The United Nations: Indispensable or irrelevant?

Stephane Mahe/Reuters/File
The U.N. flag is seen during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 8, 2015.
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As the United Nations marks its 75th anniversary this fall amid a worldwide pandemic, there is widespread stock-taking of just how the existence of the first truly global multilateral institution has changed the world.

Is it indispensable or irrelevant?

Why We Wrote This

Many consider it no coincidence there hasn’t been a world war since the U.N. was founded 75 years ago. But the institution faces the challenge of staying relevant as rising nationalism threatens the very idea of interdependence.

The institution’s existence corresponds to three-quarters of a century of remarkable progress for humanity in world health, life expectancy, extreme poverty reduction, recognition of universal human rights, and women’s and girls’ equality. It has set principles for everything from development to democratic governance and created the concept of international peacekeeping.

“The U.N. was set up first and foremost as a security organization,” says Stephen Schlesinger, a U.N. historian at the Century Foundation in New York. “And it can’t be said enough that there has been no nuclear war or world war in the 75 years of the U.N.’s existence.”

Some, however, believe the U.N.’s glory days are over, as powerful trends weaken the idea of multilateral institutions – such as a return to big-power geopolitics, a surge of nationalism, and a global shift from civil and political rights to social, economic, and cultural rights.  

Yet, the most vocal critics say they are speaking out because the world needs the principles on which the U.N. was founded.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Siddharth Chatterjee owes his life to the United Nations.

His Hindu father was a refugee from what is today Bangladesh. Young Siddharth grew up with the chaos of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan as his history, but the security of U.N. assistance programs as his cradle.

At 3 years old, the boy was diagnosed with polio. Yet the quick intervention of a doctor and the U.N.’s polio eradication program – one of the young global institution’s first health initiatives – helped him recover.

Why We Wrote This

Many consider it no coincidence there hasn’t been a world war since the U.N. was founded 75 years ago. But the institution faces the challenge of staying relevant as rising nationalism threatens the very idea of interdependence.

At 6, a proud Siddharth marched off to school sporting a backpack marked UNICEF, for the U.N. agency dedicated to promoting children’s welfare.

And years later, as a young lieutenant in the Indian army who had come to question resorting to armed conflict to solve disputes, he would find a new sense of purpose in the U.N.’s peacekeeping and peace-building operations. His first assignment: Bosnia. Iraq, South Sudan – where he spearheaded an initiative to decommission child soldiers – Indonesia, and Somalia would follow.

Courtesy of Nicholas Wilson/UNDP Kenya
“The U.N. ... can be the convener, the catalyst, the connector to new forms of partnerships with the private sector and other development actors – a global enabler of humanity’s continued progress.” – Siddharth Chatterjee, U.N. country coordinator in Kenya

“You see why I say that for me, the U.N. is personal,” says Mr. Chatterjee, now the U.N.’s resident country coordinator in Kenya. “A story like mine demonstrates how, whatever its faults may be, the U.N. is woven into the social fabric of so many countries.”

This fall the United Nations marks 75 years since its founding charter took effect in October 1945. The organization’s structure had been hammered out at an international conference in San Francisco attended by the 50 nations that made up the immediate post-World War II world of 1945. (Today, by contrast, the U.N. has 193 member states.)

That milestone is prompting widespread stock-taking of just how the existence of the first truly global multilateral institution has changed the “social fabric” of the world that Mr. Chatterjee cites. To some, the organization is more indispensable now than ever. To others, it has become irrelevant. 


Although the U.N. may be celebrating its diamond anniversary in the middle of a devastating global pandemic, the institution’s existence does correspond to three-quarters of a century of remarkable progress for humanity. By many measures – world health, average life expectancy, extreme poverty reduction, recognition of universal human rights, and women’s and girls’ equality – the postwar period has been unmatched for human advancement.

Delegates listen to President Harry S. Truman speak, by radio, to the first session of the United Nations organizing conference in San Francisco in April 1945.

What role has the U.N. and its myriad agencies played in that progress? True, many experts point out that other factors – for example, China’s drive since 1980 to lift more than 1 billion people out of poverty – often eclipse the U.N.’s role in recent improvements.

But others counter that having an institution that has set global norms and principles for everything from development to democratic governance can’t be separated from postwar progress. The U.N. was instrumental in assisting the new nations that emerged from postwar decolonization and has created new concepts like international peacekeeping.

Few in the world’s wealthiest countries would have reason to think of the U.N. as does Mr. Chatterjee – as something “personal.” But many experts say it is worth thinking back to where the world was in 1945 to start to answer the question about the U.N.’s contribution to global progress.

“You have to remember they were just coming off two of the most catastrophic wars in world history within 25 years of each other and the two together having caused nearly 90 million deaths,” says Stephen Schlesinger, a U.N. historian and fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. “So the pressure was on in San Francisco to create some system and set of guiding principles that would ensure they did not end up in a third world war.”

“The U.N. was set up first and foremost as a security organization,” he says, “and it can’t be said enough that there has been no nuclear war or world war in the 75 years of the U.N.’s existence.”

Seth Wenig/AP/File
Members of the U.N. Security Council vote on the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers in July 2015.

For some, the crucial innovation of the U.N. was establishing the Security Council, a forum where the major powers could at least air their differences before things turned hostile. “The success at prevention of great-power conflict is a contribution of the U.N. that tends to be underrated,” says Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, an expert on multilateral and U.N. issues at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Recalling former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s famous anti-American outbursts at the U.N. in 1960, Dr. Sidhu says, “The fact is they have been able to abuse each other in the U.N. instead of throwing missiles at each other. There may be a lot of stalemate and use of the veto [by the council’s five permanent members] as we’re seeing now,” he adds, “but better a heated dialogue than going to war.”

Others cite the importance of the U.N.’s innovative peacekeeping and peace-building operations. “There’s a powerful story to tell in how a precipitous drop in the victims of armed conflict directly corresponds to the creation and expansion of U.N. peace efforts,” says Elizabeth Cousens, a U.S. diplomat who worked for years on peace-building and security issues before this year becoming president of the United Nations Foundation, a Washington-based philanthropic organization that promotes U.N. programs.

Almost from the beginning, the U.N. took cautious steps at addressing international conflicts, “but it was really at the end of the Cold War that the U.N. had new space for mediating and resolving a sweep of civil wars around the world” – from Guatemala and El Salvador to Mozambique and Angola, she says.

Two soldiers from the U.N. Emergency Force stand guard at an outpost in the Gaza Strip, between Egypt and Israel, in 1957.

It was during this period, in 2003, that a young former U.N. peacekeeper named Chatterjee, now with UNICEF, would bring new ideas like “school in a box” – replacing burned-out schools within 48 hours with a fully supplied makeshift classroom – to a conflict-torn Aceh province in Indonesia.

Beyond peace and security issues, Ms. Cousens ticks off a host of advances over the last 75 years that she says carry the U.N.’s fingerprints. She cites the eradication of smallpox and progress in wiping out other global health scourges, the jump in average life expectancy from 45 years in 1945 to 72 years today, steep reductions in maternal and infant mortality, and expansion of and adherence to a universal set of human rights.

“If you were to draw a line from 1945 to 2020 tracking all of these factors and many more, you would find considerable improvements in the lives of most people,” she says, “and I would say the U.N. to varying degrees has been critical to all of these advances.”

Yet as the U.N. prepares to blow out the 75 candles atop its birthday cake, some see its glory days already in the past as powerful trends weaken the idea of multilateral institutions. Among those forces are a return to big-power geopolitics, illustrated by a sharpening U.S.-China rivalry, and a surge of nationalism that threatens to replace global interdependence with a my-country-first approach.

Within the U.N., some see bureaucratic stasis and a failure to innovate undermining the organization’s relevance. Others believe the U.N. simply shouldn’t exist.

Yet even many of the institution’s most vocal critics say they are speaking out because they believe the world needs the U.N. and the principles on which it was founded.


Emma Reilly was an idealistic human rights lawyer out to better the world when she joined the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in 2012. A year later she was disturbed by evidence that the office was complying with China’s requests for the names of Uyghur dissidents and family members. She was further dismayed, she says, when alerting superiors didn’t bring efforts to stop the practice but instead resulted in attempts to silence and even fire her.

Kathy Willens/AP/File
Somali women carry a heavy sack of corn after picking it up from a U.N. World Food Program site in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

Today Ms. Reilly is officially recognized as a U.N. whistleblower, her seven-year “Orwellian odyssey,” as she describes it, having culminated in a meeting in February of this year with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. But the dual Irish-U.K. national says nothing has changed about a system that operates to protect the powerful and highly paid officials within U.N. agencies over the world’s weak and defenseless people.

“The entire system is designed in a way to ensure that criticism must be stopped and prevented from going public,” she says. “And what my case reveals is a shocking willingness to keep things comfortable for everybody by doing a favor for a member state – even if at the price of violating the norms for which the office was created.”

Despite her disillusionment, Ms. Reilly says that she plans to stick with her work – because of the good she has seen the U.N. do and the promise of guiding principles that she believes remain valid.

“I have personally been part of progress and had real impact that has ranged from prison visits that got children out of prison or people released who had committed no crime, to seeing countries move from systemic lawlessness to the rule of law,” she says. “So to me the U.N. is deeply necessary, but it needs to change and be very different if it is to fulfill its promise.”

The U.N. is, in fact, both changing and standing still, many experts say. It is changing in ways that reflect a world moving away from the Western-based liberal order that formed the organization’s foundation, but also resisting reforms, including a major effort underway by Secretary-General Guterres, that would allow it to better serve a 21st-century world.

Khalil Hamra/AP/File
Palestinian children attend classes at a U.N. school in a refugee camp in Gaza in 2007.

On human rights, some see the organization ominously following a global shift away from the rights of the individual to social well-being and state security. It’s a shift that can be seen in Ms. Reilly’s experience and China’s conception of the Uyghurs as a domestic security threat, or in China’s crackdown on the nominally autonomous Hong Kong.

But it is also visible in some Western countries’ counterterrorism campaigns or their response to the pandemic, some experts say.

“In the transition from the U.S.-Western-led international liberal order to the world we are entering now, we’re seeing the balance shift from civil and political rights to social, economic, and cultural rights,” says Ramesh Thakur, director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University in Canberra.

But Professor Thakur is most concerned about the U.N.’s inability to reform the Security Council, which he says is dooming the institution’s role in peace and security issues. The Security Council, which has five permanent veto-wielding members – the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain – “is frozen in a completely different world that existed in 1945,” he says. Unless it expands to reflect today’s multipolar world, he says, the Security Council will become irrelevant.

“The council has proven to be reform-proof. ... So on the security side, at least, I don’t have any hope for the U.N. for the foreseeable future,” says Professor Thakur, who was a senior adviser to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “So you put that to one side and keep going on the humanitarian and other functional areas of cooperation and build on that.”

But the U.N.’s inability to adapt to a changing world is not limited to the Security Council, others say. Brett Schaefer, an expert on international institutions at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, says the U.N.’s lack of flexibility and nimbleness has opened the way for other institutions to carry out the same functions it does – in some cases with greater effectiveness and efficiency. “The U.N. is very rigid and doesn’t respond quickly to changing circumstances, so you end up with situations where the Gates Foundation is much more effective at addressing an international health challenge that the [World Health Organization] was designed to address,” says Mr. Schaefer.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev addresses the U.N. in 1960.

He asserts that a country’s own economic policies have been the biggest factor in global poverty reduction, and that bilateral aid and the involvement of nongovernmental organizations and the international business community have been most decisive in a developing country’s trajectory. What that means, he says, is that the U.N. “just isn’t the major player in development” in the 21st century.


So where does that leave the U.N. as it moves on from 75? Will it even be around to celebrate its centennial?

Not everyone thinks it will be. 

“If the U.N. manages in the coming years to adapt to new powers and energize new actors on global issues, then I think it can do better than just muddling along, and even remain central,” says NYU’s Professor Sidhu. “But if not, it may become irrelevant, or even collapse and die.” One key, he says, will be the extent to which the global nationalism trend continues.

Others will be watching for signs the U.N. is able to adapt to the geopolitical shift away from multilateralism. “We’re seeing heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, but also Russia,” says Heritage’s Mr. Schaefer, “and these kinds of great-power competitions will increasingly relegate the organization to the sidelines.”

And yet as pessimistic as some critics are, they insist the organization will retain a critical role in setting global standards. “The U.N. system remains very important in articulating standards and norms and bringing ... knowledge of emerging issues to the attention of the world at large,” says Professor Thakur. He cites the issue of food security, which will become more urgent as climate change causes global disruptions and has especially dire impact in countries with expanding populations. 

That kind of issue is only going to exacerbate what he describes as the “increasingly apparent dichotomy in perceptions about the U.N.” between high-income countries and developing low-income nations that continue to depend on it.

In his office in Nairobi, Mr. Chatterjee is surrounded by photos and other memorabilia highlighting his five years of work with Kenyan officials on youth unemployment and girls’ empowerment. He, too, worries about population shifts: As much of the developed world loses population, Africa is expected to grow from 1.2 billion people to 2.4 billion people by 2050. 

“There will be constant and indeed growing demand for food and health, for education and technology, and for greater equity so that more of that expanding population shares in prosperity,” Mr. Chatterjee says.

“The U.N. cannot provide those things, but it can be the convener, the catalyst, the connector to new forms of partnerships with the private sector and other development actors – a global enabler of humanity’s continued progress.”

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