Making the United Nations Fit for Purpose in an Illiberal Era

Making the United Nations Fit for Purpose in an Illiberal Era
Flags of member nations flying at United Nations Headquarters.UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto

Louise Riis Andersen, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies The return of geopolitics and the rise of populism have reinforced crude and divisive distinctions between “us” and “them.” As a result, the notions of collective security and the common “we” of humanity — institutionalized in the United Nations Charter — are increasingly written off as

Louise Riis Andersen, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies

The return of geopolitics and the rise of populism have reinforced crude and divisive distinctions between “us” and “them.” As a result, the notions of collective security and the common “we” of humanity — institutionalized in the United Nations Charter — are increasingly written off as either relics of an idealistic and naïve past, or as self-serving concepts invented by a globalist elite of socialist oligarchs, unaccountable technocrats, and soft-spoken diplomats.

To turn the tide and sustain the collective aspirations of the United Nations, liberal internationalism must provide a pro-United Nations story that focuses not on any shortcomings or failures of the existing organization, but rather on the visionary yet realistic pragmatism that inspired its founders. Valid as the calls for fundamental reforms of the United Nations are, pushing that agenda too hard in the current political climate is counterproductive and plays into anti-globalist suggestions that the world would be better off without the “failing” institution.

Forged in the midst of the Second World War, the United Nations was established by politicians who were no strangers to the harsh realities of international power politics. Neither Churchill, nor Stalin, nor Roosevelt were cosmopolitan dreamers. They established the world body because they understood that avoiding another devastating world war was essential to protecting basic national interests and furthering their distinct political aims. They also understood that in order to be workable, a global collective security system must draw on competing sources of legitimacy. The fact that the United Nations has endured for more than 70 years is testimony to the longevity of its paradoxical fusion of universal membership, great-power control, and international bureaucracy.

In an increasingly interconnected yet fragmented and fluid world — and at a time when global political leadership is markedly absent — any aspirations of finding global solutions to global problems are better served by embracing the organizational inconsistency and organized hypocrisy that enables the United Nations to function as a halfway house between the national and the cosmopolitan. The liberal challenge of our time is thus not to reinvent that particular wheel but rather to find ways of making the wheel turn smoothly in an illiberal era. As the US disengages from the United Nations, and Russia and China (in different ways) seek to reshape its balance between state sovereignty and individual rights, making the latter of smaller concern, the responsibility to protect and sustain collective security falls hard on the middle-powers and small states that historically have benefited most from the post-1945 rule-based order.

Doing so, however, demands revisiting liberal expectations of what the United Nations can and cannot do — lowering ambitions in some areas while substantially raising them in others. This revisiting should start by acknowledging that the United Nations was established as an essentially limited instrument in the first place. The aim was not to create a world government capable of delivering global public goods to all, but “merely” to create a political space, or arena, that would enable sovereign states, including great powers, to solve their differences peacefully and find common solutions to shared problems. Thus the United Nations was not constructed as a “deliverer” but rather as an “enabler.” Its unique legitimacy and authority rest on being a convener rather than an implementer.

The convening power of the United Nations is located in all its principal organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Secretariat. In different ways, they all have the ability to bring diverse actors together to find negotiated solutions to conflicts of interests or common problems. To mitigate against the current obstructionist and disruptive behaviour of the great powers on the Security Council, the General Assembly appears — for a variety of reasons — increasingly as the institution of choice. Emerging powers blocked from achieving a permanent seat on the Security Council, as well as liberal states frustrated by the paralysis of the Security Council and/or the workings of the Trump administration, find solace in the General Assembly. Most recently, France worked through the General Assembly to launch the Global Pact for the Environment, an initiative approved by the vast majority of Member States and rejected by only six, including the US.

Another avenue for revitalizing the United Nations would be to restore the independent political role of the Secretary-General. The lessons of Dag Hammarskjöld — widely held as the gold standard for a successful Secretary-General — suggest that in order to be influential, the Secretary-General must be a trusted confidant of state leaders. The real power and influence rests in the Secretary-General’s ability to convince governments that their best interests are served by working together to further the purposes and principles of the Charter. Guterres must reposition himself as a trusted and impartial mediator, able to work behind the scenes with the leaders of the great powers. Well-meaning liberals need not complicate this “most difficult job in the world” by adding the burden of naming and shaming Trump, Xi, and Putin on his shoulders. This task is much better taken on by their fellow state leaders than by a civil servant.

From the outset, the purpose of the United Nations has been to change the behavior of states to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” This is not done by forcing state leaders to renege on or act against core national interests, but rather by enabling a broader, longer-term calculus of what constitutes national interests and how best to advance them. To help ensure a peaceful transition from the unipolar moment to post-Western, multipolar order, the United Nations is vital. It is high time that liberals recommit to the institution as it is, and not as they would like it to be.

* This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on “Middle Power Liberal Internationalism in an Illiberal World,” hosted by CIPS and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For other blogs in this series, click here:

Liberal Internationalism: Save, Ditch, or Reform? by Rita Abrahamsen

How History Helps Us Uncover the Real Successes of Middle Power Internationalism by Heidi Tworek

The View from MARS: American Populism and the Liberal World Order by Jean-François Drolet and Michael C. Williams

In Defence of Liberal Internationalism? by Alexandra Gheciu

Small States vs. Middle Powers — What’s the Difference? by Njord Wegge

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