As world leaders prepare to gather next week at the United Nations in New York to ratify the new Sustainable Development Goals and commemorate the UN’s 70th anniversary, for many a fundamental question has become inescapable. In the face of growing global disorder – including turmoil in the Middle East, waves of migrants flooding into Europe, and China’s unilateral moves to enforce its territorial claims – does the UN have a future?
Grounds for pessimism are undeniable. Conflicts rage on, seemingly unaffected by upholders of world order. Despite more than two decades of talk, the Security Council’s permanent membership (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) still reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945, not 2015. Denied accommodation in the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) commensurate with its economic clout, China has established its own alternatives, which other countries have flocked to join. The G-20 seems more representative than the Security Council – and more imbued with common purpose.
Yet the UN should not be written off. It continues to serve a vital purpose, and its history suggests that it can be revitalised to meet the needs of the 21st century.
The UN began, in 1945, as a vision shared by the leaders of the victorious Allies, who were determined to ensure that the second half of the 20th century did not play out like the first half. After two world wars, countless civil wars, brutal dictatorships, mass expulsions of populations, and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, “never again” was not just a slogan: the alternative was too apocalyptic to contemplate.
To this end, the Allies sought an alternative to the balance-of-power politics that had wreaked such havoc in the preceding five decades. Their idea – now called “global governance” – was to create an institutional architecture that could foster international cooperation, elaborate consensual global norms, and establish predictable, universally applicable rules, to the benefit of all.
The hope that many placed in the UN Charter was soon dashed by the onset of the Cold War. And yet global statesmen made good use of the new organisation as a forum to contain superpower tensions. Peacekeeping missions, not even mentioned in the Charter, were devised to contain conflicts around the world, and to prevent them from igniting a superpower conflagration. Thanks to the UN, World War III never happened.
Moreover, the UN’s contribution to peace during the Cold War is not the whole story. Its decolonisation efforts freed millions from the yoke of imperialist oppression. Economic and social development rose to the top of its agenda.
As global governance has evolved, the UN system has become the port of call for innumerable “problems without passports”: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the degradation of our common environment, epidemics, war crimes, and mass migration. Such problems require solutions without passports, because no country or group of countries can solve them alone.
With universality comes legitimacy. Because all countries are members, the UN enjoys a global standing that gives its decisions and actions a degree of authority that no individual government enjoys beyond its own borders.
The binary international order of the Cold War is long gone. Instead, the metaphor for today’s globalised world is that of the World Wide Web, in which we increasingly function through multiple networks. Sometimes those networks overlap, with common participants, and sometimes they are distinct; they all serve our interests in different ways and for different purposes.
Many countries once felt insulated – by wealth, strength, or distance – from external dangers. But now they realise that local security forces are not enough to protect their citizens, and that the safety of people everywhere depends on internationally coordinated efforts to combat terrorism, pollution, infectious diseases, illegal drugs, and weapons of mass destruction, and to promote human rights, democracy, and development.
The UN has not fully succeeded in turning recognition into reality. But at its best and its worst, the UN is a mirror of the world. As the legendary Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously put it: “The United Nations was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
I believe strongly that the UN needs reform, not because it has failed, but because it has succeeded enough to be worth investing in. As the agreement on the SDGs demonstrates, there is much that can be accomplished with the UN as the lynchpin of our system of global governance.
Moreover, the UN has proved a remarkably adaptable organisation; it would not have survived so long if it was not. While it must be reformed to accommodate today’s world, all that is needed is a smidgen of the statesmanship shown seven decades ago, when world leaders subordinated their immediate short-term interests to a long-term vision of the kind of world they wanted their children to inhabit.
The UN remains the source of laws and norms that countries negotiate together and agree to uphold as the “rules of the road”. And it remains the pre-eminent forum where sovereign states can come together to share burdens, address shared problems, and seize common opportunities.
In other words, the UN’s foundations, laid down in 1945, remain strong. But they must be buttressed if they are to withstand the ongoing shifts in countries’ strategic weight. As the UN turns 70, it is time to reaffirm its founders’ guiding vision – a vision born of devastation that remains a source of universal hope for a better world.
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015. www.project-syndicate.org.