What exactly is the United Nations and, for that matter, why is there still a United Nations at all? How has it managed to survive over time, from 1945 down to the present—given its long record of underperformance, frequent outright failure, and even more frequent irrelevance?
On the United Nations’ core issues—collective peace and security, development, and universal human values and rights—its record is mediocre, unless one counts sheer institutional persistence as enough. And that record is particularly poor concerning the issue from which the collective sprang in 1945: international peace and security through the collective itself. Why, then, has not the ruthless evolutionary logic of history pruned it as a failed institutional sapling in a relentlessly competitive forest, as the League was pruned?
The textbooks in international law and organizations provide one set of answers to account for the persistence of the United Nations. They tell us the heroic story of the United Nations’ founding in 1945 and the first meetings in San Francisco; Eleanor Roosevelt et al. They tell us about the efforts of the Second World War Allies to create an organization that would be able to establish true collective security and avoid the fatal—and predictable—errors of international organizations that yielded, among other things, the failed League of Nations and the naïve Kellogg-Briand Pact. They describe the present-day organization as an attempt to provide global governance in a recalcitrant world. They tend, above all, to tell a progressive moral history—“Whig history”—of advances toward greater and better international order through international law and organizations.
Accounts from the field of international relations tend to be more skeptical, but their skepticism comes typically from a realist perspective. The skepticism is descriptive rather than normative. These international-relations accounts do not necessarily challenge the normative goals of the United Nations and international order but instead note just how difficult the task is and the limited success the institution has had.
But descriptive and normative accounts of the United Nations, successes and failures, seen from the outside are not the only accounts that matter. One would get a rather different perspective on the United Nations than either of these big-picture external accounts by perusing the institution’s finances. For those (few) willing to delve into its internal budget, management, fiscal control, accounting, managerial structures, and labor relations, a striking organizational beast emerges. The organization’s priorities are mirrored in its budgets and fiscal structures that allocate its resources. This is a picture of the United Nations characterized by rent-seeking and sometimes outright corruption, lack of fiscal discipline or control, and a chief executive officer, the secretary-general, who has no exact idea how many people work for his organization.
These are not facts that many experts on UN diplomacy choose to pay much attention to. Rather, the diplomats often find them tiresome when forced on their attention, for they distract from the grand issues of diplomacy and international law that make the United Nations exciting. The international-relations specialists find that they distract from accounts of power relations among states at the United Nations. But they are surely relevant, too, in establishing the terms of US-UN relations.
Yet none of these accounts of the United Nations, useful and interesting though each may be, provides much of a basis for guiding the United States in its dealings with the United Nations. That requires an account not merely of the United Nations’ heroic self-conception, its less-than stellar record, or its tawdry organizational reality—but also of its intellectual and ideological trajectory, in relation to the United States, from the past into the future, and those in relation to the ideals and interests of the United States. We need ways of explaining the United Nations so as to explain and predict how it will evolve and whether and when that evolution will support US ideals and interests or conflict with them.
A Crisis of Identity at the UN
So let us shift to another, quite different means of explaining the United Nations. The master issue, in this explanation, is the institution’s source of legitimacy. The key to relations between the United States and the United Nations is fundamentally to address their contrasting—sometimes supporting and sometimes competing—legitimacies.
Doing that begins with a close look at the source and nature of the United Nations’ legitimacy and how the peculiar limits of that legitimacy contribute to the institution’s most persistent large-scale feature—paralysis, a very particular kind of paralysis, to be sure, because it consists of marching, constant marching, but marching in place. Call it immobilité perpétuelle.
The United Nations consists of deep contradictions. More exactly, the United Nations consists of antinomies—profound, connected opposites that are “baked into” the institution’s structure, history, incentives, and motivations. The United Nations is an independent institution with independent global claims to govern; the United Nations is a mere instrumentality of the member states. The United Nations is an institution based around the sovereign equality of states participating in a universal institution; the United Nations is committed to certain values and yet, at least in principle, there are standards to be met by states as a condition of joining and participating.
The United Nations is the talking shop of the nations; the United Nations is a genuinely shared society of the world and not just the meeting ground of states’ politics. The United Nations is merely the humble servant of its states-party; the United Nations is an independent governmental actor directly representing the “peoples” of the world. The secretary-general is merely the ministerial servant of the member states of the United Nations; the secretary-general is something approaching, albeit weakly, the “president” of the world. The United Nations is about global governance; yet it is said to be governance without a global government.
The False Dream of Tomorrow
But the most powerful of the United Nations’ many and varied antinomies is the one that ironically turns the institution’s very failures into its most potent source of legitimacy. The distinctive salience of the United Nations is that it is a failure today—and a hope for tomorrow. And this is so even though it is always a failure today, each and every day—and yet always a hope for tomorrow. Imagine the United Nations as a sickly sapling. Sickly as it is today, however, it still holds out the promise of growing to become a glorious overarching tree—the glorious sheltering tree of global governance—but tomorrow, and always tomorrow. The tree never seems to grow or overcome its pathologies; it always remains the same sickly sapling. But likewise the promise of tomorrow, too, always remains as glorious.
This paradox points to one of the fundamental reasons for the persistence of the United Nations over time. The chronic promise of tomorrow provides a reason to put up with the chronic failures of today. Everything the organization does today, no matter how ineffective, ineffectual, corrupt, rent-seeking, or just plain wrong, has to be excused on the basis of what the organization will someday be.
It does not finally matter what the scandal, the appallingly bad behavior, the failure of management or of execution or of fiscal control happens to be. It can be wholesale mismanagement and corruption through the Oil-for-Food program (does anyone still recall that multi-billion dollar scandal?) and the flight of a senior UN executive to his extradition-free home state.
It might be rape and sexual predation against the young, not only by UN peacekeeping troops trading sex for food but also by UN civilian staff in African conflicts—followed by stern pronouncements of zero tolerance but no actual criminal prosecutions. Or it might be the unveiling of a $23 million mural on the ceiling of the UN Human Rights Council chambers—the main sponsor, Spain, having raided its international development aid budget to help pay for it. It might be the relentless orchestration of reports, statements, declarations, resolutions, and investigations by that same Human Rights Council, beneath its magnificent mural, and its members and various “independent” experts and NGO enablers against a single state: Israel.
Or it could be the utter and disastrous inability of the United Nations to actually get aid in a timely fashion to victims of the 2004 tsunami, as its aid czar held press conferences and sent observers to reconnoiter and finally fell into the usual default activity of blaming the United States. Or—at the largest political levels, looking back across UN history—it might be UN inaction in genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia.
This leaves aside the question of whether the United Nations’ general inability to create positive outcomes, even when not acting badly but merely inefficaciously, is a reason to wonder about whether it is an organization worth having around in the long run. It leaves aside the dangling question of whether the United Nations might be better replaced with some other structure of global political coordination. After all, such institutions of global coordination as do exist with some effectiveness—the World Trade Organization, for example—are formally reckoned part of the UN system through, as it were, branding but in fact are governed under their own mandates.
Those successful global coordination exercises share a couple of defining features. First, they tend to be about economic matters in which a reasonably large group of states have reasonably overlapping interests, whatever their other conflicts. Second, they see their activities as fundamentally self-limiting to that particular activity, function, and justification—not leading beyond it into grand political projects, regardless of how much theorists of governance would like to see themselves gradually building into some grander political structure. The successful and reasonably effective institutions of global coordination have a deeply Burkean sense of limits: the length of time it takes to elaborate limited institutions of coordination and how quickly that coordination can be eroded or even toppled.
These are not the qualities of the United Nations as such; its mandate is by its nature political and invites expansion on every metric save effectiveness. Indeed, rather than inviting grander political projects in global governance, the United Nations’ manifest failures ought rationally to invite the question of whether the United Nations’ existence has the unfortunate effect of impeding the very possibility of the emergence of an alternative structure—some evolution towards something else, something with fewer contradictions, antinomies, and ambiguities.
The Platonic Ideal of Global Governance
But the deepest of these is the way in which future promises lock in failure today. The rhetoric that surrounds the United Nations, the rhetoric that gives us the persistent ideal of “The Parliament of Man,” has this constant and peculiar trope. It is always looking beyond the dismal present day of the United Nations to the glorious transcendental future of global governance, always on offer, but always on offer tomorrow. Call it “UN platonism.” Or maybe call it—the non-falsifiable idea of the United Nations. It amounts to an infatuation with “global governance” as an ideal platonic form.
There are apparently no circumstances in the real world in which the ideal of the platonic United Nations could be found definitively wanting. The persistence of global hunger? Inevitably it means we must commit ever more deeply to the United Nations and give more to its development program. An outbreak of epidemic disease sweeps the planet? Clearly, we need to invest more in UN agencies and should have done so earlier. Nuclear war breaks out between regional powers? The problem must surely have been that insufficient emphasis was placed on engagement through the United Nations’ multilateral disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation negotiations. The United Nations always remains the default answer, no matter what the question and no matter how badly its own failures contributed to the problem.
If it is somehow not the answer for today, then certainly it is the answer for tomorrow. And even if it is not the answer right now, we should act as though it were in order that it may become the answer for tomorrow. For some people, this is a general proposition, directly an article of faith about global governance and the United Nations as its historical vessel. Others maintain that they have an open mind, and so the United Nations might not necessarily (as a matter of historical necessity) be the answer to global coordination. But somehow, there turns out to be nothing in fact that could alter their commitment to the institution, because of what it represents for the future or, at least minimally, because it always turns out to be the hypothesized least-bad alternative.
The first is straight-up UN platonism; the second is a functional, constructive UN platonism. However one gets there, the final result is the same. Future possibilities hold the present hostage, and so every failure must finally be excused. No matter what the question, the answer is somehow always a greater and deeper commitment to the United Nations. It has to be reckoned a non-falsifiable faith, not a reasoned judgment.
Kenneth Anderson is a professor of international law at Washington College of Law, American University, Washington, DC, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He specializes in international law. Formerly general counsel to the Open Society Institute and director of the Human Rights Watch Arms Division, Anderson has written Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order (2012), and a new book with Benjamin Wittes, Speaking the Law: The Obama Administration’s Addresses on National Security Law (2013), both published by the Hoover Institution Press. Anderson blogs at the law professor websites Volokh Conspiracy and Opinio Juris, and is the book review editor of the national security law website Lawfare.
This essay is adapted from the book Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order (Hoover Press).