So what? Has the UN’s time passed? Is the Charter today an ancient artefact, a product of a different time unsuited for our rapidly changing world? No wonder the UN is treated with contempt by a growing group of nationalist and populist leaders.
In September 2019, Donald Trump infuriated many by denouncing at the UN: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots”. The fact that an American president said this was disturbing for its naked nationalism, a sentiment that the UN – the activities of which are heavily funded by the United States – was meant to keep in check. However, Trump’s point, shared by many, was that the future does not belong to multilateral organisations like the United Nations.
This is a problem of global proportions. The UN system has many faults and shortcomings: inefficient bureaucracy and overlapping institutions, to mention just two.
But the UN is also an organisation that, despite its advanced age, is better positioned to deal with the problems facing the globe today than any nation or selected group of nations for one simple reason: the big problems and challenges of the 21st century do not recognise borders.
The impacts of climate change, the spread of pandemics or the manifold challenges of resource security cannot be addressed by building walls or playing around with tariffs. No amount of patriotism will stop the glaciers from melting or guarantee that Ebola will not spread across national borders.
It should be clear by now – almost two decades after 9/11 and the events that it triggered – that even politically motivated violence is a transnational phenomenon, the effects of which can only be contained via international co-operation.
Imagine, for a moment, a world without the UN. People would die, in the millions.
Imagine that the UNHCR ceased to provide the basic needs of 20.4 million refugees (more than half of whom are children). What would happen if the WHO suddenly stopped vaccinating against (the almost-eradicated) polio or combatting the spread of various infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS? What if UNICEF disappeared from the 190 countries where it currently operates?
The consequences would be catastrophic in a way that would make the economic impact of, say, Brexit, look like child’s play.
As another former secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, once put it: “the UN wasn’t created to take mankind into paradise, but to save humanity from hell”.
There is little doubt that this basic task remains as relevant in 2019 as ever before.
Keywords: international history