Last month, the United Nations commemorated its seventy-fifth anniversary, a remarkable milestone for an international organization. Most global alliances have short shelf-lives; the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, lasted only about twenty years. Although this year’s commemoration is muted due to COVID-19 and plenty of international tension, the survival of the United Nations for so many decades is a significant accomplishment. The reasons why it has endured for seventy-five years offer insight into how it can continue to weather periods of international discord.
The UN owes most of its durability to its structure, guided primarily by President Franklin Roosevelt, the foremost proponent for an international security body at the time. Roosevelt had a keen sense of the balance between realism and idealism in creating a body like the UN, having learned bitter lessons from the failure of the League of Nations after World War I. To make sure that the new organization kept the League’s best features without replicating any of its weaknesses, he advocated for four main improvements that have contributed to the UN’s longevity.
First, Roosevelt formulated language in the UN Charter that positioned the organization not just as a space for interstate dialogue, but as a global police force. After two world wars, he and his allies were determined to prevent the outbreak of a third. Key passages in the Charter on military action propose all sorts of collective armed actions to forestall aggressors—blockades, sanctions, air and sea assaults, and a whole arsenal of militaristic tools. And unlike in the League, where participation in League-led initiatives was voluntary, member-states of the UN would be obligated by a Security Council decree to support any armed action, giving states a reason for promoting and sustaining peace.
Second, Roosevelt recognized that states, rather than elected representatives, had to form the basis of the UN. At the UN’s founding, the Westphalia system of sovereign nations that was established in 1648 still dominated the way the world was governed, as it does to this day. Roosevelt understood that the nations across the globe would never support a world government with taxing and legislative powers, its own army, and democratically elected representatives. Instead, it became a collection of 193 different nations, each with their own political structures and their own appointed ambassadors, all gathered into a loose confederation funded entirely by voluntary contributions.
Third, Roosevelt sanctioned two crucial organs within the UN—the Security Council and the General Assembly—to serve two separate purposes. The Security Council reflected a realism about the power dynamics around the globe in 1945. Tasked with the authority to make all war and peace decisions at the UN, the Council’s decisions are binding on all member-states. Only five nations—those that made up the successful wartime alliance—were given veto power on the Council. This is in contrast to the League of Nations, where edicts were not obligatory for members and all states had veto power, which meant that a single rogue nation could stymie any action by the League.
The General Assembly, by contrast, represented a more idealistic view of international cooperation, where all states, no matter how big or small, rich or poor, populous or sparsely settled, had equal votes and could advance their views openly about world problems. Although its resolutions were not binding on any of the member-states, the General Assembly’s pronouncements have carried a moral force over the past seventy-five years. For example, the Assembly overwhelmingly denounces the U.S. embargo of Cuba every year, placing Washington in an embarrassing position of having to repeatedly defend an unpopular stance against a small island for ideological reasons.
Fourth, Roosevelt made sure that the Charter was a flexible document in its language, much like the American Constitution, ensuring that it could be responsive and adaptable to all sorts of crises that were hard to predict in 1945. In the decades since, the UN has indeed pioneered many programs and departments—including those focused on peacekeeping, environmental protection, urbanization, election monitoring, counter-terrorism, nuclear energy, and nation-building—which all grew out of the UN’s central charge to “maintain international peace and security,” but were never mentioned in the original Charter.
For these four reasons, the UN has been able to survive beyond numerous global crises and internal disagreements, showing both its strengths and weaknesses. The UN outlasted the Cold War, an early test of its strength, and although its recent responses to unrest in Syria, Libya, or Yemen have been weak, the UN remains an important part of international cooperation. As an organization, the UN has also navigated the expansion from 51 original member states to 193, the refusal by some states to pay UN dues on occasion, and the continuing and controversial dominance of the five veto nations in the Security Council.
Even skeptics of the organization, including some U.S. presidents, eventually have come around to the view that the UN is useful in protecting the security interests of their countries rather than serving as some sort of innocuous discussion forum. The United States, for instance, has been able to place sanctions on both North Korea and Iran for years—with the backing of the other veto nations—to help diminish the possibility of either of these two nations using or employing nuclear weapons.
It is clear that the UN is not a flawless body, but as shaped by Roosevelt’s vision, it has remained a necessary one for seventy-five years, and potentially many more years to come.
cover photo: UN flag at the Calgary War Museums. Source: flickr/ sanjitbakshi