While the familiar clashes among countries echo through the 193-member United Nations General Assembly hall this week, empty seats will bear mute testimony to the world body’s waning significance.
Some of the most important leaders -- China’s Hu Jintao, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- are skipping this year’s annual meeting. U.S. President Barack Obama made only a brief appearance and didn’t formally meet one-on-one with foreign officials.
The 67-year-old UN’s influence has always been limited by the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Now, however, global technological, financial, environmental, social, religious and demographic forces are further curbing its ability to act and eroding its foundation in the 17th century concept of sovereign nation-states.
“The concept of a world of nation-states, which dates to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and the idea that they have a monopoly on international relations and on the conduct of war, is no longer valid,” said Max Manwaring, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “It’s been replaced by non-state actors and proxies of states, and public opinion has become the primary center of gravity. Whatever you can do to manipulate people’s views is fair game.”
While governments try to preserve their independence, Islamist terrorist groups, Somali pirates and Mexican drug cartels, to name a few, have “made a mockery” of the notion that countries control their own borders, Manwaring said in an interview.
Built to help nations defuse conflicts before they escalate to open warfare, the UN is ill-equipped to tackle such transnational challenges in an Internet age that can flash financial news and videos throughout the globe faster than the Security Council can muster a quorum, much less reach a consensus.
“At a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete,” Obama said during his speech yesterday to the General Assembly.
In this increasingly borderless environment, an anti-Islam video posted on YouTube has sparked a wave of deadly anti- Western protests across the Muslim world, and the self- immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor triggered rebellions across the Middle East.
“Social media have given non-state actors an unprecedented role in shaping the world’s priorities,” said Ali Wyne, a research assistant at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
At the same time, the financial crisis that began with U.S. subprime mortgage defaults in 2007 has infected much of the world.
The diminishing power of nation-states hasn’t gone unnoticed at the UN. In 1992, then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the UN needed to adapt to remain relevant in an ever more interdependent world.
“The time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty, however, has passed; its theory was never matched by reality,” he said in a report entitled “An Agenda for Peace -- Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-keeping.”
Traditional concepts of sovereignty, ideological differences and international rivalries have always hampered the UN’s efforts to respond to the rapid evolution of a global economy and communications technology.
Almost three decades ago, in September 1983, the UN and its Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization held a roundtable in Igls, Austria, on “The New World Information and Communication Order.” The gathering faltered when the Soviet delegate dismissed the personal computer as “a matter for the 21st Century.”
Since its birth from the ashes of World War II and the failure of the League of Nations, the UN’s ability to help end crises peacefully has similarly been trumped by the veto power held by the five permanent members of its most powerful body, the Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.
The UN decision-making body’s paralysis on sore subjects such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Syria’s rebellion, North Korea’s errant rocket launches, and Palestinian statehood is nothing new, and diplomats at the world body’s headquarters don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Over the decades, the UN has suffered a string of similar failures, from the Rwandan genocide, to the sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in Bosnia and the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq. In Haiti, UN peacekeepers brought in to help after a deadly 2010 earthquake are suspected of having introduced cholera to the devastated population on the Caribbean island.
Now, as heads of government have converged on New York for the General Assembly’s annual gathering, the UN has stood by as turmoil in the Middle East has swept across borders, ousted longtime rulers, and altered the political landscape in the region.
In Syria, three Russian vetoes in the Security Council have relegated the UN’s role to that of impotent observer to the daily slaughter in an 18-month conflict raging between President Bashar al-Assad and the armed insurgency.
“The UN often gets the blame, but it’s a futile exercise,” said Miles Kahler, who teaches international relations at the University of California, San Diego.
Hamstrung by Veto
While the UN still has the ability to bring people together and give them a forum -- most notably at the current General Assembly -- that isn’t enough. The Security Council moves more slowly than information does, remains hamstrung by its five permanent members’ veto power, and has no enforcement authority of its own.
That nations are now being buffeted by global forces they can’t control has made many of them even less willing to cooperate and compromise with one another and quicker to raise nationalist and protectionist banners.
“The idea of a world government, where states have to cede sovereignty is not a very popular position these days; just look at the European Union now,” Manwaring said.
For many absent leaders this year, political priorities are close to home.
Germany’s Merkel has the survival of the European single currency and the health of the German economy to consider. China is facing a once-in-a-decade leadership change and acting more assertively toward its neighbors. Russia’s Putin, last seen in New York seven years ago, was just re-elected president, and amid political dissent at home has tossed out the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Even Obama, who re-injected a multilateral approach to American foreign policy and finally paid the U.S.’s back dues to the UN, made only a fleeting appearance this year, with his re- election in November at stake.
That’s left the stage to a fresh crop of Arab leaders making their debuts at the UN as a wave of anti-American sentiment grips the region and tests Western perceptions of a movement that a year ago was met with enthusiasm. More than a year later, the unemployed youths who took to the streets clamoring for better economic conditions and living standards still have no jobs.
When the Arab Spring got under way, it looked as if the UN might have found a new calling.
Acting in rare unison and with uncharacteristic timeliness, the Security Council approved a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who had threatened to kill his own people “like rats” to squash a rebellion.
The honeymoon didn’t last. Today an atmosphere of distrust, suspicion and acrimony hangs over the 15-member council.
While former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev relented to Western pressure on Libya, abstaining from a critical vote that paved the way for NATO air attacks, Putin’s return took Russia back to its time-tested tradition of saying “nyet.”
In 1950, the U.S. was able to circumvent Russia blocking action in the Security Council to protect South Korea and take the matter directly to the one-nation, one-vote assembly.
At the height of the Cold War, there were other moments of high drama when the two nuclear foes let off steam.
The most famous example was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when in a deathly quiet council chamber, U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson demanded that his Soviet counterpart answer whether his country was supplying Cuba with missiles: “I am prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over.”
The UN remains a platform where powerful nations can slug it out with words. Witness the clash of ideologies earlier this year between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who accused the West of “geopolitical engineering” in seeking the overthrow of incumbents under the pretext of humanitarian aid.
The structure of the UN’s executive arm has grown obsolete, though, still reflecting a 1945 reality that no longer exists. France and Britain owe their places in the decision-making body to their positions on the winning side of World War II.
The influence of both former colonial powerhouses has ebbed over the decades. Germany, which today holds the fate of the Euro area in its hands, and India, an Asian economic titan, will both be bumped off the Security Council at the end of this year.
UN as Scapegoat
The Permanent-5, as veto-wielding China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. are known, are in rare agreement about one thing: keeping permanent membership to the club closed.
“There will be no quick, overnight explosion of understanding that produces reform,” said Michael Doyle, a special adviser to Kofi Annan when he was secretary-general. “The 1945 structure has become a legitimacy burden, as it no longer reflects the major political and economic powers.”
The focus on the Security Council detracts attention from a lot of the good work carried out by UN agencies in immunizing children or improving water supplies, said Doyle, who now teaches international affairs at Columbia University.
“The UN does make mistakes, but its accomplishments also get lost,” he said in a telephone interview.
With nothing to replace it, the UN remains the place where international grievances get aired.
As Annan once said: “S.G. doesn’t stand for secretary- general, but scapegoat.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.comHamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 25, 2012. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Getty Images