International flags fly outside the Secretariat building at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

The UN’s Darkest Hour

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If the United Nations were a stock or an index fund, you might want to short it. Founded in 1945 to “maintain international peace and security,” the UN in recent years has been mostly powerless to stop slaughter in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar. Civil conflicts are nearing post-Cold War highs. The number of displaced people has hit a new record. After decades of improvement, more of the world’s poor are going hungry. The gap between what the UN seeks and receives for humanitarian relief is greater than ever. Gridlock at the Security Council is worsening. The organization’s biggest shareholder, the U.S., is withdrawing its support, creating an opening for a takeover by powers with decidedly illiberal interests.

Yet the UN is still necessary — far too necessary to be written off. From the spread of weapons of mass destruction to the threat of climate change, the range of perils that no one nation can counter has greatly expanded since the UN was established. The test facing those gathered for this year’s General Assembly is as pressing as it is daunting: to make the UN fit for purpose in an era of surging nationalism and mounting geopolitical tensions.

Seen from today, President Harry Truman’s pronouncement that it might take 80 years for the UN Charter to remake world affairs seems a trifle optimistic. As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations put it in an interview, “The United Nations has been in crisis for much of the time since its founding.”

For much of the Cold War period, the UN was splintered by veto wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Security Council, and by North-South divisions that birthed infamies in the General Assembly like the 1975 “Zionism is a form of racism” resolution. U.S. fortunes in the General Assembly reached a nadir in 1988, when its members voted with the U.S. only 15 percent of the time.

The UN’s Darkest Hour

The subsequent U.S. victory in the Cold War sparked giddiness even among UN skeptics like former President Ronald Reagan, who declaimed about “a standing UN force — an army of conscience — that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out humanitarian sanctuaries through force if necessary.” Ambitions for the body expanded. As Richard Gowan ofthe United Nations University’s Center for Policy Research observed in an interview, “The UN that we have now — the one that promotes human rights and is engaged in multiple crises — only emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.” Even the disasters that befell missions in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda didn’t blunt the enthusiasm. The Security Council has authorized more than 50 peacekeeping operations since the fall of the Berlin Wall, compared with fewer than 20 over the previous four and a half decades. 

Today’s recrudescence of geopolitical competition threatens to turn back the clock. Last year saw the greatest number of vetoes in the Security Council since 1989, mostly over Syria. Before that, sharp differences over the intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi and Russia’s annexation of Crimea had poisoned the council’s well.

China has become more willing to deploy its veto. As the second and third biggest contributor to peacekeeping and the UN general budget, respectively, it’s pushing for influence more broadly. China’s efforts to defend its interests in the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, Russia’s recalcitrance on Syria, and Saudi Arabia’s aggressive defense and prosecution of its proxy war with Iran in Yemen are efforts to “rewrite the ground rules of UN diplomacy,” Gowan wrote in World Politics Review. And that’s to say nothing of the growing assertiveness of regional powers old and new such as India and Ethiopia.

This competition is taking place on a new strategic landscape. Cyberspace has opened up a virtual arena for everything from sabotage and espionage to political interference. Criminal syndicates that traffic in weapons, minerals, drugs and migrants have stoked violence and corruption in fragile states. Implacable jihadist groups have made conflicts more violent and harder to resolve through negotiation. The number of major civil wars has almost tripled in the past decade. In 2015, intrastate conflicts were also 10 times more likely than in 1991 to involve an outside power. Even as the UN has successfully ended some peacekeeping missions, such complicating factors will make others harder to wind down. The average age of the 14 missions now in place, involving some 103,000 personnel, is 26 years.

And then there’s Donald Trump. His administration poses the greatest challenge of all. Before taking office, he told reporters in December 2016: “There is such tremendous potential, but it is not living up. When do you see the United Nations solving problems? They don’t. They cause problems.”

Trump has ended U.S. support for the UN Population Fund and backed away from the Paris accord on climate change, the UN-led Global Compact on Migration, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council. And he dumped the Iran nuclear agreement that Security Council members jointly fashioned and UN agencies had monitored. Congress restored many of his cuts to U.S. support for UN agencies. But this past month, Trump terminated U.S. aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. As Patrick said in an interview, “Trump is the first U.S. president you could imagine actually wanting to pull the U.S. out of the UN.”

The U.S. has legitimate complaints. As the UN’s biggest funder, it’s right to demand accountability. In 2017, its so-called assessed (meaning obligatory) contribution of 22 percent of the regular UN budget amounted to $611 million. (In all, the U.S. provides about $10 billion in assessed and voluntary support for UN agencies.) Under the current formula, some 30-odd of the world’s poorest countries pony up a mere $25,000 or so a year — a fraction of what some might pay for their presidential limousines.

The UN’s Darkest Hour

There’s no denying that the UN has been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. Its bodies often seem to devote more effort to debating Israel’s sins, real or imagined, than the crimes of egregious offenders. And biting the U.S. hand that feeds them comes far too naturally to many of the General Assembly’s members.

Productive engagement is the answer. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley was right, for instance, to shine a bright light on UN peacekeeping operations: Many were overdue for serious scrutiny. But the administration is increasingly inclined toward unproductive disengagement.

Consider the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Human Rights Council. As Bathsheba Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in the Obama administration, argued in an interview, “We were able to push back in ways that you just can’t when you’re not in the room.” The U.S. curbed the council’s anti-Israel bias, supported investigations into human-rights abuses in numerous other countries, brought attention to discrimination against gay and transgender people, and broke up anti-Western voting blocs.

The argument that by withdrawing from the council the U.S. denies it legitimacy is beside the point. By the same logic, you might as well walk away from the General Assembly. After all, Freedom House rates more than half the world’s nations “not free” or only “partly free,” and says that trends are heading in the wrong direction. If you support human rights and political freedom, this is a bad time to admit defeat.

Haley has proposed linking U.S. aid to votes in the General Assembly. Crocker, now a vice president at CARE USA, said that would be “counterproductive, with potentially disastrous unintended consequences.” Foreign aid amplifies U.S. soft power and demonstrably yields votes in the UN system. Issuing public threats can make it harder to do deals behind closed doors. Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. diplomat who served as the UN’s undersecretary-general for political affairs from 2012 to 2018, sees a darker motive behind the anti-UN bluster: “Instead of trying to find common ground, they’re intentionally throwing things down to try to antagonize the UN, to try to show how unreasonable they think the organization is.”

A U.S. retreat from the UN would be UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s worst nightmare. A former prime minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he’s liked by UN critics and defenders alike. He’s cultivated ties with Haley, and done his best to stay out of range of Trump’s tweets. His proposals for UN reform are bolder than those of his two predecessors and dovetail in many areas with U.S. priorities. Feltman said: “Guterres truly was appalled at the bureaucratic inefficiencies, turf battles, contradictions within the UN system. He came to the secretariat and found this organization just mired in molasses. ... [He] wanted reform for the right reason, and he knew that the threat of U.S. pressure could help him achieve those goals.”

But this congruence of interest seems unlikely to keep Trump’s pugilistic instincts in check. Guterres appears to recognize this. His latest idea for taming those impulses is to warn that the U.S. withdrawal from the UN is creating a vacuum that China is moving to fill.

You might wonder, would that be so bad? China is stepping up in UN peacekeeping, providing relatively well-trained and -resourced troops. Last year, it moved with new speed in the Security Council to support sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs. It has championed the fight against climate change, a cause that has amplified its influence. Its financial role in the UN is growing, and with that is coming greater interest in how the money is spent. That could bolster institutional reform.

But while it’s one thing for China to put more peacekeepers in the field, it’s another for China to push in UN budget deliberations for fewer human-rights observers in peacekeeping missions. The last thing the UN needs is a stronger illiberal axis, led by China and an increasingly disruptive Russia. Illiberalism is on the rise in many parts of the world — including, for instance, in the European Union, where until recently one would not have expected it to pose a threat.

If Guterres hopes to keep such forces at bay, he needs to do what he can to keep the U.S. engaged. That gives him little choice but to appease his U.S. tormentors, preferably in ways that serve larger institutional goals. Make a more concerted and visible effort to trim the bureaucracy, especially at UN headquarters, and cut red tape. Push for a new assessment formula that increases the piddling contributions of its least well-off members and gets them more invested in the UN’s effectiveness. Increase the scrutiny of UN peacekeeping missions, winding down the failures and holding national detachments more accountable.

The good news is that Trump’s posture has few admirers. In many cases, other Western countries have stepped in to increase their assistance and role. The Security Council’s non-permanent members are a case in point. In 2019, Germany will join the council, along with Indonesia and South Africa. It says it expects to play a more prominent role and work with France, for instance, to preserve multilateralism.

The best way to preserve multilateralism is to show that it can deliver results. For all the flaws of the United Nations as an institution, that task remains primarily the responsibility of its members, especially the most powerful. Last year, they joined forces at the Security Council to meet the threat posed by the DPRK to international peace and security, pushing it to the negotiating table — exactly the kind of situation that the UN was designed to handle. They need to bring the same resolve and cooperation to confront the existential threat of climate change, and other collective challenges such as fighting terrorism, managing migration and curbing disease and environmental degradation.

The still-unfolding backlash against globalization and inevitable return of geopolitical competition will make meeting such challenges harder. All the more reason for governments to direct and empower the UN to step up. One of history’s most painful lessons is that failure to agree on how to solve a problem doesn’t make it go away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.

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