Or Else?

Why the structure of the UN will be its downfall, and what can be done to stop its demise.

By Noah Dove : Sep. 5th 2008

The United Nations is in dire straights. Due to a host of contributing factors, the UN has seen its credibility, and thus its legitimacy slowly decay, especially over the last decade. Devoted to ending war, promoting freedom, and eliminating worldwide famine and plague, the UN has clearly failed in its overarching designs. While this would be forgivable if real progress was being made, but progress thus far has been very uneven, with some parts getting worse.

Indeed, the overarching goal of ending warfare has been the least successful. Lack of strategic planning, centralized command, and the inability to acquire the proper resources have allowed for an unending stream of problems along this front. Rogue states are free to simply ignore UN resolutions and hollow threats lead to the question "or else?" when they practice non-compliance. This has started a new trend within the last half decade whereby non-UN institutions have unilaterally taken it upon themselves to enforce UN resolutions for the UN. This particular trend may well be the UN's ultimate undoing.

A combination of the structure compared to the scope of the UN, along with its composition of member nations and their respective goals have created a long and sour history for the UN. Not all is lost, however, as there are a host of possible solutions to fix the UN's problems. To understand these problems, we first need to look at the member states that act as the real actors inside the UN.

The Actors

The United Nations, at its heart, is really a loose confederacy of member nations. Due to lack of a strong, federalizing force, the nature of the individual members collected together is what makes up the behavior of the UN itself. When we look at where a vast majority of the funding for the UN comes from, and where the majority of the armed forces come from, and where the majority of the idealistic drive comes from, it's clear to see that the nature of the UN is predominantly based on the characteristics of modern liberal democracies. The power that can be transferred up to international organizations largely comes from the legitimacy gained through popular representation. Indeed, the ability of a liberal democracy to be so responsive to its people's wants and needs is what has given liberal democratic states themselves the strength to do as well as they have so far. All of this does have a catch, though: liberal democracies are slaves to the wills of their people.

This means that, in the end, the power and ability of the UN rests, through a few intermediary levels, on the people who live in these democratic states. It's important, then, to look at how people generally behave. One of the most glaring attributes about people is that they tend to be self-centered. True, some may be downright greedy and selfish, but even more altruistic people still put themselves in the center of their needs and security circles. As such, people will tend to behave in such a way where they will care first about what happens to themselves, their friends, and their families before they care about other people in their nation, which they will care about much more, and more easily than people that they don't know on the other side of the planet. For a quick example, think of how sad you've been when a grandparent, parent, or child has died, and compare it to how many tears you've shed for the millions of Armenians who died in 1915.

Due to the nature of democracies, this way of being is contagious. National governments will tend to care about themselves before those in their regions, and those across the world, respectively. After all, if government officials don't care about themselves first, and thus are unable to take care of their own citizens first, they will soon find themselves voted out of power1.

There are other attributes that tend to come along with liberal democracies as well. For one, they tend to be risk averse2. After all, few people would want to give power to those who would then turn around and endanger them. This of course, means that governments are unwilling to take any risk, unless they face more risk by not doing something. For example, the threat of continued terror attacks against the United States after September 11th made the risk of losing several hundred soldiers seem acceptable. Thus, democracies will tend to only take risks against direct threats from internal, to regional, to global, in diminishing order. It didn't take long, for example, for Lincoln to send troops to South Carolina at the beginning of the Civil War (a direct, local threat), whereas presidents Wilson and George W. Bush needed to pull their nations by the proverbial nose hairs to get them to intervene in World War I, and overthrow Saddam Hussein, respectively.

As well, citizens of democracies tend to hate it when their governments waste their money. Thus, democratic governments tend to act on things that will have a high return on investment3. People will be willing to shell out for protection against anarchy and violence domestically, and against foreign invasion and oppression, as these have large, clear returns. But what kinds of return do citizens get by having their army act as a police force in a failing government a world away? Are average citizens willing to give the necessary economic support to developing nations to reduce the chance that they will create future problems if it means losing jobs at home?4

From this, we can establish a clear trend among liberal democracies. These countries will tend not to intervene in foreign conflicts unless there is a threat to them, and unless there is a high rate of return from intervening (as in, the status quo before the disruption is worth more than the cost to return things to the status quo)5. This creates the pattern of waiting to act until the crisis, humanitarian tragedy, declaration of war, levying of sanctions, or military invasion have already happened, rather than trying to prevent a problem from boiling over in the first place. As well, once the clear and present danger has been handled, democracies are generally unwilling to foot the bill for the post-conflict resolutions6. They will pay for the houses that their bombs knocked down, but they won't spend the immense amount of time, energy, and resources required to actually engage in real conflict resolution and long-term conflict prevention. These things require much, and bear a risk of failure (as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has done numerous times between its successes) all for something that is bringing no immediate threat.

One of the solutions to this problem is multilateral intervention. The idea is like college kids finding a dozen friends to split a two-room apartment. Sure, it may create a whole host of new problems, but it's cheap, solving your primary dilemma. Not only does doing multilateral actions require a significantly decreased amount of resources per party involved, but it also spreads the risk around. The Soviet Union was humiliated by its loss in Afghanistan (indeed, this was a major contributing factor to the failure of the state itself7), but Europe was only "embarrassed" by what happened in the Balkans, while each individual nation state feels only this vague sense of unease that no one in the entire collective world has succeeded in bringing peace to Darfur.

Then, of course, there are more selfish reasons for using multilateral action, other than just the discount deal on foreign policy. In many ways, the UN has become the dumping ground of foreign policy that is too unpopular for any one nation to push on its own8. After all, this great paramount of multilateral intervention exists, which surely won't be unable to bear a single nation leaving its problems on the doorstep while proceeding to bow out. Everyone else can just pick up the slack. It should be easy, given how little everyone needs to bring in the first place. This, of course, is a lethal attitude when its brought to the UN. On the one hand, many hands do, indeed, make a light load. On the other hand, the UN has no power of its own, but requires everybody lending a hand to be able to work at all. Thus the "dump and run" mentality, when used on an organization whose ability to get anything done requires its component parts to come together to act outside of their best interest and spend resources that they will see little return on, causes the UN to act as a figurative trash can: expected to handle everything that nobody wants to handle, even though handling it ultimately requires everybody to pitch in to handle it. To make this ludicrous situation even more tragic, there are even people who politically gain when the UN fails8.

Attitudes Towards the UN

So, to do a quick recap, the UN is composed of nations that only want what is best for them, and have no interest in handling things that don't have an immediate benefit for them. They will only handle crises, because the gain is obvious, and they will tend to do things multilaterally, because its cheaper. Even then, people don't properly support the UN, because even multilateral action is increasingly deemed too expensive and too high risk

But this "let the UN fix it" attitude while not giving the UN the resources needed to actually fix it is not the only attitude that is impairing the UN. Another cost to nations other than time and resources is power. Above all else, people expect their democratically elected governments to provide them with security. Thus governments tend to use state resources to provide security to its state as best it can, even to the detriment of others (if the Cold War has taught us anything). If a central, multilateral organization were leaned on more and more to actually handle security, it would take power out of the hands of the state. Being between their constituencies (citizens) who demand personal security, and a multinational institution who is irresponsible to said constituency, allows for the potential for the UN to handle security in such a way where the government's people vote them out of office. Needless to say, few government officials want to put themselves in a position where they relinquish control of their political future to someone else, not even of their nation9.

There are other problems that come with it as well. For example, if it were up to a national commander-in-chief to chose between losing 10 of his country's soldiers at the cost of 1000 of the enemy and losing 200 of his own at the price of 200 of the enemy (assuming both plans complete the objective), the national commander is most likely to chose the option which puts the fewest of those he cares about at risk. This is especially true considering how risk averse people and thus democracies tend to be. In any case, a global, collaborative effort like the UN may go for the lowest net body count and thus go with the latter option, even if it means that said national commander's job is at risk. As well, there's the unthinkable option that UN forces would be used against your own country. For example, at the dawn of the 1979 October war, Israel saw the immanent threat of invasion and decided to start the war with a pre-emptive strike10. In this case, it could theoretically be possible for the UN to blame Israel because it attacked first, and send in soldiers to help the enemy armies in retaliation for your violation of sovereignty of your neighbors. Needless to say, the possibility of doing what is in your best interest (as far as national security is concerned) could result in UN reparations makes the idea of relinquishing control a less than ideal option for most governments.

As well, relinquishing control to global multilateral conflict resolution organizations has the possibility to threaten regional multilateral security efforts. Regional security is often a policy course taken by national governments as it provides the expense and risk reduction efforts of multilateralism with the possibility of pressing local threats required for states to actually take action at all11. A global organization, however, might lack the specific knowledge and understanding of particular regional nuisances to be helpful without also creating a host of new problems12. As well, global action threatens bilateral efforts of nations. For example, the US has a direct alliance with Israel. If the UN were to attack Israel, the US would have quite a problem on its hands. Either it could sacrifice its connection with the international community and the potential multilateral security that it brings, or it would have to sacrifice its bilateral arrangement and thus lose control of a vital asset in its own regional policy (towards the Middle East), and, in the end, have power stripped away from it by the UN, creating the problem of the loss of power found in the previous paragraph13. As well, more powerful nations (which, remember, are the primary contributors to and drivers of UN policy) tend to enjoy positions of great power in their regional domains. This is another layer that governments can use to give security to their people, which can be threatened by international global security organizations. For example, look at Russia's endless railing against NATO incursions into its "near abroad"14.

Another attitude problem concerning the UN is based on its history especially during the Cold War, the momentum of which has been difficult to break. To understand Cold War attitudes to the UN, you have to take the preceding paragraphs to the extreme. For the US and the USSR, security was seen as a literal life or death struggle not only for themselves, but for the rest of the world. As such, neither side was willing to give away even the faintest amount of power to any institution that they couldn't directly control. This also meant that the UN was basically totally barred, thanks to security council veto powers, from intervening in any place other than locations outside of either hegemon's sphere of influence, and that also, even if it was outside of such a sphere, in such a place where neither power particularly cared about it, or saw it as part of their strategic interests. Needless to say, this gave the UN a very limited area of reach, as not only could they not act in places were a superpower cared, but they also could still only operate in places where people cared enough to actually send resources to (the same as today)15.

This state of bilateral control of the world, and the reluctance of either side to give power led to a drastic weakening of the UN, especially in the places where it was supposed to matter most (specifically, monitoring and controlling the threat of global industrial warfare). Pedro Sanjuan puts it well:

The slow road to absurdity was therefore the only route left open for the UN. Over the years it grew into a convenient arena for the neutrals and the not-so-neutrals of the Third World to air their petty disputes and pretend to be involved in humanitarian causes.

As an effective political organ, the UN was controlled from only one place - the UN Security Council - where the superpowers held sway. There the US and the USSR made deals, including choosing weak and ineffectual UN secretaries-general whom both superpowers could manipulate.

Yet very little was accomplished [by the UN] if we are to judge from the appalling progress today of AIDS and other vicious plagues, from the prevailing specter everywhere of famine and malnutrition, from the atrocious plight of women and children throughout the world, from the widespread practice of slavery, from the continued increase in racism and religious intolerance, or from the rampant spread of genocide and terrorism.16

Indeed, the Cold War was an extreme example of what has been expounded thus far. It was a couple of nations who were doing everything possible for the selfish benefit of their nation while ignoring things that couldn't possibly be seen as a national security issue, or have a good return on investment. Meanwhile, the UN was blamed (in part in purpose by the superpowers as a way to delegitimize it as a threat to their hegemony) for being a global organizations devoted towards the highest ideals of peace and welfare, while sitting idly by as famine, warfare, and the threat of total nuclear annihilation went unchecked. Needless to say, these bitter memories and attitudes still persist today.

Structure & Scope of the UN

But of course all of this nay-saying of the UN can't be blamed solely on the way in which it was hemmed in during the cold war. After all, after president Bush the Elder's "new world order" speech, the expectation was that now that all of the hampering forces were thrown out, the UN would be able to be more effective. It was going to be a new, golden age where unity and multilateral cooperation would develop a bright and peaceful global community. Did the UN accomplish this goal once the Cold War ended? Hardly. The fact that over 25 nations have experienced armed conflicts during just 2007 is a testament to this17.

This current credibility problem, however, does not need to be. For example, if the UN said that its goal was simply to observe borders and invoke sanctions against nations it didn't like, then nobody would complain when that is all that they did. If no one expected the UN to handle genocide, then no one would blame the UN for the continuance of ethnic cleansing. This expectation (and thus, by extension credibility and then by extension legitimacy) gap is a product of the structure and the scope of the UN itself, as directed by its founding charter.

The very first words of the UN charter are "We the peoples of the united nations [are] determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war..."18 Right there, straight out of the gate, the UN promises that, if it is successful, it will eliminate armed conflict. While the remainder of the first line sets up the expectation that the UN will only end interstate industrial warfare, it doesn't take long to expand its scope. One simply needs to read a few lines down to find "to ensure... that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest" Indeed, once we get to chapter seven, we are met immediately with the phrase "The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken..."19 The word "any", of course, pushing the scope of the UN to extend to wherever violence is taking place.

However, this lofty ideal has problems straight out of the box. For example, one need not look further than Article 2 before phrases like "The [UN] is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all members" and "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to the settlement under the present charter."20 So, the charter starts out by telling everybody that the UN will end all institutional violence and bring about world peace, and then, a mere couple of paragraphs later adds the caveat that it won't compromise anyone's sovereignty to do so. In short, the UN claims to be a force to end genocide, for example, but not if the government doing the genocide doesn't want the UN to interfere. This of course is particularly obstructive to the UN's ultimate goals due to the fact that almost all conflicts in the past 15 years have been internal, intra-state conflicts. Then, of course, to add to the confusion, the quote above finishes out with the phrase "but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII."21

Right away, we can already see where the credibility gap starts. The scope of UN responsibilities and the depth of its promises and its potential is undercut by the structure set up to achieve its goals. It's structure doesn't stop interfering with the UN's goals, though. Sticking in just Chapter VII, we can see a few more problems develop.

One massive problem is the lack of clear and strategic leadership. For example, article 46 says "Plans for the application of armed force shall be made by the Security Council with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee."22 In brief, when it comes to the command of the military forces loaned to the UN, said forces are controlled by a committee of 15 countries (who all have their best interests first in mind), in conjunction with (thanks to article 44) any country who contributes forces, and demands that they should have a say in how they are used. Thus, it is entirely possible for an armed delegation from 100 different nations to be lead by a commanding committee of 100 members, all of whom have their best interests at heart, rather than whatever strategy is best to accomplish the ultimate goal. It should be no wonder, then that an organization which, in general principle gives out a slice of the power pie to everyone who contributed in some way to an effort, that there is a total absence of clear, coordinated, effective leadership.

But being confused about its direction is not the end of structural problems either. Another major problem is that of enforcement. For example, look at article 43 of the UN charter. The article starts by proclaiming

"All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security."23

The key word in this phrase is "undertake". Note that it does not say that the nations "shall" give aid to the security council, nor that it "must" give aid. No, instead it uses a word akin to saying that nations will "try" to pitch in. So long as it looks like nations are "undertaking", that is, making some vague gesture of moving towards a certain end, they are acting acceptably to the UN. When you consider how much governments have the potential to lose by risking resources and political capital to support multilateral efforts, it is clear that merely requesting governments try to follow suit simply isn't going to cut it.

This problem extends beyond the military aspect of the UN, however, and further exacerbates the credibility gap in other fields. For example, in the preamble to the charter, phrases such as "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights", and "promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom"24. The charter then goes on to call for the existence of internal UN sub-organizations to promote these. For example, article 55 says

With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote:

a. higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;

b. solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems; and international cultural and educational cooperation; and

c. universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.25

An impressive set of goals, which foster high expectations for a brighter future thanks to the UN. Of course, the charter then continues with article 56

All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.

Firstly, there is the useless word "pledge", not because the word is useless per se, but because the option exists for nations to pledge to take action which is either joint or separate. In brief, this allows for a condition of if a nation can convince others that they're taking any action at all, they can coast by with a free ride, as far as this obligation is concerned. Secondly, the word "separate" is important. Nations are faced with two options. Either they can take action their own way with their own funds in the ways they seem fit (to the benefit of their constituency and political position), or they can turn over their resources to a body which isn't nearly as accountable to their nation's citizens (who elect them) and is run by a massive committee rather than a single leader with a clear strategy for success. Even the most selfless, well-intentioned nation is going to see that the choice is obvious, even if it is committed to doing it at least a little bit both ways.

Iraq: the Perfect Storm of UN Problems

So, let's summarize the problems facing the UN so far, and compare it to a real world example. In brief, The UN is a confederacy of nations interested primarily in themselves, and who are only interested in helping the high-minded goals of the UN if it gives them a good return on investment, if it helps eliminate a direct or perceived threat, and if the risk to their particular nation is very low. Otherwise, they can simply dump the problem on the UN without lifting a finger and then watch as the poorly-structured organization lacks strategic vision and institutional muscle fails in its attempts when few nations give meaningful material support. Then, the United Nations gets blamed for failing to live up to its goals, and individual nations can avoid both blame and risk in one fell swoop.

Needless to say, this has formed a UN secretariat which ultimately devotes a large part of its time and energy in public relations in an attempt to coax people to help it, because it has no other way to get the resources it needs to do its job (which several key potentially-supporting nations may well disapprove of, depending on the particular job at hand)26. As well, it causes the UN to base what little coordinated strategy it has on doing things which are cheap and low-risk, rather than on what is effective. For example, the UN likes to put economic sanctions on countries which misbehave. Sanctions are very low risk, require no resources whatsoever, and require neither direct, nor up-front costs. Never mind the fact that they don't work27.

So let's get to our real-world example: Iraq. In 1990 Iraq invaded it's neighbor in a blatant efface to article 2, part 4 of the first chapter of the UN charter. The United States gathered a massive coalition together and, with the blessing of the UN, took a matter of days to start Iraq on the "mother of all retreats"28. After the Tomahawk missile dust cleared, the UN stepped in with some very strong words (passed in resolution 687):

Deploring threats made by Iraq during the recent conflict to make use of terrorism against targets outside Iraq and the taking of hostages by Iraq,

Demands that Iraq... respect the inviolability of the international boundary

Decides that Iraq shall unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless, under international supervision, of:
(a) All chemical and biological weapons and all stocks of agents and all related subsystems and components and all research, development, support and manufacturing facilities;
(b) All ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres and related major parts, and repair and production facilities;

Decides that Iraq shall unconditionally agree not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapons-usable material or any subsystems or components or any research, development, support or manufacturing facilities related to the above29

In brief, not only did Iraq take a tongue lashing for it's invasion of another sovereign state, and not only did it need to pay Kuwait back for the things that got knocked down, but as well, in repetitive, clear, strong words said that Iraq must give up anything even remotely possibly relating to the creation or maintenance of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as any serious missile program.

What did the UN do to enforce the resolution? They set up a committee of inspectors that were supposed to be allowed to observe the government claiming that it was complying, and it reserved the right to inspect any room in the proverbial house to make sure that there weren't any forbidden weapons in that particular room while the inspectors were present. Needless to say, the end result wasn't what the UN had hoped for. For over a decade after, the dialogue basically went like this:

UN: You can't have weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq: Oh? And what if we don't comply?

UN: We'll send in a few guys with lab coats to make sure you comply.

Iraq: And if we don't let the inspectors in?

UN: That would be a breach of an international resolution, you better comply!

Iraq: ...Or else?

UN: Or else we'll impose economic sanctions!

Iraq: You mean those ones that my neighbors will ignore as much as possible, thus rendering them completely useless?

UN: Yeah, those sanctions.

This painful dialogue went on and on. Even if Saddam did perfectly comply with the inspections (assuming that they didn't just shuffle around weapons parts to labs where the periodic inspections didn't happen do be on inspection day), and even if inspectors were shown, point blank, a fully-thriving nuclear weapons program, would the UN have done anything?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably little if anything. In the 90's, Iraq didn't pose an imminent threat to anybody but their neighbors (who neither contributed a great deal to, nor had very much power in the UN). The reluctance of the multilateral coalition to drive from Kuwait all the way to Baghdad in 1991 is further evidence that the great powers of the world simply didn't see Saddam as a big enough direct threat that risking themselves and spending time and resources simply wouldn't have had the return on investment required to make it politically popular enough back home to allow a responsive, democratic country to take such an action (even though the world knew for certain that Iraq had said weapons and said weapons programs at the time. Otherwise it wouldn't have showed up so much in resolution 687). Saddam Hussein's flagrant flaunting of the UN resolution by denying UN inspections showed how little concern he had that the UN would take any real action. Instead, the UN did what the UN does: levied sanctions. Meanwhile, all a country needed to do was to trade with Iraq through a third party, like Jordan, and the economic sanctions would provide, at most, an inconvenience.

Rather than taking real steps to enforce its resolution and collecting resources from member nations to employ real conflict resolution techniques to root out the causes of the problems that had caused the confrontation in the first place, lacking a crisis, the UN simply couldn't acquire the resources and political willpower necessary to solve the problem.

It wasn't until long after the Gulf War that the situation took a turn. Due to terrorist attacks, the United States suddenly saw a lot of things as being in their self-interest, as there cropped up a host of new, scary threats to domestic security that had simply been ignored until the issue was forced on September 11th. Unsurprisingly, Saddam's long history of making a mockery of U.S. foreign policy30 and generally acting as a big jerk gave ample incentive to lumping the Iraq confrontation into the fold. Given Saddam's long history of at least pursuing weapons of mass destruction and his systematic denial of the UN's ability to verify (as best it could) that he wasn't producing any such weapons, Iraq started to be perceived by some powerful people in the U.S. as a legitimate threat.

Once it became worthwhile for a great power to act, naturally things started getting put into motion. The U.S. started to prepare to take out the perceived (and in most cases actual) cause of the problems with Iraq: Saddam Hussein. At this point, it would have been possible for the UN to get on the American bandwagon and take some real action (unlike it's actions after the Gulf War). But then, everything fell apart.

The ability to act falls primarily on the Security Council, which is a confederacy of nations who have their own interests at the front of their minds. While the U.S. had at least an apparently legitimate interest in handling Iraq, zero of the other members had such an interest. To them, it would have been the classic dilemma of risk and return on investment. To counter this lack of interest, the U.S. went to the UN and basically said this: You passed a resolution barring Iraq from investing in anything involved in weapons of mass destruction. Here's the proof that they're breaking your resolution. We demand that you enforce your own resolution31.

In the end, the UN declined to intervene, or even give it's blessing on any attempt to enforce its own resolutions. Never mind that the specific evidence provided by the U.S. that Iraq was being noncompliant was shaky, at it's absolute best, and downright incorrect at its worst32. The problem remained the same: national interests trumped international willpower, and no amount of evidence (real or imaginary) or no number of years of noncompliance could change the fact that it simply wasn't the problem of anybody in the UN other than the United States. It wasn't in their best interest, so they didn't lift a finger to support an effort to enforce resolution they themselves had agreed to.

This, of course, lead to disaster, as far as the UN charter is concerned. The U.S. went on ahead, unilaterally (with a posse of nations that were obliged to offer some support for non-UN reasons) and invaded another sovereign state, deposed its government and set up its own, and would continue to occupy that other sovereign state with its own military for years to come. In a way, it was a long string of failures leading up to the ultimate failure of the entire purpose of the UN.

Fixing the UN While There's Still Time

The Iraq War set a dangerous precedent that threatens to completely undermine the UN. The 2008 Russian attack on Georgia provides a perfect example of a copycat attack. Russia gave out free citizenship and passports to citizens of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and then claimed that Georgia was ethnically cleansing said people. Given the UN mandate on the prevention of genocide, Russia invaded Georgia without bothering to get UN permission first (under the auspices of simply enforcing UN law for them).

In the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, at least there was the clear intention of leaving Iraq after the job is done (though clearly in the U.S.'s self interest, its goal of a secure, democratic, and free Iraq, is something that the UN can at least agree would be a positive end, despite the choice of means). In the case of Russia's actions, the dolling out of Russian citizenship gave Russia the quasi-legitimate authority to simply annex the territory it had seized from Georgia. Whether it was a genuine concern for the prevention of genocide (unlike Russia's concerns over such things in neighboring Chechnya), or whether it was a ruthless land grab, and a drastic expansion of strategic military power mere miles from a series of vast oil pipelines is up to personal opinion. In any case it is a clear, if not worse, affront to the principles, if not the very existence of the UN, than the U.S. Iraq invasion. Of course, this is just the first in what may wind up an endless series of such actions which, if they continue to go unchecked, will undoubtedly be the demise of the UN itself.

But let me take a moment to say that it isn't all doom and gloom. For starters, the UN isn't completely incompetent at doing anything, but indeed does have some valuable functions that it currently performs.

For example, the UN has played a successful role in election monitoring in newly democratizing countries33. This is a vital role to help bring stability, freedom, and so many of the values that the UN expounds to places that both want, and need them badly, but aren't quite able to bring them about themselves. Likewise, the UN is able to help facilitate arms control. Due to the nature of the Cold War, many developing nations were subsidized with excessively large military budgets (giving free guns to oppressive allied governments and sympathetic rebel groups being the most cost-effective way to implement foreign policy)34. The UN's arms control programs have successfully been able to reduce the amount of firepower in certain hotspots and thus help reduce the ease of using force, and the incentive to spend government funds on guns, rather than bread for often starving nations35.

As well, the UN has done an admirable job in providing humanitarian aid to the distressed peoples of the world. Undoubtedly, the standard of living increases, such as helping fight malnutrition are likely to have currently unseen positive effects in the future. As well, the UN has been able to occasionally broker peace agreements and do legitimate peacekeeping. There still exist a slough of cases today where two formerly warring parties have agreed to a peace, and have called for UN peacekeepers to sit on the border, making sure that neither side's army crosses over it36.

The real genius of the UN in providing election monitoring, arms control, humanitarian aid, and border patrolling is that the UN has figured out a way of providing options to nations to take actions that are at low cost, and low risk, with little loss of power, to the point where most nations are willing to contribute. In these cases, it's better that someone is actually doing something, even if it's a far cry from world peace, compared to no one doing anything at all. It is important, however, to note that in all these examples, the situation requires parties to want a favorable result and thus invite the UN to help them. In cases where parties are hostile to UN intervention, the UN returns to the same problem in acquiring the resources required to actually make a difference37.

For example, with regards to border patrolling, when both parties want the UN there, there is successful border security (such as Israel and Syria). Otherwise we see such things as the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict wherein Hezbollah troops fired missiles over the UN demilitarized zone into Israel, leaving the UN with little if any ability to handle the situation under Chapter VI protocols. Likewise, when everybody wants food, medicine and other humanitarian aid it can easily get through, but one needn't look any further than the absolute calamity in Somalia during the mid-90's to see what happens when even one conflicting party doesn't want aid to get through. In short, the UN is good for helping people who want peace get it (peacekeeping) but it does not have the resources or international willpower or support to forcefully go into a place where there is horrific violence and human rights abuses (peace making) if someone does not want the UN to be there.

Though the UN is able to accomplish some things, there is still a lot that could be done better. What follows are a few possible solutions to help saving the UN before its too late.

For starters, the UN needs to clean up its internal structure. As Sanjuan puts it:

Modern corporations and most departments or ministries in established governments throughout the world maintain charts that illustrate an organizational framework structured in depth. There is a top position, several assistant positions under than, then several subdivisions that function under the control of the top leadership and relate to each other as well. All such organizations are roughly structured in the form of pyramids.

Not so at the UN. There is a secretary-general... Not too closely connected to the secretary-general and his staff, there is a wide front line of undersecretaries-general who perform many duplicative functions and yet do not relate to each other.

There is no better guide to the bewildering proliferation of departments and agencies under the direct aegis of the Secretariat than the three-hundred-page UN telephone directory. Here we are confronted with massive evidence of the kind of bureaucratic redundancy and overstaffing that would never be permitted in a public institution, let alone a private one, under minimal adult supervision.38

In order to get anything done in a timely manner, with sufficient clarity and movement, an organization needs to have an efficient command structure. While the real brains of the UN (the Security Council) appears to be set up in the same sort of committee en masse as the rest of the UN, this needn't be. Rather than sitting around ponderously making decisions, and more ponderously acting until whatever the problem was has become moot (or worse, a full-scale international crisis), if the UN reformed its secretariat so that decisions could be made centrally with expedient execution, a major obstacle to ineffectiveness could be cleared out straight away.

However, this would only get the UN so far if its leadership continued to be unfocused. As general Smith points out, one of the key weaknesses in the UN is that it has no strategic command39. To start with, there is no commander-in-chief of UN forces. Instead, it has a massive committee of self-interested parties (thus decisions are made by finding the area under everyone on the Security Council's collective Venn diagrams of self-interest. This area of overlapping interest is usually very small). To make it worse, there is no central strategic command center like the U.S.'s state department or department of defense. As such, there is no uniform mind that defines clear goals, and no one producing clear plans that clearly state how each action will contribute to the overall completion of the plan. Instead, when the UN decides that military intervention is required, the security council has little ability to do anything other than offer vague demands for action while it invariably disintegrates into individual nations using their individual armies in individual ways (most often in ways that involve the least risk to their particular nation's soldiers, or the least resources required to maintain them, rather than what is required for the campaign to be a success).

This brings up another hole that needs to be plugged for the UN boat to float: it needs to be able to reliably acquire resources. The UN chronically faces resource shortages due to the number of free riders, and the general reluctance to contribute. This severely limits what the UN can do at all, even assuming it can get people agree to its plan, much less have something like a real UN army that can execute and enforce its resolutions40. In short, the UN can't continue to rely on hand outs that only come at all when the UN does what is popular enough to get it the resources required. Whether it's some sort of tax, or entrance fee, or a proscribed commitment as a precursor to continued membership (like NATO), the UN simply won't be able to tackle the tough issues, resolve the real problems (rather than temporary crises) and do those things which can be expensive and risky, but are necessary for the ultimate creation of a safer world.

All of these things are required to restore the badly broken credibility, and thus legitimacy gap in the United Nations. It is imperative that every armed invasion be met with the same response, and every humanitarian crisis and genocide be handled quickly and reliably, and every breach of UN resolutions should be met with stern and, more importantly, effective reprisals. This requires not only a strategy for handling the myriad of different possible problems (which is currently sorely lacking), but a secretariat that is powerful and coordinated enough to be able to implement it. Otherwise, nations will continue to ignore UN resolutions and as such others will be increasingly tempted to take matters into their own hands. The UN needs to get conflict management and resolution out of the hands of self-interested parties, and into the hands of those for whom the ideals of the UN is their only interest41.

Besides these major institutional reforms, there are other ways in which the UN can bolster its ability to bring about its vision of peace in the world. The UN, like all international institutions, have the ability to affect national governments by bypassing them and directly affecting their people. By targeting the people of nations, especially the victims of non-compliance to UN resolutions by their governments, they can make compliance in the best interest of those controlling the government42. The UN could apply direct domestic pressure (even buying television and radio advertisement time if need be) to deliver messages to the public at large, and encourage dialogue amongst citizens that will invariably turn it into a domestic political issue (thus creating a (self) interest in the UN's proposals that did not exist before).

As well, the UN could cover a crucial "will gap" in the international community. The interest spheres of countries infrequently overlap, and there are even situations where a situation is in no nation's zone of things they care about (like Darfur, for example)43. The UN could continue to hand over much of its responsibilities over to issues that many countries already have a vested interest in (such as over-fishing along long sea lanes, or the prevention of oil spills) and focus on efforts that few countries care about, or bolster things that simply don't get enough willpower to act on from the international community at large.

This points to another possible avenue of UN strategy, that of regional control. The UN already has stipulations that shift the weight onto regional actors44. As such, the UN could either make regional sub-UN's underneath it, or simply work with existing trans-national organizations, and existing regional actors. In this way, the UN could provide the overall strategic goals, along with resources to help regional efforts (which are often dangerously under funded45) while demanding accountability and results, while at the same time allowing for the flexibility that comes from the specific knowledge that regional actors have concerning their own region. So long as the UN could prevent regional hegemonic bullying (as in the case with Russia), having a centrally controlled, decentralized system of regional security could be a valuable asset to the UN.

As well, whether on a global or regional scale, the UN can continue to use its organizations to foster interdependence. Once nations are interdependent on each other for their wealth and welfare, they are much more loathe to do be aggressive towards one another. With the Marshal plan after World War II, the U.S. saw the strategic value in integrating Europe economically, and as such made it a backbone of its aid program. In a world where Europe is rapidly integrating at all levels, it now seems very unlikely that it will repeat the horrors of the twentieth century. As such, it is definitely congruent with the ultimate goals of the UN to slowly integrate groups of nations into regional trade groups, security communities, and ultimately real regional identity as a precursor for a far safer, and more manageable international climate.


It is clear that the United Nations is currently in dire straights. From the purposeful Cold War mismanagement by the superpowers, to its rapidly collapsing credibility and utility in the post-Cold War years, the UN is spiraling towards its own oblivion. In the face of growing regional power, and the declining interest in really handling problems abroad the UN may well dissolve in lieu of a number of large, regional power blocks in which a hegemon (such as the U.S., Russia, the E.U., China, etc.) would take care of its own regions, in a self-interested way, of course. Simply put, like the League of Nations, an organization has a hard time surviving the transition to a new overarching goal when it proves unable to even remotely cope with it's previously stated main purpose for existence.

However, all hope is not lost. If the UN is able to use its power to align the self-interest of its member states with the goals of real global security and peace (and be able to independently and effectively operate if it can't); and if it is able to reorganize itself to be able to effectively plan and execute real plans for real strategies; if it is willing to consistently stand up for its beliefs, no matter the cost, it may yet be able to regain the credibility to actually enact its promise of a world free from the scourge of war.


1.) Edward A. Kolodziej. Coping with Conflict after the Cold War. 1996 John Hopkins University Press. Pg. 20.

2.) ibid. pg. 380. The entire page does a good job explaining the plight of national liberal democracies with regards to promoting international security.

3.) Joseph Lepgold. Regional Conflict Management. 2003 Rowman and Littlefield. Pg.11.

4.) As Kolodziej would say (see note 1, pgs. 380-381) the answer has always, by default, been a strong "no".

5.) Paul Diehl. Coping with Conflict after the Cold War 1996 John Hopkins University Press Pg. 152.

6.) ibid. pg. 163.

7.) Gen. Rupert Smith (ret.) The Utility of Force. 2007 Alfred A Knopf. Pg. 197. In essence, as the Soviet Union had managed to perfectly merge the military, the state, and the people into a single entity, the failure of one had direct repercussions on the other two. In other words, the humiliation of the military caused the state to lose faith in the military, and the people to lose faith in both the military and the state.

8.) (see note 5, Pgs. 148-149). In the end, as Diehl notes on pg. 164 "[the UN] can only be as effective as its members and the disputants want it to be". Hardly a position of strength or competence.

9.) ibid. pgs. 151-152. This, loss of power being the primary driver for superpower behavior towards the UN in the cold war. Needless to say, there has been little incentive to suddenly become selfless given the continued nature of the problem (only exacerbated by the Cold War).

10.) John Lynn. Battle: A history of Combat and culture. Westview Press 2003.

11.) (see note 3, pg. 22)

12.) ibid. pg. 10

13.) (see note 5) Obviously nations are less than willing to simply abandon partisan efforts at global and regional security.

14.) For example, Beibart News' article "Russia warns of response to US missile shield" (Aug. 20). There is an innumerable amount of such threats (including a faint whiff of nuclear retaliation) during this time period.

15.) (see note 5, pg. 154)

16.) Pedro Sanjuan. The UN Gang. 2005 Doubleday. Pgs. 1-2

17.) According to Project Ploughshares' (www.ploughshares.ca) Armed Conflict Report, there was armed conflict in 26 nations in 2007 alone (for over an estimated 1 million civilian and military deaths). This number soars to over 50 if the range is increased to go back to 1995. Needless to say, armed conflict and civilian slaughter are still alive and well.

18.) UN Charter. Preamble.

19.) UN Charter. Chapter VII Article 39.

20.) UN Charter. Chapter I, Article 2.

21.) (see note 20)

22.) UN Charter Chapter VII Article 46.

23.) UN Charter Chapter VII Article 43.

24.) (see note 18)

25.) UN Charter Chapter VII Article 55.

26.) (see note 16, pgs 22-27)

27.) Nichole Ball. Coping with Conflict after the Cold War 1996 John Hopkins University Press Pgs. 174-175. If a country can pull off a high degree of self-sufficiency (like North Korea) or even one nation fails to adhere to the embargo (for example, the U.S. and Cuba trading with each other through third-party, European nations), it simply doesn't work. Consider as well the OPEC "embargo" of oil to the U.S. in the late 70's.

28.) U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Feb. 27 1991.

29.) UN Resolution #687

30.) During the 90's (after the Gulf War), there was an endless stream of Saddam refusing to let inspectors in and then harsh words and infrequent missile strikes (like Operation Desert Fox) which very much got across the effect of Saddam gleefully toying with the U.S. and the international community at large. I remember a political cartoon of the day which showed Saddam playing with a paddleball with the ball on the end of the elastic string replaced with a caricatured head of Bill Clinton.

31.) See Colin Powel's UN speech of Feb. 5 2003. Powel basically brought forth a bunch of evidence claiming that Saddam Hussein was acting in direct conflict to UN resolution #687 in his pursuit of weapons programs and concluded that "there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more" and thus the UN should take action (or at least sanction U.S. actions on its behalf).

32.) Because whether or not there were massive stockpiles of weapons found would be something that could only be discovered after the threat had been handled. The mere threat of the idea of Saddam having such weapons was enough to levy a resolution, and thus should have been enough to enforce it.

33.) (see note 5, pg. 158)

34.) (see note 28, pg. 168)

35.) (see notes 5, pgs. 158-159, and 28, pgs. 181-184). The idea being that international organizations can be used to provide badly needed transparency and verification in military spending and weapons programs (at least, in theory), and that they can make things like disarmament a requirement for foreign aid.

36.) (see note 35). From Korea to the Golan heights, the UN uses its Chapter VI abilities to sit on a lot of proverbial border fences.

37.) (see note 7, pg. 277) "The mandate of UNDOF has been renewed every six months (since 1974), with both sides appearing on appointed dates to sign on the dotted line - from which one may deduce that they want the [UN presence on the border]."

38.) (see note 16, pg. 22)

39.) (see note 7, pg. 398)

40.) (see note 5, pg 151). As Diehl notes, the risk of armed conflict with the UN is another factor that great powers don't want a UN army.

41.) As an aside, it has already been mentioned that "The United Nations is most successful when the disputants really desire peace; the organization cannot force states to compromise" (see note 5, pg 164). I argue, however, that forcibly creating peace (peace making) is ultimately necessary for the UN to be able to handle, as it can not achieve really any of it's important goals if it is unable to brush aside (with force) those whose self-interests are in direct competition with UN ideals. Otherwise, someone else will do it in lieu of the UN.

42.) Xinyuan Dai, International Institutions and National Policies. 2007 University Press, pg. 3

43.) Lepgold (see note 3, pg. 9) notes what has been often repeated here "It is easy to be horrified by the humanitarian tragedies... Deliberate attacks on civilian populations have become common; amazingly, genocide reappeared in Europe and Africa just a few decades after the Holocaust and little was done to stop it. But it is hard for leaders in other states to make credible promises [to] deal with these problems, especially when they do not affect specific national goals. Even though President Clinton made a moving apology to the survivors of the Rwandan genocide - acknowledging that in failing to stop it, outsiders bore some responsibility for it - neither he nor any other leader could guarantee it would not be allowed to happen again."

44.) ibid. pgs. 12-13

45.) ibid. pg. 14