The world body was created by the victors of mankind’s most destructive war, but that was 80 years ago
The United Nations is the product of Western intellectual good sense which, after World War II, created a relatively level playing field to maintain its centrality in international politics.
The fact that Western countries are now losing this position is for natural reasons. This inevitably affects their ability to project their influence in world affairs, which was not based on formal status, but on unique abilities of power.
The contraction of these advantages, the consequences of which we are clearly witnessing today, cannot circumvent the institutions created in an earlier period.
This means that the fate of the UN will be in question anyway. The only question is who decides to broach the subject and for what purpose – the West (in order to preserve its place in the emerging world) or the other great powers (in order to create institutions more in tune with the reality of international politics)? A third option is also possible – a new round, in which there is little room for a monopoly position of a select group of countries, will have no need for traditional institutions of international governance.
We should not be disconcerted by the fact that powers now as hostile as Russia or China to the Western community are members of the ruling circle of the UN system – as permanent members of the Security Council (UNSC).
“The ability of the UN to truly lead the world has always remained largely an illusion.”
The real reason these two states retained this status was the rational desire of the United States and its closest allies to avoid a repeat of the situation in which powers perceived as dangerous to global stability were excluded from the institutions formal. The lesson of destruction that emerged from Versailles after World War I by an aggrieved Germany and Japan has been well learned – both in theory and in practice.
Especially since the presence of the USSR and (after the Communist Party managed to assert its authority) China at the Security Council table did not increase their competitive advantage. Where they were tactically stronger than the United States was not because of their official status (not to mention that when official Beijing was allowed into the forum, its relations with Moscow were openly hostile, the two then socialist powers mutually blocking each other. )
There is no doubt that on occasion the permanent members of the UNSC have been able to act as an all-powerful “world government”, defining for the weaker members of the international community the limits of what is permissible.
But this institution has never dealt with issues of war and peace among its members. This mission has always remained the privilege of bilateral relations, determined by “real” rather than “formal” power relations.
This is still the case today – the only “institution” in Russian-American relations is their capacity for mutual assured destruction. The Security Council can only reflect the real balance of power in the world, much broader and more diversified than the Moscow-Washington confrontation.
However, it is precisely this possibility that it now lacks because of its composition, which pursues not “global governance”, but the “global confinement” of Russia and China by maintaining the hegemonic position of the West.
This statement may seem paradoxical, since Russia and China have the same rights in the Security Council as the other three permanent members. This is true, but beyond the purely legal status which confers a right of veto on the quintet, there is the practical ability to influence global governance through the control of procedural practices (assignments of personnel in the international bureaucracy, for example).
Again, the US and its allies had a huge advantage when the UN was created in 1945, and retain it largely because of the inertia of the institution itself. Accordingly, the inclusion of Moscow and Beijing in the most important mechanism limits their hypothetical revolutionary behavior, but does not provide them with the same degree of influence on global governance as the West.
In other words, the UNSC becomes a very sophisticated form of deterrence which is exercised by granting special status to two opposing countries. This status reduces their leeway for independent behavior and separates them from the rest of the international community. For the latter, the status is a privilege that the self-proclaimed “global elite” has arrogated to itself and which it refuses to share. Thus, in its modern form, the UNSC is a means of maintaining the monopoly of the United States and Western Europe in international politics.
The world is indeed changing, and not just because of the dynamics of the balance of power between the Great Powers. While Russia’s military assertiveness and China’s economic clout remain the main battering rams against the Western-led international system, their actions are not determinative of the irreversibility of change. Otherwise, the revisionism of Moscow and Peking would repeat the fate of revolutionary France at the beginning of the 19th century, or of Germany and Japan, which rebelled in the second quarter of the previous century against the injustice of the order world at the time. But we already see that this is not a likely prospect, precisely because the majority of developing countries are actually on the side of the Russian-Chinese front.
Even though some of them formally condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine during the UN General Assembly vote, their policies show that they are aware of their changing position in the international system. This conclusion is also supported by the fact that India, Brazil, Indonesia and Vietnam have generally opted for a position of benevolent neutrality.
That said, we don’t know whether the Russian leaders themselves were convinced that it would be impossible to isolate Moscow. However, Russia’s military assertiveness on the Ukrainian issue has helped everyone see that the status quo favored by the West is already a thing of the past.
The fundamental transformation of global power relations has three main sources. First, economic globalization, which emerged in the shadow of Western domination, has provided many medium and large countries with new resources to meet their development challenges. Second, the objective reduction in the material capabilities of the West, which is no longer able to offer the rest of the world attractive sources of prosperity worth giving up its own interests. Third, there is an increase in the self-confidence of a host of relatively new players in international politics derived from the first two factors.
As a result of this emancipation, the West is no longer able to enforce the mechanisms of world politics that would allow it to continue to extract the maximum resources from beneficial lands. This state of affairs has been clearly demonstrated in recent years, when most of the initiatives that benefit the United States and Western Europe, for example in the field of climate change, have not been guaranteed by clear benefits for others, but through the use of instruments of direct coercion. The failure of attempts to isolate Russia, even though the West relied on formal international law to condemn its actions, clearly demonstrated the unwillingness of other countries to follow the Western path. Most of the world does this not out of sympathy for Russia, but for its own selfish reasons.
This new world is not and cannot be embodied in the UNSC, the main international security institution. It is simply because it was created for another world, from which all its procedures and practices are adapted, from the location of its headquarters in New York, to the specifics of appointments to senior and middle bureaucratic positions. Therefore, any effort to preserve this institution would be a priori futile and would only prolong the agony of the old international order, with all the risks that accompany it.
It would therefore be worth taking much more seriously the question of the future of the United Nations and above all of the composition of its main body, the Security Council. The question of reforming the UNSC has been raised by some of the world’s leading countries on the grounds that at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, it is strange to start from the legitimacy that emerged from the Second World War, during which most states simply did not exist. There may now be more than historical reasons to return to the subject, including very real reasons regarding the shifting balance of power. And it is not only the West that will have to accept this, but also Russia and China, whose unique position in the United Nations system is also a product of the domination of the former imperialist powers of Western Europe and ‘North America.
Perhaps we are not yet ready for such a decisive step as the abolition of the UN and the creation (if necessary) of a new main international institution. But it is certainly time to expand the number of permanent members of the Security Council to include India, Brazil, Indonesia and one or two major African countries known for their independence. This would not solve the problem of the UN’s irrelevance in these changing historical circumstances, but it would buy time for a more thoughtful and fruitful discussion. It is reasonable that the initiative should go to Russia and China, because they are the most interested parties.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.