Essay / Crossroads

Is the United Nations Broken?

Anthropologists turned the U.N. into a field site. Their studies highlight the U.N.'s fragility, but we shouldn't give up on the organization just yet.
U.S. President Donald Trump excoriated the United Nations at the 72nd U.N. General Assembly in September.

U.S. President Donald Trump excoriated the United Nations at the 72nd U.N. General Assembly in September.

MediaPunch/Associated Press

When the United Nations General Assembly convened its annual meeting this September, amid growing nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump criticized the U.N. for being overly bureaucratic. “Too often the focus of this organization has not been on results,” he said, “but on bureaucracy and process.”

I have to admit that he had a point (even if he was playing to his nationalist base). As an anthropologist who has studied the U.N. for some 25 years—and who recently co-edited a book about the U.N. comprised of contributions from 13 other anthropologists—I can say that what emerges from almost any conversation I’ve ever had about the U.N. is a lingering depression about its incapacity and the corruption of its goals.

Critics accuse the U.N. of being costly and wasteful—its upper echelons occupied by bureaucrats with inflated salaries. Its most significant failures have marked it with indelible stains: U.N. peacekeepers stood by helplessly during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, brought cholera to Haiti in 2010, and committed rampant sexual abuse in the Congo. The civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and the former Yugoslavia do not exactly stand out as shining examples of the U.N.’s powers of peacemaking. The list goes on.

But threatening to withdraw funding from the U.N. in response to its inadequacies, as Trump is so fond of doing, is not the solution. Now more than ever, we need the U.N. to intervene in what are perhaps the greatest challenges the world has ever faced: environmental catastrophe, displacement and conflict spurred by climate change, rising economic inequalities, internet-facilitated hate that fuels terrorist recruitment and violent populist movements, and the looming threat of conflict between nuclear-weaponized states. Again, the list is long.

A closer look at the U.N. reveals the hypocrisy behind the views of its most vocal critics. There is some truth to the claims of the organization’s incapacity. But the real source of its powerlessness comes from the actions of its members. It has as much or more to do with the states that are withholding their payments as they play diplomatic games than with any inherent failure of the U.N.

A few years ago, I sat down with colleagues from six countries to discuss our various studies of the labyrinthine U.N. bureaucracy. Each of us had approached the organization as a “field site,” with officials, experts, and activists as our main subjects of research and collaboration.

We discovered plenty of problems inside the U.N.

Norwegian anthropologist Niels Nagelhus Schia, for example, gained access to the inner workings of the U.N. Security Council as a member of Norway’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. in New York. Schia noted that the power the permanent five (or P5) states—the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., and France—exercise in the Security Council rests not only in their veto power over the council’s decisions but also in backroom politics. These players know the structure of the U.N. so well, and have their lines of communication with their country’s foreign offices so finely tuned, that they can easily take control of decision-making, leaving the majority of state delegations out of the loop. Schia saw that much of this one-upmanship takes place informally, in private conversations in U.N. cafeterias or Manhattan bars. This is a select inner circle—one that is hard to break into, even by the other states on the Security Council.

United Nations broken - The permanent members of the U.N. Security Council use formal and informal means to influence the council’s decisions.

The permanent members of the U.N. Security Council use formal and informal means to influence the council’s decisions.

Pete Souza /Obama White House/Flickr

It is not just in the Security Council that this kind of informal control is exercised. In other influential agencies too, states with full treasuries are able to send more delegates, train them more thoroughly, go to more meetings (and take people from those meetings to better restaurants) in New York and Geneva, and therefore control the agendas.

The Italian anthropologist Maria Sapignoli, my co-editor for the U.N. book, who is based in Germany, did her work in the more open U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). There, Indigenous delegates faced their own set of difficulties. The criteria of accreditation and costs of participation in this forum excluded many who lack access to computers and the financial wherewithal to travel to meetings—in other words, the very kinds of marginalized people that the U.N. is intending to support. The forum solicits contributions from states for a Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples, but it receives meager resources. Hundreds of applications for grants from the fund to travel to U.N. meetings are submitted each year, from which administrators are only able to award a few dozen.

These two bodies within the U.N. have basic dysfunctions at the opposite ends of the spectrum of world power: The Security Council is incapacitated by the control exercised by five dominant states, and the Permanent Forum seems unable to give meaningful voice to the world’s most marginalized.

In the face of the U.N.’s problems, together with national budget restraints, states often withhold their dues. Withholding funds is often justified by states on the grounds of the U.N.’s incapacity. By February 10, 2017, the most recent formal deadline for member states to pay their dues, only 34 of 193 countries had paid in full. None of the permanent five members of the Security Council had paid.

The U.S. in particular has a long history of fluctuating and delayed payments to the U.N., reflecting a long-standing, deep-seated suspicion of internationalism, which has plagued its relationship with the U.N. from the beginning. Intensifying this trend, in June, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President Trump, proudly tweeted about her administration’s cuts to its U.N. contributions: “Just five months into our time here, we’ve cut over half a billion $$$ from the U.N. peacekeeping budget and we’re only getting started.”

United Nations broken - In June, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced a US$500 billion cut to the United States’ financial support of U.N. peacekeeping.

In June, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced a US$500 million cut to the United States’ financial support of U.N. peacekeeping.

Anthony Behar/Associated Press

It is interesting, and not a little hypocritical, that key players in global diplomacy decry the U.N.’s dysfunction just at the moment that they hold back the funding the organization needs to function effectively.

It’s not like the states’ financial obligations to the U.N. are crushingly onerous. The budget for its regular operations of $5.4 billion for 2016–2017 is roughly comparable to the New York City Police Department’s budget for 2016 alone (US$4.8 billion), and the cost of its far-flung peacekeeping operations for the 2015 to 2016 budget cycle—US$8.27 billion—is a small fraction of the 2016 global military expenditure of around US$1.7 trillion. These amounts of money are pocket change for the permanent five, as well as many other member states, so they are not withholding dues because they can’t afford to pay them. They are simply playing politics.

Most states do eventually pay what they owe—otherwise they risk losing their vote in the General Assembly. But the pattern of payment irregularity makes it impossible for many U.N. agencies to plan and to maintain a workforce of fully trained permanent staff. No incentive scheme the U.N. has come up with thus far has successfully solved this problem.

Solutions are not easy to come by. Changing the power structure of the Security Council is no easy matter, with the permanent members unwilling to give up their position of advantage. Realistically, the U.N. as we know it is not likely to undergo significant reform any time soon, at least not in the form of a shakeup of global power.

The more or less perpetual state of budget crisis is also a hard nut to crack. It is not just a matter of a lack of money (a near-universal feature of organizations) but also a question of willful diplomatic gridlock, of powerful states pushing their agendas in ways that cripple or bring to an end many of the U.N.’s most important initiatives. They often do this cynically and strategically, such as in the U.S.’s reduction of its peacekeeping contributions to promote an “America first” agenda.

But there is another side to the U.N. that is not mired in cynicism and disillusionment, and it rarely makes headlines. Despite all of the examples we can find of the dark side of global governance, there continues to be an abiding sense of hope that often attaches to the U.N., a hint of growth in the blighted soil of its failures.

The groundswells of activism that emerge from a global (and seemingly growing) sense of humanity, united by ideals of accountability, democracy, and justice, are another part of the story of the United Nations. The U.N. is a meeting place for activists and state representatives—one in which they can gather, away from the political pressures at home, and talk through their issues. Global movements of women, children, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, and, most recently, those who are LGBTQ would not have had nearly the kind of success they have had without access to participation in the U.N. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for example, was penned at the U.N. in 2006.

If the U.N. is ever going to change in a fundamental way—with greater state commitment, more universal participation, and a more stable budget—it will be through this kind of activist energy. Sure, many of these activists are starry-eyed and, in their own myriad ways, out of touch with the realities of the U.N. But together these activists make up a force of influential opinion and mass engagement oriented toward victim rights, social justice, and participatory global governance. In the face of some mean-spirited powerful leaders, that’s a good thing.

Ronald Niezen is the Katharine A. Pearson Chair in Civil Society and Public Policy in the faculty of law, and a professor of anthropology at McGill University in Canada. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and has done research on Islamic reform in West Africa, justice campaigns in Aboriginal communities in northern Canada, and the human rights activism of Indigenous peoples in the United Nations. Niezen’s books include The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of IdentityTruth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, and Palaces of Hope: The Anthropology of Global Organizations (co-edited with Maria Sapignoli).


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