The WhatsApp meme is already doing the rounds: “If you’re feeling useless these days, just think about the United Nations”. It’s accompanied by an outsize emoji of a laughing moon-face.
What lies behind such barbs is the perception that the world body, and its Security Council, set up to safeguard international peace and security, has proved utterly helpless (some would even say hopeless) in the face of Russia’s assault upon Ukraine.
For at least seven weeks now, the US has been screaming from the rooftops that Russia was building up forces for a planned invasion of Ukraine. This was the “chronicle of a war foretold”. Yet the UN could do nothing to prevent it. And when it actually happened, the UN wrung its hands in despair but could neither stop the war nor agree to condemn it.
United Nations: Expectation Versus Reality
The predictable Russian veto of the United Nations Security Council resolution on Friday night, that would have deplored Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, did not really come as a surprise. That was always on the cards: no UN permanent member would permit any Security Council resolution to pass against its own interests.
Indeed, it was part of the deal that kept countries like the US and the USSR in the world organisation in the first place. At the time of the UN’s founding, permanent membership of the Security Council and the right of veto ensured they did not have anything to worry about.
But then the UN was founded on the premise that the victorious powers of World War Two, who had called themselves the United Nations since 1943 (though the media referred to them simply as “the Allies”), would just convert their wartime alliance into a peacetime organisation, and stay allied. They would be the world’s policemen, keeping the peace rather than threatening it.
Reality, however, proved very different. The Cold War broke out. The United Nations was divided into two mutually antagonistic camps and a tenuous non-aligned bloc in between them. While the ever-present risk of a nuclear Armageddon kept World War III at bay, smaller conflicts did occur on the world’s peripheries.
Each of the five permanent members took the law into their own hands when it came to their own interests – Russia in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the US in various Latin American countries, the British in the Malvinas/Falklands, the French in Africa, and even China in Tibet – without fear of reprisal from the UN.
Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold‘s Success in Peacekeeping
During the Cold War, an intrepid Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, invented the concept of “peace-keeping” so that the superpower standoff would not paralyse the organisation. He leveraged the military capacities of the smaller medium-sized powers in the world—India, Canada, Ireland and Norway especially—to keep the peace in situations where the superpowers wanted the UN to intervene to prevent a wider conflagration.
But the key to Hammarskjold‘s success and that of the UN was that both superpowers agreed on the UN intervention. They could not trust each other to act on behalf of the world body, but they were happy to delegate the job to the middle powers.
It worked, and the UN twice won the Nobel Peace Prize for its peace-keeping efforts; UN officials engaged in these efforts won three more.
But when it came to matters that directly engaged the superpowers and their core interests, the UN had to stand aside. Practical politics made that necessary, and the Permanent Members’ veto made it inevitable.
UN is Both a Stage and an Actor
The UN works best when its member states on the Security Council can agree on an issue, and deploy the human, material and military resources needed to address it. When the political will for agreement is absent, and worse, when the superpowers are divided, the UN cannot act.
It is still a useful forum for states to vent their opinions and frustrations on issues, as the debate on Ukraine demonstrated. The US went ahead with its Security Council resolution knowing full well that it would be vetoed, knowing that the debate would reveal the principles and stake and show up Russia’s relative isolation in the world.
Indeed, though three states, including India, abstained, no one voted alongside Russia against the resolution. The “demonstration effect” served a purpose too.
Let’s not forget the UN is both a stage and an actor. It is a stage for its member states to declaim their differences and celebrate their convergences; and it is an actor, in the shape of its Secretary-General, its various agencies and its peace-keeping forces, to execute what those member states agree upon.
UN's Limitations Need to be Understood with an Open Mind
Some Secretaries-General are able to rise above the status of “international civil servant” to command a moral presence on the world stage. Dag Hammarskjold and Kofi Annan, both Nobel laureates, are examples.
Annan was even described as a “secular Pope”. When they spoke, the world listened.
The current Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, a well-meaning former Portuguese Prime Minister, resorted to the pulpit himself when he appealed to Russia “in the name of humanity” to stop its invasion. But the limits of moral suasion were apparent in the way his appeal went unheeded, and without response.
At the height of the Cold War during the 1950s, Hammarskjold was asked about the limitations of the organisation, and replied pithily: “the United Nations was not created to take mankind to heaven, but rather, to save humanity from hell.”
His point was clear: one should not seek perfection from an institution of member states which would always be, more or less, the sum of its parts. But an imperfect United Nations was better than none at all.
Let's Be Grateful for the UN We Have
The long-serving Soviet Ambassador to the UN in the 1960s, Yakov Malik, famously said that people dismissing the UN as an ineffective body reminded him of an old story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam, he said, found that Eve was being indifferent to him; so he asked her, “Eve, is there someone else?”
That’s the point about the UN – is there anything else? It may be helpless and hopeless sometimes, but it is the only global platform where every government in the world can come together to discuss issues and policies, raise global consciousness and when possible, agree on meaningful action.
If the United Nations did not exist, today’s divided world would be incapable of inventing it. Let’s be grateful for the UN we have. We’d be much worse off without it.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)