By Robert Murray: The international community has been very busy in recent months with a variety of crises at the forefront of state security agendas.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are high, the ongoing civil war in Syria is leading to ever-increasing body counts, the instability incurred as a result of failed peacebuilding experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan is leading many to question the purpose of long-term intervention deployments, the likelihood of nuclear weapons being attained by both the DPRK and Iran is very real, and economic disaster in various corners of the world are all serving to demonstrate that the society of states have numerous immediate issues to cope with. Through it all, one body that has recently come under fire for its actions, or in most cases inactions, is the United Nations.
In its efforts to address humanitarian crises, halt nuclear proliferation, and impact underdevelopment, the UN has been, for the most part, an abject failure. States follow the guidelines of the UN and international law when it serves their interests, and the various agencies under the UN umbrella consistently fall short in their efforts to improve the quality of life for those living in the worst situations imaginable. Yet, even in light of these shortcomings, there is no doubt that international society needs the UN now just as much as it did in 1944-45 when it was formed. The problem is that we have lost sight of what the UN is supposed to be doing and the limitations of its structure.
The UN was created in an effort to prevent the outbreak of a third world war and to also prevent the outbreak of nuclear war during the tense years of the Cold War. Never was the UN intended to be a body through which every social issue on the global agenda would be addressed. Learning from the failed experience of the League of Nations and also recognizing the inherent statism of the international system, the UN was created to provide spaces for states to talk with each other and reduce levels of misperception and distrust that largely contributed to the outbreak of war in both 1914 and 1939.
More idealist notions of what the UN could achieve were, of course, part of the UN’s structure, as seen in the desire for an International Court of Justice, the Economic and Social Council and even the General Assembly, but by placing the greatest power in the decision-making of the Security Council, dominated by the five victors of World War II, it was immediately evident that the UN’s purpose was focused on maintaining the balance of power between powerful states and very little more.
Further, keep in mind that the UN is premised on two foundational principles that often work against efforts at addressing social issues, being collective security and the protection of national sovereignty. By making the UN an institution that enshrines the sanctity of states and their independence, it is readily apparent why the UN is constrained on a daily basis from being the body capable of fixing every issue in the world.
The limitations of the UN’s structure have not absolved the UN from being burdened with issues it cannot possibly deal with. Look no further than the eight Millennium Development Goals articulated by the General Assembly in 2000. These goals, agreed upon by all UN member states at the time, presented a vision for that the UN would strive for by 2015. They are:
1. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieving universal primary education
3. Promoting gender equality and empowering women
4. Reducing child mortality rates
5. Improving maternal health
6. Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensuring environmental sustainability, and
8. Developing a global partnership for development.
Clearly there is little hope of these goals being universally achieved by 2015, though limited progress has been made in some areas. However, it is worth considering whether such overtly utopian goals should be the focus of a body now falling short in helping to maintain stability and order in international society. The world still needs the UN but we require it to do what it was intended for, not to be a forum for idealist goals that will never be met.
Robert W. Murray is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.