Pity the United Nations, which turns 70 this month. Rather than enjoying a carefree retirement, the UN faces unrelenting demands on its time and resources from threats both old (violent conflict, nuclear proliferation, and infectious disease) and new (climate change, terrorism, and cyberwar, among others). Superficially, at least, the UN has held up well in the face of these challenges, remaining the world’s most important multilateral forum thanks to its binding charter and universal membership. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that the UN faces a fourfold crisis: of identity, relevance, authority, and performance.
Any assessment of the United Nations’ performance must begin by acknowledging that it is not a monolithic institution but a composite of various parts, which are often conflated by its detractors. When critics invoke the United Nations, do they mean the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), dominated by the great powers and charged with enforcing global peace and security? Are they referring to the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the world’s noisy but largely toothless town hall, or to other large-membership bodies such as the Human Rights Council? Do they mean the dozens of UN specialized agencies, programs, and funds, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN High Commission for Refugees? Or are they critiquing the UN Secretariat itself, within which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon oversees myriad departments devoted to development, disarmament, peacekeeping, and the like?
As Richard Holbrooke reminded audiences, blaming the United Nations for poor performance is like blaming Madison Square Garden for the failure of the New York Knicks.
Among other things, this organizational complexity makes the United Nations a convenient scapegoat for failures that are more appropriately laid at the feet of member states, such as the chaotic aftermath of the UNSC-authorized intervention in Libya in 2011. As Richard Holbrooke, the late U.S. envoy to the UN, often reminded audiences, blaming the United Nations for poor performance is like blaming Madison Square Garden for the failure of the