Why Does the UN Still Exist?
What exactly is the United Nations and, for that matter, why is there still a United Nations at all? How has it managed to survive over time, from 1945 down to the present—given its long record of underperformance, frequent outright failure, and even more frequent irrelevance?
On the United Nations’ core issues—collective peace and security, development, and universal human values and rights—its record is mediocre, unless one counts sheer institutional persistence as enough. And that record is particularly poor concerning the issue from which the collective sprang in 1945: international peace and security through the collective itself. Why, then, has not the ruthless evolutionary logic of history pruned it as a failed institutional sapling in a relentlessly competitive forest, as the League was pruned?
The textbooks in international law and organizations provide one set of answers to account for the persistence of the United Nations. They tell us the heroic story of the United Nations’ founding in 1945 and the first meetings in San Francisco; Eleanor Roosevelt et al. They tell us about the efforts of the Second World War Allies to create an organization that would be able to establish true collective security and avoid the fatal—and predictable—errors of international organizations that yielded, among other things, the failed League of Nations and the naïve Kellogg-Briand Pact. They describe the present-day organization as an attempt to provide global governance in a recalcitrant world. They tend, above all, to tell a progressive moral history—“Whig history”—of advances toward greater and better international order through international law and organizations.
Delegates take a vote at the San Francisco conference, 1945 (via UN Photos)
Accounts from the field of international relations tend to be more skeptical, but their skepticism comes typically from a realist perspective. The skepticism is descriptive rather than normative. These international-relations accounts do not necessarily challenge the normative goals of the United Nations and international order but instead note just how difficult the task is and the limited success the institution has had.
But descriptive and normative accounts of the United Nations, successes and failures, seen from the outside are not the only accounts that matter. One would get a rather different perspective on the United Nations than either of these big-picture external accounts by perusing the institution’s finances. For those (few) willing to delve into its internal budget, management, fiscal control, accounting, managerial structures, and labor relations, a striking organizational beast emerges. The organization’s priorities are mirrored in its budgets and fiscal structures that allocate its resources. This is a picture of the United Nations characterized by rent-seeking and sometimes outright corruption, lack of fiscal discipline or control, and a chief executive officer, the secretary-general, who has no exact idea how many people work for his organization.