In the aftermath of the Great War (World War I), President Woodrow Wilson (D) and other world leaders conceived of an organization that would assure the peaceful resolution of conflicts between nations. The purpose of this League of Nations was to maintain world peace and make sure that nothing like that first world war ever happened again.
The League began operating in 1920 and, at least on paper, existed until 1946. Although it had some minor successes along the way, it was generally weak and ineffective — at least in part because the United States, its early advocate, never even joined it. Its primary purpose was to protect world peace, but by 1939 the world was careening into World War II — a conflict that would be even more deadly and destructive than the so-called “War to End All Wars” that led to the creation of the League in the first place.
In the aftermath of that conflict, the victorious Allied countries decided to try again with a new and improved international peacekeeping organization — the United Nations (U.N.). It began operation in 1945 and continues to this day. When the League of Nations dissolved itself in 1946, it transferred all of its assets and records to the U.N.
In the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, the signatory nations all affirmed that they were determined to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.”
Structure of the U.N.
The U.N. charter establishes several “principle organs,” and allows for the creation of “subsidiary organs” under each. The principle organs are “a General Assembly, a Security Council, an Economic and Social Council, a Trusteeship Council, an International Court of Justice[,] and a Secretariat” (U.N. Charter, Article 7, Clause 1).
Although the U.N. structure does not exactly mirror that of the government of the United States, we can draw some rough parallels. You can think of the U.N. General Assembly as being sort-of like the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.N. Security Council as sort-of like the U.S. Senate, the Secretariat (under the U.N. Secretary-General) as sort-of like the executive branch (under the U.S. President), and the U.N. International Court of Justice as sort-of like the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.N. Economic and Social Council sort-of acts like a group of U.S. Congressional committees. The U.N. Trusteeship Council no longer exists, but had responsibility for territories under direct U.N. control.
In this article, I’m going to focus on the two legislative bodies: the General Assembly and the Security Council. These are the primary bodies that have responsibility for dealing with international relations and mediating conflicts between nations.
The General Assembly
The General Assembly may discuss any questions or any matters within the scope of the present Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any organs provided for in the present Charter, and, except as provided in Article 12, may make recommendations to the Members of the United Nations or to the Security Council or to both on any such questions or matters.Charter of the United Nations, Article 10
The U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) is a legislative body in which every U.N. member nation has a single vote. The U.N. currently has 193 member states, each of which is a member of the UNGA. There are also two “observer states” — the Holy See (the Vatican) and Palestine — which are non-members that have been granted the right to participate in UNGA proceedings but not to vote.
The UNGA is the U.N.’s main deliberative and policy-making body. It has the authority to control the U.N. budget, set assessments (dues) for member nations, appoint non-permanent members to the U.N. Security Council, appoint the U.N. Secretary-General, and pass resolutions.
UNGA resolutions are typically passed by a simple majority. However, if a majority of nations vote to define a particular resolution as an “important question,” it will then require a two-thirds super-majority to pass. The UNGA also has authority to admit new U.N. members (if recommended by the Security Council), and to suspend or expel members, by two-thirds super-majorities.
Although the UNGA has significant power over the internal operations of the U.N., it has only a very limited authority over the member states. Indeed, the only UNGA resolutions that are legally binding on member states are those dealing with assessments (dues). And even if the UNGA did have an authority to issue binding resolutions on member states, it has no enforcement powers.
The Security Council
In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.Charter of the United Nations, Article 24, Clause 1
The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) is a legislative body made up of five permanent members named in the U.N. charter and ten non-permanent members elected to the UNSC by the U.N. General Assembly. It has the authority to recommend the admission of new U.N. members (which must be approved by the UNGA), to modify the U.N. charter, establish peacekeeping forces, establish international sanctions, and authorize the use of military force.
The UNSC is the only U.N. body that has the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states, and to enforce those resolutions with military force when necessary.
The U.N. charter grants permanent UNSC membership to the main victors of World War II: “The Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR], the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America” (Article 23, Clause 1). The Republic of China seat is now held by the People’s Republic of China, and the USSR seat is now held by the Russian Federation.
These permanent members have unlimited veto authority; no UNSC resolution can be passed over a negative note by any of these five nations. As a result, the UNSC has only rarely been able to approve the use of military force by ‘coalitions of the willing,’ and even more rarely approved the use of its own direct enforcement authorities.
Does the U.N. Work?
There are many good, useful things that the U.N. does in the world through its committees and its secretariat. It is an effective provider of refugee services, for example. So it is not helpful to say that the U.N. is a total failure or serves no useful purpose.
Some of its programs are more effective and beneficial than others, and there is room to debate their relative merits. But having an international body like the U.N. to coordinate disaster response and other humanitarian efforts is generally a good thing.
But what about the U.N.’s primary purpose: to keep the peace and promote human rights?
[The purpose of the United Nations is to] maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;…Charter of the United Nations, Article 1, Clause 1
The creators of the U.N. recognized that an international peacekeeping body is only useful if it has the means to enforce its decrees. The League of Nations had many problems, but one of the most critical was that it had no means to stop the conflagration that was coming.
The U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) suffers from the same problem. It cannot pass binding resolutions, and even if it could it would have no way of enforcing them. The enforcement authorities were all vested in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), a smaller body dominated by the victors from World War II. It was the UNSC’s job to keep the peace…and to step in to with a unified, global force to stop belligerents before they could do too much damage.
In practice, this has not worked. The unlimited veto authority of each of the five major Allied powers means that the UNSC cannot do anything unless they all agree…and how often do China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. agree about anything? Even in those rare occasions where the five can come to an agreement — for example, the condemnation of Iraq’s weapons programs under Saddam Hussein — they inevitably fracture when it comes time to use force to ensure compliance with those resolutions.
Even less likely is agreement when any one of these five countries is directly involved. China would never allow the UNSC to take action to resolve its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, and Russia would never allow the UNSC to take action to resolve the dispute involving the Crimean peninsula, to cite a couple current examples.
Reforming the UNSC to limit the power of the permanent member veto would be the best way to improve the effectiveness of the UNSC, but, again, this can only be done with the agreement of all five permanent members…each of which is unlikely to give up any of its power.
In any case, the U.N. is obviously a failure with regard to its first and highest purpose: keeping the peace. Every armed conflict since World War II is evidence of its ineffectiveness. The Cold War, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, is evidence as well…it wasn’t the U.N. that kept it from exploding into a third world war, it was the restraint of the leaders of the U.S. and the USSR combined with a serious dose of good luck.
[The purpose of the United Nations is to] develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;…Charter of the United Nations, Article 1, Clause 2
The U.N. was not only meant to keep the peace between nations, but was also supposed to be a constant proponent of human rights.
Here, too, it is a failure. It allows the wanton violation of its charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by signatories to both, and sometimes even violates those principles itself. For example, various U.N. agencies regularly advocate against the human right to life and individual defense rights.
This has happened for the same reasons it has failed to keep the peace: the structure of the UNSC prevents it from acting. China, for example, is a constant violators of its peoples’ human rights, but it is a permanent member of the UNSC and has the authority to unilaterally block any enforcement action.
The U.N.’s violation of its own purpose is most evident when it comes to the principle of the self-determination of peoples — that is, the human right of self governance. The people of Crimea likely want to be part of Russia, and yet the UNSC is silent (and the UNGA declared that Crimea should remain in the Ukraine). The people of Catalonia (in Spain and France) want to be an independent state, and the UNSC is silent. Other examples abound.
In some cases, the UNSC is silent because one or more of the permanent members are involved. But in nearly all cases dealing with self-determination, the entire council — including the U.S. — abdicates its responsibilities out of fear of setting a precedent that would allow its own internal breakaway movements to garner international support.
How Do We Fix It?
The best way to improve the U.N. would be, as described above, to reform the U.N. Security Council to limit the permanent member veto. There are numerous ways this could be done.
One would be to require that at least two permanent members join together to enact a veto. Another would be to allow strong super-majorities in the UNSC or the UNGA (or both) to override a permanent member’s veto. Another would be to prohibit any of the permanent members from using their veto power on resolutions that are directed at their own behavior.
Perhaps the best way would be to eliminate the UNSC entirely and give the UNGA the authority to enact binding resolutions and use military force when at least two-thirds of nations, representing at least one-half of the world’s population, support it.
The new population requirement is important because each nation, regardless of size, normally has one vote in the UNGA…so it would be possible for a large number of nations with small populations to enact binding policy on nations that represent the majority of the world’s people. The dual requirement of a number of nations and percentage of the world’s population ensures that this will not happen.
Of course, the problem is that any serious proposal for reforming the U.N. requires the support of all five permanent members of the UNSC, and each of them is unlikely to support a reform that would reduce its own power in that body. If elected, I can ensure the support of the U.S. government…and that I would use every means at my disposal to try to convince the other permanent members.
Ultimately, this effort is unlikely to succeed.
If the U.N. cannot be reformed, the United States should withdraw from that body and begin developing proposals for a more effective replacement.
The creators of the U.N. deliberately included no provisions for withdrawal in the U.N. charter, because they feared that members would use the threat of withdrawal as political blackmail or to evade its obligations. They had good reason — the Axis powers withdrew from the League of Nations for exactly that reason. Members can be suspended or expelled by the General Assembly, but there is no process for members to leave on their own.
Only one nation has ever attempted to withdraw from the U.N. — Indonesia. In 1965, during a conflict with the Federation of Malaysia, the Indonesian government threatened to withdraw from the U.N. if Malaysia was elected to the Security Council. Malaysia was elected, and Indonesia sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General declaring its withdrawal. Later that same year, the Indonesian government was overthrown in a coup, and the new government notified the Secretary-General that it would “resume full cooperation.” To this day, it is unclear if Indonesia actually left the U.N. or merely “ceased cooperation” with it during that period.
This does not mean that withdrawal is impossible. The U.N.’s existence is based upon treaties, which are essentially contracts between nations. These function for all nations under the norms of international law, and for the U.S. they also function under the system of law and government established by the U.S. Constitution. I know of three good arguments supporting our withdrawal from the U.N.
First, it can be argued that the constitution does not permit our involvement in an international government.
Article VI, Clause 2, states, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” This allows for duly enacted treaties to become part of the law of the land, but it does not mean that any treaty may override the constitution, which allows for no authority other than those under the federal and state governments. The exact limits on the powers of treaties would need to be adjudicated in the U.S. courts.
Second, a nation’s obligation under a treaty is invalidated when that treaty is breached by one or more of the other parties to it.
The U.N., by failing to fulfill its obligations to keep the peace and advance human rights, is in breach of its own charter. Arguably, this in-and-of-itself invalidates the treaties that created it. It could be argued that the U.N. is not actually a party to those treaties, but merely a creation of them. Even under this interpretation, the nations that vote in opposition to keeping the peace and advancing human rights have breached the treaties themselves, and they are surely a party to them.
Third, under the international legal doctrine of clausula rebus sic stantibus, a treaty may become inapplicable due to a “fundamental change of circumstances.” Many of the circumstances that led to the establishment and structure of the U.N. have changed since 1945…some in very fundamental ways. Most notably, two of the five permanent members of the Security Council aren’t even the same countries that are listed in the U.N. charter.
The government of the Republic of China (ROC) was forced to Taiwan in 1949, where it still operates today, and mainland China became the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The ROC — which is referenced by name in the U.N. charter — held the seat until 1971, but then the General Assembly voted to expel the ROC from the U.N. entirely and hand its seat over to the PRC.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) — also referenced by name in the charter — was completely dissolved in 1991. Its seat on the council was given to the Russian Federation, a county that is only one of the many states that made up the Soviet Union and has significantly different borders than the USSR did.
Because the dissolution or drastic reorganization of the Republic of China and the USSR was not contemplated and provided-for by the U.N. charter, one of its fundamental structures — the Security Council — simply cannot exist in the way it was intended. This constitutes a fundamental change of circumstances and invalidates the treaties.
In other words, there is a strong case for withdrawal if the UNSC’s permanent members refuse to allow significant reforms.