The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Imagine a system of global governance fit for the twenty-first century. All nations would be bound to codified precepts restraining the use of force, fostering peaceful conflict resolution, upholding the rule of law, and enshrining respect for human rights. Grand-scale negotiating forums would shape new rules to avert crises and foster cooperation on issues including climate change, pandemics, and migration. Great powers would wield influence but be held in check by one another and a rotating cast of middle powers from every region. Countries big and small, rich and poor would participate, guaranteeing their stake in the system. Civil society organizations, businesses, and popular movements would have channels to influence decision-making. The convening body would include an array of specialized arms capable of providing technical assistance, overseeing cooperation, measuring progress toward priorities, meeting humanitarian needs, and quelling conflicts. Expenses would be shouldered based on each government’s size and wealth.
Creating such a system afresh in the 2020s would be impossible. Major countries would never agree on objectives or values, much less concede to being legally bound by them. Human rights principles would be disputed and rebuffed. Beyond the United States and China, it would be impossible to agree on which powers deserved special prerogatives. Power-hungry sovereigns would insist on cutting out civil society entirely. Treasuries would refuse to pay the bills for activities their governments did not fully control.
The United Nations remains the closest thing to a system of global governance that the world has ever known and may ever achieve. And yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes painfully clear, the system can be paralyzed, distracted, and dysfunctional just when it is needed most. The paradox of the UN—an organization only as good as the collective will of its member states—is that it embodies so much potential alongside so much disappointment.
No single country, organization, or institution can dictate the future of global governance. The world is too complex, diverse, and fractured to allow for that. Cooperation between the United States and China is essential but not sufficient. Neither countries nor peoples around the world want to submit to the whims of the world’s two most powerful players. To lead, Washington and Beijing need forums to rally support and reckon with opposition. A strengthened system of global governance, if it is to be, will involve overlapping forums, institutions, and coalitions that collectively shoulder the world’s challenges. The UN has a central role to play within such a system. Any effort to reinvent global governance should focus on reinvigorating the body invented to serve as its linchpin.
The UN stands at a crossroads, with an increasingly assertive China and Russia testing the organization’s founding ideals of human rights and the rule of law. There is an ambitious effort underway to remake the United Nations into a body in which powerful governments can work their will free of the normative constraints embedded in the UN’s founding purpose. To preserve the United Nations as it was intended—as a forum for transnational problem solving and a force for the rights, freedoms, and well-being of all people—countries committed to those core precepts will have to overcome their entrenched ambivalence toward the organization and shore up its relevance. If they fail to rise to the challenge, they will find themselves seated in a world body emptied of principle and reshaped to serve authoritarian agendas.
Reinventing the UN will require member states to renew their original vows to the ideals of international cooperation. Wistfulness over an elusive, utopian system of global governance that never was must not be the enemy of the United Nations that is or that could be. Instead, energetic diplomacy should reanimate the UN’s high-minded foundation and repudiate those who seek to hollow out its principled pillars and leave behind a brittle shell for interest-based realpolitik. UN personnel and leaders will need more freedom from political influence to make sound decisions and get things done. The UN will also need visible achievements that reposition it in the eyes of skeptical governments and peoples. Ultimately, reviving the UN will require subordinating narrow national interests to the task of protecting the world’s best hope for solving grave global threats.
The UN has been unique since its inception. Founded after World War II, when the United States was morally ascendant and accounted for over half the global economy, the UN represented U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a global system that reflected U.S. ideals. The trauma of the war and the power disparities left in its wake subsumed what might have otherwise been mortal disagreements over control, values, and rights. For adherents to progressive precepts, including individual freedom and justice, the UN system is uniquely aligned, a global edifice enshrining those principles. The UN’s universal membership; broad foundation of shared, legally grounded liberal principles; and expert capabilities would be nearly impossible to replicate in a new global body. If the UN did not exist, it could not be created today. COVID-19, however, may lead to a moment when the struts and joints of the global order can suddenly be reconfigured. The ideological and politically intractable problems of the twenty-first century dictate that, rather than trying to build from scratch, nations capitalize on the UN’s singularities and seize the opening to remedy its flaws.
To Western policymakers and the media, however, the UN seems to register most often for its shortcomings. Witnessing the UN Security Council seize up amid the COVID-19 pandemic and fail to agree on so much as a statement in response to the most catastrophic health crisis of modern times, they had reason to despair. Yet that frustration can obscure the essence of the UN’s dysfunction: leading states’ recalcitrance, indifference, and abdication. Focusing on the UN as a locus of discontent distracts from the great powers’ failures and obscures the many things the UN does well.
Ritual exasperation and even dismissiveness toward the UN are hardly baseless. The organization has fulfilled its founding vision only episodically. Many of its limitations, however, are grounded in the nature of global governance itself and its uneasy cohabitation alongside national sovereignty. Global governance can only be as good as those doing the governing. The Security Council’s notorious paralysis during the Cold War mirrored the standoff between the globe’s two superpowers. The deadlock over COVID-19 reflected the campaigns by the United States and China to deflect blame for the crisis. The tensions that impair cooperation intensify when the stakes are high, often rendering the Security Council useless when it is needed most, such as during the grinding conflict in Syria over the last decade. On climate change, the UN has performed a vital convening function but cannot force the consensus necessary to protect the planet. The meticulous preparation, dogged diplomacy, and creative problem solving of UN Secretariat officials can only go so far. The fate of contentious negotiations hinges on the leading countries’ willingness to compromise.
The UN’s worst recent scandals related to the very same dependence on member states. Infected Nepalese peacekeeping battalions spread cholera in post-earthquake Haiti, a catastrophe compounded by substandard sanitation on their base. The UN refused to accept responsibility and, even worse, wealthier member states refused to establish a trust fund for the victims. Sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, Haiti, and elsewhere is a function of lax preparation and low standards among national militaries contributing troops for UN operations. The UN has now taken forceful steps and built a potent administrative infrastructure to better train and vet troops and hold them accountable for violations. Yet contributing governments have been inconsistent in their vigilance and follow-through.
Ritual exasperation and even dismissiveness toward the UN are hardly baseless.
Although some of the UN’s most infamous scandals have faded into the distant past in some policy circles, contemptuousness toward the UN remains an article of faith. Certain governments with the most to gain from the organization are among the most cynical. The UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other instruments embody precepts of democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and respect for human rights treasured by liberal democracies. Recognizing these ideas as universal, rather than Western, is at the heart of the UN. This notion has new urgency as competing, illiberal ideas gain currency globally. Yet for decades, U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle have derided the UN as a forum for Lilliputians bent on tamping down the superpower Gulliver. The United States has long complained about its bills as the organization’s largest contributor, refusing to pay on time, in full, or sometimes at all. Washington also blames the UN for treating Israel unfairly, although criticism of the Jewish state is driven by member states, not the organization itself.
Despite its entrenched ambivalence, the United States has always been the UN’s indispensable nation: it is the host country in New York, the UN’s largest contributor, the driving force behind countless UN initiatives and resolutions, and the determinant of whether such initiatives succeed. At its best, Washington is diplomatically agile and assertive at the UN, marshaling support behind vital efforts to, for example, tackle conflicts in Africa, curb North Korea’s nuclear program through sanctions, and invigorate human rights mechanisms. Only in the last few years under the Trump administration has the United States’ derision toward the UN subsumed any potential for diplomatic efficacy.
Sometimes, despite its members, the UN has accomplished an immense amount, usually in areas where no other government or organization could have possibly achieved the same. Yet the UN is not measured by the many tests that it meets. The flawed accounting results partly from the distinction between the UN itself, centered on the organization’s political bodies such as the General Assembly and the Security Council, and the UN system, which includes dozens of specialized technical agencies from the World Health Organization to the International Civil Aviation Organization. The UN system’s achievements include feeding more than 100 million people in over 80 countries, vaccinating almost half the world’s children, saving the ozone layer, shepherding more than 500 treaties into existence, curbing the spread of nuclear weapons, deploying more than 70 peacekeeping missions, helping end colonization, and assisting nearly 60 million refugees and displaced persons. UN Special Political Missions have curbed chemical and nuclear weapons proliferation and kept volatile regions from boiling over into conflict. Other vital accomplishments include curtailing the 2014 Ebola outbreak and strengthening LGBTQ rights. The Security Council’s stasis in the face of COVID-19 does not negate the World Health Organization’s work to coordinate an imperfect but essential pandemic response, advance progress toward a vaccine, and assist UN agencies in providing critical pandemic relief efforts. The UN has saved tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of lives and made the world safer, healthier, better fed, more sustainable, more equal, and more just.
Despite all that, the UN’s perceived limitations have led to an eroding public image. Each successive secretary-general seems to hold a lower profile than his predecessor. The last time a U.S. president mentioned the United Nations in an inaugural address was in 1960. Still, the UN’s contributions should not be taken for granted.
The UN is no more static than the world it inhabits. A series of significant changes now underway will likely determine whether the world body endures in a recognizable form. The UN faces four interrelated challenges, each heightened in recent years: a new geopolitical system premised on an uneasy balance of power among nations with sharply divergent values and goals; the rise of governments and leaders who reject the UN’s liberal framework; the collapse of liberal influence around the world due to the Trump administration’s diplomatic misfires coupled with the rise of authoritarian populism in important democracies; and finally, the organization’s own sclerosis in central areas, including peacekeeping.
China’s diplomatic ascent is a through line across all four of these trends. Many governments historically looked to Washington for a steer on what positions to take on key UN issues, wanting to avoid being crosswise with their largest trading partner and the world’s most influential country. Beijing has now moved into a position of equivalent sway on UN matters, such that delegations now assess their votes and statements against how the two capitals will react. China unabashedly uses its power and money—it is now the UN’s second-largest contributor—to blunt criticism, thwart outcomes, shut out Taiwan, plug its Belt and Road Initiative, and dilute norms that might be used to hold it accountable. China’s fast-growing involvement in UN peacekeeping as a troop contributor, funder, and source of Secretariat leadership also correlates with Beijing’s substantial economic stake in Africa. The World Health Organization suffered a grave blow in credibility when it was criticized for succumbing to pressure from Beijing to downplay China’s responsibility for the spread of COVID-19. Chinese nationals occupy a growing array of influential UN positions, including leadership slots at the and Food and Agriculture Organization and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which oversees accreditation for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
These shifts come at a moment when the imperatives of global governance are glaringly apparent: climate change, refugee flows, pandemics, natural disasters, technology, and trade-related dislocations. The world is becoming hotter, more connected, and more contagious. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said, “multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”
The UN and its member states stand at a fork in the road. The organization has always been a hybrid between a value-neutral forum that bolsters international cooperation and conflict resolution and a force that promotes liberal norms, such as democracy and human rights. As Adam Lupel of the International Peace Institute has noted, this hybridity helps explain some of the UN’s stark anomalies, including the presence of notoriously repressive governments, such as China and Russia, on the Human Rights Council. Both of those UN functions—its role as a neutral forum that catalyzes action and its power as a force that enshrines the values in its underlying treaties—are now under severe pressure, for related but distinct reasons.
As a forum to foster collective security, address conflicts, and encourage cooperation, the UN suffers from certain governments’ waning willingness to subordinate national interests and domestic politics to international norms and standards. The presence of three permanent Security Council members—China, Russia, and the United States—that are willing to block collective action in the service of their competing individual interests has the potential to cripple consensus building to a greater extent than the Cold War did. For Beijing, protecting China’s global image and avoiding domestic instability are existential objectives. Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his leadership on building up Russia at the United States’ expense. For Trump’s United States, catering to a domestic political base overrode conventional foreign policy objectives. The Biden administration recognizes the United States’ stake in steadying teetering global norms. But it has also committed to promulgating a foreign policy that meets middle-class American voters’ interests and is more closely tied to domestic policy considerations. During the Trump years, the UN was dominated by three myopic and insecure global powers that lacked the will, the internationalist spirit, and the farsightedness to lead. The imperatives that motivated the UN’s founding 75 years ago took a back seat to more mercenary goals. The result placed a growing set of issues—Crimea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the South China Sea, Syria, and even COVID-19—outside the council’s reach. The Biden administration now faces the challenge of restoring U.S. influence within the world body and restoring the UN’s own efficacy and standing at the same time.
With major conflagrations largely off-limits for the council, collective security has lately operated nearer the margins. The council mainly addresses outbreaks in Africa, where the vast majority of peacekeepers are deployed. There, collective action faces a different set of constraints, stemming from the reluctance of member states to empower the UN to tailor its interventions for the conflicts it seeks to temper. UN peacekeeping operations were originally designed to help implement peace agreements after hostilities ceased. The guiding principles that underpin peacekeeping missions were reformulated in 2008, and they now emphasize that the UN should involve itself only with the consent of the warring parties, remain impartial, and not use force. These principles were developed based on decades of lessons learned and the political and operational constraints of nations contributing troops.
The UN is no more static than the world it inhabits.
Yet recent missions in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and South Sudan bear little resemblance to those envisaged in peacekeeping doctrine. When the UN is called upon to get involved, usually in the name of protecting civilians, the conflicts are still active. They involve armed militias, criminal syndicates, and ideological extremists who sow chaos across borders. Peace agreements are often nonexistent. Rogue actors stand aloof from negotiations. Foreign governments hold limited sway. UN peacekeepers risk being seen as partial to rulers who may themselves be fueling conflicts and atrocities. To stand a chance, peacekeeping operations must be intertwined with full-blown diplomatic efforts bearing the UN’s complete capabilities. Yet special envoys can face an overwhelming array of duties spanning intensive mediation to the daily management of sprawling field operations. Despite successive blueprints for peacekeeping reform, the UN has yet to reckon with the widening disconnect between the peacekeeping services it provides and the elusive peace it seeks to make and keep.
The peacekeeping budget is another vulnerability, linked to Washington. Despite a deal in 2000 that reduced its UN dues, the United States has routinely underpaid its share of the peacekeeping budget. Washington’s failure to pay it dues in full and its policy of paying up at the tail end of the UN’s fiscal year have now spread to other nations, causing persistent cash flow problems.
The combination of a hamstrung Security Council and an ossified approach to UN peacekeeping undercuts the UN’s role as a forum for collective security. In other areas of collective action and cooperation, however—especially in response to threats that don’t derive from an aggressor nation, such as climate change and poverty—its record is better. Through eye-popping reports and aggressive facilitation, the organization has catalyzed global momentum behind emission limits that require genuine concessions from nearly every region. Despite valid critiques of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, there is no denying that these efforts jump-started work toward alleviating global deprivation. Although these development initiatives get little play in security circles, research proves that socioeconomic advances helps prevent and ameliorate conflict. Successive decades of UN progress toward alleviating disadvantage worldwide may ultimately do more to prevent and resolve transnational conflict than the Security Council ever did.
The liberal order has been both under attack and in voluntary retreat, a dangerous combination that has threatened to unravel the UN and set back rights, freedoms, and justice worldwide. The UN’s founding was shaped by the belief that preventing future conflicts would hinge on a universal commitment to inalienable human rights. A geographically representative committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt drafted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). In her memoirs, Roosevelt recounted that the Chinese representative insisted that the document “reflect more than simply Western ideas” and integrate the principles of Confucianism. When the draft was adopted by the UN’s then 58 member states, committee member Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile described “a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing.”
Other instruments supplemented the UDHR, together forming an international bill of rights and spawning hundreds of global and regional human rights pacts. The tectonic shift toward global recognition and respect for human rights that Cruz trumpeted in 1948 is now in jeopardy. China’s global rise and Russia’s assertiveness are chipping away at the normative foundations of the international order. Liberal democracies have never fully complied with human rights precepts, and many are guilty of gross offenses themselves. Yet to varying degrees, these states have historically embraced those aspirations.
For authoritarian countries, by contrast, formal acceptance of universal human rights principles has been accompanied by a superficial and self-serving approach that upholds many rights in name only. Elections and criminal trials can provide a veneer of legitimacy to mask brute power and preordained results. Yet while the codification and universal adoption of human rights norms has failed to guarantee their protection, it has helped. The obligation to report to the UN’s human rights bodies and reply to UN investigators creates incentives for good behavior and redress of abuses. The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court have reinforced those norms. The recognition of universal human rights has spawned a global movement of NGOs that hold their governments accountable and a culture of media call-outs that deters abuse and stigmatizes its perpetrators.
China’s economic and geopolitical rise and, to a lesser extent, Russia’s ambitiousness are now gradually remodeling the global order to match these nations’ rights-defying worldviews. Never fitting into the liberal, rights-based paradigm, these governments see an opening to shake off their chafing constraints and reinvent a twenty-first-century order that fits their national aspirations. They seek to scale back, water down, defang, and invert the principled underpinnings of global governance. Examples abound. Both countries have used their veto power liberally and strategically, blocking repeated efforts to protect civilians in Syria, uphold democracy in Venezuela, and safeguard Muslims in Myanmar and denying human rights NGOs accreditation and access. Both countries interpret national sovereignty strictly, insisting that the principle of noninterference with internal affairs overrides human rights considerations. Although Russia’s efforts in this regard are more fitful and opportunistic, China’s military, economic, and diplomatic muscle must be taken far more seriously.
The liberal order has been both under attack and in voluntary retreat.
As China’s global influence grows, human rights norms are eroding. The mass internment of a million Chinese Uyghurs is proceeding apace, with little international outcry. After 39 countries joined forces at the UN to call out Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang and intensifying authoritarianism in Hong Kong, 45 others joined a retort engineered by Beijing and fronted by Cuba. China is also utilizing its economic influence to curtail rights beyond its borders, including by kidnapping Chinese nationals and constraining Chinese students studying abroad. Governments, corporations, scholars, and analysts who resist Chinese tactics are punished. The worldwide adoption of Chinese communications technologies and social media platforms is globalizing Chinese norms, including its constraints on speech and license to surveil. China’s highly visible prosperity through tight social controls serves as a model that is influencing others: democracies including Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, and Turkey are backsliding.
China’s growing challenge to liberal, rights-based norms at the UN has coincided with the implosion of global leadership that once supported those rights. U.S. human rights advocacy had already suffered major blows during the global war on terror initiated by President George W. Bush, damage that was partially undone during Barack Obama’s presidency. The Trump administration’s flouting of press freedom, praise of autocrats, denial of immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, backtracking on women’s and LGBTQ rights, intolerance of political dissent, corruption, nepotism, and lies made a mockery of the United States’ checkered but historic role as a global human rights standard-bearer. Washington’s strained relations with its traditional allies also undercut its ability to push back against Beijing. While the Trump administration became increasingly exercised over Beijing’s waxing influence at the UN, its scornful ineptitude in rallying support at the UN left its diplomats crying into the ether. During the same period, internal machinations over Brexit, the refugee crisis, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with pockets of repressive populist nationalism on the continent, left Europe ill equipped to fill the void of Western leadership at the UN. The Biden administration is determined to reverse these trends, a tall order that will depend upon prioritizing the resurrection of the United States’ status at the UN even as other demands abound.
These realignments risk cracking the normative foundations of the United Nations. Recent secretaries-general, including António Guterres and Ban Ki-moon, have been unwilling to call out major rights abusers by name for fear of antagonizing key member states, especially China. When China’s own rights record comes up for review by the UN Human Rights Council, Beijing engages in elaborate pageantry, with government-controlled NGOs and friendly delegations enlisted to heap hollow praise. In 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, declined to run for a second term, voicing despair at the system he led and scorning the UN’s member states for thwarting attempts to hold abusers accountable.
Mounting pressure on the UN’s central pillars—collective security and the commitment to human rights and the rule of law—may spell the organization’s steepened and perhaps irreversible decline. Some analysts argue that the ship can be righted by casting the UN’s normative infrastructure overboard, a weight too heavy to bear given the geopolitical shoals that must be navigated now. They believe that, given China’s rise, a global order that sidelines universal rights in favor of sovereignty and value-neutral cooperation can achieve collective security. The premise is that forfeiting the facets of the UN that most rankle China—human rights resolutions, the protection of minorities, and the like—would unleash consensus on a breadth of global issues such as climate change and global health, in effect saving the global forum.
Deciding between saving the UN and protecting universal rights is a false choice and one that champions of global governance must reject. The UN’s founding pillars—development, peace, security, and human rights—are interdependent. Most issues that have paralyzed the Security Council in recent years have hinged on human rights concerns: humanitarian access in Syria, the crisis in Venezuela, and the treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. Sidestepping human rights and humanitarian concerns will not dissolve impasses over the Security Council veto; these problems are at the heart of what divides the council and outrages the world. Moreover, most of what the Security Council does agree on centrally implicates human rights concerns, including conflicts in the Central African Republic, Congo, Mali, and South Sudan. The UN Charter was a compact among peoples, as well as countries, to advance their interests and well-being. The UN’s visionary founders recognized the human suffering caused by the wanton exercise of sovereign prerogative and aimed to constrain such impulses. Collective security and the protection of human rights are inseparable. To sideline human rights would be to betray the UN and drain away the organization’s remaining moral and political authority.
The quest to revitalize the United Nations should proceed on multiple, parallel tracks. There is no magic bullet that will transform today’s global governance system into a potent, fit-for-purpose successor. That will depend on boosting the stakeholders’ buy-in, building on strengths, confronting weaknesses, and staying the course over time.
The first step to reviving the UN is to decide that the effort is worth it. Liberal governments need to recognize that the UN represents the best shot they will ever have to fortify globally what they regard as universal beliefs and values—and that time is running out. The United States in particular must renounce the self-defeating ambivalence, standoffishness, and periodic belligerence that have long characterized its relationship with the UN. Sophisticated analysts, including longtime U.S. Foreign Service officer and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, have spotlighted the UN’s potential as a force multiplier for U.S. interests and pointed out that strategic, comprehensive, and dogged diplomacy can overcome many of the UN’s most frustrating dynamics. Effective U.S. engagement is a prerequisite for the UN’s vitality. Without U.S. leadership, vital reforms will be out of reach, divisions will deepen, and the UN will fail. The United States’ abdication of leadership during the Trump administration became a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the United States does not exercise its influence, outcomes are unfavorable, and Washington’s exasperation grows. Trump officials’ fulminations over China’s mounting sway at the UN fit this pattern; Beijing’s voice got louder while Washington’s was either silent or jarringly off key.
To halt this dynamic, the Biden administration, led by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, will need to work with China on issues including climate change and COVID-19 while winning back diplomatic capital ceded to Beijing and countering Chinese and Russian efforts to weaken the UN. Playing this multidimensional chess game—involving a mix of cooperation, containment, and confrontation—will require U.S. embassies to center UN priorities within bilateral relations and diplomats in New York to play a sophisticated ground game to build relationships.
To ensure that they are backing rather than thwarting these efforts, members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives should form bipartisan caucuses to end decades of indifference at the UN. With the backing of these supporters, the United States should fund its contributions in full and expand its voluntary donations. Washington should also nominate highly qualified, capable Americans, not limited to government officials, to top UN Secretariat posts. These modest investments will pay off by both expanding U.S. influence and creating a more effective world body. And Washington should cooperate visibly with UN human rights bodies, providing human rights rapporteurs with the information and access they request when investigating matters involving the United States. By exemplifying what it means to be a good member, the United States can rally others to be responsible stakeholders and stigmatize those that manipulate or pervert the system and its values.
The United States’ diplomatic reengagement alone will not be enough to revive the UN. The UN should also reimagine its approach to peacekeeping. The rising disconnect between the UN’s traditional operations and the violent conflicts it is charged with quelling have bred a crisis of confidence. An updated peacekeeping doctrine would reflect the reality that many current UN missions need greater leeway to use force, work amid nonconsenting parties, and protect civilians over the long term. An internal, informal group comprised of Secretariat leaders and committed member states should candidly inventory the factors that impede the success of peacekeeping operations and examine how to prevent some member states from hampering peacekeeping efficacy. The Secretariat must be empowered to resist imposing mandates that are incompatible with peacekeeping doctrine and to help craft approaches to meet needs—such as civilian protection and counterinsurgency—that do not fit neatly into existing categories. This will help strengthen peacekeeping and make it more widely relevant, fortifying the UN’s capacity to guarantee peace and security.
Another major barrier to international cooperation and collective security is the Security Council’s composition. A decades-long debate over how to update the Security Council’s fossilized structure remains hopelessly deadlocked with, at present, no real prospect of sweeping change to improve representation and better reflect contemporary power relations. Despite that impasse, the UN’s credibility depends on showing that the council is neither frozen in time nor impervious to demands for greater accountability.
The UN’s vitality depends on the commitment of the council’s permanent members to keeping the veto from spelling the end of global collective action. A first step would be adopting a practice whereby all vetoes are accompanied by a public, written explanation. That would form the basis of an open meeting of council members during which veto-wielding countries agree to answer questions and publicly discuss alternative measures to address the conflict at hand. Having to face the music after a veto could enhance accountability and disincentivize the veto on the grounds of national interest as opposed to collective security. Another way to press for greater accountability in the Security Council would be to rally the General Assembly to make use of the “Uniting for Peace” provisions that allow the body to act when the council will not. Even the threat of possible General Assembly intervention has occasionally catalyzed progressive movement in the council. If the council members come to worry that the forum’s prerogatives may be supplanted, its members might be more open to the changes necessary to shore up their authority. Individual nations should also consider alternative global forums, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the G-7, and NATO, as vehicles that can be activated to pressure the Security Council. The council’s structure will change only if those who benefit from it come to believe that their prerogatives are being undermined from the outside. They must believe that they are better off reforming the body before it is supplanted by another entity in which they will enjoy less power.
When nonprofits seek to buffer themselves from downturns, they build rainy day funds that they then invest. Interest proceeds from the funds can pay for a portion of their annual operating expenses. After the pandemic-driven recession, the UN should explore approaching wealthy governments and philanthropists to support a fund that would insulate it from the perpetual threat of financial crisis. The endowment should not become a substitute for the annual contributions of member nations to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets, but it could fill gaps in the current funding system. Earnings could avert cash crunches and fund unexpected expenditures, such as the trust fund for victims of the Haiti cholera outbreak.
The UN needs more than funds, however. It also needs individual leaders who are unafraid to speak out, knock heads, and call out bad actors. The specter of UN secretaries-general and other top officials currying favor in top capitals to assure reelection has undercut the UN’s influence and credibility. The terms of service for the secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights should be shifted from the current system of two five-year terms to a single eight-year term. That would allow sufficient time to build relationships and carry out changes but avoid the pressures of reelection. Moreover, many senior UN leaders are effectively beholden to their bosses back in their capital of origin. These officials serve two masters—a formula for conflicts of interest that can disadvantage the UN. Those who serve in the top ranks of UN leadership should be required to resign from their national civil or foreign service ranks, ensuring that their only professional loyalty would be to the UN. Finally, the UN should end the practice of dual hatting its special envoys with the tasks of high-level, intensive mediation among warring parties and the management of complex field operations. Diplomatic troubleshooting amid a crisis is a full-time occupation. Special envoys imbued with the organization’s authority to intervene should be assigned seasoned, empowered deputies who can handle the duties of managing to humanitarian and development programs aimed at fostering stability.
The anniversaries of UN treaties and agreements should become occasions for governments to recommit to their values and stanch further slippage. Every five or ten years, during meetings of heads of state in New York, the UN should convene summits to reaffirm core human rights instruments—including not only the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights but also the Convention Against Torture and many others. The UN could thus revive global commitments to these vital ideals.
Although renewed commitments to existing human rights norms are essential, shoring up the UN’s value system cannot stop there. With authoritarian governments determined to undercut the system, liberal governments should go on the offensive, pushing new initiatives that extend and clarify rights, inspire rising generations, and demonstrate the vitality of the UN’s human rights mechanisms. The Obama administration followed such a strategy, running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council and using that platform to advance new UN resolutions on LGBTQ rights and free expression online. The Biden administration has announced that it will run to retake the U.S. seat renounced during the Trump era. By setting the agenda and rallying allies, liberal governments can marginalize those paddling in the opposite direction. Specifically, a campaign for full LGBTQ and gender rights—including the right to marriage, to build families, and to be free from discrimination based on gender identity—could catalyze wider national protections. The UN has never fully elaborated protections for artistic freedom nor recognized the growing role that artists and cultural creators play in providing space for dissent and social change. There is also major work to be done to reconcile the broad international legal protections for free expression with the challenges of the digital age, including the dangers posed by some forms of online content, shadowy algorithms that can promote disinformation, and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Rights to privacy also demand further enumeration and protection amid new forms of intrusion and a fast-evolving social bargain whereby privacy is voluntarily traded for various social goods and conveniences.
Finally, for better or worse, in the 2020s, photos, social media, memes, and viral videos shape global discourse. The UN is remembered most for its theatrical moments—Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table, Colin Powell giving his fateful PowerPoint presentation before the Iraq war, Donald Trump eliciting laughter for tooting his own horn in his UN address, and young heroines such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and the climate activist Greta Thunberg issuing bold challenges to heads of state. In considering how to constrain human rights abusers, the answer increasingly lies not in traditional diplomatic pressure but in public outrage. The prospect of tanks rolling through Hong Kong in a Tiananmen Square reprise is less viable in a world of cell phone videos. The UN should take advantage of this change, integrating video and imagery into human rights reports and presentations. The UN’s history of negative press has rendered the organization cautious about the media. But the digital age demands that statecraft encompass stagecraft. The UN needs to recruit skilled media professionals to harness modern communication tools and elevate compelling voices, host historic encounters, stage major announcements, and otherwise position itself as the visible centerpiece of global diplomacy.
The denouement of the COVID-19 crisis will represent high noon for the UN and the world order writ large. Governments and peoples may recapture the spirit of internationalism: a set of shared interests that coexist alongside parochial national concerns and—when necessary—override them. Major capitals may yet recognize that the UN represents a vital, vulnerable pillar of a liberal global system that is on the verge of collapse and needs intensive care. They may seize on the opening created by the pandemic to push through updates to the UN that position the organization for heightened relevance and efficacy. They may recognize that efforts to limit the UN to protecting narrow national interests must give way to accommodating the imperatives of the institution and the world as a whole.
If governments that are committed to the UN’s original vision and values assert themselves and lead this process, they can strengthen the United Nations amid an unprecedented assault, pressing authoritarian states to heed human rights and the rule of law. On the other hand, continued scorn and neglect of the UN will pave the way for a fast-expanding illiberal influence within the institution, eroding the delicate balance of power that is at the heart of global governance. That will undermine the UN’s normative underpinnings, fuel exasperation among liberal governments and civil society, and subject the UN to a relentless tug of war between hostile superpowers. Reconciling the UN’s paradox—its vast capacity to achieve and to disappoint—requires a deliberate decision to recognize the world body’s limitations and to unleash its potential despite them.