clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Would it matter if U.N. ceased to exist?

UNITED NATIONS — President Bush joins the leaders of some 170 other countries this week at an extraordinary summit to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. But amid the daunting agenda of global ills like poverty, disease, terrorism and the spread of nuclear arms, there may lurk the most vexing question of all: Does the United Nations itself still matter?

The multinational institution has been buffeted by recent scandals and some notable failures in stemming mass murder by governments in Africa and in the heart of Europe.

In a world divided increasingly along cultural and religious lines and influenced by a single superpower, the United States, would it matter if the United Nations ceased to exist?

"If the U.N. disappeared today, we'd have to try to reinvent it tomorrow. But the day after that, we'd be disappointed in it again," said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "We may have aspirations that are legitimate that can't be completely reconciled."

The U.N.'s promise and shortcomings were on display in a single day last week.

After more than a year of investigations, an independent commission headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker concluded Wednesday that the United Nations badly mishandled the Iraqi oil-for-food program, allowing bribes and kickbacks that enabled that country's former leader, Saddam Hussein, to pocket some $10.2 billion that was supposed to have gone for baby formula and medicine.

On the same day, the U.N. released its 2005 Human Development Report, spotlighting the organization's role in helping to fight poverty in a world where more than 1 billion people struggle to scrape by on the equivalent of $1 a day or less.

Sixty years after it was created, the United Nations has fallen far short of the larger promise its founders envisioned. It has become a deeply troubled institution, unsure of its future and diminished by a disturbing array of missteps, scandals and shortcomings.

"It has failed to deliver on its promises to maintain peace and security worldwide and to reduce poverty worldwide," said Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Charles Murigande. "One cannot say that the U.N. has been a blessing in Africa."

The United Nations made little appreciable difference, after all, in the Darfur region of Sudan, where roving militias have been murdering, torturing and raping at will for the better part of three years, much as the U.N. failed in the 1990s to prevent 800,000 people from being slaughtered in Rwanda. The U.N.'s reputation has been tarnished by peacekeepers charged with sexually exploiting the people they were sent to protect in Congo.

Elsewhere, decades of U.N. admonishments haven't fostered lasting peace among Arabs and Israelis or checked the nuclear ambitions of North Korea or Iran. In the 1990s, the institution was unable to protect the U.N.-designated "safe area" of Srebrenica in Bosnia.

Little wonder, then, that some are calling the institution a dysfunctional mess or, as Bush has suggested, an irrelevant debating society.

As the U.N. summit pulls together the largest gathering of world leaders in history, the organization is confronting calls for its most sweeping reforms ever, changes aimed at remaking not only the world body but the very way nations do business with each other.

The United Nations was born in October 1945, after 50 countries got together in San Francisco and created the institution in response to World War II. The first general assembly was held in early 1946 in London, and several years later it moved to its permanent headquarters in New York, built on land purchased with an $8.5 million donation from tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr.

The U.N.'s mission in the nuclear age was clear: provide a forum for international discussion, debate and cooperation, in the hope of preventing World War III.

In that, the United Nations has largely succeeded. For half a century, it helped keep the Cold War from turning hot, provided an effective and largely successful framework for containing the spread of nuclear weapons and sustained formal diplomacy in the age of globalization and instant communications.

The age of terrorism has brought new challenges.

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 191 U.N. member states agreed to a broad set of measures aimed at combating terror groups.

"If there weren't a United Nations, it would have taken the U.S. decades to reach agreements with 191 countries to do that," said Shashi Tharoor, the U.N. undersecretary general for communications.

Now, more than ever, the world needs a global forum, the U.N.'s proponents argue. The body is necessary to help address mounting tensions between the United States and other developed countries, especially in the Islamic world, to head off what some analysts have called a clash of civilizations.

Part of the trick, though, is to find a way to do that without the United Nations becoming a de facto global opposition bloc to the United States.

Those concerns were only heightened by the Iraq war, which has left an enduring rift between the United States and many U.N. members.

At the same time, distancing itself from the interests of the United States — which pays 20 percent of the U.N.'s budget and typically bears an even greater share of the military burdens of U.N. peacekeeping efforts — is a prescription for disaster for the United Nations.

"A U.N. that sees itself as a check on the sole superpower is doomed to fail," said Tharoor. "We would rather be a vehicle through which the U.S. works with the rest of the world."

Viewed through U.S. interests, that's largely what the United Nations is.

"In this very complex, globalized world, despite the power of the United States, we cannot go it alone," Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, testified before Congress earlier this summer. "We do have to work through multilateral institutions. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses. The United Nations has both."

Elsewhere in the world, in fact, the United Nations is criticized not for undermining U.S. interests but for being turned into a diplomatic surrogate for American might.

"I have nothing good to say about the United Nations," said Said Najjar, a Palestinian and 48-year-old family doctor who lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "It's been hijacked by the United States and has become a puppet to America's wishes. It began as an idealistic organization, but now it is dirtied with politics."

While many Americans are as skeptical as Najjar of U.N. power machinations and repelled by the notion of global governance, they largely embrace the idea of cooperating with other countries in pursuit of humanitarian, economic, social and security goals.

"The U.N. is part of a larger framework that Americans are supportive of," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.

"They very much like the idea of working together with other countries in a multilateral context," he said. "It's a kind of bedrock."

Globalization and its complexities are one reason why foreign policy analysts in America and abroad see the United Nations, for all its failings, as an indispensable organization that does many things well.

"It is important in advancing issues such as environment and the fight against slavery and racism," said Yitzhak Herzog, Israel's Minister of Housing and Construction. "The U.N. is very important in conflict resolution, humanitarian aid work, the fight against AIDS and against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

The United Nations is a disparate group that can often agree on goals. But building a common approach for achieving common objectives is an inherently difficult and contentious undertaking.

That very conflict has been playing itself out over proposals before the U.N. to improve accountability and transparency within the institution and make it more responsive to the needs of the world.

Foremost among the proposals is a plan to increase the representation of permanent members on the U.N. Security Council from the current five — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — to a greater, more representative number to include such countries as Germany, Japan, India and Brazil.

"The future of the U.N. that we'd like to see is one that is more active and responsive, instead of waiting until some situation explodes and then rushing in," said Japheth Mati, a medical professor retired from Nairobi University.

To others, the U.N. has become a distant and faceless bureaucracy that has little impact on people's lives.

"The U.N. is a good idea and an essential idea," said Wael Khalil, a 40-year-old software engineer in Cairo. He's disappointed, however, that repeated U.N. resolutions calling for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict haven't resulted in peace or the creation of a Palestinian state.

"In this sense, we haven't seen the U.N. do anything for us on the street," said Khalil. "Just a little progress on this would make both us in Egypt, and people elsewhere in the Arab world, happy."

In some ways, the United Nations gets blamed for much of what's wrong with the world simply because it has become the lens through which public attention on those woes is focused.

Much of the good the United Nations does, meanwhile — especially in areas like refugee aid, development and disease prevention that are important to billions of poor people around the world — gets lost amid the bad news headlines.

"This kind of work doesn't end up on the front pages of newspapers," said Olga Pellicer, a former Mexican diplomat who teaches international relations at Mexico's Autonomous Technological Institute.

"There are 50 million refugees in the world," she said. "Imagine if the U.N. was not there and what it would be like."

That may sum up the U.N. dilemma. Troubled as it is, difficult as the problems it faces are, few believe the world would be better off without it.

"Everybody knows that the U.N. is necessary," said Anyang Nyong'o, Kenya's minister for planning and national development. "The question is how are we going to reform it to make it better?"

Correspondents Margaret Coker in Jerusalem, Susan Ferriss in Mexico City, Craig Nelson in Cairo and Raymond Thibodeaux in Nairobi, contributed to this report.

Bob Deans' e-mail address is