What the United Nations is Not: the Two Mistakes Made at its Birth

Participants in the San Francisco Conference held from 25 April to 26 June 1945, to draft the Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the International Court of Justice. The text was based on earlier proposals, negotiated in various subsidiary bodies, and finally adopted unanimously in a plenary meeting of the Conference on 25 June 1945.(Source: Dag Hammarskjold Library, UN documentation)

The UN is not what its founding fathers envisaged.

Looking back at 70 years of activities, results are hugely disappointing, allowing liberal billionnaires like George Soros to thunder (here in the New York Review of Books):
The UN has failed to address any of the major conflicts since the end of the cold war; the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference left a sour aftertaste; the World Trade Organization hasn’t concluded a major trade round since 1994. The International Monetary Fund’s legitimacy is increasingly questioned because of its outdated governance, and the G20, which emerged during the financial crisis of 2008 as a potentially powerful instrument of international cooperation, seems to have lost its way. 
The G-20 has "lost its way", really? I doubt it. As I argued in a previous post (to read, scroll down or click here), the G-20 cannot hope to replace the UN anymore than the G-7 can replace the Security Council. They can only hope to "fit into" the concert of nations and strengthen decision making in the UN by throwing the weight of the world's major economies behind certain policies, like educating women or addressing global warming.

George Soros at the Munich Security
Conference in 2011 (source: here)
Neither the G-7 or the G-20 are international organizations backed by a permanent Secretariat the way the UN is. And neither cover the range of activities and specialized areas of work, the way the UN does - from monitoring the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to the International Criminal Court (I blogged about it here). And of course, while we can all agree with Mr. Soros that the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference "left a sour aftertaste", hopes are high that the upcoming Climate Conference in Paris won't.

Times have changed: two of the world's main polluters (China and the United States) have had a change of heart and are beginning to take the matter seriously - at least China is, even if the situation in the US is moot, as a result of the activism of the (mostly Republican) climate change deniers.

Mr. Soros' main point in that article is another one: the world has  sunk into "global disorder". He argues that the European Union is weak while the power of Putin's Russia is rising, sowing discord across Europe. In short, there is an "international governance crisis" and, as of now, the big world players are inevitably China and the United States.

As he sees it, the next battle between the two giants is going to take place behind closed doors at the end of 2015, in the arcane corridors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as China seeks SDR status for its currency, the Renminbi - and that will require overcoming America's unwillingness to see the dollar treated on a par with China's currency.

IMF Headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Source: here)

Interestingly enough, if you will allow me this aside, the IMF is part of the extended UN family, along with the World Bank, as it explains on its website (see here): both institutions share with the rest of the UN the "same goal of raising living standards in their member countries. Their approaches to this goal are complementary, with the IMF focusing on macroeconomic issues and the World Bank concentrating on long-term economic development and poverty reduction."

Any serious analysis of the UN role in world politics cannot eschew either of those institutions , also known as the Bretton Woods institutions, from the name of the place where they were founded:

The Golden Room in the Washington Hotel, N.H. where the Bretton Woods participants
signed the agreements creating the IMF and the World Bank in July 1944 (source: Barry Livingstone)
As these battles take place, often among technocrats, the values and convictions of UN staff matter and can make the difference.

In this particular case, it seems that IMF staff is sympathetic to the Chinese request and for several years now, the IMF Managing Director (the present one, Christine Lagarde and the previous one, Dominique Strauss Kahn) have been pushing for an opening of IMF governance to allow big emerging economies like China and India to play their role.

Mr. Soros argues convincingly that any break in China and US relations could push China in Russia's arms and thus create the basis for a Third World War - perhaps not a war, but certainly a return to a particularly freezing form of Cold War, and this seems to be already happening again.

This said, Mr. Soros is right: the UN at best has helped to stay conflicts, freezing them in some cases over decades with never-ending peace-keeping operations, but it has failed to solve them. Why?

Two mistakes were made when the UN was created: one is well-known and the other is forgotten.

The well-known one is of course giving a veto power at the Security Council to the winners of World War II, the so-called Big Five (France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) - thus effectively blocking the UN Security Council. This was done by the UN founding fathers under the assumption that, in view of the disaster of the UN's precursor organization, the League of Nations that had been abandoned by disgruntled Big Powers, something had to be done to entice them to join the UN and remain in it. Eventually, the carrot chosen was the veto power that made the Big Five "primus inter pares", first among equals - with the catastrophic consequences we all know.

Palais des Nations in Geneva, the headquarters of the League of Nations
from 1936 to its demise in 1946 (source here)
The second is to have allowed the permanent suspension in July 1948  of  the Military Staff Commission (MSC) after only 29 months of activity. What few outside of the UN system realized at the time was that when the MSC ceased to function, a major supporting pillar of the UN collapsed.

The basic idea behind the MSC was simple: it was envisaged that a powerful joint UN military staff would advise the Security Council and execute its orders, and would also bring about a reduction in armaments and disarmament. Over its short existence, it even went so far as to formulate exactly what "core army" the UN would need:
  • Airforce: 750 bombers, 500 fighters, 25 others, total: 1500
  • Naval Forces: 3 battleships, 6 carrier (4 fleet, 2 light), 12 cruisers, 33 destroyers, 64 frigates, 24 minesweepers, 14 submarines, assault life for four brigade groups (16,000 men)
  • Army: 15 divisions (375,000 - 450,000 men)
A very small army, really, and it was thought that the Big Five on the Security Council would provide most of it, indeed, that this would bring them to act together.

With the onset of the Cold War, that idea obviously died. (For more details, if you're curious, here's an excellent article by Felicity Hill, of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, published on the Global Policy Forum, click here).

Ten years later, the General Assembly was unable to review and modify the UN Charter as it was supposed to do. The UN founding fathers had always felt that their creation would probably require revision and they had allowed for it. But that opportunity to revise and improve was not taken. The Cold War had settled in, dialogue had broken down and the dream of a strong UN capable of presiding over the concert of nations never came to be.

In short, the UN was left without any "teeth".

Small wonder the UN, as George Soros pointed out,  never helped solve any conflict. The problem started right away, in 1948. And Soros' call for a "strategic partnership between China and the US" could well be, for the time being, our only real guarantee for a peaceful world. The road to achieving a functioning UN is a long, uphill one...

My next post will be about "What the United Nations Really Is", the limitations as we have seen here, but also the hidden strength, that ingredient that sustains its "soft power".

PS: As I wrote this, the drama of the referendum in Greece unfolded, with the "no" to further austerity measures winning out by an unexpectedly large margin, 61 to 39 (much to my delight - if I had been Greek, I would have voted no).  For now, the immediate problem is to save the Greek banking system from collapse. If the ECB doesn't do it, then expect a humanitarian crisis in Greece! And as Paul Krugman notes in his excellent op-ed:
The truth is that Europe’s self-styled technocrats are like medieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients — and when their treatment made the patients sicker, demanded even more bleeding. A “yes” vote in Greece would have condemned the country to years more of suffering under policies that haven’t worked and in fact, given the arithmetic, can’t work: austerity probably shrinks the economy faster than it reduces debt, so that all the suffering serves no purpose.
He concludes that the better option for Greece might be to exit the Euro anyway. He could be right. We'll see, I'll get back to this problem in a later post when an analysis can be done calmly, after the dust has settled and the reactions of all involved parties have become clear.