Reforming the UN: Possibility and Necessity

All major wars of the second half of the 20th century ended without the participation of this organisation and its permanent bureaucratic structures. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, the UN had no objection to the increasingly active usurpation of its functions by the military-political blocs of the West. Now this organisation is not a body of the international community, but a relatively open platform for communication between representatives of different countries.

The recent High-Level Week within the framework of the 78th UN General Assembly was accompanied by growing discussions about the need to reform this organisation. First of all, we are talking about the future of its highest body — the Security Council (UNSC), whose five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) have exclusive rights in the field of international security.

While this discussion has not yet reached its conclusion, all the main participants are exercising caution and test each other’s positions. For the great powers, participants in the “Areopagus” of the Security Council, it is difficult to take decisive related action. We can never exclude the possibility that between them, despite the bitter conflict in Europe, there remains a generally restrained attitude towards a real revision of their status. This is precisely what could be the consequence of the expansion of the permanent members of the Security Council and the beginning of the destruction of the entire system created after the Second World War.

The United Nations is the institutional embodiment of the West’s desire to preserve the international order in which it has played a leading role for more than 500 years. That is why it is fundamentally important for the United States and Europe to maintain their majority in the Security Council. This is what ultimately makes it possible to effectively control the working bodies of the UN. First of all, the secretariat of this most important international organisation. Now the UN remains the last “pillar” of a relatively stable world order and, at the same time, ensures the formal participation of almost all countries of the world in the discussion of the global agenda. In other words, the UN as we know it is the product of a compromise in which the West maintains its dominance and everyone else does not feel a complete injustice is being done to their basic interests.

Conceptually, the UN, of course, arose from the understanding that a relatively stable international order must take into account the interests of those who could destroy it through revolutionary behaviour. This was the most important lesson of the Second World War, which arose as a result of injustice towards a number of major powers. Germany, Japan and Italy suffered a catastrophic defeat in this war and actually lost their sovereignty with respect to issues of foreign and defence policy. Their fate was the inevitable result of the situation in which they found themselves at the beginning of the last century. However, after the rebellion was suppressed, the victors were still able to create an order that kept potential new rebels from repeating the same destructive actions.

The military and political power of the USSR and later China was immersed in a system where their strategic opponents continued to play the leading role. For Moscow, the creation of the UN became a forced compromise between its colossal capabilities and status as the main winner in the war against Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the inability to challenge the entire West, on the other. China was only able to restore its participation in the Security Council in the early 1970s, when its reconciliation with the United States and its allies was already looming on the horizon. Thus, from the very beginning, the UN became a means of civilized containment of the leading opponents of the West, whose formal high status limited the likelihood of their rebellion against the general dominance of the United States and Europe in world affairs.

During its existence, the UN has not been able to prevent a single relatively serious military conflict between states. It would also be naive to think that thanks to the UN and its decisions, any conflict was truly resolved. All major wars of the second half of the 20th century ended without the participation of this organisation and its permanent bureaucratic structures. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, the UN had no objection to the increasingly active usurpation of its functions by the military-political blocs of the West. Now this organisation is not a body of the international community, but a relatively open platform for communication between representatives of different countries. Although even this function may turn out to be increasingly limited due to the fact that the United States, where the UN headquarters is located, is using the right of access to the territory in its own political interests.

Now we can truly say that the UN system is in crisis. The main reason for this is the general loss of the West’s ability to bolster its institutional capabilities with the resources needed for unchallenged global leadership. The general democratisation of the international system is reflected in increasing freedom of expression not only by large, but also by medium-sized and even small countries. More and more, the United States and Europe need to directly intimidate individual states in order to obtain their desired voting results in the Security Council or General Assembly. Russia and especially China are feeling increasingly confident and are actually rejecting the UN-centred common order as an instrument of Western dominance. The Western countries themselves are trying to counterattack in response, and are raising the issue of reforming the Security Council, including new permanent members. The most common candidate countries are Brazil, Germany, India and Japan.

However, discussions about real reform of the main body of the international community are still quite cautious. Everyone understands that a decisive restructuring of the UN could lead to the complete destruction of this organisation and the loss of even the minimum opportunity for a broad discussion of global and regional problems. Most countries in the world quite rightly think that if the United States and Europe are faced with the prospect of losing their unique capabilities within the UN, they will simply destroy this institution. But sooner or later we will still have to address this issue seriously. Therefore, the debates at the level of expert discussion cannot become the subject of long-term delays.

First of all, it would make sense to address several questions. First, the relationship between the institutional embodiment of the international order and the actual balance of power in the world needs to be discussed. The UN includes dozens of countries around the world that have emerged in recent decades. However, it was created in the colonial era and, at a conceptual level, it is tied to the Second World War, which has become distant history for most countries throughout the world. In this regard, the UN, of course, has long been morally outdated and does not reflect the spirit of our times. In some ways it is a copy and continuation of the Westphalian order, created by Europeans for themselves and then imposed on the rest of the world. Whether such an intellectual basis can be sufficiently reliable now needs, at the very least, a serious debate.

Second, the location of the secretariat, headquarters and site of the main UN events reflects the realities of 80 years ago, but not today. The same can be said about the principles and practice of forming the apparatus of the main UN bodies, primarily its secretariat. It is no coincidence that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently drew attention to this, emphasising that “The criteria that have been in place for many years do not reflect the actual influence of states in global affairs and artificially ensure the excessive dominance of citizens of NATO and EU countries.” Despite its technical nature, this issue is central. It is the working bodies that ultimately determine the agenda and modality of the UN’s activities and create the main ways for individual states to influence this.

Finally, there is a need for a conceptual discussion of the functions and tasks of the Security Council, including the group of its permanent member countries. This issue is now the most popular, but its solution depends on an understanding of the goals, and not on the agreement of the countries regarding the mechanical expansion of the Security Council. It is quite possible that, as a result of the discussion, we will generally come to the conclusion that the Security Council, in modern conditions, can no longer play the unique role that belongs to it in the ideal model of international governance. Then all the talk about who really deserves to take part in the Security Council meetings will turn out to be completely unnecessary.

From our partner RIAC

Timofey Bordachev
Timofey Bordachev
PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member