It isn’t hard to do, is it? This international, intergovernmental organization is the butt of many jokes, countless criticisms and far too many polemical diatribes to even begin to count. It’s ineffective. It’s overly bureaucratized. It spends money irresponsibly. It’s a safe haven for tyrannical dictators. And the list goes on. So let’s devise a little thought experiment: imagine a world with no United Nations (UN), and think about what would happen. Would democracy and human rights more easily triumph abroad? Would international hostilities subside long enough for warring neighbours to finally make peace with one another? And what about famine, disease, poverty, development, and the laundry list of related issues that continue to plague this planet? Wouldn’t exactly disappear, now would they?
But this hypothetical scenario goes too far, you might be thinking. Just because these problems would still exist in our imaginary world doesn’t mean that the UN actually helps to solve any of them in the real world. Right? Wrong. Complaints against the 193-member body often emphasize the shortcomings of the international system at the structural level, not the weaknesses of this particular organization. When the UN fails to deliver results or provide services in any particular situation, the root causes for these failures are almost always found outside of the UN framework. To see how, just ask yourself what you would have changed within the United Nations and why in order to solve the many problems of the world. If your answer requires that states surrender their sovereignty, try again. If self-interest can no longer motivate human behaviour, think twice. If you think that inherently evil forces like capitalism, nationalism and imperialism must all be abolished in order for the UN to function properly, good luck!
The point is simply that an organization like the UN can provide plenty of easily overlooked public goods while simultaneously being blamed for faults not of its own making. We’ll consider these in turn, but not before laying out the historical rationale for the UN’s creation. Most people know that the UN was preceded by the League of Nations after World War I and that it was abandoned on the eve of World War II as a fiasco of epic proportions, but not as many know why the League failed so spectacularly. Of the many reasons, perhaps three are the most important: membership was not universal (an idealistic America, Communist Russia and defeated Germany all remained outside of the League for different reasons while European colonialism made a mockery of the notion of sovereign equality among nations), violations of international law by member-states were not punished (imperial Japan invaded Manchuria, Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia, and Nazi Germany invaded the Rhineland with no significant opposition), and as a result of these first two conditions, the League of Nations’ legitimacy, authority and coercive capabilities gradually eroded as well.
In 1945 the victorious Allied Powers devised and implemented several organizations designed to bolster the liberal democratic postwar order: the Bretton Woods institutions facilitated economic cooperation (through the IMF or International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group and later of course through the Marshall Plan) while the United Nations aimed to achieve political cooperation in the realms of international peace and security. To avoid the mistakes of the past, decolonization was encouraged and membership was granted to every independent country in the General Assembly. In addition to this forum, a Security Council composed of the Second World War’s surviving great powers was inaugurated that wielded supreme legislative and executive powers to act authoritatively and resolve international disputes between them. Consequently, the legitimacy and coercive authority so clearly lacking in the League of Nations finds expression in the UN Security Council. While this UN system has its own disadvantages to be sure and reforms are urgently needed after nearly 70 years of existence, it is nonetheless a qualitative improvement over its defunct predecessor.
So the United Nations is an improvement, but is it still better than nothing? This brings us to the many positive contributions of the UN to the international system today. First of all, the spread of democratic governance structures and human rights norms throughout the modern state system must in part be attributable to the United Nations’ liberalizing influence on the values inculcated in its members. Then there is the indisputable reduction of and mitigation in the number of international conflicts worldwide, thanks to the UN’s peacekeeping troops, peacemaking efforts and peace building activities. Add to that all of the developmental work and technological assistance that the United Nations furnishes to still developing countries through its programmes (like the UN Development Programme and the UN World Food Programme), its funds (UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund and UNFPA, the UN Population Fund), its specialized agencies (UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and WHO, the World Health Organization) and its related organizations (IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency and WTO, the World Trade Organization). If all of this hasn’t yet convinced you, consider the benefits of liberal institutionalism as a theory of international relations: lower transaction costs, fewer barriers to communication, higher levels of trust and policy coordination between state actors, routine exchanges of information, regularized forums for the airing of grievances, possible spill over into parallel realms of cooperation, the progressive liberalization of repressive regimes, and so on.
Having said all that, any economist will tell you that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The United Nations does actually cost a lot – and it’s not even edible. As in any bureaucracy, some waste and some inefficiency is ultimately inevitable, but this does not discount the benefits mentioned above nor does it invalidate the liberal idealist vision at the core of this organization. Issues are far too easily politicized, especially in the Security Council, with Russia and China refusing to intervene in friendly dictatorships like Syria where human rights are egregiously violated and democratic uprisings ruthlessly suppressed. And as a tool of its biggest, richest and most powerful member-states (a necessary condition for an organization funded by and dependent on these countries for its existence), the UN remains far less formidable than the total sum of its parts. Be that as it may, it is the most visible manifestation of the liberal democratic international order that we have today, and barring the problems of international anarchical relations, national irrational hostilities and individual self-interested behaviour, the United Nations organization is doing one hell of a job.