“A world organization has already been erected for the prime purpose of preventing war,” Winston Churchill intoned in 1946. “We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace.”
Seven decades later, the United Nations is anything but a force for action and little more than a frothing of words—and the wars it has failed to end or prevent are too numerous to count. In short, Churchill’s worries were well-founded. Yet this essay isn’t another argument for abolishing the UN, withdrawing from the UN or reforming the UN. Abolishing the UN is probably not possible and arguably not in America’s interests. It serves a purpose, if only to expose the world’s gangsters and rogues to the light. Withdrawing from the UN would be akin to letting the inmates run the asylum. And the UN seems past the point of systemic reform—something Washington has demanded and Turtle Bay has promised for decades.
Rather, this essay aims to make the case that the UN has failed to do what it was created to do; that responsible powers have other means and methods, in the words of the UN Charter, “to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security”; and that they should pursue those means and methods by formalizing a partnership of liberal democracies.
Recent headlines serve as the strongest case against the UN and UN Security Council (UNSC).
At various junctures, the UN Conference on Disarmament has included Iran, North Korea, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Bashar Assad’s Syria. Saddam’s Iraq (2003), North Korea (2011) and Syria (2018) even chaired the conference.
That’s the same Iran that was caught pursuing an outlaw nuclear-weapons program; the same Iraq that violated scores of UN resolutions related to disarmament, used chemical weapons against its people and expelled UN weapons inspectors; the same North Korea that proliferates weaponry, deploys prohibited missilery and tests nuclear weapons; the same Syria that’s using chemical weapons against its subjects.
According to its charter, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.” Yet China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela sit on the HRC.
That’s the same China that bulldozes churches and “curtails a wide range of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion”; the same Cuba that “continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism” through “arbitrary arrests of human-rights defenders”; the same Venezuela that’s rounding up opposition leaders by the hundreds and gunning down peaceful protesters by the dozens; the same Saudi Arabia where women have no rights and arbitrary detention is the norm. (The misogynist Saudi regime also sits on the UN Commission on the Status of Women.)
“According to UN Security Council Resolution 2321, a stated objective of this council is North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a 2017 gathering of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The Trump-Kim summit notwithstanding, Pyongyang continues to prep missiles and possess nuclear weapons. And the UN continues to dawdle—“resolved to be irresolute,” as Churchill lamented when the Nazis primed for war.
The Nazi comparison is more apt than many would think. In 2014, a UN panel declared Pyongyang guilty of “a wide array of crimes against humanity,” including: “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture…persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds.” The chairman of the panel pointed to “many parallels” between North Korea and Nazi Germany. Thus the panel urged the UNSC to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and/or establish a special tribunal.
While a Nuremburg-style tribunal or ICC referral is warranted, the creaking machinery of the UNSC—where Beijing shields Pyongyang from punitive sanctions—prevents such action. Recall that after North Korea sank a South Korean ship, the UNSC condemned the aggression but failed to name—let alone punish—the aggressor.
Noting that 10,000 have been killed, 25,000 wounded and 1.8 million displaced, Ukraine’s president asks, “If tragedy of this scale doesn’t warrant UN peace presence, then what does?” But since the cause of all that death and destruction (Russia) sits on the UNSC, the blue-helmeted cavalry won’t be coming to Ukraine.
The problem is worse than bureaucratic inertia and big-power gamesmanship. Even when the UN does act, it generally fails to make a distinction between the use of force to stop a wrong and the use of force to commit a wrong.
In 1994, as Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated military launched its machete massacre against the Tutsi population, UN peacekeepers were ordered to stand aside. Doing otherwise would have violated their mandate, which was limited to “monitoring.” Thus, 800,000 people were slaughtered, while the UN monitored the carnage.
To protect Bosnian-Muslim civilians from Bosnian-Serb militia, the UN created “safe havens” guarded by a so-called UN Protection Force. Srebrenica was one of those safe areas. In July 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces entered Srebrenica and demanded that women and men be separated. The peacekeepers acceded to the Serbs’ demands; 7,000 Muslim males were then trucked away and murdered. “Here was genocide,” as Niall Ferguson grimly recalls. “Where was the United Nations? The answer is that it was right there; indeed, with grotesque irony, its forces effectively presided over the worst of the genocidal atrocities.”
In an echo of Bosnia and Rwanda, marauding gangs of gunmen have killed dozens of unarmed people sheltering at UN-designated protection compounds in South Sudan.
Samantha Power, President Barack Obama’s UN ambassador, noted in 2014 that UN peacekeepers in Congo “routinely fail to protect civilians,” citing a UN report that concluded “in 507 attacks against civilians from 2010 to 2013, peacekeepers virtually never used force to protect civilians under attack. Thousands of civilians likely lost their lives as a result.”
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was charged with ensuring that “no authority other than that of the Government of Lebanon” exert control over the territory of Lebanon and the “disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon.” Yet the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reports that Iranian-backed Hezbollah has “tripled the size of its arsenal, building almost 1,000 military facilities, including more than 550 weapons bunkers” in Lebanon.
UN agencies dismissed reports that ISIS perpetrated anti-Christian genocide in Syria and Iraq, even as the European Parliament declared ISIS guilty of “committing genocide against Christians” and documented how Christians had been “killed, slaughtered, beaten, subjected to extortion, abducted and tortured” by ISIS.
That brings us to Syria, which former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described as a “collective failure,” a “gaping hole in the global conscience,” proof the UNSC is “incapable of taking collective action.”
Since 2012, UN bodies have passed dozens of resolutions, statements and reports resolutions related to Syria. But the UN’s barrage of words has done nothing to protect Syria’s civilians from barrel-bombs and chemical weapons.
The Assad regime began deploying chemical weapons in December 2012. In September 2013, as the U.S. prepared to respond militarily to Assad’s gassing of Ghouta, Russia proposed a deal whereby Syria would place its chemical arsenal under international control in exchange for assurances Washington would not launch punitive military strikes.
The deal was co-implemented by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an “autonomous international organization with a working relationship with the United Nations.” Proof of the deal’s failure is everywhere. The New York Times, April 8, 2018: “Dozens Suffocate in Syria as Government Is Accused of Chemical Attack.” The New York Times, April 4, 2017: “Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad.” Time, September 14, 2016: “Assad Regime Used Chemical Weapons in Aleppo Days Ago.” The Washington Post, June 20, 2015: “Barbarism with Chlorine Gas Goes Unchecked in Syria.”
Ban reminds us that the UN’s chemical-weapons failure was but a sideshow to its wider failure in Syria. “The vast majority of the killing and atrocities have been carried out with conventional weapons,” he observes. Some 500,000 people have been killed in Assad’s war. And the UNSC not only failed to stop the butchery, but failed to try. One permanent member of the UNSC (Russia) even collaborated with Assad. By mid-2017, Carla del Ponte had had enough. A leading member of the UN commission cataloguing Syrian war crimes, del Ponte resigned, explaining, “I was expecting to persuade the Security Council to do something for justice. Nothing happened for seven years…We are going nowhere.”
Those who like the UN-OPCW disarmament efforts in Syria must love the UN-blessed nuclear deal with Iran, which allows Tehran “under a secret agreement with the UN agency that normally carries out such work” to use “its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms.”
This is the Bizarro world of the UN, where human-rights violators sit in judgment of the human-rights records of others, where those pursuing the noble goal of disarmament sit alongside the world’s most notorious weapons proliferators, where Iran and Syria are trusted to police themselves, where Srebrenica is called a “safe haven,” where Aleppo, Kigali and Sarajevo turn for help but receive Pilate-like excuses.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. According to the UN Charter, the UNSC’s responsibility is “the maintenance of international peace and security.” Yet as Patrick Brogan details in his history of world conflict, there were at least 80 wars between the UN’s founding in 1945 and the end of the 20th century, dozens more this century. Of these, the UNSC has been able to authorize concerted collective action—not condemnation or concern, not observation forces, monitoring teams or no-fly zones—on arguably just two occasions: Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990. Of course, UN authorization for the defense of South Korea was a fluke, thanks to Moscow’s decision to boycott a UNSC session; and UN authorization for the liberation of Kuwait proved to be a post-Cold War aberration.
It wouldn’t be fair to blame the UN for the fallen nature of man, bent as it is toward discord, but it’s appropriate to blame the UN for failing to live up to its own mission—often failing even to try. “Countries look to the United Nations to exercise moral authority,” former UN official Valerie Amos observes. “Time after time, they are disappointed.”
Count America among the disappointed. The record shows that American presidents try to work through the UN.
President Franklin Roosevelt helped found the UN. President Harry Truman turned to the UN to defend South Korea.
President John Kennedy used the UN as an international courtroom to indict the Soviet Union for its reckless actions in Cuba.
President Jimmy Carter signed on to UN covenants on human rights and political rights.
President Ronald Reagan answered the UN’s call for peacekeepers in Lebanon, as did President George H.W. Bush in Somalia. Bush 41 also used the UN to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
When President Bill Clinton insisted that UNSC resolutions related to Iraq’s WMD program be enforced, only Britain offered to assist. The rest of the UNSC shrugged. Clinton’s desire for international authorization to protect Kosovo from Milosevic found more intransigence at the UNSC.
Like Clinton, President George W. Bush called on the UNSC to enforce its own resolutions in Iraq, declaring, “We want the UN to be effective and respected and successful.” Yet it took eight weeks for the Security Council to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. Even after UN weapons inspectors reported that Iraq had not complied with UN disarmament demands, half the Security Council refused to act. “Some permanent members of the Security Council have publicly announced that they will veto any resolution that compels the disarmament of Iraq,” Bush43 lamented. “These governments share our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it.” So, the U.S. led a coalition into Iraq, in Bush 43’s words, to enforce “the resolutions of the world's most important multilateral body.”
President Barack Obama and European leaders secured UNSC authorization for a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians from Muhammar Qaddafi. But Russia blocked any such cooperation in Syria. Moscow believed NATO exceeded its UNSC mandate in Libya by targeting and ultimately toppling Qaddafi. So, when the West tried to persuade the UNSC to act in Syria, Russia cited what happened in Libya to justify its opposition. Between October 2011 and April 2018, Russia vetoed at least ten UNSC resolutions related to Syria. Obama, not unlike his immediate predecessors, ended up building an ad hoc coalition to fight ISIS.
After Assad’s chemical-weapons attacks in 2017, President Donald Trump called the UNSC “a great disappointment” and ordered missile strikes against Assad’s military without seeking UN permission. After the Assad regime carried out another chemical attack in 2018, Britain and France joined the U.S. in delivering a barrage of punitive strikes, again, without seeking UN pre-approval.
Trump seems less likely than any president in the UN era to work through or with the UN. His 2017 UN address amounted to a public scolding of the World Body and was punctuated by his blunt observation that the UN’s founding nations created the organization “to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.”
The problem, as former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder observes, is that the UN is “an institution beholden to its least cooperative members.” Thus, when faced with threats to peace and order, Washington is left with two unpalatable options: Allow the obstructionists to win, and let the threats metastasize. Or act without UN permission, and face the opprobrium of allied governments.
It’s important to note that America’s closest allies in Britain, Canada, Europe, Japan and the Pacific—and to a growing degree, elements inside the U.S. government—view the UNSC as the sole source of legitimacy for military action. (Many Americans would argue the only source of legitimacy for U.S. military action is the U.S. Constitution, but that’s a subject for another essay.) “Under the United Nations Charter,” Daalder and Robert Kagan explain, “states are prohibited from using force except in cases of self-defense or when explicitly authorized by the Security Council. But this presupposes that the members of the Security Council can agree on the threat and the appropriate response.” Yet the UNSC’s permanent members have proven unable to agree on what constitutes a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression.”
This is how UN inertia impacts America’s security and international order.
At the international level, there are no police or judges to enforce the rules, settle disputes or maintain order. The UN’s founding fathers wanted the Security Council to fulfill those tasks—FDR even envisioned the U.S., Britain, China and the Soviet Union serving as “four policemen”—but they set the organization up for failure. The lowest-common-denominator approach and diplomatic mischief that characterize the UN were inevitable byproducts of the UN’s systemic shortcomings. After all, this is an organization where the Stalinist Soviet Union was accorded the same position and powers as the liberal democracies of America, Britain and France; where the lawless are expected to respect the rule of law; where there’s no distinction between democracies and dictatorships; where, as Ferguson observes, “the seal of multilateral approval can be withheld by the unilateral action of just one other permanent member of the Security Council.”
Perhaps the real problem, then, is not the UN, but rather that so many continue to expect it to do what it’s not able to do. As Robert Kaplan has noted, “The UN represents not just the hopes but more accurately the illusions of millions of people.”
Organizations as diverse as NATO and the NEA, the European Union and American Legion, the Red Cross and Greenpeace are “a force for action,” to borrow Churchill’s phrase, precisely because their members are united by shared values. What are the shared values that unite all 193 members of the United Nations? Who determines “the global conscience” that Ban invoked after Assad gassed Ghouta?
“The universal community,” Reinhold Niebuhr observed when the UN was young, “has no common language or common culture—nothing to create the consciousness of ‘we.’” Niebuhr seemed to be suggesting that perhaps there’s no such thing as a “global conscience” or “global community.” Yet Niebuhr saw hope in the liberal democracies. “Modern democratic communities…all possess a core of common spiritual possessions which the world community lacks.”
That “core of common spiritual possessions” connects liberal democracies into a community of shared values and shared institutions—the rule of law, political pluralism, religious liberty, individual freedom, free enterprise and free trade, majority rule with minority rights. We know this community of shared values as “the West”—a circle of nations that grows (and sometimes shrinks) based on the choices of the governed and their government: Germany and Italy rejoined the West in the decades following World War II; Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey graduated into the West in those postwar years; India and Israel, Hungary and Poland, Czechs and Slovaks, the Baltics and much of the Balkans have joined; Ukraine and Georgia are dying to join (literally), while Maduro’s Venezuela and Erdogan’s Turkey drift away.
Perhaps there’s a way to formalize this community of shared values and bypass the UN’s roadblocks to legitimizing concerted international action.
“The world’s democracies should unite in an Alliance for Democracy to strengthen the forces of liberty against the forces of oppression,” argues former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Similarly, Daalder has argued for an “Alliance of Democracies.” Kagan has written about the need for “a concert of democracies” that would enable liberal democracies to “protect their interests and defend their principles.”
The late Senator John McCain championed “a worldwide League of Democracies” to “advance our values and defend our shared interests.”
Even Trump—no fan of international institutions—has spoken of “a coalition of strong and independent nations…to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.”
This idea of a worldwide democratic partnership is not new.
Although he is often criticized for being overly idealistic, President Woodrow Wilson realized that “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.” It’s a pity the UN’s founders didn’t heed Wilson’s insight.
Churchill was a founding father of the UN, but his words of warning about the UN—that America and Britain would need to ensure “that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words”—suggest he had his doubts. And his lifelong commitment to action suggests he would not allow the UN’s pale-blue soup of moral relativism to prevent responsible powers from addressing threats to peace.
In 1992, as Yugoslavia descended and the UN dithered, Reagan admitted, “I did not always value international organizations, and for good reason. They were…nothing more than debating societies.” He hoped that would change as the Cold War melted away—and that the UN could forge “an army of conscience” in the post-Cold War era to prevent the likes of Milosevic, Saddam, Assad and Kim from threatening their neighbors and bludgeoning their subjects. But like Churchill, Reagan had his doubts. So, he called on democratic powers to rise to the occasion. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?”
An army of conscience or alliance of democracies need not trigger the UN’s demise. The UN could still serve as a global assembly where all the world’s governments are represented. UN sub-agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Health Organization—organizations whose goals the big powers generally agree on—could continue their important work.
Every day, ad hoc partnerships of democratic powers are doing what the UN is supposed to do.
The U.S.-British-French airstrikes against Assad’s chemical-weapons infrastructure in April 2018 are an expression of Reagan’s army of conscience, as is the anti-ISIS coalition, which is led by Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and America—liberal democracies all. Coalitions of democratic partners police the Strait of Malacca, Bay of Bengal, northwest Africa, the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea.
The Combined Maritime Forces is led by 20 representative democracies that contribute military assets to operations focused on security in the Persian Gulf, counterterrorism and counter-piracy.
The Proliferation Security Initiative enfolds dozens of seafaring democratic powers that collaborate to interdict WMDs on the high seas.
The Iraq war, which ended Saddam’s repeat-offender regime, was prosecuted by a coalition of 38 nations—most of them liberal democracies—that acted without explicit UN approval.
International intervention in Kosovo was coordinated and conducted not by the UNSC, but by a community of democratic states known as NATO.
Some will point to this list to argue there’s no need to formalize such activity under a new international umbrella. That ignores the very real concerns many in the West have with military intervention not formally sanctioned by some sort of international body. As a consequence, many of these efforts are last-ditch attempts and/or under-resourced.
Others will say that formalizing a partnership of democracies will lead to the formation of an opposing bloc of autocracies. Such a bloc already exists. Russia and China serve as patrons and protectors of oppressive regimes in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba and Belarus.
The UN’s serial failure to act suggests that a body of like-minded partners would be more effective than a come-one-come-all open house, which means any formalized partnership of democracies would need to be an invitation-only club. Daalder and James Lindsey of the Council on Foreign Relations argue membership should be restricted “to countries with entrenched democratic traditions.” Their starting point is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes 36 market-based democracies in the Americas, the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Pacific.
This partnership of democracies would not be constrained by consensus. “The UN bureaucracy, along with others who seek a peaceful world, worship consensus,” Kaplan sighs. “But consensus can be the handmaiden of evil.” If nothing else, the litany of UN failures detailed above—most of them sins of omission—underscores Kaplan’s point.
“No democracy requires unanimity to act domestically, and no community of democracies…should require unanimity to act internationally,” Henry Nau adds.
Instead of the constraints of consensus, a partnership of democracies could authorize action by three-fifths or two-thirds vote. Different members could then lead coalitions of the willing to carry out what the UN calls “the maintenance of international peace and security,” with the imprimatur of international legitimacy. This partnership of democracies would be a “force for action,” in Churchill’s words, its members working to address threats to peace, promote liberal order and defend their values—values that, by definition, the world’s autocracies do not share.
A partnership of democracies would not be without its tensions or limitations. After all, the diplomatic train wreck before the Iraq war was the result of friction between two liberal democracies: the U.S. and France. However, allowing for action without unanimity would encourage coalition-building and compromise, rather than obstruction and mischief.
The UN failed to live up to its own mission during the Cold War and has failed in the post-Cold War era. Worse, it has continually hindered responsible powers from addressing threats to peace and promoting international order. It’s time to try something new.