I pity the poor old United Nations. It seems to get a lot of stick from people – often for wildly contradictory reasons. On the one hand there are those who consider it part of the Illuminati’s plan to dominate the globe, while others claim (perhaps more eloquently) that it is ineffective, weak and hypocritical. To this first position I say: “Really? Have you looked at the UN in action?” To the second: “Yes, but…”
Lets start with the Security Council because that’s what most people think of when they use the term “UN”. The Security Council votes on matters relating to international security (whoa) and has five permanent members who can veto any decision if they don’t agree with it. Those countries are the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK, and the reason it is them and no one else is because they were the important ones when the UN Charter was written up. Now some say Russia does not deserve a permanent seat because it is not the USSR anymore (as it was when the UN was founded) and is no longer a superpower. I must have missed the memo about the UK and France’s superpower status, but anyway the real reason people seem to not like Russia is its use of the veto on issues that affect its allies, like when it vetoes resolutions condemning Israel… oh wait, wrong country. I mean like when Russia vetoed a resolution on Syria, or Kosovo. China has also raised ire with its use of the veto as well.
The reason the veto power is there is so that the big powers would want to be a part of the UN in the first place. There is no way to enforce international law except through other states so if a state is big enough and powerful enough to not fear retaliation then it has no need for international law, except to give it legitimacy and credibility. Therefore the big, nuclear armed powers that existed when the UN was formed needed something to sweeten the deal so they got the right to veto stuff they didn’t agree with. Not fair, but a necessary compromise. Now they have that power why would they let it go? It is better to accept it exists and try to work around it. The UN Security Council still achieves things in a lot of cases, mandating the Libya intervention for instance, or reinforcing laws banning child soldiers.
Most people are used to the idea of a government with complete control over the right to use violence within its borders (thank you Max Weber) and seem to have problem understanding that the UN does not function as an international government in this sense. It has no independent armed force (members contribute troops to missions) and even if it did it would not be able to take on the likes of Russia or the USA anyway. It is a compromise between absolute state sovereignty and the rule of law at an international level, and like all compromises it gets messy sometimes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful compromise though, at least in many cases.
Finally all those aspects of the UN that aren’t the Security Council or the General Assembly, like UNICEF, UNDP, and UNESCO etc perform useful functions around the world and the UN itself creates a perfect framework for such operations.
So yeah, the UN isn’t perfect, but much of what is claimed about it is inaccurate and misinformed. Reforming the UN system to remove the veto powers of the Big 5 is appealing but I honestly can’t see it happening. Maybe I’m just too much of a realist (in the international relations sense) but I can’t see the big powers giving up an advantage they currently have in return for no net gain. The structure of the UN is now embedded in global politics and that makes it very difficult to change. It could be worse though: we could still have the League of Nations.
*I wrote a paper for an honours course (4th year at college for those outside NZ) about humantarian intervention without a UN Security Council mandate a couple of years ago, which covered some of this kind of stuff in a bit more detail. It compared the war in Kosovo in 1999 with that between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and drew some conclusions from this. I have uploaded it here if anyone cares! (Be warned, its about 9000 words long)