Commentators talk about a “new Cold War” between the United States and China. They sometimes conclude that the geopolitical rivalry between these two major powers has ruined the effectiveness of the UN Security Council through hostile vetoes and other barriers to Council action.
Sir Brian Urquhart, who died on January 2 at the age of 101, served the United Nations in high posts for four decades, beginning in the organization’s earliest days.
Many UN supporters expressed disappointment that Secretary General Antonio Guterres said almost nothing, until last week, about police violence against African-Americans in the United States, or about the massive protest movement that has erupted and the repressive response to the protests by US authorities and police forces.
The coronavirus pandemic has set off an unprecedented institutional crisis at the United Nations – funds are drying up, key meetings are cancelled and the world body is fighting for its future.
Since the end of the Cold War, the UN Security Council has dramatically increased its activity and authority. Though the Council has exercised unprecedented global power, it has remained a very insular, secretive and undemocratic body, dominated by its five Permanent Members, armed with their notorious vetoes and benefiting from perpetuity in office.
While member states, weakened in the neoliberal era, have pulled back from the U.N. and cut its budgets, a charity mentality has arisen at the world body. Corporations and the mega-rich have flocked to take advantage of the opportunity. They have looked for a quietly commanding role in the organisation’s political process and hoped to shape the institution to their own priorities.
It is hard to imagine today the public enthusiasm that greeted the founding of the U.N. in 1945. After massive suffering and social collapse resulting from the Second World War, the U.N. seemed almost miraculous – a means at last to build peace, democracy, and a just society on a global scale.