The United Nations has offered world leaders and diplomats a forum to express their views on global issues for 72 years. Throughout its long history, the impact of the UN on world affairs has often been overlooked. In recent years, the inability of the International Community to resolve prolonged conflicts, such as the Syrian Civil War and the Korean War, has left many to question the value of the UN. In 2017, one fierce critic of the United Nations, US President Donald Trump, used his time in front of the General Assembly to call for bureaucratic reforms. Reforms to the UN will not, however, do anything to improve its performance as the UN has no real power. All of the power of the UN resides in the individual member states.
The US alone spends roughly $8 billion a year on the UN. It also spends between $50 and 65 billion on the US State Department, which is responsible for America’s diplomatic representation throughout the world. Without the UN, the US would likely have to spend a great deal more on diplomatic and trade infrastructure to achieve the same level of interaction it enjoys with the representatives of other nations. More importantly, the US spends $8 billion on the UN and roughly $60 billion on the US State Department, but around $600 billion on the US military. Even if the UN helps prevent a handful of conflicts between the US and its rivals while helping to diffuse the potential for even more wars, i.e. the need to buildup military forces, it saves money and lives.
That said, the UN is not an actual governing body. Unless countries support the principles and efforts of the UN, or the notion of an International Community for that matter, International Law and human rights become little more than wishful thinking. The United Nations is a forum for diplomatic engagement and the arbitration of conflict while International Law is an agreement supported and upheld by a plurality of nations. Because the UN has continually failed to address the interests and resolve the grievances of less powerful governments, many of them no longer see value of the UN. Meanwhile, powerful nations like Russia, and increasingly the US, have lost faith in the UN, because it does not cater to their interests and policy agendas.
Looking at the rogue state North Korea, the Kim regime has never shown the slightest faith in the International Community. For North Korea, international institutions like the United Nations are simply mechanisms that enable the US-led world order to consolidate influence and constrain the will of weaker nations. In many respects, the UN and the very notion of the International Community exist to constrain the governments of the world, which is increasingly valuable to the Peoples of the world as military technologies enable world powers to assert unchallenged influence over their Peoples. In terms of diplomatic engagement, institutions like the UN can only solve problems, if participants have enough faith in the diplomatic process to allow for the resolution of conflicts.
With that in mind, the prosperity of the Twentieth Century was made possible thanks to the willingness of nations within the International Community to cooperate on global security, to pursue internationally brokered diplomatic engagement instead of armed conflict, and to build the global economy. Strong nations benefited from the stability of a successful International Community and weaker nations were protected from their stronger revivals. International governance created standards for the rights of nations and Peoples where strong and weak nations alike enjoyed equal sovereign rights, which is the ability of nations to act without the consent of a higher authority.
Recognizing the interconnected nature of the modern world, today’s world leaders have sought to play a growing role in “international governance.” In other words, the national leaders of the world embrace “internationalist” thinking and try to treat organizations like the UN and the Europe as added layers of government. In turn, they seek to “govern the world” and develop policies that serve aggregate global interests. Unfortunately, catering to global interests leaves the local and national interests of the world’s population under-represented and under-addressed. Even if the United Nations actually had the power to enforce its will, this means internationalist policies are doomed to failure.
During Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union ruled over a bipolar International Community where weaker nations were often forced to suppress their own national interests and orientate their policies to serve the global interests of these two superpowers. Despite the stability and prosperity of the late Twentieth Century, the governments of the world forfeited much of their sovereignty. In the post-Cold War era following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became the hegemonic power of a monopolar world. Since then, world powers have started to reassert their influence and the US finds itself the superpower of a multipolar world that it cannot singlehandedly govern.
In the Twenty-First Century, the world has been undergoing a democratization process. In practice, democratization means all governments must be increasingly responsive to the needs and wants of their Peoples in order to maintain stability and sustain peace, but it also means the International Community as a collective must represent the views and address the interests of individual nations as near equals. Relative US power and influence has, therefore, waned with the strengthening of the multipolar, democratizing International Community of democratizing nation-states, which has changed the nature of international governance.
Under the democratization and resovereignization of the International Community, the US is not an unquestioned hegemonic dictator of global affairs. It is one nation among many that must express and address the interests of its Peoples while balancing those national interests with the interests of other nations and Peoples. Not only must countries pursue their own national interests, they must act as coequal partners with the United States and take on greater responsibility in maintaining the International Community. Only by recognizing this reality can international organizations like the United Nations have value to their member states.
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