Living with the U.N.

Friday, April 6, 2012
United Nations
Image credit: 
©Agence France-Presse/Albert Gonzalez

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, even on its own underwhelming terms?

On the United Nations’ core issues—collective peace and security, development, and universal human values and rights—its record is nowhere bright, unless one counts sheer institutional persistence. And that record is particularly poor concerning the issue from which the collective sprang in 1945: international peace and security. Why, then, has not the ruthless evolutionary logic of history pruned it as a failed institutional sapling in a relentlessly competitive forest?

The textbooks in international law and organizations provide one set of answers. They tell us the heroic story of the United Nations’ founding in 1945 and the first meetings in San Francisco. 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 naive 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.

The U.N. is a blend of heroic self-conception, a less-than-stellar record, and a tawdry organizational reality.

Accounts from the field of international relations tend to be more skeptical. 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 perspective on the United Nations rather different from 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. 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. Diplomats often find these facts 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 salient feature of the U.N. is that it is always a failure today, and yet always a hope for tomorrow.

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 those 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 U.S. ideals and interests or conflict with them.


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 to address their contrasting—sometimes supporting and sometimes competing—legitimacies. The peculiar limits of U.N. legitimacy contribute to the institution’s most persistent large-scale feature: paralysis, a very particular kind of paralysis because it consists of marching, constant marching, but marching in place.

The United Nations consists of deep contradictions. More exactly, it consists of antinomies—profound, connected opposites that are “baked into” the institution’s structure, history, incentives, and motivations. So:

  • 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; 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.

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. Return to the image of the United Nations as a sickly sapling. Feeble as it is today, 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.

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 execution or fiscal control happens to be. It can be wholesale mismanagement and corruption through the Oil-for-Food program and the flight of a senior U.N. executive to his extradition-free home state. It might be rape and sexual predation against the young, not only by U.N. peacekeeping troops trading sex for food but also by U.N. civilian staff in African conflicts—followed by stern pronouncements of zero tolerance but no actual criminal prosecutions. It might be the relentless orchestration of reports, statements, declarations, resolutions, and investigations by the U.N. 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 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 backward across U.N. history—it might be U.N. inaction in genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia.

United Nations
The United Nations is known for process, such as this meeting of officials tasked with pursuing peace in the Darfur region of Sudan. An estimated 300,000 people have lost their lives, and 1.8 million their homes, in Darfur since 2003.

Other institutions of global coordination do have some effectiveness—the World Trade Organization, for example—and they are formally reckoned part of the U.N. system through branding, as it were, though in fact they are governed under their own mandates. But 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 deepest of the United Nations’ failures 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 U.N. platonism—an infatuation with “global governance” as an ideal platonic form. Or maybe call it the nonfalsifiable idea of the United Nations.

Hunger, disease, war—even if the U.N. has no solutions, we are supposed to act as if it did.

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 U.N. agencies and should have done so earlier. Nuclear war breaks out between regional powers? The problem must surely have been the insufficient emphasis 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 contribute to the problem. 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.


Why, the skeptic might ask, should we set the standards for the United Nations’ performance so high by comparison to that of sovereign states?

Every institution has corruption, every institution has greater and lesser amounts of rent-seeking behavior by officials, and every institution has the problem of capture by particular constituencies. One would never conclude that the general failure of Congress is a reason for giving up on the United States. Such a judgment makes no more sense when speaking of the United Nations, goes the objection.

But this assumes an important prior conclusion about the United Nations as compared with sovereign democracies: that the United Nations is a necessary, noncontingent element of governance in the same way that the sovereign and ordered state is necessary and noncontingent with respect to governing society. It is hard to imagine governance in a world without the state. But of the United Nations, one might easily say, we have no need of that hypothesis.

Moreover, the relative magnitude of the successes and failures in states differs enormously from that of the United Nations; the successes of leading states in the present require no recourse to fables about the future. The history of material improvement that has come about within societies over the past several centuries has required the condition of the state. It is, to be sure, not the sole political condition, but it certainly has been a mandatory element. One of the mysteries of contemporary Western elites is their sometime eagerness to dismantle and toss away the institutional engine of governance that has been necessary to produce such progress as humankind has experienced. States cannot be considered irrelevant to their societies’ material and social progress, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Material improvement among societies has required the condition of the state.

By contrast, the United Nations has never been shown to be actually necessary to any of its declared ends, save perhaps the self-fulfilling aim of “universal harmonization” through itself. It is hard to say that anything of crucial importance has required or necessarily depended upon the United Nations in the way that matters always have with states. To look into the future and say that down the road, something hugely important historically or morally or politically both will and must take place with respect to the United Nations is a description of nonfalsifiable faith, especially as the event horizon recedes day by day.

Nor is it necessary that the United Nations be this United Nations—that is, one with a grand vision of its future role. Let us accept for argument’s sake that the United Nations is not going away and it will not be replaced wholesale with some new institution. Neither will some “caucus of democracies” or other combination of global coordination emerge and render the United Nations irrelevant on any current political trajectory. Even so, why not aim toward a United Nations of few pretensions to glorious global governance—a United Nations aiming not at cultivating an overarching tree but instead at creating a series of low, sturdy, limited hedgerows that perform competently their precise and limited functions? Would this not be a better vision of the institution than one that cannot possibly come to pass and which, in loudly announcing itself but failing to bring itself to pass, will cause much greater damage in its wake?


The single most striking feature of the United Nations today is general and unyielding stasis. It is frozen on many issues between contradictory visions and missions, frozen between the inglorious present and the apparently glorious future that grants it contemporary legitimacy. The most salient and remarkable sociological feature of this posture is that it is so stable.

Unlike the state, the U.N. has never been shown to be necessary to any of its declared ends.

To say that the United Nations is perpetually caught in stasis is likely to elicit a weary shrug from many longtime observers. After all, the organization was practically frozen in amber from the beginning of the Cold War to the end. With 1990 came a resurgence of idealism around the organization’s possibilities, but it mostly fizzled over that decade. The United Nations’ disastrous performance in the Rwandan genocide and its failures in the Yugoslav wars were just two of an accumulation of episodes in the 1990s that convinced even many U.N. supporters that the institutional United Nations was something to laud as an ideal but not something to take seriously in fact, at least in the sense of ever relying on it in the present.

The stasis—created by a mutual expectation that each country participates but is not bound, promises but then need not deliver—goes to things big and small. Countries promise money for Millennium Development Goals but then do not pony up (and without cavil, apology, or embarrassment in these straitened times, even among the Europeans); countries promise to hew to the Kyoto Protocol but then do not reduce carbon emissions; global civil society, according to U.N. officials’ own speeches, will rejuvenate global political society but then it does not. All this insincere promising might be customary and predictable—but it is finally corrosive to institutions, whether sovereign states or organs of the United Nations itself. It turns the United Nations into a kind of weird machine in which the disconnect between word and deed is practically automatic. The result is a U.N. Energizer Bunny that marches and marches—but has managed to march itself into a cul-de-sac. The mechanism hums and throbs. Something is always going on, there is always some activity. But movement does not proceed discernibly in any direction (save only for the consolidation of the anti-Israel consensus, the organization’s one discernible collective action, successful, one might conclude, precisely because it is religious and ideological in its zeal, not rational).


This quality of forever marching in place has implications for U.S.-U.N. relations over the long term, and across presidential administrations. They are implications that broad American political movements, conservative and liberal, and both political parties need to assimilate. Conservatives need to get their minds around the United Nations’ permanence: the organization exists and is not going away. But liberals, for their part, need to get their minds around its stagnation: it is not likely to become something radically different from what it is now, either, and suddenly wake up and start doing jolly good things.

And despite the periodic fits of wailing about the institution’s state, the truth is that the United Nations’ “culture” is not really unhappy about that fact. So little internal change has taken place over the years. Perhaps it is time to conclude that the United Nations is not an institution in which everyone desires change of some kind but just cannot agree on what kind of change or how to get there. Perhaps the more honest conclusion is that the United Nations is an institution and a society reasonably content with itself, pretty satisfied with its condition and its actions. Maybe, just below the surface wailing, it is an institution that is fundamentally happy.

The challenge for American policy makers is not to figure out how to disrupt that happy equilibrium, either to push towards the elusive tomorrow or to shut the United Nations down. Neither will happen.

The challenge for U.S. policy makers is not how to disrupt the United Nations’ happy equilibrium—this won’t happen—but how to face the world body with eyes wide open.

The challenge, instead, is to figure out how to engage that happy equilibrium with eyes wide open about its nature—where to use it to do things the United States could not do itself, where to press it to more efficient activity, and where just to work to disengage and contain its damage.