72 years after its formation, The United Nation’s global relevance and effective ability to realize the organization’s mission is under deep questioning. The organization was founded following World War Two in order to replace the League of Nations and introduce the world’s first broad international political and legal institution.1 The international body’s goal was set to encourage human rights, peace and development in the post-war era.
The United Nation’s (UN) fundamental goal, similar to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and America’s Declaration of Independence, is enshrined in a founding inalienable law: The Declaration of Human Rights. The document’s preamble and 30 articles, outline the broad universal laws and rights that the organization assumes to be sacrosanct. Consequently, the Declaration of Human Rights underpins the ideological framework that the UN Charter attempts to encourage.
The Optimization Goals of the United Nations
Large institutions require common objectives to unify and direct extensive cooperation to effectively accomplish goals. Therefore, like companies, sports teams and economies, the UN has predetermined fundamental objectives that provide guidance to subsequent activities. These goals set the criteria to judge institutional success as defined by the organization itself. Therefore, the institution’s performance and improvement recommendations are framed by a clear understanding of these objectives. The Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation of the UN Charter, sets forth 30 articles of which key ones include:2
Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Additional articles cover the implementation of legal jurisprudence, legal process, access to education, basic standard of living requirements, the right to choice of employment and the right of association, assembly, thought and speech.2 The declaration’s vast consideration of the human condition provides a framework to guide action taken by the United Nations. Under the general direction set by the Declaration, the UN acts in 5 main categories of work: maintaining international peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting sustainable development and upholding international law. The UN’s ability to enact global change congruent with their founding ideological goals and these functional activities, provides indication to the performance of this institution.
Forces that Threaten the United Nations Effectiveness and Relevance
To remain effective, the United Nations must consider and address the forces which diminish their ability to execute their mission. Fundamental institutional differences amongst founding members have created tensions due to contradicting ideologies. Differences in institutional opinion have lead many member nations to reject policy congruent with the UN’s supposedly inviolable doctrine- The Declaration of Human Rights. Further, self-preservation incentives held imperatively by sovereign states create an antagonizing force which diminishes many goals set forth by the United Nations. Lastly, the conflict created by national incentives and conflicting institutional preferences have forced paralysis through by veto power endowed to the permanent five countries of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The following analyzes the intricacies of how these forces, from ideologies, interests and the mechanisms that enable them, limit the UN’s ability to effectively accomplish their stated mission.4
Conflicting Ideological and Institutional Differences Among Founding Members
Different institutional structures utilized by the governments and economies of the United Nation’s member states, have resulted in inescapable conflict due to ideological misalignment. Democracies have traditionally supported inclusive institutions that disseminate power and opportunity to the individual; while socialist, fascist and communist nations support extractive institutions that extract and then redistribute wealth. The UN Charter and Declaration of Human Rights is principled by inclusive ideologies, yet descent by extractive member nations has led to conflict and impasse. By supporting the inclusive policy set forth in the UN Charter, extractive nations risk undermining the power of their ruling elite and therefore act to protect their entrenched position. This ideological conflict has turned the UN into a political tool for extractive nations to stalemate the degradation of their nation’s favored institutional structure. The UNSC, filled with both fundamentally extractive and inclusive nations, has dictated paralysis due to these conflicting viewpoints. This first principle4 ideological conflict will likely continue contributing to the UN’s ineffectiveness as impasse forced by the UNSC’s members is inevitable.
Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, outlines a framework to categorically sort the nature of institutions based on their first principle structure.5 Institutions can be extractive where an exclusive elite controls politics, economics and extracts wealth from the labors of underclasses. Conversely, institutions can be inclusive where citizens are pluralistically involved in the formation of political and economic institutions; incentivizing broad participation and meritocratic rewards. Democracies are inclusive institutions where citizens choose a concentrated number of individuals to serve as a practical proxy of public sentiment. These representatives then theoretically enact economic and social institutions to serve the general interest of the group.
When applying this framework to the United Nations, the organization brands itself as being an inclusive and cooperative association but is paradoxically constructed by both inclusive and exclusive sub-institutions.6 The General Assembly, which provides a single vote to each of the 193 member states, is the center point of the pluralistic brand. 7 Inconsistently, the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) permanent five members are endowed with the exclusive right to veto actions pertaining to national security, peace and upholding international law.8 This power was dubiously awarded to the Allied Forces of World War Two, questioning the supposed altruistic intentions of the UN’s founding members.1 Despite the conflicting institutional structure within the United Nations, the Declaration and UN Charter unanimously declare inclusive institutions as the favorable agent to uphold its human rights mandate.2 Inclusive institutions are logically more conducive to support the egalitarian and fundamental equality of humans set forth in Articles 1-10 of the Declaration of Human Rights2 and Articles 1 and 2 of the UN Charter.9 Therefore, the United Nations’ should theoretically show a strong tendency to favor inclusive institutions.
Subsequently, a major challenge the organization faces is: nations that favor extractive institutional principles have consistently and successfully breached UN Charter ideals. Recently, Russia exercised their veto power to block an investigation that sought to determine if Syria had used chemical weapons on their citizens.10 Bashar al-Assad’s regime almost certainly conducted the act, but the investigation was necessary to be consistent with the principles of jurisprudence and innocence until proven guilty.11 The chemical attacks breach Article’s 3 and 5 of the Declaration of Human Rights, and thus called for intervention by the UN. Putin’s Russia has an interest in protecting the absolutist rule of Bashar al-Assad in order to protect the aggregate and average health of extractive polities. Although the fall of the Soviet Union marked the end of Soviet communism, this critical juncture did not create inclusive political and economic institutions in Russia.12 Instead, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin enriched a crony elite by creating a new absolutist system that merely extracted wealth differently. Russia, like all sovereign states, is incented to propagate their institutional preferences due to self-preservation motivations. One technique to accomplish this is defending like-minded nations such as Syria. The imperative institutional ideological conflict that has plagued the UNSC can be illustrated by sorting Soviet/Russian Security Council vetoes into their intents and purposes: votes cast for U.S.-Soviet confrontations, votes on the behalf and support of a Communist ally, votes on the behalf of a state outside the Communist bloc, and votes against UN membership of a fundamentally inclusive nations.13 The UN lacks the broad punitive mechanisms to uphold the UN Charter besides the use of sanctions and therefore, in practice, it is easy for a nation to breach terms of the Charter.14
The polarized institutional principles held by member states of the United Nations has led to inescapable conflict and has subsequently paralyzed the enactment of the UN Charter. Since inception, the organization has faced exhausting challenges from internal member nations due to weak punitive mechanisms. This has enabled extractive states, as seen in the case of Russia’s support of Syria, to blockade action that upholds the UN Charter’s central dogma. The conflict of extractive versus inclusive institutions continues to be the predominant challenge that threatens the UN’s relevance and ability to function in the 21st century.
Incompatible Incentives of a State
Coalescing with differing institutional preferences, the inherent optimization goals of a sovereign state provides a challenging force that has stymied the implementation of UN optimization objectives. Similar to the effects of evolutionary pressures exerted on a species, the ultimate goal of an institution, such as a nation, is to guarantee its existence. Interventional action to support UN objectives often inadvertently weakens some nations and strengthens others relative power to guarantee their existence. Conceding national security power for UN objectives can be individually inconsequential, but states feel a paranoia that relinquishing power will lead to a slippery-slope that can degrade their long-run interests. These individual interests concern both global national security and domestic political self-preservation. UN member nations exhibit a central tendency to favor individual priorities over UN collectivist goals, thus creating an opposing force to the UN’s effectiveness.
National security encompasses the tactics and positioning a nation undertakes to mitigate unsolicited influence by an external force. These concerns are central to a state’s self-preservation and are therefore the foundation of a state’s hierarchical needs. The zero sum nature of national security results in a security dilemma, where self-preservationist action taken by one nation directly undermines the security of another.15 During the collapse of communist Yugoslavia, Yugoslav forces began shelling Sarajevo after the United States recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as a sovereign democratic state.16 Russia’s support of Yugoslavia was strategic because the proliferation of extractive states increased Russia’s relative national security. The creation of an international military coalition increased Russia’s influence and power when considering the antagonist-like West. In 2015, Russia vetoed a UNSC resolution that would have officially recognized the 1996 Srebrenica massacre as a genocide.17 The action served as a boost to nationalist Bosnian Serb entities that continue to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina and thus impede the advancement of Western institutions in the Balkans. From the perspective of an individual state, Russia is incented to support and form coalitions with similar extractive states. These coalitions support their relative leverage over potential opposing forces, specifically the Western powers. General Assembly members will transcend UN objectives for goals principally more important to a nation including national security concerns that affect a nation’s elementary goal of self-preservation.
From an internal perspective, the political entities that govern nations are incented to maintain their ability to withhold rule over constituents. A country’s UN representatives, by virtue, represent the entrenched ruling party of their given nation. For this reason, when participating in international politics, representatives of a state consider how their actions will affect domestic political agendas and the preservation of their personal power. By way of illustration, the UN has long attempted to facilitate and guide peace negotiations that will resolve the Palestinian conflict.18 Resolving this violent and divisive disagreement is congruent with the goals of the UN Charter and is a key step to resolving tensions between the Christian, Jewish and Islamic worlds. In the conflicts most recent development, President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.19 This action directly threatens the UN’s attempts to facilitate peaceful and non-violent settlement in this region. Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric included this action as an attempt to delegitimize Islam while supporting American Christianity. President Trump’s domestic campaign success can be partially attributed to his protectionist and xenophobic platform that resonated with millions of American’s.20 Upholding his promise and attacking Islam is politically favorable amongst Trump’s domestic electorate. He is attempting to secure a second term in office through his well-known tactics of emotionally charging and polarizing Americans. As seen in this example, the actors of domestic politics are often incented to act against the objectives of the UN in order to secure their personal position within national level institutions.
Imperative self-preservation incentives faced both by nations and their domestic actors threaten the United Nation’s ability to fulfill its stated goals. Russia’s support of genocidal Bosnian Serbs and Trump’s support of Israel are illuminating examples of actions taken by member states in stark opposition to the UN Charter. The individual incentives that guide the behavior of member nations are often incompatible with UN principles. Without a paradigm shift to the structure of international and domestic politics, the motives of political entities will remain stagnant and national goals that contradict those of the UN will likely remain certain.
The Concentration of Power Endowed Through Veto Power
The previous two forces, conflicting institutional preferences and incompatible incentives, have subversively affected the UN through an actioning mechanism- the veto power of the United Nations Security Council’s Permanent Five. When the UN was formed in 1945, the Big Five (United States, Great Britain, China, France, Soviet Union) took primary responsibility to maintain peace through this new international institution.13 The United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, who still had competing and contradictory interests, would not have acceded to the United Nations without the creation of concentrated veto power. Veto enabled these nations to blockade action and gain leverage to preserve their respective geopolitical positioning. For example, the Soviet Union emerged battered from World War Two. Veto power granted the Soviet Union asymmetrical and unprecedented ability to influence American interventionism and international politics through non-violet means. Likewise, the Americans gained similar power over the Soviets. Veto power was considered to be more favorable than concentrated affirmative voting power because it required cooperation and consensus between the Great Powers. Further, the veto mechanism would show bias towards inaction and the maintenance of current international relations and positioning, which was favored in the peaceful post war period. The liberal exercise of veto power has become an important tool used by the Permanent Five (P5) to implement institutional preferences and individual interests into UN operational policy. John Stoessinger’s 1976 analysis found that every veto cast by the Soviet Union protected their national interests in one way or another.13 This has proven to be an effective strategy to stagnate the progress of the institution’s goals.
Further, the Security Council’s veto power contradicts the pluralistic principles set forth by the United Nations’ Charter. The UNSC concentrates power to a narrow demographic that no longer represents the weighted political influence of geopolitics.1 This has created an elite group endowed with hereditary power. The pervasive use of the veto has lead P5 members to negotiate outside of the Security Council effectively circumnavigating other UNSC members and further concentrating their power.1 This has strengthened the ability of P5 nations to dictate UN action that favors individual interests and undermines the implementation of UN objectives. The institutional mechanism of veto power has created an exclusive and debilitating force which allows the prioritization of individual interests over those of the collective and thus has resisted the UN’s ability to implement their broad policy objectives.
Recommended Reform Measures
The institutional preferences and incompatible incentives of member nations are imperative problems which exist because of the institutional structure of sovereign nations. It is highly unlikely that these problems can be overcome. Therefore, the following recommended reforms suggest tactics that work within the current institutional environment yet circumvent the prohibitive nature of these challenging forces.
Despite the criticism offered above, the United Nations is an invaluable asset to modern international politics. Although the UNSC’s concentrated power enables inaction, it also has disseminated the power required to take action.13 An essay by former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, highlights that the mechanisms and procedures negotiated during the formation of the United Nations were only possible after the critical juncture of WW2 and could not be negotiated today.21 For this reason, the UN is an unprecedented asset entrenched with the principles of multilateralism, global legitimacy and the organization makes a unique claim to universality despite its imperfect implementation. The following recommendations build upon these current strengths and strive to find solutions that will allow for more effective execution.
An obvious reform would be to remove the veto system endowed to the P5 and replace it with one that requires a strong majority (4/5) vote amongst the P5 nations. Great Britain, France and the United States would be inclined to form a strong voting coalition, with China holding the swing vote to implement policy. Unfortunately, Russia, who is often alienated by ideological preferences, would strategically favor the paralyzing ability of veto power and would subsequently veto this motion. For Russia, changing the voting system would foreseeably degrade their relative power, and therefore this reform is implausible.
A strategic reform that would plausibly result in greater effectiveness is the utilization of institutional loopholes and legal creativity to accomplish the UN’s goals. Legal tactics have allowed UN constituents in the democratic Generally Assembly to circumvent the narrow political interests of the UNSC.13 During the Korean War, Dean Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State, introduced a General Assembly procedure called the “Uniting for Peace Resolution”.22 The procedure allowed a member state to bypass UNSC approval and seek approval for action, including the use of force, from the General Assembly. This strategy was used to overcome Soviet support of authoritarian North Korea and deploy armaments to South Korean forces in the 1950’s.13 This policy has not exclusively benefited the United States and Western interests. It has created a mechanism for calling open-ended emergency special sessions by the General Assembly to address problems ignored by the UNSC.22 For example, the Arab states have used this policy to assist in addressing the Palestinian conflict and bypass American and Soviet vetoes that have traditionally blockaded action for political purposes. This instrument provides another channel to implement policy congruent with the UN Charter and favorable to the diverse interests represented by the General Assembly. Therefore, utilizing this tool to achieve small, less salient victories, would provide a means to realize many incremental changes that, in aggregate, achieve significant long-run progress.
Another practical, yet imperfect, reform action would be increasing funding to UN programs and specialized agencies that have the ability to circumstantially avoid national political biases and the descent of the UNSC. These organizations, including the World Bank, IMF, WHO, WIPO, UNDP and WFP, work to implement change under a narrowed functional scope, that on average and on aggregate, better aligns with UN Charter objectives.23 Beyond the mandatory funding requirements put towards the UN Regular Budget, additional voluntary contributions are targeted towards UN development agencies.24 The collection of additional funds could be gathered from non-governmental organizations, philanthropic donors and wealthy governments who are ideological aligned with the UN Charter. For example, the UN Development Program (UNDP) is able to support the proactive implementation of the UN’s goals.25 The UNSC usually deals with salient and discrete conflicts that represent critical junctures where political interests often interfere. These events often receive asymmetrical cognitive attention in comparison to the actuality of UN objective progression. The UNDP carries out monotonous daily activities that have made concrete positive change. Some examples include: supporting the democratic electoral process in Liberia, solidifying institutional stability and trust during the fight against Ebola in West Africa, and the international distribution of Aids medication. Placing greater internal focus to garner scarce financial and human resources support for these specialized agencies is strategically advisable to better capitalize on the existing strengths of the United Nations.
The United Nations is a complex and bureaucratic body that, despite its weaknesses to perfectly fulfill its mission, has created an unprecedented and unmatched institutional framework encouraging global cooperation and peace. Activity reform by internal and external parties is suggested through two key strategies: placing greater focus on using legal loopholes that favor action by the General Assembly and allocating resources to specialized agencies that have historically enacted positive incremental change. Together these two reform measures will allow the United Nations to better guarantee the implementation of their institutional goals and continued relevance in the 21st Century.
1 Buckley, Hannah. “A Critique of the United Nations Security Council.” FORDHAM POLITICAL REVIEW. September 19, 2014. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://fordhampoliticalreview.org/a-critique-of-the-united-nations-security-council/.
2 United Nations. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.
3 United Nations. “What We Do.” United Nations. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/sections/what-we-do/.
4 Irwin, Terence. Aristotle’s first principles. Clarendon Press, 1989.
5 Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson. “Why nations fail.” New York: Crown Business (2012).
6 Associated Press. “5 problems facing UN as it nears 70th anniversary.” The Japan Times. December 5, 2014. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/05/world/5-problems-facing-un-nears-70th-anniversary/#.WioBAbQ-dE5.
7 United Nations. “United Nations, main body, main organs, General Assembly.” United Nations. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/ga/.
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9 United Nations. “UN Charter (full text).” United Nations. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/un-charter-full-text/.
10 Nations, AFP At the United. “Russia uses veto to end UN investigation of Syria chemical attacks.” The Guardian. October 24, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/24/russia-uses-veto-end-un-investigation-chemical-attacks.
11 Bendix, Aria. “Report Confirms Use of Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack.” The Atlantic. June 30, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/06/report-confirms-use-of-chemical-weapons-in-syrian-attack/532458/.
12 Goldman, Marshall I. “Putin and the Oligarchs.” Foreign affairs(2004): 33-44.
13 Stoessinger, John GeorgeMcKelvey. The United Nations and the Superpowers: United States-Soviet Interaction at the United Nations. No. 341.123. Random House,, 1967.
14 United Nations. “Sanctions Security Council Subsidiary Organs.” United Nations. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.un.org/sc/suborg/en/sanctions/information.
15 Tang, Shiping. “The security dilemma: A conceptual analysis.” Security studies 18, no. 3 (2009): 587-623.
16 Pickering, Paula, and Noel R. Malcolm. “Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Encyclopædia Britannica. December 06, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/place/Bosnia-and-Herzegovina/Cultural-life#toc223951.
17 Standish, Reid. “Why Did Russia Veto Recognizing Srebrenica as a Genocide?” Foreign Policy. January 03, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/09/why-did-russia-veto-recognizing-srebrenica-as-a-genocide-putin-bosnia/.
18 Bennis, Phyllis . “What Has Been the Role of the UN in the Israel-Palestine Struggle by Phyllis Bennis.” Trans Arab Research Institute. January 2001. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://tari.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14&Itemid=15.
19 Diamond, Jeremy, and Elise Labott. “Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” CNN. December 06, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/06/politics/president-donald-trump-jerusalem/index.html.
20 Beauchamp, Zack. “Donald Trump’s victory is part of a global white backlash.” Vox. November 09, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.vox.com/world/2016/11/9/13572174/president-elect-donald-trump-2016-victory-racism-xenophobia.
21 Rudd, Kevin. “Kevin Rudd on How to Reform the United Nations.” Time. August 31, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://time.com/4473978/united-nations-kevin-rudd-reform/.
22 Lynch, Colum. “The 10 worst U.N. Security Council resolutions ever.” Foreign Policy. May 21, 2010. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/05/21/the-10-worst-u-n-security-council-resolutions-ever-2/.
23 United Nations. “Funds, Programmes, Specialized Agencies and Others.” United Nations. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/sections/about-un/funds-programmes-specialized-agencies-and-others/.
24 Better World Campaign. “UN Budget Process.” Better World Campaign. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://betterworldcampaign.org/us-un-partnership/importance-of-funding-the-un/un-budget-process/.
25 Chonghaile, Clár Ní. “What’s the best bit of the UN? No 9: UN Development Programme.” The Guardian. September 11, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/11/best-bit-un-undp-united-nations-development-programme.