The 75th Anniversary of the United Nations

Looking Back and Looking Forward

In: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations
Alynna Lyon
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Kendall Stiles
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Alistair Edgar
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Kurt Mills
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Peter Romaniuk
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1 Editors’ Introduction

We are pleased to introduce this special issue of Global Governance on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. This milestone offers an opportunity for reflection, deep assessment, and thoughtful prescriptions for the organization to address the global politics of the twenty-first century.

The UN Charter was a leap of faith, with talks beginning even as World War II raged on. Since then, the international system has moved from crisis to crisis, evolving from postwar cooperation to a Cold War to unipolarity, and, as we write this, a global pandemic. But the UN endures. Seventy-five years later, we face still more global uncertainty, challenged by the insecurity of great-power politics, ambivalence about liberal values, ongoing civil wars, increasingly complex threats to human security, and a biosphere in crisis. Last year was the thirteenth year that Freedom House tracked the level of global freedom in decline. Seventy million people are in a refugee-like situation either outside of their home country or experiencing insecurity within it as internally displaced persons, with 37,000 people fleeing their homes every day as a result of persecution and conflict.1 These trends are compounded by rising xenophobia, virulent populism, and increasing voices of right-wing extremists across the globe.

Past anniversaries have attracted similar reflections. A look back confirms a familiar theme. For example, consider US president Dwight Eisenhower’s observations in San Francisco in 1955 at the commemoration of the UN’s 10th anniversary:

That there have been failures in attempts to solve international difficulties by the principles of the [UN] Charter, none can deny. That there have been victories, only the willfully blind can fail to see. But clear it is that without the United Nations the failures would still have been written as failures into history. And, certainly, without this organization the victories could not have been achieved; instead, they might well have been recorded as human disasters.2

This view was echoed on the 25th anniversary of the UN, when then Secretary-General, U Thant, described the “uneasy mixture of success and failure” that had come to characterize the organization’s record and any improvements “would depend upon a change in the political climate and in the relations between nations.”3 In turn, the 50th anniversary elicited hand-wringing about whether an organization like the UN could reform. At the time, then Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, struck an optimistic tone: “More progress has been made in the past few years towards using the United Nations as it was designed to be used than many could ever have predicted.”4 At the 75th anniversary, the questions of relevance, reform, and capacity remain.

We at Global Governance take this opportunity to consider three questions. First, to what degree has the UN (both as an organization and an arena) accomplished its original purposes over the course of 75 years? Second, what are the challenges that the UN faces at its diamond anniversary? Finally, given the current international environment and the UN’s highly constrained resources, can it be effective going forward and, if not, what needs to change? As we consider these questions, we look back at how Global Governance has addressed these issues in the past quarter-century. We thus include references to articles published since the journal was founded in 1995 as indications of the deep engagement with, and analysis of, the UN in the pages of Global Governance.

2 75 Years—A Look Back

We begin with a look at what the UN was asked to do. As most of our readers know, the UN Charter is a mix of pragmatism and idealism, particularly in the realm of securing the peace. While the Charter gives the UN a mandate to intervene directly to stop aggression, it also provided the post-World War II great powers the opportunity to stop all initiatives without explanation. While it condemns human rights abuses and deplores colonialism, the Charter bars interference in the internal affairs of Member States and encourages only gradual decolonization. To a large degree, the Charter negotiators understood that the institution would succeed only to the degree that its members allowed. But at the same time they hoped that, by shining a light on humanity’s worst failings, they could help bend the arc of history toward justice and peace. Indeed, in his contribution to this issue, Bob Reinalda reminds us of the challenges of early leadership and the pioneering nature of creating the United Nations as it had to be built, literally, from the ground up. Amitav Acharya and Dan Plesch ask us to look back before looking forward and urge us to remember that non-Western views and agents were key to the creation of the UN, even as their contributions remain in the historical shadows.

How has this played out? In the high-stakes sphere of peace and security, the UN has done more than was likely expected. It played a constructive role in the Korean War, the Suez Canal crisis, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, and in the response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The 1991 Gulf War presents a rare example of the functional capacity of the Security Council to protect international peace and stability through multilateral engagement.

The invention of peacekeeping5 as well as its transition to peacebuilding6 and peace maintenance7 are singular achievements that have earned the UN more than one Nobel Peace Prize. Peacekeepers have saved countless lives by limiting violence, providing space for peace talks and mediation,8 and seeking to hold warring parties accountable to the international community. Yet its efforts have been hampered in many ways;9 there continues to be a lack of conceptual clarity as peacekeeping expands into more areas and, in particular, more robust enforcement activities.10 The UN actively tries to prevent conflict.11 It has introduced and expanded (if unevenly) the protection of civilians in conflict and developed the recent (and contested) norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which reconceptualized the relationship between individuals, the state, and the UN.12

Many of the United Nation’s achievements are not readily measurable; when it prevents a crisis from occurring, the organization does not get recognition for something that does not happen. The UN was instrumental in the release of several US airmen in 1955 after the Korean War (which many claim averted larger war). Its actions helped contain the 2014 Ebola crisis (as documented in the pages of Global Governance three years ago13). Its enduring work on limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction has borne fruit. In particular, it deserves credit for limiting the number of nuclear weapons states to under ten and taking steps (however constrained) to ban nuclear weapons altogether.14 Furthermore, it has maintained steady pressure on governments to refrain from producing and using chemical and biological weapons. It has contributed to a discussion and framework for capping the global trade in small arms and light weapons as well as facilitated a ban on landmines. Finally, Katie Laatikainen’s piece highlights the UN’s normative contributions as she invites us to think beyond the institution and, instead, consider the UN as a vision and expression of multilateralism. She writes that by “shifting our analytical lens away from formal organizations and provisions, we are able to observe how multilateral diplomacy has adapted, changed and innovated” (340). This adds to the continuing debate over whether the UN is merely a talking shop for diplomats or a framework—and actor—contributing to concrete and normative global change.


Figure 1

First Session of United Nations General Assembly on January 10, 1946 at Central Hall in London, United Kingdom

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 26, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/19426720-02602008

UN Photo/Marcel Bolomey

Figure 2

Opening Ceremony of Fifteenth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on June 9, 2016 in General Assembly Hall, in New York

Citation: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 26, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/19426720-02602008

UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The UN has shown itself to be surprisingly capable and flexible in many areas. While two of the Permanent Five (P5) countries had globe-girdling colonial empires in 1945, by 1970 these were largely dismantled—in part, thanks to the work of the Trusteeship Council. The UN’s membership has increased, especially as a result of decolonization, from 51 states to 193 (and counting). The UN has added many new organizational entities aimed at addressing problems that were not on the 1945 agenda, ranging from the UN Environment Programme (1972) to the Peacebuilding Commission (2005), and has altered existing bodies, as in the case of the Human Rights Council (2006) and the introduction of the Universal Periodic Review of states’ human rights records.15 It has endeavored to bring policy coherence to the far-flung UN system through such initiatives as the Sustainable Development Goals,16 three Global Compacts (on business social responsibility,17 migration, and refugees), and the Delivering as One UN approach that has sought to integrate UN actions on development, humanitarian assistance,18 and the environment. Maria Ivanova’s contribution documents significant UN innovation and adaption in the realm of environmental issues that in several instances have overcome the “mistrust and suspicion between developing and developed countries” (312). In addition, there have been significant modifications to the UN’s legal capacities with the establishment by the Security Council of the first international war crimes courts since the end of World War II—the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (1993) and Rwanda (1994)—which laid the groundwork for the subsequent creation of the independent International Criminal Court via the Rome Statute in 1998. David M. Malone and Adam Day’s contribution to this issue further illustrates the growth of UN entities across issues areas by highlighting areas such as development19 that initially were marginal to the UN’s work, but now are the centerpiece.

That said, despite the hopes of many of its founders, and despite the UN’s own stated goals, the organization has failed to empower the poor and weak. In his contribution, Mohammed Ayoob questions the normative foundations of many “progressive” elements explored above. He argues that the UN is a mechanism for exploitation, continuing postcolonial domination and imposing norms that at first glance (like the Responsibility to Protect) appear benign and altruistic, but “are used to hide the reality of power politics that governs much of international interaction in the arena of conflict and security” (261).

On this note, there are increasing pressures from many sides (women,20 indigenous peoples, youth, and others) for the UN to modernize and become a twenty-first-century organization with more broadly inclusive representation. Many critiques come from lack of gender parity: both within the UN bureaucracy and among UN Member States’ delegations, women representatives are still sparse. Madeleine Albright, as US ambassador to the UN, often referred to the “G7”, not meaning the wealthiest states but instead referencing the number of female representatives at the United Nations in New York. That number has grown since—but only modestly. Not surprisingly, there are calls from feminists to go beyond giving more women a seat at the table and, instead, to “break the table” itself.21

Taken as a whole, however, it is clear that the world is a better place thanks to the United Nations, and many of its failings stem from the resistance of Member States—including, but not simply limited to, the major powers—toward developing more progressive programs. The fact that it has been able to navigate an often hostile international system is further evidence that there is reason for hope.

3 UN Capacities—Looking Forward

Today we find, as in 1945, millions of people are oppressed and isolated. But we also see remarkably widespread access to instant global communications via mobile phones and the internet, and the fading hopes raised by the Arab Spring. We see the decline of American hegemony and the beginnings of a resurgent multipolarity, which brings with it both hope that new voices will be heard on the global stage and trepidation that that key norms and institutions might be imperiled.22 In this unsettled situation, one might ask: Is the UN still relevant and can it really make a difference?

With the current leadership of the P5 countries—Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Xi Jinping, and Emmanuel Macron—the Security Council may be more of an impediment than a facilitator. At the time of this writing the United States, once the (ambiguous23) champion of the UN project,24 has withdrawn from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Human Rights Council, cut all funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, and announced its intention to terminate its relationship with the World Health Organization, while the United Kingdom is busy withdrawing from the European Union. Meanwhile, Russia and China are actively rewriting a whole range of global norms, taking advantage of the power vacuum. As a result UN peacekeeping and R2P programs are largely on hold, while there are no leadership and no consensus on how to deal with climate change,25 migration and refugee issues,26 and the rights of women. Nuclear weapons are still with us, as are war, terrorism, lethal poverty, genocide, and other depravities. The UN’s iniquitous silence and lack of appropriate action in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s and its inability to prevent the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 stand as particular failures, while its paralysis in Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar today demonstrates that when confronted with the intransigence of the most powerful countries in the world, the UN is ill-equipped to address human rights and humanitarian conflagrations. The organization was not designed or equipped to control the major powers. It works best when there is agreement between the P5 on the need to comply with Charter norms. This raises serious questions about its moral validity.

4 Reforms?

This is the organization that we have; given that the chances of a redo or a rebuild are unlikely, can the UN adapt? It faces issues of institutional duplication and redundancy, bureaucratic inertia, and chronic underfunding. UN reform has been on the agenda since the organization’s beginnings, and there have been notable innovations and adaptations.27 The Security Council expanded from eleven to fifteen members and earmarked the ten nonpermanent seats for certain geographic regions in 1965. Security Council reform remains a perennial topic with a plethora of proposals, including expanding membership and altering the use of the veto.28 Encouragement for reforms gained public and political prominence with the end of the Cold War. But the ability and apparent determination of the P5 to veto significant changes to Security Council membership and duties is a serious—and potentially debilitating—institutional obstacle, as is disagreement about the principles and specifics of Security Council reform, reflecting geopolitical divides beyond the P5. While Ayoob presents a cynical view and points out “the UN security system became fossilized” (251), Courtney B. Smith argues that “imperfect” change in the Security Council “can contribute to the overall effectiveness of the Council by enhancing its transparency, accountability, and legitimacy” (284). Carrie Booth Walling also finds evidence, although contested, of significant change as the Security Council increasingly expands its agenda to include human security and human rights. The reviews are clearly mixed. Thus, much like the parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” the UN reveals different things from different perspectives.

There is work to be done. Despite extensive modifications, elements of the UN remain a 1940s artifact. Clearly, some entities, such as the Trusteeship Council, have lost their relevance but have not yet been dissolved or altered to serve a new purpose. Many outside observers (as well as Member State representatives) support the creation of a rapid reaction force for UN peacekeeping, while others support more enhanced collaboration with regional organizations such as the African Union. While reforms can and do enhance capacity, they also can at times jumble resources and deplete existing programs in favor of changing short-term priorities. In some cases observers claim that recent reform efforts focusing on narrow security priorities, including those to address the threat of terrorism, undermine human rights protections. On this point, Antonio Donini’s contribution rejects “tinkering” and finds that the UN, as its currently configured, “is unlikely to deliver an organization willing and able to confront the transnationality of capital—not to mention climate change, population movements, out-of-control urbanization, the inhumanity of wars and the overall survival of the planet” (261). He calls for replacing the post-World War II relic with a “UN 2.0” with teeth that can reign in and address globalization.

At this point, the politics of fundamental reform is very difficult. As discussed above, the leadership of the P5 has shown little interest in or appetite for reform. At the same time, the 75th anniversary presents an opportunity to build it better. Perhaps a new Dag Hammarskjöld, with charisma, a deep commitment to international law, and a capacity for consensus building is waiting in the wings. We hope that Donini’s dire warning that a new World War III is the only way to shock and awe the system into change is incorrect. And at time of this writing, 7 million cases of COVID-19 have dramatically halted global commerce, diplomacy, travel, and human engagement, revealing the enormous vulnerabilities of a globalized planet. Perhaps this global pandemic will recharge the political will for multilateralism (although given the United States’ recent rejection of the World Health Organization, this conclusion is by no means inevitable). Unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations, the UN has prevailed; in some cases, it limps on. Acharya and Plesch echo this observation in their entry and write that “institutions are sticky—it’s easier to modify them than to create new ones” (231). The UN has endured and, although grand reform efforts have largely faltered, incremental adjustments have been made to ensure that the organization is a dynamic and continually relevant actor in global affairs.

5 This Special Issue

So where does this leave us? Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the current global crises seemed different from those in the past. Climate change poses a bona fide existential threat to the planet. The populist-nationalist turn among some state leaders seems designed to produce responses from their supporters that are antithetical to those that the moment demands. If the UN did not exist in 2020, we doubt that today’s political leaders would have the foresight and fortitude to create it. For this reason, we suggest that the 75th anniversary is and should be different, and we hope that the unvarnished rebukes of the current global order contained herein—especially those of Donini and Ayoob—draw particular attention to the contemporary international scene.

To conclude, as editors of this journal and as scholars of the UN system, we do believe that the solutions to current and future problems will require more multilateralism rather than less. We hope that when the editors of Global Governance mark the centennial of the UN in 2045, their observations will be more than historical. In the short term, our fundamental concern is to ensure that the basic framework for multilateralism and global governance remains in place and that the values that constitute it, as elaborated in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and elsewhere, inform the conduct of global affairs toward more peaceful, just, inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable ends for all.

The Editors: Alynna Lyon, Kendall Stiles, Alistair Edgar, Kurt Mills and Peter Romaniuk


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