The UN is aging or, to use the politically correct term, has matured. This maturity has not, however, brought with it more institutional wisdom, more efficiency, or better global governance.
There are at least three reasons for this sober evaluation.
History matters. The UN system was created in 1945 to be a smarter, more inclusive, more just and more powerful version of the League of Nations, and to avoid that organization’s mistakes, which eventually enabled (in that particular historical context) the emergence of Nazi Germany. It was created during a time of the triumph of national states, developmental optimism for the de-colonized “Third World,” faith in the wisdom of the members of the Security Council (exhausted by their experiences of war and wanting lasting peace), and in the face of an overarching sense of bi-polarity where world stability was in part a a by-product of the US-Soviet competition between two visions of the global order. Since then, the world has changed dramatically. Dense internationalization (also known as “globalization”) has brought with it a high level of interdependence and inter-connectedness. New power centers have emerged (i.e. the BRICs), new regional organizations have re-shaped inter-state relations (i.e. the EU), new non-state entities have started to play a significant role in the promotion of social and economic development (such as IGOs and global social movements). Wars – traditionally inter-state affairs - are more and more likely to take the shape of internal (but still very bloody) conflicts. Institutional power is diffusing: more institutions are active today than seventy years ago. Structural power is diffusing: the United States and Russia are no longer as prominent in structuring the international system as they were seventy years ago.
This list can go on and on, but the point is that, overall, the world-system has undergone a very serious ‘recalibration,’ but the UN has not followed. As a result there is a growing disconnect between the goals to be achieved and the means of doing so, tasks at hand and results, aspirations and the capacity to deliver. As a result, we have a system of weak global governance based on national governments (193 of them represented in the UN, often with their national – and their national elite’s - interests blinding their vision) being the building blocks of the UN system. In other words, the UN is living (structurally) in the past but trying to (functionally) act as a future-oriented organization (for instance in areas such as global warming, MDGs, reducing inequality). All of this is not to say that the UN’s “historical time” is over or that it’s lofty goals, stated in the preamble of the UN charter, are obsolete; but rather the point is to reiterate what others have said before: that without deep internal reforms, the UN can no longer “reform” others and, indeed, risks even deeper peripheralization in the new international order.
Economy matters. Seventy years ago, the US emerged out of the war as the only economic superpower and the only “real” competitor to the military might of the Soviet Union (and at some point in the 1960s even their economic potentials became comparable). In the 1950s the economic might of the initial five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Soviet Union, US and UK) matched their military/political influence. Since then, Japan, Germany and few other countries have become economic engines of the global market, but are under-represented in the UN system. This mismatch between economic capacities and structural place within the UN system makes these states (and others) look for another organizations and avenues to exercise their power, inadvertently strengthening the image of the UN as an “organization from the past” that acts independently from changing global economic reality. The UN also missed a good chance to become a place of in-depth debate about the direction of global development by almost abandoning in 2009 the recommendations of the so-called Stiglitz Report on Global Economic Coordination Council; UN also stick (despite having employed experts who oppose it) to the neo-liberal economic ideology that is obviously contrary to the interest of the vast majority of its members.
Culture matters. It is fair to say that the UN is the most culturally diverse international organization in the world’s history, with a hundred and ninety three member states representing all major civilizations. But also it is fair to say that Euro-Atlantic civilizational markers have dominated the discourse on global issues within the UN for many decades. “Global goals” meant de facto an implementation of western models of development, human rights, democracy, and law, as well as western practices of reaching them. The new trend is to find regionally-based solutions to acute domestic and international challenges that would better fit local socio-political environments. These solutions are increasingly culturally determined. That makes the “one size fits all goals” of the UN increasingly hard to implement.
Seventy years of UN existence are marked by successes (for instance, protection of children and peacekeeping) and grand failures (for instance, in preventing Rwanda genocide). We still need the UN – it is a rare case of an “indispensable organization”. At the same time, I cannot imagine another decade without UN seriously reforming itself, as without them the UN risks becoming a “baroque organization” where form is much more important than content and words are more significant than actions.