Someday, in a better world, countries may join together to form a global body. It would transcend atavistic nationalism and speak for all humanity. Perhaps it would be called the “United Nations.” Lamentably that day has not arrived. There is no such thing as the United Nations.
A body with that name maintains a headquarters in New York. It holds all manner of meetings and often issues reports, demands, and judgments. Yet it remains what it was at its founding 70 years ago: a tool of big powers. It exists to legitimize their goals — and to maintain the global power structure as it existed when the founding charter was signed in 1945.
A true United Nations would rise above the interests of individual countries. It would place the good of the planet and its people above the good of governments. The organization now based in New York cannot do this. Perhaps no world body ever will.
All countries represented at the General Assembly in New York have one thing in common: They are sovereign states. Their overriding interest is to maintain the supremacy of the nation-state. A powerful supra-national organization would undermine that.
The world body based in New York was created to give every country a voice — but also to assure that big powers would speak loudest. It was designed to give those powers a moral and legal fig leaf behind which to promote their own interests. Often they do it in the name of promoting peace and punishing evil.
According to the 1945 charter, punishment can only be meted out by the Security Council, where the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China have veto power. The council works as intended: Nothing happens unless the masters of the world agree to act.
During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iraq bombed Iran with chemical weapons banned by international law. Iran asked the world body to send fact-finders to verify what had happened. The United States objected. Iraq was then our ally, and we had sold helicopters to Saddam — possibly the ones he used to drop poison gas. Our diplomats maneuvered in New York to make sure no fact-finders were ever sent. The United Nations not only failed to ascertain the truth about these attacks. It served as a cover beneath which the United States pursued its foreign policy goals.
Several years later, the general in charge of peacekeepers in Rwanda repeatedly begged New York to send him reinforcements. He warned that genocide was looming and said he could prevent it with just a few thousand soldiers. Rather than reinforcements, he was given orders to cut his force and limit its work. That was because France supported the regime that was planning genocide and saw peacekeepers as a threat.
More recently, the United States vetoed Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s effort to secure a cease-fire in Syria. In January 2014, the secretary general invited all parties to the Syrian conflict to a peace conference. The United States objected because Iran was invited. American diplomats demanded that the invitation be rescinded, and Ban Ki-Moon had no choice but to obey. With Iran disinvited, the peace conference never happened. It was a graphic example of the secretary general’s impotence when big powers see their interests at stake.
The world body in New York is an indispensable talking shop. It is the only place on earth where nearly every country maintains a strong mission and where heads of state converge each year. This contributes to the contact that reduces conflict. So do fine agencies like the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the UN Development Program.
It would be best, however, to recognize these achievements without blessing them with the misleading name United Nations. There can be no true United Nations as long as countries place their own interests first — and they always will.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.