According to Kofi Anan, its former Secretary-General, the United Nations (UN) is founded on the ‘principle of equality’ – between people and nations. But, as I argue in this essay, the UN’s history proves quite the opposite – it legitimates the power and domination of the many by the few. As I suggest, it does so in two ways: on the one hand, it has not fundamentally changed the conduct and character of international relations and law; whereas, on the other, its very structure makes the equitable re-distribution of power impossible. To illustrate this, I examine the international system prior and subsequent to its founding. I argue that, despite the potential for change, the underlying self-interest of states – especially the UN’s permanent 5 members (P5) – makes a truly equitable UN in a multipolar world impossible.
The period immediately prior to the UN’s establishment in 1945 proves a useful point of analysis. The design, and presence or lack, of international governance structures determined the way in which international relations and law were conducted; the point being that there is an interplay between design and conduct. This point – of the shape of the system determining the conduct of the actors within it, and vice versa – is a common theme among realists, liberals, and constructivists alike: IR scholars, like Kenneth Waltz, Robert Cox, John Ikenberry and others, each from a diverse tradition of scholarship all attempt to properly define the relationship between the system and its parts.
Hence, the First World War, the most significant and all-consuming conflict in living memory, is particularly noteworthy. While its immediate cause was Austrian intervention in Serbia – in response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – some suggest that the underlying factor was the spread of imperialism and the concomitant escalation of competition between rival European states. Therefore, the changing nature of the international system – mostly those who sought, or sought to retain, power – fundamentally led to the outbreak of war. European colonial powers dominated the world through empire. It was their concerns, and their competition with each other, that determined how states interacted. In this system, which was characterised by the existence of self-serving alliances and an absence of formally constituted intergovernmental organisation to, for example, prevent war, the ensuing chaos is easier to understand.
The Second World War, on the other hand, is the product of the League of Nation’s (LoN) failure. The establishment of the LoN, the first intergovernmental organisation of its kind, as a direct response to the causes of the First World War is instructive. With a primary focus on the prevention of wars, collective security, disarmament, and international dispute settlements, it was intended – through mechanisms of negotiation and crisis-aversion – to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again. However, in the absence of a standing army to enforce its decisions in conflicts, and without an executive capable of making binding decisions, the LoN’s heavy reliance on the Great Powers was its ultimate downfall. The non-participation of the United States and the Soviet Union aside, its treatment of members on the principle of strict equality, and the weak consequences for non-compliance, prevented the LoN from fulfilling its mandate – especially where Great Powers or their immediate allies were in a state of conflict with one another. And when they did, the LoN was powerless to intervene.
By contrast with the pre-First World War structure therefore, even though this system was highly formalised, the design of the system itself undercut its ability to function. The UN was accordingly designed with the benefit of hindsight and the intention of promoting and maintaining international order, mediate disputes between its members, promoting human rights, providing humanitarian assistance and fostering socio-economic development. Yet like its predecessor, the UN’s lofty ideals have remained elusive in practice. As many suggest, it is incapable of answering difficult questions, especially when the answers involve a dilution of the P5’s power. Three reasons persist as to why this is so, and why the prospects of any fundamental change to the existing distribution of power seem unlikely.
First, the UN has not changed the sovereign nature of states. Its activities are able to occur because states accede directly or indirectly, and retain their sovereignty, if not in an absolute sense. A multiplicity of rules exist governing which aspects of the UN’s agenda its members must, may, or can, comply with. The inclusion of ‘opt-outs’ means that on issues where states’ self-interest run contrary to international consensus, their enduring sovereign status means they can disallow the application of UN resolutions to its own affairs. North Korea’s blasé retention of nuclear weapons, Syria’s dismissal of condemnation of its use of chemical weapons, and Zimbabwe’s perpetuation of human rights abuses are just a few examples highlighting the UN’s weakness. Equally, self-interest can also be used to explain why many states do co-operate, even where they may not necessarily agree. Put crudely, states comply with the UN in order to confer benefits that specifically apply to them. They engage with the UN positively or negatively depending on what is at stake: it is rooted in the exercise of sovereignty.
Second, maintaining a focus on the Security Council, as opposed to the General Assembly, exposes one an additional structural hindrance. Whereas the former acts as the executive and is vested with real power (to make binding resolutions), the latter is largely a non-binding and advisory body. The UN’s founding Charter created this asymmetrical distribution of power because the P5 were viewed as being the most interested in the maintenance of peace and most likely to act for the greater good. That notion, as with all states, is mistaken. In times of conflict, the potential for gridlock when P5 members are at loggerheads with each other can be lethal. No better example of this exists than the Cold War: the UN’s ability to do anything effective was limited due to the veto-wielding United States and USSR’s geopolitical interests. This was so much of a problem that during the Cold War many security issues were devolved to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact. And, as with the case of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, states either decided to act unilaterally or through mechanisms which exist outside the UN to pursue their aims.
Third, the lack of a standing army and inability to independently raise an operating budget makes it more pliable to the agenda of the P5, and a few others, who usually supplies arms, troops and funding. The spoils of war – as the original victors – means that the P5 members not only retain formalised political power. Their politically enhanced status also seems to have had a correlate effect on their economics: clearly, the ability to protect the world and maintain peace has also come with a certain ability to front the bill. As Nkrumah may have said, ‘Seek ye ﬁrst the political kingdom and all else will follow.’ This means that operationally, the UN is not as independent as it may need to be. This is worrisome when P5 members act in a way that prejudices smaller, weaker, nations and where an organisation like the UN, representing the collective will of most of the world, could have the moral and political force to stop it. Effectively, by not being able to raise money through a mandatory contribution by members, means that the UN dances to the tune of whomever pulls the purse strings.
This is not to suggest that the UN has not been responsible for some positive change. Its work in the areas of humanitarian relief, in particular, is worthy of the kind of admiration it presently receives. But, it would be naïve to suggest that what the UN does and what it was originally hoped to achieve are remotely similar. Any change, has generally been within the limits of what the P5, and its other major contributors, want.
These problems arises in large part from the UN’s structure: the interests of the permanent members of the Security Council, who have a veto over the issuance of all resolutions binding on member states, are predominant. Given that permanent member status remains for most states the crucial symbol of polarity, the likelihood of fundamental reform to a system benefiting a small coterie of states seems unlikely. Thus, although multipolarity may be observable in some international theatres, the survival of the UN’s current structure tends to promote business as usual.
Even without contemplating the rise of countries new powers such as India and Germany, it is clear to see how the structure of the UN perpetuates the P5’s power and preserves itself against changes that dilute their power. And a more independent, reformed, UN is exactly what the powerful states capable of changing the system want to avoid: in the alternative, the UN represents a rival powerbase to their own. The UN has been unable to fundamentally change the character of international relations. If anything, its existence merely adds a thin veneer of legitimacy to what can otherwise, and accurately, be described as a perpetuation of the power of countries whose rule was truncated when the last bullet of the Second World War was fired. Self-interest is notably not limited to the P5 alone: for as long as the state remains sovereign, it will determine its own agenda, and strategically determine its self-interest. The UN, therefore, has little real ability to reshape the international order.