UN or not, a need for united nations

Societies that are more open, trusting, and collaborative have an advantage. Could the United Nations be the key to establishing those conditions?

Li Sanxian/Reuters/File
China marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in 2015 with blue lighting on the Great Wall.

The photographs in this week’s cover story tell their own tale. The article they accompany, by our foreign affairs correspondent Howard LaFranchi, looks at the United Nations, now in its 75th year.

Like so much these days, the United Nations is subject to wildly varying opinions. One can make a credible argument that it has been a primary driver of global health and human rights at a time when global health and human rights have advanced faster than in any other period in human history. One can also make a credible argument that the U.N. is an inefficient and bloated bureaucracy whose best path forward involves a self-destruct button.

But look at those pictures.

There is the somber black-and-white photo of delegates in San Francisco at the first session of the organizing conference. The date, of course, is telling: 1945. After the catastrophe of two world wars, that picture is a statement: We must try to find some way to move forward together – prosperity and peace demand it.

Then look at the photos that follow. These are images that bring the world close. The vibrantly dressed women of Somalia carry a sack of corn. The hijab-wearing girl attends school in a Palestinian refugee camp. But they also bring the world’s challenges close. Somalia faces hunger. The Middle East deals with ancient hatred and war.

Whether or not the U.N. is worth celebrating or tossing into the dustbin, the photos underline a fact deeper than any human institution. We are all interconnected. This is not to endorse one policy path over another. The attempt to balance self-reliance and care for others rejects simplistic answers. Yet we must find those answers, now and in the future.

The U.N. is the world’s most ambitious attempt yet at finding an answer. The experts in Howard’s article have an array of opinions about how well it is succeeding or failing. But by this point in human history, we can answer one question with clarity: As a general rule, we are better off together than apart. The sense of common purpose that sprang from World War II launched an unprecedented era of prosperity for humankind. And we know that is no fluke. It is demonstrably true that everyone is better off when everyone is better off.

The Economist magazine recently examined why some societies are more economically successful than others. That, too, is an immensely complex and multilayered question. But some part of the answer appears to be: Societies that are more open, trusting, and collaborative have an advantage. “In areas where people do not really trust those outside their family, it may be hard to form large business organisations which can benefit from economies of scale and which can drive the adoption of new technologies,” the magazine says.

The work of building trust is an accelerant. The work of finding common purpose is an accelerant. Whether the U.N. is the best institution to do these things is an open question. The necessity of doing that work is not.

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