The New Republic
The not-so-secret truth about the United Nations is that it is almost entirely passive when it comes to the most pressing matters of global security. That weakness was built into its structure. Because it can’t coerce Russia, the United Nations has no formal role enforcing or monitoring the latest cease-fire in Ukraine. Its months-old strategy of “freezing” the Syrian conflict into a humanitarian safe zone around Aleppo has so far failed to freeze anything; its supervisory mission in Syria is so weak that aid groups ignore it in favor of their own shadow reports. In many places where the United Nations has stumbled, such as Haiti, even its credibility as a humanitarian agency is in doubt.
The United Nations is often most effective at what Heidi J. S. Tworek, head of Harvard’s U.N. History Project, calls a “communications clearinghouse”—a Greek chorus reminding us of the toll of the conflicts it can’t stop. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child set off a media storm with its February 4 update on Iraq, drawing attention to ISIS’s enslavement of girls, “mass executions of boys … beheadings, crucifixions of children and burying children alive.” Yet it couldn’t get people to read the whole report: The next line, deploring “the very large number of children killed and severely injured, as a result of the current fighting, including by air strikes,” went ignored.
Despite it all, the United Nations is currently irreplaceable. One of the first steps a new country or government almost always takes is to seek a U.N. seat. (The few that don’t even try, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, might as well declare themselves pariahs.) That unique ability to confer legitimacy makes the United Nations a place governments can get “relatively cheap settlement of potential conflicts,” said Thomas Pogge, director of Yale University’s Global Justice program. It also makes it the only place where nations barely on speaking terms might work together against common threats, including climate change. The question is what the United Nations itself can do to make that happen. Much of that comes down to its leader.
Picture: Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken (130408 Ban Ki-moon bij Timmermans 1990) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons