Foreign Affairs

On the United Nations

The United Nations (U.N.), instituted following World War II in order to promote international diplomacy, has given itself lofty goals including maintaining international peace and security, promoting sustainable development, fostering human rights, and providing humanitarian assistance in times and places of need.

Though its goals are admittedly noble, the U.N. often falls short — too short to be considered ultimately effective, successful, or useful as an organization as a whole. In the wake of the U.S. cutting its U.N. budget by $285 million in December in response to the U.N.’s criticism of Trump’s Jerusalem move, I would like to examine an unpopular opinion: the evidenced faults of the United Nations outweigh its supposed benefits.

Regardless of the noble goals of the U.N., it’s questionable at best whether or not international aid is effective. Using Africa as a case study, researchers find that, “Even as the level of foreign aid into Africa soared through the 1980s and 1990s, African economies were doing worse than ever…” One could even argue that foreign aid on behalf of developed countries, the idea “that developed countries ought to swoop in and save everyone else,” is rather condescending and uncomfortably similar to their long past of colonialism. Further, many developments that have helped African economies the most, such as the widespread adoption of cell phones, were self-perpetuating. So, we must consider whether one of the foremost aims of the U.N. is even possible, regardless of the amount of money we pour into it.

Next, the U.N. has illustrated deep corruption time and time again. There have been dozens of cases filed against U.N. personnel alleging sexual abuse over the years. A few other scandals include the Iraqi Oil-for-Food Programme, the Haiti cholera outbreak, U.N. action during the Sri Lankan civil war, and there are many more.

With the Oil-for-Food Programme, the U.N.’s action was found to have “lapses, negligence and corrupt practices that allowed Saddam’s regime to earn as much as $11 billion while under sanctions.” Ten thousand Haitians were killed by cholera, and eight hundred thousand sickened, after the infection originated from U.N. troops and was spread by “reckless sewage disposal practices.” The U.N. even admitted fault, and despite its reckless mucking about, no remedial action was taken. And with the Sri Lankan civil war, when shown signs of increasing violence, “The UN system as a whole made little effort to prevent the humanitarian tragedy that ensued.” Further corruption is evidenced by the fact that despite their many, many noted human rights violations, countries like Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Venezuela have spots on the Human Rights Council.

Furthermore, the United Nations Security Council includes nations such as Russia and China. Wouldn’t it be morally problematic — and wouldn’t there be a very obvious conflict of interest — if the U.N. needs to act out against one of these countries due to their tenuous relationships with the international community, international diplomacy, and human rights, especially due to the potential nuclear threat from both? Or, what if the U.N. needs to act against North Korea or Syria, China’s communist comrade-in-arms and Russia’s funded and armed Assad?

Also, the United Nations hemorrhages money. It’s expensive — very, very expensive — especially for the United States, which pays for 22 percent of the U.N.’s operating budget and 28 percent of its peacekeeping operations. Why is the U.S. government — and, by extension, U.S. taxpayers — funding organizations like the Universal Postal Union, the World Tourism Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization? Even if the U.N. as a whole could be effectively defended, these organizations seem to be a part of a meaningless and bloated bureaucracy.

And, who oversees the United Nations? When there is an organization with this much funding and power available at its fingertips, checks and balances are a must. Yet, it seems that the U.N. is able to demonstrate an exorbitant amount of force and receive little accountability — a very dangerous concoction, especially for an organization tasked with being the poster child for and ultimate enforcer of international security.

The power to ignore the Sri Lankan civil war until it’s too late, send or not send humanitarian aid, cause a cholera outbreak for thousands upon thousands of Haitians, or demonstrate bias in complicated disputes such as the Israel-Palestine conflict can be devastating without adequate oversight, of which the U.N. has none.

Seventy years and half a trillion dollars later, we need to consider whether the United Nations is effectively — and cost-effectively — meeting its goals. An article from The Guardian argued that, though “hailed as the great hope for the future of mankind,” the United Nations “has also been dismissed as a shameful den of dictatorships,” with “its numbing bureaucracy, its institutional cover-ups of corruption and the undemocratic politics of its security council. (The United Nations) goes to war in the name of peace but has been a bystander through genocide.” The classic economic principle of opportunity cost applies — the abundance of dollars and effort that power this behemoth could be much, much better used elsewhere. It is beyond important to look beyond the aims of an organization to see the realities of its application, and to acknowledge its successes, of course, but also its failings.

Perhaps an organization like the U.N. was necessary and useful to rebuild ties following the diplomatic wasteland left by the ravaging of the international landscape by World War II. But, in an era of increasing globalization and diplomatic thawing,  the U.N. has grown bloated and ineffective. The U.N. has experienced a disease of paralysis, where the extensive bureaucracy and competing interests prevent meaningful action, and it’s debatable whether or not the U.N. can enact real change. The United Nations may do more harm than good, as it further roils the treacherous waters of the international issues it aims to abet.

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