French UN peacekeepers cover their ears during a live training exercise between the Lebanese army and UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, December 2008. The UN often saddles its peacekeeping missions with overly ambitious, underresourced mandates,.
French UN peacekeepers cover their ears during a live training exercise between the Lebanese army and UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, December 2008. 
Haidar Hawila / REUTERS

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 New York Knicks. But even if the United Nations should not be held responsible for the failures of its members, the world body still faces pressing challenges of its own. Seven decades after its founding, the United Nations presides over an ever-expanding agenda. And in trying to do too much, it risks doing little well.


A partial exception is in the realm of peace and security—the UN’s bread and butter. The United Nations was established, in the words of its charter, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” As counterintuitive as it may seem given the ongoing carnage in Syria, the UN has delivered on this promise in important ways. Since 1990, multidimensional UN peacekeeping operations have helped to dramatically drive down global battle-related deaths, notwithstanding a recent uptick. And the UN’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime and its watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, have kept the number of nuclear weapons states well below the number predicted by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s (“ten, 15, or 20”).

The UN’s performance has been much more uneven in other realms. That is often the result of the organization’s overextension. Since 1945, the scope of UN activity has been expanded to a slew of global issues, from economic development and human rights to climate change and Internet governance. As member states continually demand that the institution take on new roles, the Secretariat aspires to be all things to all people, rather than to set priorities or specialize. Forced to deal with an unending series of new issues even as it clings to the old, the UN is chronically overextended. The costs of this overstretch are most evident today in the field of emergency response. In the face of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with some sixty million refugees and internally displaced persons around the globe, member states have provided UN agencies like the World Food Program barely half the funds they urgently need to respond.

Compounding this overextension is the difficulty of eliminating obsolete UN bodies. The most ludicrous example of this institutional sclerosis is the UN Trusteeship Council, established in 1945 to oversee the historic process of decolonization. It somehow persists, annually being called to order every September only to be summarily adjourned. Other half-dead entities continue to beaver away in expensive obscurity, from the Conference on Disarmament, which has remained deadlocked since 1996, to the UN Industrial Development Organization, from which four G7 members have withdrawn. The United Nations sorely needs sunset clauses to require such entities to be reauthorized or to shut down after a defined period.

Member states have treated the UN as a dumping ground for their own wicked problems.

This is all the more important because today’s United Nations faces a crisis not only of identity but also of relevance. A slew of shiny new actors—from flexible “mini-lateral” coalitions, such as the G-20, to dynamic regional organizations, such as the African and European Unions—now compete with the UN for top billing in addressing many global issues. This is partly the UN’s own fault: frustrated by the failure of sclerotic UN bodies to adapt to today’s challenges, countries are increasingly seeking workarounds through flexible, ad-hoc affinity groupings.

The success of these alternative arrangements has called the UN’s relevance into question. The response to the global financial crisis, for instance, was led not by the UN or even the IMF and the World Bank (which are nominally part of the UN family), but by a new, more flexible G-20, anointed by U.S. President Barack Obama and fellow leaders as the “world’s premier steering group” for global economic coordination. Outside the World Health Organization, groupings like the Global Fund and the Gates Foundation are tackling global health challenges, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. And independent of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime, the three Nuclear Security Summits have advanced nonproliferation by reducing stockpiles of fissile material and improving the security of nuclear facilities.

Regional organizations, too, are addressing transnational challenges and demanding that the UN share its resources and responsibilities with them. This is best seen in hybrid peacekeeping operations involving both the UN and the African Union (AU), such as the ongoing mission in Darfur. Increasingly, regional organizations are insisting not only on co-implementation of UN decisions but also on the co-determination of UN activity in the first place. A case in point is the UN-authorized but AU-opposed intervention in Libya in 2011. In its aftermath, South African President Jacob Zuma used his country’s presidency of the UNSC to suggest that the Security Council seek AU approval of all proposed military interventions on the continent, where three-quarters of UN operations currently take place. The implication was that regional organizations—anticipated by the UN Charter but long treated as poor stepchildren of the world body—had come of age and could serve as the UN’s equal partners.

United Nations Mission in South Sudan peacekeepers from Japan assemble a drainage pipe at a refugee camp in Juba, January 2014.  A number of high-profile failures suggest that the UN is failing to deliver on its most important responsibilities.
UN peacekeepers from Japan assemble a drainage pipe at a refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan, January 2014.

Although Zuma’s gambit went nowhere, the episode underscored another crisis faced by the world body: one of authority and legitimacy. Perhaps the UN’s main weakness on this score is its persistent failure to reform the composition of the UN Security Council to reflect significant shifts in the global distribution of economic, political, and military power—as well as a quadrupling of UN membership since 1945. The UNSC has expanded only once since its founding, from 11 to 15 members, with the addition of four elected, rotating seats in 1965. Its five permanent, veto-wielding members remain unchanged from 1945. Left out are the emerging economic giants India and Brazil, as well as the losers of World War II, Japan and Germany, which today are the world’s third- and fourth-largest economies, respectively.

The political obstacles to expanding the UNSC are legion, given regional rivalries among potential aspirants to permanent membership and outright opposition (in the case of China and Russia) and ambivalence (in the case of the United States) among the five permanent members to any such additions. But the increasing divergence between global power and global privilege as enshrined in the UNSC threatens the Council’s long-term standing. Indeed, the continued permanent membership of France and the United Kingdom—whose Conservative government is busy dismantling British claims to great-power status—is becoming untenable. Without a modest expansion to include new permanent (or at least semi-permanent and renewable) seats, the UNSC risks a legitimacy crisis. Lacking access to the global high table, India and Brazil may be increasingly tempted to forum-shop, pursuing ambitions through mechanisms like the BRICS summits, thus further undermining the UN’s authority. And without additional African members, the African Union may increasingly conflict with UNSC, much as it has turned against the International Criminal Court.

The UN’s legitimacy crisis runs deeper than the UNSC, however. In an age where informed publics increasingly demand transparency from public institutions, the UN stands out for its opacity and lack of accountability. These problems are most egregious in the UN Secretariat. Ban won U.S. support for his candidacy in part for his promise to overhaul antiquated management practices and root out corruption. Despite some achievements, such as the creation of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, little has changed under his tenure. Member states continue to treat the secretariat as a spoils system, and it remains difficult to hire and fire officials based on performance. Corruption also remains widespread, as attested to by the case of John Ashe, a former UNGA president who was recently accused of using his position to help a real estate developer gain contracts to build a UN-sponsored conference complex–and reportedly pocketed $1.3 million for his services. Meanwhile, the UN is only recently beginning to take seriously the rampant sexual violence perpetrated by UN peacekeepers against the very populations they are mandated to protect, after decades of turning a blind eye to these crimes.

Finally, there is the UN’s crisis of performance. A number of high-profile failures suggest that the world body is failing to deliver on its most important responsibilities. Consider the flailing response of the World Health Organization, until recently held up as a model UN agency, in response to last year’s Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Or witness the inability of a major UN peace operation in South Sudan to prevent the world’s youngest country from collapsing into civil war.

A United Nations helicopter takes off eastern Sierra Leone during the country’s Ebola outbreak, December 2014. The World Health Organization (WHO) struggle to respond to the outbreak in West Africa.
A United Nations helicopter takes off eastern Sierra Leone during the country’s Ebola outbreak, December 2014.

When it comes to credibility, the UN is often its own worst enemy. Its representatives tend to express ambitiously high-minded aspirations that exceed the world body’s capacity to deliver. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), endorsed unanimously by the UN General Assembly, are a case in point. This set of seventeen goals, paired with a whopping 169 separate targets, is a wishlist of vaulting ambition. The first goal aspires to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030—a mere 15 years from now. Another proposes to “ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns” within the same time frame. By raising the bar so high, the SDGs risk courting cynicism as countries miss their marks. And by including so many goals at the advice of multiple interest groups, the SDGs provide little guidance as to how countries should prioritize. Here, as elsewhere, the UN’s faults belong to its member states, which have treated the UN as a dumping ground for their own wicked problems.


To a certain extent, it makes little sense to criticize the UN as a whole for the mayhem in Syria, where heroic UN humanitarian workers are helping millions of internally displaced persons and refugees. Indeed, the failure to end the brutal war there reflects the incompatible positions of the three Western members of the Security Council and Russia, often supported by China, which has joined it in casting four double vetoes against a more assertive agenda against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Yet the failure of the UNSC to endorse action against Assad is also due to a frustrating structural reality of the UN Charter, which endows each of the Security Council’s five permanent members with a veto to ensure that the world body is not used contrary to what they believe are their vital national interests. The veto provision creates enormous frustration, but it has often been wielded by the United States (not least to shield Israel). As Secretary of State Cordell Hull observed at the Dumbarton Oaks conference in 1944, without the veto the United States would not remain “for a day” in the world organization.

In those instances when the UNSC doesauthorize UN peacekeeping operations, as in South Sudan, it too often saddles such missions with overly ambitious, underresourced mandates, resulting in poorly trained and equipped “blue helmets” that struggle to enforce the peace against heavily armed adversaries and fail carry out functions for which they lack the necessary skills, such as improving governance and promoting human rights. Here, as with the continued carnage in Syria, responsibility lies not with the United Nations as a whole but with one of its components—in this case, the members of the UNSC.

Experience should teach UN officials and member states alike the value of adopting a more focused agenda.

Member states must also share much of the blame for the failures of the World Health Organization. It was the organization’s paymasters—in particular, wealthy market democracies led by the United States—that left the organization chronically underfunded, even as they saddled it with new, competing priorities (such as fighting noncommunicable diseases) and with a cumbersome governance structure that left little authority in the hands of Director-General Margaret Chan.

Finally, the chronic problems of poor coordination and redundancy among UN agencies, programs, and departments reflects the convoluted structure of the UN governance labyrinth, in which some bodies report to the UNGA, others to the Economic and Social Council, and others to the UNSC or the Secretariat. The UN’s room for improvement in this respect is limited: coordination among different UN agencies can only be reformed so much without a serious overhaul of the UN structure itself.

Experience should teach UN officials and member states alike the value of adopting a more focused agenda. Rather than seeking to solve every single global problem, it should engage in triage and consider where its comparative advantages truly lie: in delivering humanitarian aid to needy populations, in keeping the peace where there is a peace to be kept, and in conducting inspections to monitor weapons of mass destruction. In a world increasingly crowded with capable international actors, the UN should focus on doing what it does best and doing it well.

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  • STEWART PATRICK is Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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