The Future Of The United Nations

In 1823, US President James Monroe proclaimed a new direction for American foreign policy, asserting that the United States would consider any European interference with the nations of the Americas as an act of aggression. It became known as the Monroe Doctrine, and was to define and inform America’s relationship with the rest of the world for decades to come. Just under a century later, President Woodrow Wilson outlined his own approach to US foreign policy, believing it America’s duty to protect democracy and people’s right to self-determination across the globe. Both foreign policy declarations were made by powerful US presidents with a keen eye on the international agenda; both doctrines stood the test of time.

The more recent Bush Doctrine, however, will almost certainly end on 20 January 2009, the final day of his Presidency. On September 11 2001, the actions of nineteen terrorists fundamentally changed the course of world history and radically altered America’s international outlook. In the aftermath, the Bush administration unveiled its National Security Strategy, which formalised the emerging Bush Doctrine of military pre-emption, unilateralism, strength beyond challenge and the extension of democracy by means of regime change, if necessary. Yet the hasty invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan which followed, and the ensuing mess and destruction left in their wake, have discounted the Bush Doctrine to such an extent that it is likely to dwindle into the dying embers of the current administration.

It is with hindsight that the ill-conceived mission to Iraq in particular can be judged as an indictment of the Bush Doctrine, but before its implementation, this mission also brought into sharp focus the sluggishness and impotence of the United Nations; an organisation which was both unable to stop America going to war or suggest a realistic penalty for Saddam’s defiance. People from across the globe began to question the use of a fiercely divided, weak-willed and expensive United Nations as a world policeman, and many have started to wonder whether the UN’s successes and value as a locus for international justice and co-operation are enough to cancel out and justify its many serious faults and failings.

Established in 1945 by the victors of the Second World War, the United Nations was primarily designed to intervene in conflicts in the hope that war could be prevented. In its early years, the UN found itself faced with the new challenges of the Cold War, yet aside from providing a vital forum for American and Soviet dialogue, the organisation was largely unable to influence a world in which events were dictated by superpower policies. It was hoped by many, therefore, that the collapse of the Soviet Union would herald a new world order in which the UN could play a leading role.

Whilst relishing its new status as the world’s sole superpower, the United States in the 1990s lacked a clear foreign policy direction, and as the emerging concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ began to gain favour, closer US-UN links seemed inevitable. The UN started to invest in and develop its conflict-prevention capacity, establishing the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in 1992, and the US-led operation was sanctioned to avert the growing crisis caused by civil war in Somalia.

Unfortunately this promising era was to descend into a series of bloody, shameful and monumental debacles which eclipsed UN progress in other areas. Following a number of high profile American casualties, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia was eventually handed over to the UN, yet the organisation was criticised for holing personnel up in high-security compounds from which they were unable to stop the country sliding into famine and violence. The mistakes made in Somalia infected subsequent UN operations, and the world watched in horror as UN troops allowed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre to unfold before their eyes. These events brought into question the worth of a peacekeeping force whose charter forbade physical intervention, and the later ‘Oil for Food’ scandal further tarnished the UN’s image as a sacrosanct institution to be revered.

From its monumental failures to prevent catastrophes in the 1990s to its inability to act as a counterweight to an aggressively interventionist United States in recent years, the United Nations has been exposed as a weak, divided and overly bureaucratic organisation which now attracts a range of criticisms. Many condemn the idealism which surrounds the UN, purporting that the moral language and idea of a higher purpose surrounding the organisation have created a sense of immunity and lack of accountability. Others suggest that the UN has become an outdated, Western construction which is ceasing to be relevant ? the composition of the Security Council, for example, does not reflect the true power balance in today’s world. Calls for reform, however, have also met with problems, and there has been no consensus or clarity on how the UN needs to change.

The United Nations is undeniably flawed. Yet I believe we need only ask one question: where would we be without it?

We now live in a world where problems have no passports, where borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and where a crisis in a faraway country can send repercussive waves to our own homeland. America’s credibility as an agent for peace is in rapid decline, and with its own actions demonstrating that a nuclear deterrent provides greater immunity from invasion (as shown by North Korea and Iran) it would seem we are facing a new era of nuclear proliferation rather than disarmament.

It is also vital that we consider the implications of an increasingly powerful China with its gigantic economic power and fast increasing military might. In its insatiable quest for natural resources, China has already shown its reluctance to co-operate at all times with the international community where its interest conflict with its nurturing of relationships with sovereign states. I have seen with my own eyes this growing Chinese influence, particularly on my 2006 trip to the Caribbean islands, where several states (all votes at the UN) have recently ceased to recognise Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China has secured this recognition in return for construction contracts on favourable terms. As China starts to move into traditional US spheres of influence, and begins to challenge US supremacy, relations between the two countries will no doubt become more strained.

Where would we begin to discuss and address these challenges if not in the UN? How would we begin to convince China of the importance of international co-operation without a focal point for combined effort and consensus? It is only the United Nations which has the authority, legitimacy and universality under international law and agreement to act as a collective voice. As the much lamented former UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, so succinctly put it in the late 1950s, ‘The UN was not created to take mankind to paradise, but to save humanity from hell.’ As flawed and as feeble as it can sometimes be, the UN is all we have.

We must not condone its failures, however, or to be unrealistic about its abilities. The UN needs to up its game, and in an increasingly interdependent world, we now need strong, determined leadership – something which I believe has been lacking after the incompetence of Boutros Boutros Ghali and the corruption of Kofi Annan. A credible statesman ideally from the First World is required, not a compromise candidate to placate developing countries. Yet many fear the recent choice of the competent administrator, Ban Ki Moon, as the new Secretary General may not provide the imaginative leadership essential to the UN’s future.

But there is some cause for optimism. In these early days of Mr Ban’s tenure, the new Secretary General appears to be displaying imagination through administrative change. By bravely planning to flush out the closed, bureaucratic and unaccountable UN culture, Mr Ban may well be setting the stage for a UN of action as opposed to mere visionary promise. As the majority of previous secretaries-general have found, without the tools for implementation and the respect of the international community, even the loftiest of visions becomes redundant. Should the UN begin to be seen as a clean, credible and capable operation, the international community may begin to give it the respect that it was always meant to engender.

With the next United States administration likely to distance itself from its interventionist predecessor, there is the serious prospect of a considerable vacuum in global affairs. The UN must be ready to offer a robust and convincing alternative.