How to Fix the United Nations
An increasing array of unpredictable global challenges requires reshaping the global body to confront them.
As we pass the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and approach the appointment of the next U.N. secretary-general for the decade ahead, we need to consider afresh the institution’s future, its relevance to the global challenges of our time, and what changes are necessary to ensure its long-term future.
First, the U.N. matters. In fact, because it is such an embedded part of the postwar order, it matters a lot. So much so that if it were to fail, falter, or just fade away, this would further erode the stability of an already fragile global order. Our current order faces new, mounting, and compounding challenges unlike any we have seen in a quarter of a century. Along with a rapid deterioration in U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations (accompanied by a new strategic rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing), we face a humanitarian refugee crisis, an ongoing war in Syria and Ukraine, and a range of growing security challenges across East Asia.
There have been even more profound transformations in global geoeconomics, where China is now the world’s second-largest economy and, despite recent slower growth, is soon to become the largest — supplanting the United States after more than 150 years of global economic dominance. In the meantime, Europe’s economy has yet to emerge from a decade of stagnation and where European politics, both regionally and nationally, represent a continuing drag on a robust future.
Beyond these emerging global fault lines threatening traditional patterns of stability, we are also seeing the rise of a new generation of lethal nonstate actors, principally in the form of violent jihadism, who reject the state-based system, actively seek to destroy it, and operate entirely outside the already flimsy fabric of international law.
To add to the new complexities facing the current global order, we are also witnessing another wave of challenges generated by accelerating and increasingly unpredictable dynamics of globalization. On the one hand, this is generating new demands for more effective global governance to deal with “the globalization of everything.” At the same time, globalization is also unleashing dangerous new political, economic, and social counterforces from those that are not benefiting from the globalization project of the last quarter of a century, manifesting as a potent cocktail of nationalism, protectionism, and xenophobia. These forces, in turn, are beginning to threaten the fabric of the current order in new ways, and at multiple levels, as conflicting constituencies simultaneously demand of their governments both more and less globalization.
Taken together, we seem to be approaching a new global tipping point that departs from the comfortable assumptions of recent decades that the dynamics of greater global integration were somehow both benign and unstoppable. So when we are seeing the emergence of new forces that threaten to pull the world apart, the very institutions the international community established to bring the world together through cooperative forms of global governance should be more important than ever. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that these institutions have never been weaker. We see this with the World Trade Organization, which has struggled unsuccessfully for more than a decade to bring about a new trade round; the International Monetary Fund, which despite its charter could not handle the global financial crisis and had to yield to the creation of a new, nonmultilateral institution (the G-20) as the premium organization of global financial economic governance; and the U.N. itself, where institutions are rarely empowered by member states to deal effectively with major global challenges.
After 70 years, the U.N. has become so “factored in” to the international order that we are barely conscious of the stabilizing role it plays in setting broad parameters for the conduct of international relations. We tend to take the U.N. for granted. We see it as a comfortable part of the international furniture. A permanent fixture — a given. But as history reminds us, nothing is forever, least of all the durability of global institutions, whose history is recent and whose precedents are fraught. Nor is history necessarily linear; we are not somehow destined to enjoy increasingly progressive forms of global governance. Regression is equally possible. And if the U.N. one day disappears — or, more likely, just slides into neglect — only then would we become fully aware of the gaping hole this would leave in what would remain of the postwar order. Without the U.N., we would be left with increasingly brittle state-on-state relationships, with little remaining to mediate, negotiate, or resolve interstate crises when they arise.
While the U.N. today is not broken, it is in trouble. Many fear it is starting to drift into irrelevance as states increasingly avoid the U.N. on the most important questions facing the international community, seeking substantive solutions elsewhere. Many are concerned that the U.N. is being overwhelmed by the major systemic changes and challenges now buffeting the global order. The U.N. has a 20th-century institutional structure and culture that is struggling to adapt to these new 21st-century realities. And if it fails to adapt, the U.N. will slowly slide into the shadowlands.
But this drift into irrelevance need not be the case. From its history, we know the U.N. is capable of reinventing itself. Past decades have seen Security Council reform and the creation of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as U.N. Women. There is no point dreaming that the U.N. can be rebuilt from the ground up. But we can intelligently re-examine its functions, structure, and allocation of resources to make it better equipped to meet the challenges of the future.
To that end, we need a U.N. whose inherent legitimacy and universality are reaffirmed by a formal political recommitment to the fundamental principles of multilateralism by member states.
We need a U.N. that structurally integrates its peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights agendas as a strategic continuum, rather than leaving them as the self-contained, institutional silos of the past.
We need a U.N. that helps build bridges between the great powers, particularly at a time of rising great-power tensions.
We need a U.N. with a robust policy-planning capability, looking into the future several years out, not just at the crises of the day.
We need a U.N. that embraces a comprehensive doctrine of prevention, rather than just reaction, that is directly reflected in the organization’s leadership structure, culture, and resources.
We need a U.N. in the field that finally resolves the problem of its rigid institutional silos by moving increasingly to integrated, multidisciplinary teams to deal with specific challenges.
We need a U.N. driven by the measurement of results, not just the elegance of its processes.
We need a U.N. where women are at the center of the totality of its agenda, not just parts of it, so that their full human potential can be realized as a matter of social justice, and because to fail to do so would further undermine peace, security, development, and human rights.
We need a U.N. where young people have their voices heard at the center of the U.N.’s councils, not simply as a paternalistic afterthought, to help shape a future of genuine hope for the more than 3 billion people today under 25 years old.
We need a U.N. that is relevant to the new, emerging, critical global policy agendas of the future, not just those of the past, including effectively countering terrorism and violent extremism, enhancing cybersecurity, constraining lethal autonomous weapons systems, dealing with the inadequate enforcement of international humanitarian law for the wars of the future, and developing a comprehensive approach to planetary boundaries beyond climate change, particularly for our oceans.
We need a U.N. that can efficiently, effectively, and flexibly act within the reality imposed by ongoing budgetary constraints, rather than just hoping that the fiscal heavens will one day magically reopen, because they won’t.
This is, admittedly, a long list of asks. But any less won’t do. There is no such thing as “one-off” reform. For the U.N. to have a robust future in delivering results that are directly relevant to the challenges of the international community, we must actively engage in a process of continually reinventing the institution.
There is an argument that the institutions of international relations inherently tend toward entropy — that the processes of long-term decay begin at the day of founding. Perhaps it’s true that all things must ultimately die, but we can certainly act to prolong the life span. The medicine that is necessary is a conscious, continuing program of active reinvention — to remind the institution of its core and continuing values, to refresh its institutional culture, and, where necessary, to reprogram some of its functions.
When the peoples of the world see growing disagreement among the great powers, the re-emergence of old interstate tensions and conflicts, terrorists on their streets, chaos in their markets, and jobs disappearing with nothing to replace them, they are increasingly asking: “Is anybody in control anymore?” This is not an unreasonable question.
So what can be done? How can we breathe new life into an old institution so that the U.N. can perform its central role of preserving a peaceful and just global order? Can we begin to imagine a U.N. for the 21st century that responds to a growing demand for effective global governance in an age of ever-diminishing supply, and when the governance “deficit” seems to be widening? I hope this report, and its 50-plus specific recommendations on top of the generic principles listed above, is a modest beginning.
There is a rational basis for optimism about the U.N.’s future. But overcoming inertia requires effort. Nor should we succumb to a type of fashionable pessimism that substantive change is too hard. The truth is that while the challenges the U.N. faces are real, the answers really do lie within our grasp — if we can deploy the collective political will to make change happen.
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