The United Nations in a changing world order
23 Sep 2017 - 13:52
Following the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, global politics entered a new era with the victorious powers of World War II being in a position to help shape the norms, values, and institutions of international relations for the coming decades.
The United States, in partnership with its wartime allies, as well as Germany and Japan, put into existence the fabric of the so-called liberal world order, with the UN and its affiliated funds, programs, agencies, and departments occupying the center stage in this endeavor. As of today, the UN has approximately 40,000 employees working in various UN organs around the globe and a yearly budget of some $40 billion.
These figures are modest compared to many other international and regional organizations in charge of much narrower tasks and responsibilities. The UN is also running many peacekeeping operations in various conflict-riven regions, with around 100,000 troops under its command. Though the UN Charter does not include peacekeeping operations among its duties, the organisation has undertaken many such operations since the second half of the 1950s up through today. Compared to the Cold War era, the last 25 years have witnessed a steep increase in the number of such operations given the evaporation of bipolar tension between the two power blocs and the growing intra-state challenges to international security.
Every September, within the framework of the UN General Assembly, all UN members gather in New York to discuss global issues of concern as well as share ideas on how to restructure the UN to make it more responsive to the current dynamics of global politics. These annual summits also provide leaders with opportunities to mingle with each other on the sidelines of official gatherings.
Many informal bilateral talks among pairs of countries and the speeches that the leaders of the most powerful members of the UN deliver at the podium of the General Assembly receive special attention from the global public. The UN has had both realist and liberal underpinnings at its foundation.
The maintenance of international peace and security as well as the improvement of human rights constitute its main functions. Helping preserve order and security among its members, achieving sustainable economic development, improving human rights, protecting the global environment, and reducing poverty and hunger are the UN’s core tasks. While the Security Council with its veto-holder permanent members having a privileged status reflects the realist logic of the UN machine, the General Assembly, with its egalitarian membership, the Economic and Social Council, and the International Court of Justice, embody the liberal spirit of the organisation.
The UN secretary-general is in charge of the entire UN bureaucracy and holds the main responsibility for striking the right balance between the UN’s realist and liberal characteristics. The realist goal of achieving peace and security on the basis of the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in internal affairs has always been in tension with the liberal goal of improving human rights on the principles of achieving universal standards and “responsibility to protect.”
The UN’s failure to bridge the gap between these two goals has become more conspicuous in recent years, as the primacy of Western powers has become increasingly contested by the rising non-Western powers in an emerging multipolar world order.
To describe the task of finding the most appropriate solutions to various challenges confronting the UN’s institutional capacity, as well as maintaining cohesion among UN members, one needs to underline that “the UN was not created to bring us to heaven but in order to save us from hell.” Dag Hammarskjold, the legendary UN secretary-general between 1953 and 1961, made this statement in the face of the Cold War-era confrontation between the Western and Eastern blocs.
This suggests all efforts to be undertaken with a view to coping with the challenges lying at the UN doorstep should reflect a high degree of modesty, which was present at the foundation of the most important bedrock of global peace and security. The UN has never been and will never be an organisation that could bring an end to interstate rivalries and conflicts or guarantee the emancipation of human beings from all kind of yokes, impediments, and chains that apparently curtail their freedom and dignity.
That said, the core function of the UN should be to help pave the way for a particular international environment in which global solutions to global problems could be found easily and cost-effectively. For this to happen, though, some steps need to be taken without any delay. First, the leading global power and main financier of the UN system, the US, should preserve its commitment to the UN’s multilateral and consensus-oriented spirit. It is already known that a good portion of the American public and many conservative elites abhor the UN and the constraints that international organisations in general put on the US decision-making process.
With Donald Trump now occupying the White House, the American commitment to the UN’s multilateral mechanisms can no longer be taken for granted. Trump’s “America First” mentality has already proved its deleterious impact on global warming and free trade. His decision to withdraw his country from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership does not augur well for the future of the American commitment to the UN’s multilateral institutional legacy. Not only the US but also other rich members of the UN should contribute more to the UN budget.
Second, permanent members of the UN Security Council should not see the UN as a platform through which they can protect their realpolitik security interests and sphere of influence across the globe in a zero-sum mentality.
The more they do this, the more UN functions and potential contributions to global peace and security would be subjected to national vetoes. Despite all its deficiencies and shortcomings, the UN appears to be the most legitimate international institutional setting in which countries of different power capabilities, geographical locations, national identities, and political values could potentially feel at home. For the UN’s legitimacy to survive in the emerging century, its liberal and multilateral characteristic should be respected mostly by its veto-holding great powers.
Third, various UN organs and agencies should be redesigned in such a way to make more room for the emerging/rising powers of the non-Western world. The UN should reflect the emerging power dynamics of today’s world. Why do the United Kingdom and France still hold veto power within the UN Security Council, whereas, Germany, India, Japan, Brazil, Turkey and other rising powers can join the Security Council only as temporary members for two-year periods pending their election by the General Assembly?
The UN’s structural reform should target more inclusivity and justice and not be kept hostage to the current permanent members’ caprice and jealousy. Non-Western powers should also be given more voting rights in other UN-affiliated international organisations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and their nationals should be appointed to more influential positions within the UN bureaucracy. As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan frequently states: The world is bigger than five.
The writer is a member of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bilim University in Antalya, Turkey.