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Is the UN Becoming Irrelevant?

As wars, humanitarian crises, and other global problems mount, many around the world worry that the United Nations is increasingly incapable of organizing effective multilateral responses. Fortunately, there is no shortage of proposals for reforms that could make it fit for purpose once again.

PS Quarterly regularly features predictions by experts on a topic of global concern. In a world beset by climate change and biodiversity loss, new wars and geopolitical conflicts, disruptive technologies, mounting debts, and many other transnational problems, everyone recognizes (at least in principle) the need for stronger global governance. Yet these same problems have underscored the shortcomings of the world’s premier multilateral body, the United Nations. Notwithstanding all the important good work that the UN system does, from providing immunizations to sheltering refugees, even some of the organization’s staunchest advocates acknowledge that it is in urgent need of reform. In light of recent global developments, we asked contributors whether they agree or disagree with the following proposition:

“The UN’s relevance is waning and will continue to do so.”

Faith Mabera

In the 1950s, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously quipped that the UN “was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” By that standard, the UN has been effective. Since its establishment in 1945, we have indeed been spared another world war.

But the picture becomes more complicated when one looks beyond truly cataclysmic threats to international peace and security. In many parts of the world, there is an acute and growing sense of disillusionment and discontent with the paucity of effective solutions to an array of persistent and complex global challenges. Apart from the demands for more equitable representation and institutional restructuring, there are also mounting calls for a more comprehensive overhaul of the UN system.

Such demands reflect a global order that is markedly different from the immediate post-World War II era. While the UN remains an important multilateral forum in a largely anarchic international system, it has not kept pace with the most consequential global developments. Even as our globalized world becomes more interdependent and pluralistic, international power has grown more contested.

One is reminded of the truism about change being the only constant. The UN must restore trust and undergo concrete structural reforms to become more effective, representative, and responsive to the most pressing global challenges of our time. Failing that, its relevance will wane.

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Mark Malloch-Brown

I disagree with the proposition. Judging by headlines over the near half-century in which I have worked in and around the UN – apart from a brief period after the Cold War – you might conclude that it has been one long period of decline. The real story, however, is one of ongoing adjustment and reinvention, with the UN moving into new domains as they have opened up – even as others have closed. Consider, for example, how the UN greatly expanded its humanitarian activities as wars raged across Cold War proxy states, or the technical assistance it provided to newly decolonized parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s, or how it has gone on to become the go-to forum for climate negotiations since the 1990s.

If the UN’s relevance appears to be waning today, that is owing specifically to the often-deadlocked permanent membership of the Security Council, and – to a lesser degree – to the UN’s human-rights capabilities in an age of rampant impunity. Yet for many around the world, these functions are subsidiary to its still vital work in fields like development, humanitarian assistance, and the climate crisis. So, the complex question of relevance is not just a matter of “when,” but of where in the system one looks.

Joel Ng

The UN straddles an uneasy gulf between its high ideals and the messy compromises that were needed to create it in the first place. Today’s great-power competition has placed enormous pressure on the UN, because none of the vying powers wants to be constrained by the system.

Since the UN’s birth, the permanent five veto-wielding members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have reserved the right to block any resolutions that go against their national interests. Over time, such obstruction has reduced the UN’s effectiveness and legitimacy, since it regularly makes the organization appear ineffectual at achieving its primary mandate: securing international peace.

There is a silver lining, though. Under the Liechtenstein veto initiative, a significant reform adopted in 2022, the UN General Assembly has a mandate to debate any motion that has been vetoed at the Security Council. Through these debates – which have already been held over the Ukraine and Gaza crises – the General Assembly can set out majority positions reflecting global opinion. Moreover, the ten elected members of the Security Council have taken the General Assembly’s stance to try to hold veto-wielders to account.

These creative interpretations of the General Assembly’s powers are born of long-standing frustrations with the Security Council, which often cannot deliver on its mandate. As smaller states find innovative means to circumvent traditional impasses, they will both reiterate the UN’s importance and restore its relevance. The arena of superpower politics, however, unfortunately will remain beyond the UN’s reach.

Kal Raustiala

The UN’s relevance has been waning since almost the moment the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco in the summer of 1945. But that does not mean the UN is irrelevant or will be irrelevant anytime soon. The UN remains the sole place where the entire world is represented. This makes it essential for a wide array of difficult issues, and it is one reason world leaders continue to show up every fall for the diplomatic Olympics known as the General Assembly opening session.

To be sure, many leaders have skipped the event in recent years. One reason is the existence of other major global forums such as the G20. But these bodies do not have the institutional or legal power that the UN has, especially via the Security Council. That points to another reason that the UN’s relevance has been increasingly questioned. The Security Council, while still a central actor, reflects the constellation of power that existed in 1945, not that of today; and yet it is almost impossible to reform. (Though it did expand once before, in the 1960s, as dozens of newly independent states flooded into the UN).

In short, the UN is outdated, weak, and often ineffective. But the alternatives, unfortunately, are even worse. As the renowned US diplomat Richard Holbrooke once said, blaming the UN for the world’s problems is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks lose. Can there be a better UN? History suggests that major new institutions are built only after major wars. As much as we might find fault with the present UN, that is not a prospect any of us should welcome.

Roland Rich

The UN is a misnomer. It is not nations that gather on the East River in New York, it is their governments – democratic ones, authoritarian ones, military ones, and narco ones. Because governments employ the UN for their own narrow, invariably short-term purposes, the UN will continue to meander along its current path to irrelevance if nothing changes. Since a nation is much more than its government, the UN needs to find a way to involve a wider range of actors who can help it deal with the world’s many crises.

In my recent book, The United Nations as Leviathan, I proposed a big new idea to make the UN more effective. Instead of one General Assembly, we need three. One would remain for governments, one would be for international civil society, and the other would be for international business. Only the first assembly would be Westphalian, whereas the other two would represent equally important dimensions of the modern world. The size of the new bodies could be tied to the size of the current General Assembly, with UN decisions taken by a majority of delegates and a majority of assemblies.

Three assemblies would create a new dynamic. Governments would remain a powerful group, but civil society would be far more involved in setting the agenda, and global business would eventually develop strong market-enforcement powers. By giving each sector of society a stake in the UN’s proceedings, we might just make it work.

Jody Williams

The UN is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and unless there are changes to align it to today’s world, the trend can only continue. Established after World War II to maintain peace, promote human rights, and facilitate international cooperation, the UN is not meeting its mission. It has failed to prevent and meaningfully respond to conflicts, and it has fallen short of championing human rights. Moreover, the UN system mirrors deeply unequal global structures of power along racial and gender lines, with just a few countries holding most of the power.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has entered its third year, and all attempts by the Security Council merely to condemn the war, let alone take any tangible action, have been vetoed by Russia. The US, for its part, blocked several attempts to pass a resolution on a ceasefire and humanitarian aid to Gaza. Only after 30,000 people had been killed was a resolution eventually adopted, and still it remained unimplemented. So, too, does a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Sudan.

UN peacekeepers were present in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 25 years, yet they failed to protect civilians from mounting attacks by militia. Now, they have begun to withdraw at a time when tensions are rising, sexual violence is rife, and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis is unfolding.

It’s bad enough that the UN has never had a female leader. To add insult to injury, it recently selected Saudi Arabia – a country where that adheres to strict male guardianship, the death penalty for same-sex relations, and the stoning of women for adultery – to lead its gender-equality work.

These are not the hallmarks of a robust, purposeful organization. Without a serious restructuring of the UN – without teeth and global accountability – its irrelevance is inevitable.