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Is It Time to Replace the UN?

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University

It is time to move on from the Cold War-era U.N. and allow it to have a natural evolution to an improved international organization based on democracy and not conflict. Just as the U.N. replaced the League of Nations in the 20th century, a new international organization (e.g., the Confederation of Nations) should now replace the U.N. in the 21st century.

One reason the U.N. was established was to provide the two Cold War superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with a forum to control international affairs. The U.N. was designed to minimize significant changes with any of five selected member nations allowed to veto any submitted proposal.

Three of the five veto member nations were still allies following World War II, while the remaining two veto nations shared a common political ideology – communism. This veto power has stifled U.N. productivity for over 70 years now.

Background of the UN

The U.N., headquartered in New York City, is a product of World War II. Its roots were established in the League of Nations (1919-1946), itself a product of World War I.

While President Woodrow Wilson was a powerful advocate for the League of Nations, the isolationist U.S. Senate rejected it in 1920. As a result, the League of Nations eventually failed.

In 1945, 51 nations agreed to charter the U.N. as an “international instrument for peace and security” during a conference in San Francisco, California. The U.N. then became the world’s second international security organization.

Current Structure of the UN

The U.N. currently consists of six organizations: the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice and the Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is by far the most powerful of these organizations, with the capability to authorize coercive measures against countries and economic institutions.

UNSC’s Permanent Members Have Veto Power over Proposals

The UNSC consists of 15 member nations, including five permanent members established by the victors of World War II: the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and the Soviet Union. The other 11 members are non-permanent and elected to the Security Council for two-year terms by the General Assembly.

The permanent members have veto authority over any and all proposals in the U.N. It only takes one veto from any of the permanent members to kill any proposal.

How the permanent members managed to get this veto power is relatively straightforward. During the 1945 conference in San Francisco, the “Big Five” nations stated that the proposed U.N. charter should include the veto authority or they would not support it.

UNSC’s Permanent Members’ Veto Power Causing Humanitarian Problems

Maintaining international peace and security through prompt and effective action is the mandate of the UNSC, as stated in the U.N.’s charter. However, the continuous use of the veto by the five permanent members (P5) causes serious concern among the international community. Many crisis situations, often humanitarian crises, that the UNSC is obligated to resolve have gone unattended due to P5 vetoes.

One or more of the P5 member nations used their veto power on substantive issues (215 times from 1945 until 2009). These vetoes effectively prevented the U.N. from getting involved in conflicts involving P5 members, such as Algeria, the Suez, Hungary, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Panama, Iraq and Georgia.

This P5 veto authority is the most undemocratic aspect of the U.N. International critics claim this veto power is the main reason for U.N. inaction regarding war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Attempted Changes to UNSC Power Structure Causing Strife

Over the decades, there have been numerous attempts to modify the power structure in the UNSC. However, according to the U.N.’s charter, any proposal must be ratified by two-thirds of the General Assembly, including all member nations of the UNSC P5. History shows that the P5 member nations have never accepted a reform proposal detrimental to their own national interests, especially any change to their veto ability.

In a September 2015 article “Russian vetoes are putting UN security council’s legitimacy at risk, says US,” the British newspaper The Guardian reported that “The United States has warned that Russia’s continued blanket use of its U.N. veto will jeopardize the Security Council’s long-term legitimacy and could lead the US and like-minded countries to bypass it as a decision-making body.

The warning comes as the U.N. reaches its 70th anniversary and the Security Council faces a crisis caused by its paralysis over Syria. It has failed to agree [on] concerted action to try to stem the bloodshed, even after more than 220,000 Syrians have died and more than 11 million have been forced from their homes.”

UN Could Evolve to a More Democratic ‘Confederation of Nations’

Given this ongoing stalemate within the U.N. and no viable way to resolve it, it is time that like-minded countries pursue a new international organization. This organization would be more in tune with the realities of the 21st century and could be called the “Confederation of Nations” (CN).

Naturally, many countries, including Russia and China, would not be likely to join the CN initially, much like the U.S. not joining the League of Nations. However, it is likely that more than 51 nations would join the CN, which would be more than the number that originally joined the U.N. while the League of Nations still existed.

New ‘Confederation of Nations’ Could Incorporate the Best Elements of UN and OSCE

The new international organization would retain much of what is currently in the U.N. as well as aspects of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE, headquartered in Vienna, consists of 57 member nations from around most of the world, as well as 11 additional nations who are considered partners.

The OSCE is the largest international organization of governments outside of the U.N. According to the OSCE’s website, the OSCE “has a comprehensive approach to security that encompasses politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects. It therefore addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism, and economic and environmental activities. All 57 participating States enjoy equal status, and decisions are taken by consensus on a politically, but not legally binding basis.”

The key aspect in the OSCE versus the U.N. is that all members enjoy equal status while no members have veto authority.

Now Is the Time for a New International Security Organization Like the CN

Although the U.N. serves many useful purposes, its antiquated structure either needs to be revamped for the needs of a 21st-century society or it needs replacement by a more democratic international security organization such as the CN. Once the CN was operational and effectively dealing with international crises in a democratic manner (i.e., no vetoes), its appeal would naturally cause more and more recalcitrant nations to join. Perhaps then the dream of world peace would become less of a myth and more of a reality.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College in political science and public administration. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006.

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