When the UN was founded, hopes were very high for its success. In the words of Ralph Bunche, the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, “The United Nations is our one great hope for a peaceful and free world.” The United Nations’ purpose, according to the UN Charter, is “To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.”
Since 1945 the UN has greatly expanded, with the number of member states growing to 193 and yearly spending swelling into the tens of billions of dollars. The UN is involved in nearly every field of human activity, with powerful branches including the International Monetary Fund, World Health Organization, International Criminal Court, and the UN Security Council, all of which have the goal of promoting global peace and security, human rights, economic development, and social growth. But despite all this, the UN has proven to have little impact on global politics, facing countless global crises since its founding with little success. The reasons for this underwhelming performance are many. I believe the first and most major problem with the UN is that it has an inefficient Security Council structure that has paralyzed this powerful branch. The Security Council was formed in 1945 with the five victorious major allied powers as permanent members. The council is made up of 15 nations, the five permanent members and 10 other nations elected to 2-year terms. The Security Council is the UN’s most powerful body, since it is the only one with the power to enforce its resolutions, which can be passed by a 9 of 15 council majority.
This system would work quite well except for one major problem. All five permanent members have veto power on all Security Council resolutions, so even in a vote of 14-1, a permanent member can stop a resolution from passing to protect its interests. This has left the UN at the mercy of major powers. Since 1945 over 190 Security Council resolutions have been vetoed. Disagreements between the US, UK, France and Russia and China has led to stalemates on many major issues today, such as those involving Syria and Ukraine. Over the past 10 years, Russia has used its veto on 10 occasions to avoid scrutiny over its actions in Ukraine and to protect its allies, such as the Syrian regime, from UN pressure. This has led to the Syrian Civil War spiraling out of control, with over 400,000 dead since 2011.
The Security Council stalemate has also given Russia free reign in eastern Ukraine, allowing it to carve out the territory of another sovereign state, with little consequences on the international stage. The Security Council still produces large numbers of resolutions and manages 16 peacekeeping missions, but on Syria, the most lethal and destabilizing conflict in the world today, it is completely useless.
The structural weaknesses of the UN Security Council’s original design has led to constant deadlock at the UN’s highest level which will continue to plague the organization until it is fixed. Another reason the UN doesn’t matter in international relations is its total failure to stem conflict and violence in our world. This is due to the fact that the UN is totally reliant on the whims of major powers when it comes to armed intervention. Unless every single major power agrees to action, the UN can do nothing. The organization matters only to the extent that the major powers allow it to matter.
The UN has failed to stop four massive genocides, including the Cambodian, Sudanese, Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides that killed a total of over 4 million people. Those four examples over 40 years show the UN’s inability to change to prevent these tragedies. And those are only the major genocides the UN has failed to prevent. Hundreds of wars, insurgencies, and conflicts in which tens of millions have died have been fought since 1945 and current conflicts, such as the civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Ukraine, have seen no action from the Security Council. In addition, several countries such as North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel have developed nuclear weapons under the UN’s watch, despite the anti-nuclear proliferation treaties the UN has created. The UN simply doesn’t have the power to enforce its agreements.
I believe that the UN does not matter in international relations because it is subject to the whim of its most powerful members. In the Security Council, the UN’s reliance on the wishes of permanent members has led inaction and indecisiveness in Syria, Ukraine, and many others of today’s most pressing conflicts. This indecisiveness has also led to UN failures in all aspects of collective security, from stopping genocide to nuclear proliferation. Due to its reliance on our world’s major powers for all of its authority, the UN is a pawn in international relations rather than the giant it was envisioned to be. The UN can make all the treaties and resolutions it wants, but without the will or means to enforce these decisions, it simply does not matter.