When officials from 47 countries met in Washington last month for the Nuclear Security Summit, they sent a subtle but unmistakable message to the United Nations: You don't matter as much as you used to.
The summit is just the latest example of the growing tendency of the United States to take important issues – such as financial stability, climate change, and nonproliferation – outside the UN system.
The Group of 20 has become the prevailing symbol of this trend of addressing complex international issues in informal settings, where participants are handpicked based on their global and regional influence. The G-20's prominence stems from its effective role in averting global depression.
Yet, many in the UN – especially developing countries – curse its rise. To them, the G-20 represents an elite club of rich countries, convening closed-door summits to determine the course of world events, without regard for their perspectives. Belying their fear is the concern that the UN, an organ in which they are represented with a vote and a soapbox, will become increasingly irrelevant.
These fears are overstated, if not unfounded, for three reasons.
First, the G-20's scope is almost entirely limited to international finance and crisis management – two areas that the UN and the post-World War II Bretton Woods institutions have proved incapable of directing. The G-20 has shown little interest in becoming an all-encompassing global governance body.
Second, the G-20 is an informal gathering, without the legitimacy conferred by the UN's treaty-based status and universal membership.
Third, the G-20 lacks institutional machinery. It has no permanent staff – laughable when compared with the UN's 40,000-person Secretariat.
But it is exactly the reactionary fear of effective institutions that augurs poorly for the UN. If the UN is to remain relevant, it will need to accept "minilateral" global governance mechanisms as partners, while also reforming the structures that drown the UN in redundancy.
We have entered – in the words of Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations – an era of "messy multilateralism." Powerful countries, most notably the US, have an expanding array of forums to which they can bring important decisions, including the Group of Seven, Group of Eight, and G-20; NATO; the Major Economies Forum; and the World Trade Organization.
Although none of these poses an existential threat to the UN, their existence and effectiveness dilute its influence. By viewing them as partners rather than competitors, UN leaders and member states can make the UN system relevant to solving tomorrow's problems. UN departments can aid the G-20 and other groupings as both an implementer and a watchdog. Still, the UN must realize why so many alternative venues have emerged: It has become ineffectual.
Despite 60 years of dominance, there are no guarantees that the UN will continue to be the primary global-governance institution. Reform should begin at the top, with long-awaited changes to the composition and mechanisms of the Security Council. The UN's premier decisionmaking body must be effective, while also reflecting the geopolitical realities of the 21st century.
In its daily operations, the UN should become more efficient, with better management, accountability, and systemwide coherence. And, in its core functions – development, peace and security, human rights, and humanitarian action – it must seriously address the laundry list of internal and external recommendations for improving its operations.
Reform will be difficult and contentious. But the fact that it is an institutional imperative for the UN has never been clearer, so this is a test. If the UN cannot tackle the challenge posed by the G-20 and other global governance innovations, it deserves to go the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations.
Rebecca R. Friedman is a research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance Program and the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.