UN’s relevance has never really revolved around the role of the General Assembly. That unwieldy body was pushed to the margins on most security issues decades ago. The fact that the UN now comprises more than 190 states means that General Assembly meetings have become increasingly chaotic. It’s hardly surprising that some national leaders have chosen to skip the proceedings. The case for the UN’s continuing relevance is strongest on security issues and via the institution of the Security Council. And there’s plenty of reason to doubt that the G-20 is ready to displace the Council.

First, the G-20’s agenda is almost exclusively financial in nature. Economic issues may have priority now, but they won’t always. When a major security issue, such as Iran, becomes central, so too does the Security Council. True, the G-20 could start to become an important informal place for discussing security challenges. The G-8 itself occasionally played that role, most notably during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. Diplomats involved during that episode cited the forum’s flexibility and informality as key advantages. But even then, the action returned to the Security Council, in large part because the G-8 has no formal legal power and the Security Council does. When it comes to securing legitimacy for some international initiative, the Council is still at the top of the heap.

There’s another important point: the G-20 is large, and it’s not yet clear how manageable it is as a regular forum for major-power discussion and debate. For all its deficiencies, the Security Council’s inner circle of the permanent five (sometimes, as with Iran, informally expanded to include another state like Germany) is a much more convenient forum for structuring international responses on security issues. And the P5 are going to fight to retain their privileges; witness their stiff-arming of Turkey and Brazil during the Iran sanctions debate. Like it or not, the UN is sticking around.