The League of Nations was created after the first World War in order “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.” Sadly, the League proved to be ineffective and failed to prevent the second World War. The League was eventually replaced by the United Nations. In 1950, after the second World War, representatives from 50 different countries met in San Francisco to create the United Nations charter which binds its members to commit to maintaining international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and promote social progress, better living standards, and human rights. The charter was eventually signed by 51 countries and its membership has now grown to include 193 countries.
The United Nations and its extended family of funds, programs and specialized agencies have had countless successes over the years, evident in the 11 Nobel Peace Prizes they have won. They have helped save millions of children’s lives, protected hundreds of world heritage sites like the Galapagos and the Giza Pyramids, and contributed greatly to the reduction of famine. They’ve even eradicated smallpox and helped reduce the emissions of chlorofluorocarbons to protect the ozone. Like any other organization, the United Nations has also experienced their fair share of failures over the years. One of its biggest disappointments was the failure of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda to stop the genocide of thousands of Tutsis. In addition, a UN peacekeeping force was held responsible for one of the worst outbreaks of cholera after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
As such, critics of the United Nations abound. More recently, they have been under intense scrutiny for failing to put an end to the Syrian conflict and being slow to respond to the Ebola outbreak. Accusations of corruption, inefficiency, waste, bureaucracy and bias have materialized over the years from both developed and developing countries. Although the UN has recognized its mistakes and tried to address them, things have not been getting better. A recent wave of frustrated member countries are currently considering withdrawing from some of the United Nations’ various councils, programs, and funds. The United States has recently been considering quitting the UN Human Rights Council as well as slashing its contributions. Several African nations have also been considering withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, citing bias against Africans.
Amid the criticisms and the frustrations of its member states, the question on the minds of many remains, “Is the United Nations still relevant?” While the values of the United Nations have proved to be timeless, execution has been problematic. Their policies are riddled with too much “what to do” and not enough “how to do it.” Many argue that the United Nations system has ultimately failed to prove its value.
The world has changed a great deal since the founding of the United Nations. Mounting skepticism on globalization and increased focus on politics at the local level has led to the rise of populism in France, Britain, and the United States. Global disasters stemming from climate change, famine, and emerging diseases are in the cards and threaten the world order. While it’s clear that the UN’s current mode of operations has had its disappointing moments, withdrawing from membership or cutting funding are not solutions to the problem. Both measures could throw the world order into chaos.
As such, the most insidious threat to world order lies not in impending famine, climate change, or emerging diseases, but in the increasing dissonance among nations over working together to maintain peace and progress worldwide. Critics favoring unilateralism argue that participating in global peacekeeping and progress takes away from achieving peace and progress at home. That being said, accomplishing peace and progress domestically requires countries to acknowledge the growing interconnectedness between our country and the world around us. The world is becoming more connected, not less. Embracing this perspective allows us to see that collaboration and negotiation with other countries is still the way to maintain peace and achieve progress and prosperity. Multilateralism is still the path forward.
This is a critical moment for the United Nations. A moment for them to restructure, reform, and reinvent. A moment for them to respond more agilely to the needs of a changing world. Change, however, is a long, painful (and expensive) process. A process which needs full buy-in, support, and participation from its members in order to succeed. This is the only way for the United Nations to survive and more importantly, for our world to continue to thrive.