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Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : THE UN AND WORLD GOVERNANCE


Sixty years of United Nations



Arnaud Blin, Gustavo Marin ¤ 7 January 2009 ¤
Translations: français (original) . Español .

Rather than simply taking stock of the UN, something that would probably prove sterile, it might be more judicious to start with a historical overview of the past 60 years, which would provide a better picture of how the world, in a way, has been shaped by the UN, among other factors. This should allow us to put the UN into a certain historical perspective, something that tends to be overlooked other than constantly repeating that the world has changed considerably since 1945, which is obvious.

To grasp the period previous to the founding of the UN, we need to go back to at least 1914, and even to 1789, or even to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which instituted the modern rules of international relations, or more precisely, of interstate relations. The dramatic finish of World War II put and end to the two global conflicts started in 1914. It also put an end to the “long nineteenth century” (1789-1914), which, following the first major modern revolution, was the setting of a series of successive political and geopolitical cataclysms that were to put a stop to the Ancien Régime, to the great historical empires, and to Europe’s supremacy. In addition, 1945 terminated the homogeneous and multipolar balance-of-powers system that had come into existence in 1648 to consolidate the European zone but had not been able to resist the many shifts that ended up transforming the face of Europe and of the world. Top leaders were therefore dealing with a triple breakdown when they met in Yalta and in Bretton Woods, in Dumbarton Oaks (Washington), and in San Francisco, where the conference that gave birth to the United Nations was held.

As soon as the next day’s world was (re)defined, new factors appeared that would disrupt its implementation. The new confrontation between the two remaining superpowers, the USA and the USSR, completely reshaped the world’s chessboard with a sort of heterogeneous balance weighed by a strong ideological rivalry reminiscent of the interwar opposition between fascism and democracy that had engulfed the best intentions of the architects of the League of Nations, a prefiguration of the UN.

A second revolutionary factor was the atomic weapon. There was no clear perception in 1945 of just how much the A-bomb would upset all strategic perspectives, nor that it would be in the middle of this battle of titans, both generating a “balance of terror” and, paradoxically, maintaining the stability of the world system and limiting the violence of conflicts (we should remember that this was in particular the theme on which the first debates at the UN were focused). In short, this perpetual masked war in which the world was threatened with extinction at all times helped to stabilize, artificially and almost accidentally, practically the entire planet. In their majority, Cold War conflicts were above all a residual effect of colonization or its indirect consequence (such as the Vietnam war and the war in Angola). When all is said and done, the postwar era was a relatively peaceful period compared with previous ones, albeit politically and diplomatically extremely tense. During this whole period, the Korean war was the one major traditional conflict involving the great powers of the moment, even though the Cuban missiles crisis put the whole world a breath away from absolute disaster, paradoxically without a single shot having been fired.

What role could the UN play in this context? First we need to be clear about the fact that starting in 1945, the international system that settled in was defined first by the rivalry between the two blocs, then by the imminent nuclear threat that would weigh heavily on the world’s destiny. We were no longer under an international multipolar-balance regime, and the advent of a system based on “collective security” embodied by the UN was not what was really governing international conduct. As a matter of fact, from 1945 on, the UN began playing a significant role on the international stage, a role that the League of Nations had never been able to play and that no supranational body had ever held in all of history. The UN had promised a “positive” peace that in the end was immediately replaced by the negative, imperfect peace of the Cold War.

The lead cloak that maintained the precarious stability of the system, i.e. the geopolitical status quo, was completely unsuitable to the transformations that were making deep changes in a world that for centuries had been marching—often by brute force, but not exclusively—to the European tune. On the periphery of the hegemonic concerns of the two superpowers, a number of major issues were to require attention, issues over which the USSR and the United States did not have direct power (which did not stop them from interfering in them): decolonization, (Europe’s) reconstruction, democratization, modernization, and finally globalization - all areas of great potential conflict. How were these important issues to be addressed? Above all, how could the most powerful countries be prevented from exploiting these issues to their own ends? American aid did allow Europe to re-emerge in a new form while the power struggle between the USA and the USSR fueled the wave of decolonization, from which each of the two countries stood to gain directly (from the ousting of the colonial empires) and indirectly (for strategic exploitation of the new independent states). Regardless, it was the UN that, through its General Assembly, facilitated the geopolitical integration of the 142 countries that would join the ranks of member countries and, more to the point, would move into a foremost position on the new geopolitical chessboard. It is no small achievement to have been able to attract all, or almost all the world’s states into the UN. We should remember that the United States, following a decision of Congress, had not joined the League of Nations even though US President Woodrow Wilson had been its main architect.

Contrary to other historical periods of major geostrategic breaks, the sudden end of the Cold War, because it was a latent and indirect conflict, did not entail the overhaul warranted by the new situation, even though in many of its aspects, the international system had undergone an upheaval that no one had anticipated. There was neither a post-Cold War peace conference nor a post-Cold War agreement. A “global governance” regime collapsed and was succeeded by none other. And yet the United Nations was there. Curtly pushed into the sidelines during the Cold War by the two superpowers and by the dynamics of a bipolar balance, now it was being held responsible for the stability of the world! And to boot, without giving it the resources to match those expectations. Fortunately, the leaders of the two superpowers, Boris Yeltsin for Russia, and George H. Bush and Bill Clinton for the United States, were able to manage the brutal turn smoothly. Yeltsin did not try to hang on to his crumbling empire. Bush Senior and Clinton did not try to exploit the situation to the benefit of “hyperpower,” something that would bring bitter reproach from the neocons who, after 2001, would be in control of American foreign policy.

Meanwhile, toward the late eighties and the early nineties, the world underwent major changes. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a historical turning point. Capitalistic globalization became the undisputed dominant system … some people even thought we had reached “the end of history.”
With the ineluctable disintegration of Soviet society and its satellites, citizens were facing capitalism subsequently free of ideological or economic competition. New globalization of the financial and trade markets, a rampant information society pushed on by the Internet, and an ever growing expansion of capitalistic modernization led to deep transformations in the economy, society, and culture.

As the eighties and the early nineties drew on, a new, heterogeneous but real world-scale civil society emerged. New, because it sought to rid itself of former ideological models and of old methods of social and political organization, of the weight of labor unions or nonprofit organizations, of obsolescent watchwords, etc. and began to break open new paths to face capitalistic globalization. Exploring new paradigms, new gender relations, new relations between the young and the old, optimizing cross-cultural dynamics and diversity, demanding new Human Rights, and seeking a new relationship with the Earth: this was what constituted the fertile land for the emergence of a new, increasingly multicultural world civil society.

In those days, the UN was organizing world conferences on these major themes. The Secretary-General and UN agencies would set up an official event, and NGOs would organize one on the side. These could have been the beginnings of a more social, more participatory regulation body, of a new multilateralism that would lay the foundations a new world governance. It was instead an attempt at intergovernmental regulation with the (subordinate) participation of civil society.

The UN, directed during this pivotal period by the former foreign minister of Egypt, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-96) and, above all, by Kofi Annan (1997-2006), found itself at the core of the new conflicts that were shaking the world after the geostrategic post-Cold War thaw (in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in particular). Boutros-Ghali’s (preventive) Agenda for Peace experienced setbacks and the Secretary-General came under pressure from the United States. Kofi Annan was the first Secretary-General to come out of the ranks of the UN, which he had joined in 1962. His term would be one of the most memorable in the history of the organization. With his perfect knowledge of the workings of the UN and his lucidity regarding the limits of the UN system, he also took advantage of his aura to establish an ambitious reform plan, which unfortunately would end down the drain due to those who ultimately bore the greatest responsibility: the Member States.

As a matter of fact, during the post-Cold War period the role of the UN increased, mainly because no other body could regulate a system characterized by instability. Against all odds and despite the media froth, the post-Cold War period was marked by a certain peace, with interstate conflicts practically disappearing off the face of the planet to the exception of those in the Middle East and in the Indian Subcontinent while internal conflicts, though always extremely violent, also receded, contrary, once again, to appearances. The Balkan crisis that followed Yugoslavia’s dismantling nevertheless showed that rising to extremes of violence was also still possible in Europe. The war, marked by NATO bombings and ethnic purification, grabbed attention and demonstrated the helplessness of the bodies assumed to be responsible for peace keeping, starting with the United Nations. The “new” post-Cold War conflicts mainly affected Africa, from then on considered by the great powers to be a strategically and economically “uninteresting” zone, a hasty appraisal that would change in the nineties after the fall of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election as president of South Africa in 1994, the same year genocide was rife in Rwanda. Otherwise, it would take an unfortunate coincidence featuring the September 11, 2001 attacks and accession to power in the US by a small clique determined to change the course of history, and a succession of bad decisions made by this same small group, for the United States to enter into two anachronistic wars in Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq, against which they were believed to have been vaccinated by the Vietnam experience.

Regardless, the rare current conflicts of the moment have still demonstrated the inability of the UN to prevent (all) wars and an even greater one to settle a war once it has been started. The UN was just as unable to stop the American coalition from invading Iraq, in the most fragile region of the planet, as it is today to do anything in the zone around Pakistan, where all the conditions are gathered for a huge conflict to break out. The financial crisis in 2008 has also demonstrated, if need be, just how much the UN is non-existent in this dimension so crucial for global stability. As for the terrorist plague and the concomitant fight against terrorism, which could be assumed to muster unanimous support, they are a painful revelation of the weaknesses of the organization, which cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism (contrary, by the way, to the League of Nations)!

Notwithstanding, the UN, especially under the leadership of Kofi Annan, has proven valuable in other fields, those related to development in particular. The Millennium Development Goals, although many of their aspects, notably their implementation, can be criticized, have trained the spotlight back on the world’s inequalities and the suffering endured by a majority of the world’s population, right to where the creed of all-saving capitalism praised by the champions of the victory of freedom and democracy has been ripped open by daily realities that are difficult to hide. The specialized agencies (of the UN) accomplish work that produces important results (vaccination campaigns, for example). At the cultural level, UNESCO has been committed for decades in an area of strong universal symbolism: natural and cultural World Heritage. Otherwise, the UN has also been quick to react to awareness developing since the late eighties of the importance of the threat to the environment and the need to protect our most valuable good, planet Earth, collectively. Previously, only states had been deemed to be able either to jeopardize all of humankind, by waging wars or using the atomic bomb, or, should the case arise, to save it. Now it is individuals who are at the heart of the issue.

In fact, the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening—constantly, faster and faster—as a result of demographic and economic growth at completely different rates depending on who and where you are. Facing this enormous problem and its many ramifications, the UN is hugely under-equipped to assume the responsibilities it has taken on in the area of its Millennium Development Goals, mostly assigned to its specialized agencies, with modest resources to say the least.

In fact, the resources the UN has at its disposal are rarely even mentioned, perhaps because the quick assumption is that they must surely be commensurate with the objectives. Yet it is indeed here, in this vital area, that the United Nations has its greatest problems. Richelieu, who invented the famous concept of Raison d’Etat (“reason of state,”) said in so many words that money was the “grease” of peace (Political Testament). Alas, the money allocated to peace is far from reaching the levels of that devoted to war.

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