Foreign Policy

What the U.N. Is Good For… or Might Be

In an ordinary year, mid-September in New York would feature traffic jams grotesque even by Manhattan standards, compounded by complaints about diplomats shirking parking fines and allegations of espionage. These would be followed up by lengthy speeches, fiery denunciations of the United States, and outraged editorials lamenting the hypocrisy of offending states on the United Nations Human Rights Council. All part of the annual New York ritual known as the convocation of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA).

This year’s largely virtual assembly, which the organization is using to celebrate the U.N.’s 75th anniversary, seems laughably mistimed, given that the Trump administration has withdrawn from participation in the Human Rights Council, refused funding for Palestinian refugees, and is $3.6 billion behind on its financial contributions to the organization. The United States has chafed for decades at its U.N. dues—one-fifth of the body’s total budget—but under the Trump administration, U.S. animosity toward the U.N. has hit new highs.

President Donald Trump has been broadcasting his hostility since at least 2017, when in his debut UNGA speech he refused to acknowledge any past successes of the body and derided its operations. While the president’s views may be extreme, however, they’re hardly uncommon among American leaders. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued this month that the U.N. has become pointless, and he said that the United States should pursue multilateral cooperation in other coalitions like the G-7 instead.

It’s certainly true that the world has made less progress than desired on the U.N. Charter’s commitments to “maintain international peace and security,” “develop friendly relations among nations,” and “achieve international cooperation in solving international problems.” Disagreements among the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council deadlock the group; others object to the structural inequality of this “permanent five.” The Security Council’s lack of action against modern horrors like the Chinese incarceration of Uighur Muslims then makes it both easy and fashionable to lament all the U.N. has failed to do. Haass also criticized the General Assembly’s system of universal representation, characterizing it as “ineffectual” because “every country has one vote, regardless of its size, population, wealth, or military might.”

Such criticisms are misplaced. Insofar as they are accurate, denouncing the U.N.’s structure is the international equivalent of bemoaning the United States’ electoral college or the distribution of seats in the U.S. Senate: These features—which today may seem suboptimal—were essential to securing countries’ agreement for participation at the time of the U.N.’s founding. The Security Council and UNGA were developed for a U.N. of 50 member states, not the current 193. Nevertheless, today’s U.N. members can’t agree on how to change things, and the United States isn’t willing to take a position on reform or expend the effort to make changes. So, for the time being, the U.N. as it stands is the organ for broad international cooperation we’ve got.

Moreover, using the U.N.’s structure as an explanation for the United States’ failure to achieve its goals ignores the reality that any conceivable reform of the U.N. would reduce rather than expand the structural power of the United States. Fleeing to more exclusive bodies like the G-7 makes policy coordination easier, but it narrows these policies’ global reach. The United States’ failure to get its policies adopted at the U.N. is not rooted in the body’s structure; rather, U.S. initiatives have floundered because the United States has been unsuccessful at persuading others of its agenda. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as a substitute for winning the argument—and evasive abandonment certainly isn’t it.

When U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed office in 1953, the U.N. looked similar to how it does now—albeit with fewer members. Eisenhower also faced problems similar to those that plague both U.S. and global action today: a deadlocked Security Council, for one, and broad suspicion of U.S. motives due to the United States’ alliances with many colonial oppressors. Eisenhower, too, was daunted by the tall task of building coalitions for U.S. initiatives. His administration’s review of U.S. participation in the U.N. arrived at all-too-similar conclusions to those of the current administration. The Eisenhower administration called the Security Council “unworkable,” and criticized fellow permanent-five members Britain and France for stymieing “rapid progress in this field.”

Rather than write the U.N. off completely, however, Eisenhower worked within its structures to accomplish U.S. objectives. For instance, his administration capitalized on UNGA’s one country, one vote feature, which it considered “an important means of pressure as well as public justification of (its) case.” Eisenhower sought to bring Cold War-relevant matters before the UNGA, where he hoped to achieve “large majorities.” This orientation to more participation became a new way to circumvent what Washington called the “paralysis” of the Security Council.

This approach proved successful, and the Eisenhower administration was able to use the U.N. to advance U.S. interests. Eisenhower brought forward a substantive agenda of U.S. policies that formed the basis of U.N. activity and helped develop institutional capacities the United States and the world now rely on: The International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Food Program, for example, both grew out of proposals made in Eisenhower’s U.N. General Assembly speeches.

This approach—and these accomplishments—contrast starkly with the Trump administration’s relentless disparagement of the U.N., which it has followed up with refusals to fund or participate fully in the organization. There are real costs to this sort of behavior. The United States’ founders understood the importance of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Within the U.N., the United States now seems too arrogant and impatient to attend to these very opinions.

Writing off the rest of the world impedes support for U.S. policies by those Americans need—or want—to help them. It’s true that shepherding policies through the U.N. is less efficient than taking action unilaterally, but the United States also does not want to do everything alone. Not only do the United States’ tantrums when things don’t go its way aggravate those nations that get what they want much less often, but they also leave room for countries with antagonistic interests to dominate proceedings. In recent years, China has capitalized on U.S. petulance at the U.N. to move into leadership positions.

The United States should return to expending its diplomatic efforts at the United Nations. Washington currently contents itself with braying its demands loudly, rather than trying to understand what others want—and when it can align with those desires to attain U.S. aims. To become effective again at the U.N., the United States must remember three important points.

First, the United States has always considered the U.N. an “avenue of last resort”—an approach The United States dumps into the U.N. the problems it doesn’t care enough about to solve itself. While U.N. peacekeeping operations, for example, tend to be unsuccessful (unless political circumstances have created an actual peace to keep), they do stabilize situations of little interest to the United States. Without the U.N., the United States would likely not pay heed to these situations, but funding peacekeeping operations can buy smaller countries’ support on larger matters of actual U.S. interest.

Second, international security is not the U.N.’s main focus; economic development, global health, refugee assistance, and information-sharing are, and they are attended to through agencies such as the World Food Program, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. The U.N. does an enormous amount of good in areas where the United States wants action but isn’t keen on taking full responsibility, paying the full costs, or doing the diplomatic bidding.

Third, the U.N. Charter is an enormous ideological achievement for American values. As the Eisenhower administration understood, “we have in the U.N. Charter a statement of our own values and objectives, and we have tried to persuade other members to identify their self-interest in terms of that same standard of measurement.” Engaging constructively at the U.N. advances those values internationally. Today, however, the United States at the U.N. has become what the Soviet Union once was, adopting policies of “non-cooperation and wrecking activities.”

The U.N. is not a perfect body—nor has it ever been. But it is a necessary one. If the United States wants to regain broad international support for its policies, the country would do well to remember that the U.N. does ample important work around the globe—and only through active participation in that work can the United States ensure it advances U.S. interests.

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