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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

The Practical Utility of the United Nations

Today marks the anniversary of the ratification of the UN Charter and the founding of the United Nations. The crafting of the charter was a years-long process that began with a handful of countries and the declaration of St. James Place in London on 12 June 1941 and culminated with the San Francisco Conference that took place from April to June 1945. Eventually, 51 countries came together on 25 October 1945 and ratified the UN Charter, effectively establishing a new rules-based international order that would eventually expand to include 193 member states.


Over the years since its inception, the United Nations has been the subject of much criticism. Some argue the UN is too manipulable by nefarious actors. Others assert that the UN has no real ability to enforce its resolutions and mandates. Still others believe that the UN is nothing more than a drain on national resources.


These positions focus on the shortcomings of the institution rather than its practical benefits. On the 76th anniversary of the United Nations, it is worthwhile to review what those benefits are.


The draft preamble of the UN Charter, complete with handwritten notes (photo via United Nations)


Without a doubt, the United Nations is an imperfect institution, as are all institutions the world over. The question is whether it is a positive force or a negative one, remembering that in the end, a net positive is still a positive.


One of the challenges in assessing the UN is the ill-defined goals that people ascribe to it. They do not know exactly what they want the UN to be or what they want it to do, but they argue that it must be "more." For many, the presence of any discord and absence of resolution on myriad issues is enough to argue that the UN is failing.

In the face of those assertions, one should consider this quote from the UN's second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld:

These words capture the essence of what the UN was and what it is meant to be: not a universal solution to all international problems, but an institution through which to channel the world's struggles to minimize hardship and devastation.


The architects of the United Nations had witnessed two World Wars. They saw and studied the collapse of the League of Nations. They vowed to produce something that would learn from the mistakes of the past and prove more effective in managing the problems of the future.


Indeed it has. The UN has mediated peace agreements. It has provided the mandate for collective security operations in response to unlawful aggression. The UN established a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has created network of institutions that deal with international law, trade, and humanitarian assistance, among other things. Right now, there are over 87,000 personnel operating in 12 peacekeeping missions across the globe.


Those achievements highlight the fundamental benefits that the UN provides. The six core practical benefits are listed below:


1. The UN establishes a baseline for laws, rules, and norms.

In an anarchic world with no overarching enforcement authority, the UN provides the foundation for order. Imperfect as they may be, the UN's charter, declarations, conventions, resolutions, and other UN-related instruments eliminate some of the chaos and uncertainty in international relations.


2. It provides non-violent mechanisms for managing the world's power struggles.

In any form of human interaction, especially at the state-level, conflict is inevitable. That conflict does not have to manifest in violent ways, but history has demonstrated that absent other mechanisms for managing conflict, violence is often the result.


The United Nations offers multiple mechanisms for dealing with confrontation, while offering professional mediation, conflict resolution, and peacekeeping services.


3. It offers a universal forum for diplomacy.

There are 193 member states in the United Nations, few of which have the resources to maintain permanent diplomatic missions in every other country. The UN offers a place for all those diplomats to interact, to work together, and to manage any disputes that may arise.


4. It serves as a repository for diplomatic instruments.

Article 102 of the UN charter calls for member states to deliver treaties and agreements to the UN Secretariat. All those instruments are a matter of record for the UN and are accessible to anyone. For example, all peace agreements submitted under Article 102 are available here.


5. It keeps issue attention on problem areas that may not be high priorities for domestic audiences.

By virtue of the systems in which they operate, most political leaders tend to prioritize domestic issues; after all, it's as the saying goes: "All politics is local." A politician from an oil-producing area is unlikely to advocate for green energy, and opening the borders to accommodate refugees rarely buys points from constituents.


Still, there are problems that transcend borders and require immediate and consistent attention. The UN provides a venue for addressing things that otherwise might go unaddressed like climate change, human rights, and refugees, among other things.


6. It generates opportunities for cooperation and coordination.

In general, there are only so many forms of interaction between countries; namely, coordination, cooperation, competition, crisis, and conflict. The UN and its subordinate institutions deals with all those types of interaction, but it importantly affords opportunities for cooperation and coordination that might not exist otherwise. Peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, Infrastructure development, education assistance--all these multinational ventures bring personnel from different countries together and allow for sharing knowledge, developing relationships, and achieving common interests. Those things contribute towards what we know as a "positive peace" while fulfilling critical functions across the globe.


With these benefits in mind, it is quite clear that the UN is an indispensable institution. Imperfect as it may be, it has in many ways exceeded the expectations of its architects and early leaders. Although there are miles to go to reach its full potential, what the UN has accomplished thus far is a testament to the organization and the member states that have dedicated resources and energy to it.


Cable No 7_The practical utility of the United Nations
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