Which United Nations?
As another UN General Assembly begins and the President of the United States addresses the world body, it is worth clarifying there are at least two “United Nations” which are the subject of soaring speeches, blunt critiques, and news stories this week. We either picture the statuesque glass and steel tower sitting alongside the East River in New York City or the horseshoe table of the Security Council and the tiered hall of the General Assembly.
When a U.S. President talks about reforming the UN, is it the same UN scrutinized by a reporter for being ineffective at tackling global problems or resolving international conflicts? And is that the same UN criticized by a politician for not preventing North Korea from expanding its nuclear capabilities, or for not stopping the fighting in Syria, or for not standing up for Israel?
Throughout my almost two decade career as a U.S. diplomat, including two stints as a member of the U.S. delegation under both Democrat and Republican administrations, and ever since then, “the UN” has been a phrase invoked interchangeably for:
· The collective body of members, often exemplified by the Security Council, and
· The institution funded by member states and comprised of international civil servants.
It is the first of these two UNs which is the most visible and at times the most frustrating. When we talk about the UN grappling with issues of war and peace, nuclear ambitions and conflicts that tear countries apart, we are most often referring to the Security Council, the body whose decisions (resolutions) are binding on all members. The Security Council is only as effective as the fifteen members countries around the table allow it to be. That body, with a rotating slate of ten elected members but the same constant of five permanent members with veto power — the U.S., China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France — is the one charged with tackling threats to international peace and security that dominate our headlines today, such as North Korea, Syria, and Iran. All you have to do is imagine the leaders of the “P5” coming to agreement and you can see how that body becomes “the UN” that has struggled to respond to some of the most acute conflicts of our time.
The problem is we conflate this UN with the other UN — the international organization founded in 1945 and funded by its members, currently 193 sovereign states. In the most basic sense, it is a forum, a convening space, a mechanism for these states to sit together, to discuss, and to negotiate. The institution and its members are guided by its Charter, focusing on maintaining peace and security (e.g., standing up peacekeeping operations), protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting sustainable development, and upholding international law. The Secretary General is the head of this UN, elected by the members for a five-year term. This UN is staffed by hundreds of international civil servants, paid by the contributions of member states. And there are several related agencies within the UN system, including the IAEA (charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance with UN resolutions, for example), and bodies created from the General Assembly, such as UNICEF and UNDP. This UN cannot take on North Korea’s leader and single-handedly stop his nuclear ambitions, nor can it unilaterally impose, or lift, sanctions on Iran. It cannot send in armed forces to quell conflict in Syria (or the Balkans in the 1990s). Those are decisions for the other UN — the Security Council — to make. Once the Security Council makes a decision, however, it is the staff of this UN — the institution — that puts it into action: assembling and deploying a peacekeeping force, implementing a ceasefire, or monitoring a sanctions regimes. This UN does an immense amount of work on behalf of its members, including the U.S. It helps negotiate peace agreements by convening and facilitating dialogue between warring parties. Through its humanitarian assistance bodies such as the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the UN Children’s Fund, and the UN Refugee Agency, it coordinates disaster relief operations — whether man-made or natural — in places where governments are unable to, helping the most vulnerable populations around the world.
This UN, the institution, is in many ways more complex. It is the UN I wish we understood more clearly. It is critically important we grasp its role and its people because this is where our money goes each year. We often ask “Is the UN effective? Is it worth our investment?” in the annual scrum that is the start of the UN General Assembly but the distinction is often lost. We must continue to contribute to the UN as a founding member and as the host country. As such, it is our government’s obligation to ensure the institution functions efficiently. At the same time, we must also continue to engage in the Security Council and other bodies where our voice is often the most prominent but not the only one in the room. The partnerships we craft and diplomacy we exercise can make our role at the UN a force multiplier, enabling us to do more around the world while sitting in Turtle Bay.
For several years, I saw firsthand the hard work of diplomats — fellow Foreign Service officers, UN staff, and foreign counterparts — dedicated to the work of both UNs to solve the challenges facing the world and preventing or ending conflicts. From interpreters to cartographers to peacekeepers and development specialists, much of the institution’s work goes unheralded but is no less important than the work of the ambassadors around the table. Together, they are the UN.