10 Hard Realities About the U.N. on Its Troubled 75th Anniversary

10 Hard Realities About the U.N. on Its Troubled 75th Anniversary
Metal barricades line the shuttered main entrance to the United Nations headquarters in New York, Sept. 18, 2020 (AP photo by Mary Altaffer).

The opening of the 75th United Nations General Assembly finds international cooperation in crisis and the U.N. in the crosshairs. Many critiques, especially from the United States, focus on the institution itself, as if it were somehow disembodied from the interests and policies of its major member states. The U.N.’s troubled anniversary is an opportune moment not only to reassess its strengths and weaknesses, but also to temper expectations of what multilateralism can possibly deliver when the U.N.’s leading members turn it into a geopolitical football—or are absent without leave. With these ends in mind, I offer the following 10 propositions.

There are many United Nations. Broad-brush critiques of the U.N. often gloss over the distinct institutional components of the U.N. system, ignoring the relative strengths and weaknesses of each and their utility to the United States. The most important of these are a U.N. Security Council dominated by permanent members, where little gets done without U.S. assent; a General Assembly, with universal membership, that possesses budgetary but little other authority beyond the ability to pass symbolic resolutions; the U.N. Secretariat, which can be a bastion of cronyism but whose performance depends strongly on who is secretary-general; and the multiple specialized and technical agencies, from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the World Food Program, some but not all of which do indispensable work.

The U.N. is no longer the only game in town, but it remains the world’s premier multilateral body. By virtue of its universal membership, binding Charter, multidimensional mandate and primacy in matters of global peace and security, the U.N. remains the foundational bedrock for international cooperation. To be sure, since 1945, nations have created scores of regional and subregional organizations, alliances and informal mini-lateral groupings like the G-7 and G-20 to assist with global governance. Still, nothing else comes close to the U.N. and its many affiliated agencies and bodies—including the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—in terms of their existing technical capabilities and perceived international legitimacy. It is an illusion to imagine that all of these strengths could be recreated on an ad hoc basis.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review