Author: Jack Mulcaire
United Nations Week, the celebratory week commemorating the 25th anniversary of the U.N. internship program, may have passed, but the questions it invoked have not. The week provided an opportunity to reflect on what, after 66 years, the U.N. has accomplished and what it still intends to accomplish. But even more critical than those questions is a reflection on the benefits of still having the U.N. around. It is fashionable to declare the organization a “useless” one with no real power and no real effect on world affairs, but is this true? It is not a “useless” organization, but rather an organization that holds power that it is both unwilling and unsure of how to use.
While there is a fair share of criticism of the U.N. and its necessity in the unipolar world we now live in, there are some pretty important things that the U.N. does that go noticed. It prevents problems from arising with steady, boring international cooperation, which does not get media attention.
For example, the U.N. is definitely capable of preventing conflict between traditional nation-states. Today, when nations have conflicts with each other that used to end in war, they almost never fight. Look at just the last few months: If this were the 19th century, the September 2010 China-Japan Senkaku Islands dispute, the Southern Sudan independence referendum and Cambodia and Thailand’s skirmishes over the Preah Vihear temple complex — to name just a few crises — all probably would have ended in serious wars with thousands of deaths on both sides.
But ever since 1945, conflict between states has undoubtedly been in decline. That’s a good thing because state-on-state war is perhaps the most destructive activity we as humans can engage in.
Obviously we can argue about the extent to which the decline of serious state-on-state conventional war is due to the U.N. Nuclear weapons, greater trade interdependence and the increasing price of war are all certainly part of the cause, but the U.N. takes a lot of credit too. We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that, in our time, the accepted international norm is to talk out differences in a communal format.
Ultimately nations avoid war for self-interested reasons rather than the desire to “do the right thing,” and the U.N. facilitates that by making war a much less attractive option to any given conflict scenario. The Cold War could have ended in a nuclear exchange if there was not a forum for direct international discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s.
We want the U.N. to take care of everything from ending hunger, to protecting the environment, to enforcing international copyright laws. These are problems it never intended to fix and does not do so well at eliminating them. Take humanitarian aid. The U.N. has evolved to be fairly good at preventing humanitarian disasters from spiraling out of control; the World Food Program feeds hundreds of millions of people, and we don’t hear about it or care about it because those people are fed and therefore not violent or dying on camera. But this is merely preventing the problem from getting worse. U.N. efforts to handle the roots of these problems generally become mired in a sea of bureaucracy, corruption and incompetence.
Look at nations that have the longest history of U.N. involvement: Congo, Haiti and Lebanon all have had a large presence for decades, but the U.N. has failed to make the complex problems of poverty and violence there get any better. If you’re a refugee and you’re waiting for the U.N. to get you home, you’re going to be waiting a long time.
This brings us to the U.N.’s greatest failure: addressing non-state conflict. Every active war at this moment involves at least one side which is not represented by any government. This is a problem for the U.N.
As we have seen, the U.N. was designed to prevent state-on-state violence. Beyond that, its ability to stop conflict breaks down into farce. The usual response to non-state conflict is the deployment of peacekeepers. Unfortunately the very idea of peacekeeping is flawed. The reason these troops are being sent to these countries in the first place is that there is no peace to keep. What’s worse is that the U.N.’s legalistic, bureaucratic culture prevents it from taking any effective action to end non-state conflicts, even when action clearly should be taken.
Right now in the Ivory Coast, we can see a classic U.N. failure situation. There is a conflict between entities within a state (between Laurent Gbago and Alessane Ouattra, two rival candidates who both claim they won the recent election). According to the Associated Press, Gbago has been killing his political rivals by the hundreds, right under the nose of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers. Ivory Coast security forces have blatantly blocked peacekeepers from reaching mass graves.
It’s a smaller scale repeat of the U.N.’s biggest shame: the failure to do anything about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, despite the presence of thousands of international troops. U.N. decision-makers are too caught up in legal red tape and, quite frankly, feeble pacifist sentiments to act forcefully in situations where the right decision is obvious: End the violence. Some might object that the U.N. doesn’t have the resources to do such a thing. That’s just not true.
U.N. peacekeeping forces have thousands of professional soldiers with armored vehicles and attack helicopters. The irregular forces that terrorize the world’s conflict zones are generally made up of untrained militiamen armed with rusty old AK-47s. In the early 1960s, a 300-man European mercenary force and five Commandos under the command of the controversial Captain “Mad” Mike Hoare put an end to a conflict in the Congo that had killed thousands because they were aggressive and not encumbered by an unresponsive chain of command. Today almost 20,000 U.N. troops in the same area of the Congo regularly allow mass rapes and massacres to happen in the area under their control.
So first be thankful that the U.N. exists. It helps us avoid the worst sorts of disasters and power conflicts with its considerable capability to create international pressure. But then realize that handing a problem off to the U.N. is often just an action that makes countries feel better about themselves rather than a solution that actually solves the problems that are most dire. The U.N. arguably holds the most potential for power than any other international organization in the history of the world. Its members span all six developed continents. Its bodies cover almost every aspect of modern struggles, from conflict resolution to poverty and human rights defense. And yet the power is diluted in a mass of red tape and unbinding, usually weak resolutions — and the potential is squandered. So it’s hard to say that the U.N. does not have a place in the modern unipolar world, but it’s hard not to note that the place where the U.N. belongs is certainly not where it has put itself on the world stage. It is not a matter of existing as the solution or not. Rather, the U.N. must, like any other body, accept that change is the only way to stay relevant, a state that the U.N. needs to be in to stay afloat.
Jack Mulclaire is an undeclared first-year. He can be reached at email@example.com
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