It is easy to forget that tackling global problems is a somewhat novel task. Until recently, global issues were largely restricted to terminating and preventing all-out wars. It is for this purpose that the League of Nations (1919-1946) and the UN were created. Set up to prevent the disaster that was World War I and rejecting the traditional notion of the balance of power, the League of Nations was a revolutionary concept but, ill-conceived and without support from the US, proved a dismal failure. In 1945, as the League was floundering in a humiliating death in Geneva, the United Nations Organization was born in New York. While the League had been thought through by the idealistic Woodrow Wilson, the UN was the brain child of the very pragmatic Franklin D. Roosevelt. What Roosevelt understood that Wilson did not was that a global institution with some measure of influence needed to reflect the balance of power and feed on the dynamics between the more powerful and established political entities.
In effect, under the cloak of democracy, the UN was conceived as an aristocratic entity revolving around the five sates with a permanent seat in the security council, thus reflecting not only the geopolitical reality of the day, but most importantly the pre-eminence of the state and especially the powerful state. In its eighth decade, and despite the vast changes it has witnessed in the world, the UN is in essence the same machine that it was at its inception, proving that it was designed both to be resilient and impermeable to tempering. Today, this constitutes a gnawing problem.
The architects of the post-war world sought to prevent a Third World War, and this objective was met in great measure. With the limited means that were always its staple, more than ever controlled by the original five nations, the UN has been put to the task of reflecting on, anticipating and responding to not only the classic threats to global stability such as armed conflict, but also to a wide array of menaces great and small that endanger humanity. Generally, it has fared much better with the former than the latter.
Despite some success, the UN has proven to have neither the capacity, the resources, nor the power to tackle all or even a portion of the issues at hand. It is not just that it is impervious to reform, but as a representative of a collectivity – rather than a true community – of nations, each with varying “national” interests, it is simply not designed to struggle for the global interests of a global community.
Today, many observers still bask in the illusion that a thorough reform of the UN is possible. But designed not to re-invent itself, the UN will be increasingly removed from its mission(s). Since it is neither possible nor desirable for any single superpower to take up the task; since the so-called global civil society is largely powerless and unorganized; since the idea of a “world government” is both scary and premature; since a return to a classical balance of power is wishful thinking, it might be time to think about creating a new institution which, like the UN vis à vis the League, will prove better, more robust and efficient than its predecessor.
For this, one need not kill the UN but let it naturally fade away as its replacement takes flight. This new outfit should reflect the new geopolitical order, integrate non-state actors and provide itself with the means and resources to act effectively. But if a better system of collective management takes form, let us give this entity the ability to adapt to a changing world and its changing global needs lest it, like its two predecessors, be predestined to one day be obsolete.