Much Maligned But Still Necessary: the U.N. at 75

The postwar institution designed to maintain global peace has fallen short of many goals, but on the whole succeeded.

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly is especially strange this year, with speeches from world leaders piped in from around the globe as they mark the U.N.’s 75th birthday from afar. But the truth is, many nations were socially distancing themselves from the U.N. well before the coronavirus came along.

Indeed, the scattered assembly and empty chamber looming over the East River are emblematic of a longer-term problem than COVID-19: the widening gulf of policy and practice among dozens of key U.N. members, and a pervasive sense of the world body’s growing irrelevance. Leading the way, of course, has been an unremittingly hostile Trump administration. 

This year’s UNGA theme is “confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action.” Yet this is precisely what the world has not done against the worst pandemic in decades.  Instead it’s mostly every country and vaccine manufacturer for himself, despite the COVAX initiative recently co-orchestrated by the World Health Organization, which aims to speed vaccine development to nations most in need. The United Nations says more than 170 countries are in talks to join, many of them submitting non-binding expressions of interest, so that a vaccine would go to vulnerable groups around the world first. But the effort came months after the pandemic hit, held up in part by U.S. obstructionism and European divisions. And the U.N. agency that’s supposed to be the front-line responder, the WHO, finds itself under attack from every side, especially the U.N.’s most powerful member, the United States.  

Washington’s animosity toward its own postwar creation, the United Nations, has a long history extending to Democratic as well as Republican administrations. But Donald Trump has gone further than any other president—even George W. Bush—in pushing the United Nations to the sidelines. Arguing that the WHO has fallen under Chinese influence, it is defunding the world’s premier health agency even as the global death toll from COVID-19 is reaching 1 million (and U.S. deaths now top 200,000). Trump also withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council and the compact on migration. 

The U.S. was recently rebuffed by the Security Council and U.N. leadership in seeking to reimpose sanctions on Iran over the 2015 nuclear agreement, which Trump but no other nation has rejected. And Trump, perhaps in a fit of pique, decided to skip his planned videotaped anniversary remarks on Monday. His administration relegated the speech to the No. 2 at the U.S. mission—not even U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft. Craft herself—a political donor appointee with scant diplomatic experience—has also been a marginalized player, outmaneuvered by China and Russia and a far cry in stature from such prominent U.S. ambassadors as Adlai Stevenson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Richard Holbrooke. (Trump delivered his major speech to the assembly on Tuesday.) 

In other respects, 75 years on, the United Nations has turned into a very different institution than it was supposed to be when it was inaugurated on Oct. 24, 1945 (the leadership decided to commemorate the 75th anniversary at a high-level session on Monday). The General Assembly has been little more than a talking shop for most of its history. The U.N. Security Council—designed by Washington to be a great-power-dominated enforcer of world peace—is all but paralyzed by worsening hostility between the U.S., China and Russia, each of which veto resolution after resolution against each other.

And as Trump walks away from the U.N., Beijing has been swift to move into the vacuum, taking major swipes at Washington as it seeks a leadership role throughout the organization. “No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his speech Monday as the 75th celebration got underway. “Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world.” In his speech Tuesday, Trump hit back at Beijing over its role in spreading the coronavirus, saying, “The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”

Most experts and diplomats believe Trump is being foolish in snubbing the United Nations—and leaving it open to Chinese influence—because for all its flaws it still critically serves U.S. interests. Indeed, when viewed over its entire long history, the United Nations has mostly realized its larger purpose: preventing a third world war, argues Stephen Schlesinger, author of a 2004 book about the U.N.’s founding, Act of Creation“The U.N. played a direct role in resolving the biggest and most dangerous confrontation we’ve had in the last 75 years, the Cuban Missile Crisis.” This is true: Then-U.N. Ambassador Stevenson had a critical part in averting nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union when he famously confronted the Soviet ambassador in the Security Council, telling him, “You are in the court of world opinion right now.” 

Schlesinger counts about 30 cases in its history where the United Nations played a peacemaking role in preventing a regional or local conflict that could have threatened a wider war—some that easily might have drawn in Washington. These include crises in Cambodia, Mozambique, Guatemala, Angola, Serbia, South Africa, Namibia and Croatia. 

Yet few of these events garnered major headlines. “The problem is the U.N. failures tend to be dramatic and the successes tend to be mundane,” said Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group, referring to past blue helmet disasters such as the Rwandan genocide and the 1995 slaughter at Srebrenica in Bosnia.

The United Nations has adapted in other ways and proved critical in trouble spots across the world, from Afghanistan to Syria to Iraq. And it continues to perform essential stabilizing functions–not least as a legitimizing authority whether the issue is nuclear non-proliferation, sanctions against rogue nations like North Korea and Iran, or armed invasion. The United Nations played an essential role in the Paris climate pact and the Iran nuclear deal—both of which Trump has rejected but which Democrat Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin if he is elected. And the Security Council has been necessary to organizing broad alliance support in U.S.-led missions such as the Gulf War. It even became important in supporting George W. Bush’s early enforcement actions against Saddam Hussein in 2002, before he went beyond his U.N. remit and invaded.  The U.N. has created critical institutions from the International Atomic Energy Agency—which monitors the largely successful Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by 191 states—to the World Food Program. 

True, the United Nations has partly failed to fulfill the role that began a century ago with Woodrow Wilson’s dream of global governance through a League of Nations (which failed, only to be reinvented in a more practical way by Franklin Roosevelt). Global collective security under FDR’s “four policemen” concept, giving the major powers (the victors of World War II) a veto, never worked well enough to form anything like a supra-national combat force. Nor was there ever serious consideration of an independent “peace enforcement” capability, as former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed after the Cold War stalemate between Moscow and Washington ended. It’s impossible to imagine that the United States and other major powers will ever allow the United Nations to develop one either. U.N. peacekeeping missions, the so-called blue helmets, are composed of combined national forces.

Though the United Nations was conceived at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington D.C. and inaugurated in San Francisco—then plunked down in the middle of New York City—it has long been regarded as an alien entity by many Americans who see it as a threat to U.S. sovereignty. On the right, conspiracy theorists spread nonsense about U.N. black helicopters traversing the American heartland, plotting to install a new world order run by international bureaucrats. 

Yet for most of its existence, when it comes to the really big issues, the United Nations has acted more as an adjunct to U.S. power than an obstructionist force. “It’s sort of tragic that so many Americans see it that way,” said Gowan. “If you talk to most diplomats around the U.N., what they will tell you is the U.S. really dominates the institution. [U.N. Secretary-General António] Guterres has had to devote a considerable part of his term to massaging the Trump administration.”

And far from threatening world government, the United Nations has never gone to war in the name of collective security unless the United States has orchestrated such military action. And this has happened just twice in its history—Korea in the early ‘50s, and the Gulf War in 1990-91.

For all its flaws and failures, the U.N. Security Council is also necessary if the United States is to impose its influence as the lone superpower without too much in-your-face unilateralism, and minimizing any commitment of U.S. forces. U.N. legitimation gives foreign leaders the face they need to sign onto U.S. initiatives. As former U.S. general and NATO commander Wesley Clark—who led the multilateral effort in the Balkans in the 1990s—once said, The role of the U.N. Security Council “is huge because it enables your friends to do what you want them to do in their own domestic politics,” and they don’t have to admit to bowing to U.S. pressure. The United Nations also acts as a clearinghouse for an endless slew of aid projects that Washington has no interest in orchestrating. In war-torn Afghanistan in the winter of 2001-2002, for example, it was the World Food Program that managed to get food—much of it supplied by U.S. aid—to hard-to-reach regions as the war was still going on. Earning almost no headlines, the WFP averted a famine. 

And in the end, most presidents come to see the U.N.’s broader role—the vast substructure of stability it provides to the global system. Even Trump initially made use of the U.N. to orchestrate sanctions against North Korea and Iran. “Most American presidents have kind of a skeptical view at first but they come around to realizing it’s a useful extension of our foreign policy,” said Schlesinger.

Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Colum Lynch contributed to this report.

Sept. 22: This story was updated with Trump’s speech.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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