How to Fix the U.N.—and Why We Should

Don’t let major powers such as the United States undermine the liberal international order. Instead, reform it so it works better.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25. (John Moore/Getty Images)

This week, leaders from all over the world are gathering at the United Nations in New York to exchange their views on mankind’s most pressing problems. The main theme of this year’s meeting—“Making the United Nations relevant to all people”—is telling. It encapsulates the real challenges the organization is facing: Namely, despite the hard work of U.N. staff across many different agencies, the body is suffering from an unprecedented crisis of credibility.

The main reason for the U.N.’s current troubles is the Security Council’s failure to keep its promise of promoting peace and security around the world. From Bosnia and Rwanda to Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, the U.N.’s top decision-making body has neither prevented atrocities nor brought to justice those responsible for heinous crimes. On the U.N.’s watch, authoritarian regimes around the world have used conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction against innocent civilians. Some regimes have even carried out genocide without facing consequences. The U.N. has also failed the millions of children who suffer from extreme poverty and malnutrition and, as Turkey knows all too well, has been unable to take necessary steps to ease the suffering of refugees.

The list goes on, but it is clear that the United Nations, which was intended to be the beating heart of humanity, has no pulse. Among the organization’s critics, two main camps are divided on what to do. In the first group are countries such as Turkey and Germany that would like to reform the U.N. to address its shortcomings. The second camp is smaller and includes the United States. This camp prefers to exploit the U.N.’s weaknesses to undermine the liberal international order. Take, for example, the recent decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council; to pull out of UNESCO, the U.N. body for educational, scientific, and cultural collaboration; and to cut funding to UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians. On Tuesday, Trump described his stance as a “policy of principled realism” at the General Assembly.

At a time when global leadership is desperately needed, it is crucial to improve the United Nations rather than destroy it. If the great powers are unwilling to assume responsibility; if a handful of countries that reap the benefits of the existing international system do not want to commit to reform; and if some of the U.N.’s architects, including the United States, continue to damage multilateralism by taking increasingly unilateralist steps, it will be time to redefine global leadership. We must end the monopoly of a small number of nations and promote the collective leadership of countries that aim to resolve key global challenges. If the great powers prove unwilling or unable to act, the community of nations—under the umbrella of the United Nations or other organizations—must do what is necessary.

One member of that community will be Turkey. Over the past two decades, the country has focused on raising the profile of neglected issues. In 2013, Turkey launched a campaign to stress that “the world is bigger than five”—a reference to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. It warned that the United Nations was experiencing a serious crisis of credibility and urged all parties to take steps to make the organization more democratic, equal, and multilateral. I continue to urge the community of nations to abolish the practice of permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, increase the number of its members to 20, and adopt new rules under which all nations will take turns sitting on the committee.

Although Turkey is no military or economic superpower, it has emerged as a global leader by becoming part of the solution in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Today, it is home to 4 million refugees, including 3.5 million Syrians, and is among the world’s top donors of humanitarian assistance. Others in the international community should do their part, but the scale of the refugee crisis shows that it is impossible to solve pressing problems without working together through organizations such as the U.N., too.

If the global powers won’t help, the rest of the international community must take matters into its own hands and launch a comprehensive U.N. reform process. After all, we do not believe that to build a more relevant international system, we need to dismantle the current order. People from all around the world have an obligation to come together and take necessary steps to promote peace, stability, and security for all mankind. The U.N. General Assembly must be more than a venue for world leaders to make speeches and share complaints. This year has to be when we lay down the foundation of a new United Nations system.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the president of Turkey.

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