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Wednesday, November 29, 2023
James A. Paul served for 19 years as Executive Director of Global Policy Forum, an organization monitoring the UN. He earlier worked at the Middle East Research & Information Project. In 1995, he founded the NGO Working Group on the Security Council and he has been active in many NGO initiatives and policy projects. He was an editor of the Oxford Companion to Politics of the World and has authored more than a hundred articles on international politics.
NEW YORK, Jun 24 2015 (IPS) - 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.
Everywhere, hopes and aspirations were high. Seven decades later, results have fallen far short. On this anniversary, we can ask: what might have been possible and what is still possible from this institution that has inspired such passion, positive and negative, over the years?
The organisation, of course, was not set up by the United States and its allies to fulfill the wishes of utopian thinkers. Though the Charter of 1945 invokes “We the Peoples,” the war victors structured the U.N. as a conclave of nation states that would express the will of its members – particularly themselves, the richest and most influential countries.
Despite statesmen’s pronouncements about noble intentions, the U.N.’s most mighty members have never seriously considered laying down their arms or sharing their wealth in an unequal world. They have been busy instead with the “Great Games” of the day – like securing oil and other resources, dominating client states and bringing down unfriendly governments.
Nevertheless, through the years, the U.N. has regularly attracted the hopes of reforming intellectuals, NGOs, humanitarians and occasionally even some governments – with ideas about improvement to the global system and well-being on the planet. In the run-up to the Fiftieth Anniversary in 1995, many reports, conferences and books proposed U.N. institutional reform, some of which advocated a direct citizen role in the organisation.
Among the ideas were a chamber of directly-elected representatives, a vitalised General Assembly and a more representative Security Council, shorn of vetoes. Some thinkers wanted an institution “independent” from – or at least buffered against – the sordid arena of great power politics. But most reforming ideas, including relatively moderate changes, have come to naught.
Governments of all stripes have had a very short-term perspective and a narrow, outmoded conception of their “national interest” in the international arena. They have shown remarkably little creativity and far-sightedness and they have taken care not to threaten powerful status quo interests.
The U.N.’s seventieth anniversary has come at a moment of exhaustion and frustration among reformers that has sapped belief in creative change. We are at a low-point in U.N. institutional prestige and public support. Not surprisingly, the organisation has attracted few proposals and initiatives this time around.
As we know, the planet is facing unprecedented problems that the U.N. is in business to address: poverty, gross inequality, civil wars, mass migration, economic instability, and worsening climate change. Secretaries General have regularly appointed panels of distinguished persons to consider these “threats,” but member states have not been ready to produce effective solutions.
Most of the money and energy at the U.N. in recent years has poured into “peacekeeping,” which is typically a kind of military intervention outsourced by Washington and its allies. The organisation, dedicated in theory to ending war, is ironically now a big actor on the world’s battlefields. It has a giant logistics base in southern Italy, a military communications system, contracts with mercenaries, an intelligence operation, drones, armored vehicles and other accouterments of armed might. Meanwhile, the Department of Disarmament Affairs has seen its funding and status decline considerably.
The richest and most powerful states like to blame the smaller and poorer countries for the U.N. reform impasse (fury at the “G-77” – the group of “developing” countries – can often be heard among well-fed Northern diplomats at posh New York restaurants). But in fact the big powers (with Washington first among them) have been the most ardent “blockers” – strenuously opposed to a strong U.N. in nearly every respect, except military operations.
The big power blocking has been especially strong when it comes to global economic policy, including proposals to strengthen the Social and Economic Council. The same powers have also kept the U.N. Environment Programme weak, while opposing progress in U.N.-sponsored climate negotiations.
Poor countries have complained, but they are not paragons of reform either: their leaders are inclined to speak in empty populist rhetoric, demanding “aid” while pursuing personal enrichment. We are far from a game-changing “new Marshall Plan” or a global mobilisation for social justice that reformers rightly call for. Well-meaning NGOs repeat regularly such ideas, with little effect, in comfortable conference venues.
The U.N. has weakened as its member states have grown weaker. The IMF, the World Bank and global financial interests have pushed neo-liberal reforms for three decades, undermining national tax systems and downsizing the role of public institutions in economic and social affairs. Governments have privatized banks, airlines and industries, of course, and they have also privatized schools, roads, postal services, prisons and health care.
The vast new inequalities have led to more political corruption, a plague of lobbying, and frequent electoral malfeasance, even in the oldest democracies. As a result, nation states command less loyalty, respect and hope than they did in the past. Traditional centrist parties are losing their voters and the public is sceptical about governing institutions at all levels, including the U.N.
When nations cut their budgets, they cut the budget of the U.N. too, small as it is. Bold steps to improve the U.N. would require money, self-confidence and a long-term view, but member states are too weak, politically unstable, timid and financially insecure to take on such a task. As states slouch into socially, economically and politically conservative policies, the U.N. inexorably follows, losing its public constituency in the process.
Tightening U.N. budgets have tilted the balance of power in the U.N. even more sharply towards the richest nations and the wealthiest outside players. Increasingly, faced with urgent needs and few resources, the U.N. holds out its beggar’s bowl for what amounts to charitable contributions, now totaling nearly half of the organization’s overall expenditures.
This “extra-budgetary” funding, enables the donors to define the projects and set the priorities. The purpose of common policymaking among all member states has been all but forgotten.
Edited by Kitty Stapp
Part Two of this article can be found here.
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