Does UN Still Have a Future?

The highest supranational forum is in deep crisis. In ongoing conflicts, it is proving inadequate because of its bureaucracy, but above all because of the major powerhouses. The only remedy is to return to the spirit and letter of the origins

Frustration with the UN’s failure to stop the spread and escalation of conflicts extending from Eastern Europe to the Middle East is widespread. The point is, as Kissinger stated in his masterpiece on the 19th-century Concert of Europe, in order to be stable and peaceful, a system of states must be able to count on the commitment and maintenance of its core power factors, which are part of it, and the “common concept of legitimacy” that governs its dynamics.

The UN became the culmination of the Atlantic Charter program enunciated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the beginning of World War II. The goal was “the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security” that would “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live,” favoring “the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world.”

Beyond the renunciation of the use of force, these were the two basic concepts of legitimacy underlying the project of international order that would emerge at the end of the conflict with Hitler’s Germany. The outcome of the 1945 San Francisco conference was the result of work to coordinate and harmonize the respective positions between the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. The latter joined this limited nucleus at Roosevelt’s far-sighted insistence.

Even after the death of its staunchest supporter, the project was implemented with the approval of a Statute designed to guarantee the liberal international order, to which even the Soviets had signed up, however, with the guarantee of a veto over decisions that could authorize the use of force, reserved for the four determinants of power, assumed since the first planning and kindly also extended to France. Disagreements over the postwar settlement after the conflict led to the disappearance of the “common concept of legitimacy” among the four original proponents, leading to frequent UN paralysis due to the use of the veto, mainly by the United States and the Soviet Union, the leaders of the two opposing blocs formed at the time: the Atlantic Pact and the Warsaw Pact.

Overcoming the Cuban crisis, which was the result of dialectical tensions between the two blocs, led to the convening of the Conference on European Security and Cooperation and the restoration, at least in declarative terms, of the original “common concept of legitimacy,” enunciated since prehistoric UN times in the Atlantic Charter. With the Helsinki Act of 1975, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies subscribed to the principles of Western liberal constitutionalism, openly endorsing the two original intentions of Roosevelt and Churchill about the freedom of peoples to freely choose a form of government under which to live, rather than be discriminated against in their economic activities. Subsequently, under Gorbachev, came Soviet cooperation with the Westerners in the Glass Palace and the restoration of the real effectiveness of UN functions. The unanimous approval in November 1990 of resolution 678 to solve the Kuwaiti crisis was a watershed in history.

In fact, as has been considered important since the first concept of the Collective Security Organization, the unity of purposes for the main power factors of the international system was recreated: not so much with regard to the specific operation of military intervention in the Persian Gulf, but with regard to the fundamental UN values underlying this convergence, namely the values of the “liberal international order” reaffirmed by the Helsinki Act.

However, Bush’s failure to get re-elected in 1992 meant that the United States was less in line with these values. Adopting a policy of regime change and bombing Yugoslavia without the consent of the UN Security Council was a clear violation of the requirements of the Helsinki Act and the UN Charter. Instead, they gave life to an American foreign and security policy no longer inspired by traditional liberal principles, but rather by a different international order.

These events undermined two of the original principles of the Atlantic Charter carried over into the UN statute. But the current crisis of the UN is also due to the inability of its governing bodies to adapt to the evolution that has taken place in the international system, with the emergence of new power factors and new groupings of countries inspired by the common concept of legitimacy. The most significant of these are the G7 and BRICS, both of which have set out their own vision of the world order in their final declarations. BRICS reaffirms the need for full respect for the UN Charter and international law, while the G7 reaffirm their commitment to a “rules-based” international order. The expansion of the UN governing bodies and an agreement aimed at ensuring compatibility between the G7 “rules” and the UN charter may be able to restore the concept of legitimacy that is necessary for a stable and peaceful international system.

International relations historian, vice-president of the Atlantic Committee, guest lecturer at St. Petersburg University

AntonGiulio de Robertis