Daniel W. Drezner

The United Nations is a long way away from the Cold War

After the latest demonstration of Syria thumbing its nose at the Annan plan, Walter Russell Mead decided to go on a rhetorical bender against the United Nations:  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 ...

After the latest demonstration of Syria thumbing its nose at the Annan plan, Walter Russell Mead decided to go on a rhetorical bender against the United Nations

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.

Now, this kind of rant is a rite of passage for a foreign policy pundit.  I mean, there’s no way you make it into the Council on Foreign Relations — or Twitter Fight Club — without at least one good, solid bashing of UN fecklessness. 

That said, Mead’s rant has this whiff of … well, let’s say erroneous assertion about it. Hayes Brown fisks Mead’s blog post thoroughly and effectively, but I want to focus just on the above paragraph, because it makes such little sense.   

First of all, exactly when did General Assembly votes ever mean anything? The only time during Mead’s halcyon Cold War days of the UN in which the General Assembly mattered was the "Zionism = racism" resolution in 1975.  I don’t think making news because of an assinine statement really qualifies as "meaning something." The General Assembly was besotted with the New International Economic Order during the 1970s as well — and, thankfully, these affirmations didn’t amount to much either

Second, Mead is correct that during the Cold War, Security Council agreeement made the front pages — but that because it was just so friggin’ rare. The Security Council was essentially in a state of permanent deadlock from the Korean War to the height of perestroika. Economic sanctions were approved a grand total of twice; the Security Council has imposed them juuuuust a wee bit more in recent years. 

Sanctions are for sissies, though — what about the blue helmets? Well, if Wikipedia is correct, UN peacekeepers were dispatched on thirteen missions during the Cold War era.  Which happens to be exactly the same number of times UN peacekeepers have been approved since George W. Bush’s "Axis of Evil" speech — a period that is only one-fourth as long as the Cold War. There are, by the way, 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions. I can bash aspects of the United Nations as well as the next commentator, but this is not an organization that even remotely resembles its Cold War state of decrepitude. 

Look, the effectiveness of the United Nations as an instrument of statecraft is entirely a function of the current state of great power politics. This means that it was close to useless during the Cold War, pretty damn useful during the heyday of U.S. unipolarity, and now somewhere in between with the growth of the BRICs. The United Nations is to the great powers as Michael Clayton was to his law firm

If great power gridlock grows, the United Nations will likely grow more dysfunctional. But we’re a looooooooooong way from the Cold War. And Mead should know that. 

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