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Is 70 Too Old for the UN?

NEW YORK – As world leaders prepare to gather next week at the United Nations in New York to ratify the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and commemorate the UN’s 70th anniversary, for many a fundamental question has become inescapable. In the face of growing global disorder – including turmoil in the Middle East, waves of migrants flooding into Europe, and China’s unilateral moves to enforce its territorial claims – does the UN have a future?

Grounds for pessimism are undeniable. Conflicts rage on, seemingly unaffected by upholders of world order. Despite more than two decades of talk, the Security Council’s permanent membership (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) still reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945, not 2015. Denied accommodation in the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) commensurate with its economic clout, China has established its own alternatives, which other countries have flocked to join. The G-20 seems more representative than the Security Council – and more imbued with common purpose.

Yet the UN should not be written off. It continues to serve a vital purpose, and its history suggests that it can be revitalized to meet the needs of the twenty-first century.

The UN began, in 1945, as a vision shared by the leaders of the victorious Allies, who were determined to ensure that the second half of the twentieth century did not play out like the first half. After two world wars, countless civil wars, brutal dictatorships, mass expulsions of populations, and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, “never again” was not just a slogan: the alternative was too apocalyptic to contemplate.