By: Erik Leon

Erik holds an MA in Emerging Media Studies from Boston University’s College of Communication. His research interests attempt to connect Psychology, Epistemology, Sociology, Economics, and the use of emerging media and communication technologies.

United adj. joined together politically, for a common purpose, or by common feelings.

It is Noam Chomsky who reminded us that a definition of a word is simply a hint toward meaning[1] One can look at Chomsky’s thoughts as a glass half empty and see how it is simply a hint and will forever only be a hint. Therefore, it might be pointless to try to continue to define something accurately and precisely. It might be pointless to try to bring structure and meaning, and with that peace, to a world that is chaotic and seemingly unpredictable. Or one can look at his statement as a glass half full: definitions, even if hints, are a form of constructive progress. The former view is typically associated with pessimism or potentially realism. The latter view is typically associated with optimism. Without these hints toward meaning, writing these very words might amount to nothing, and the progress being made toward any argument would not be developed the way it could be. Hopefully this provides more weight to the benefit of the latter view: the importance of optimism, the importance of structure and meaning, and the importance of progress. While the United Nations may be seen simply as a symbolic institution that conveys hope and the idea of peace, masking the chaos and unpredictability that surrounds us, the current moment we are living in is arguably ripe for its continued growth and development to become increasingly important and more effective than ever before. This can be seen as an opportunity for constructive progress.

There are times in life where the road gets tough. Times where we lose hope. Times where we lose faith in humanity. Times where we cannot seem to handle life anymore. We just cannot seem to trust and agree with one another on how to move forward. These are the times when some of us turn inward. These are the times where some of us keep to ourselves and focus on ourselves. We become defensive and protective. We are told to put our metaphorical oxygen masks on before helping others put theirs on. There are parallels between how a human being behaves and how a nation behaves. After all, a nation is an accumulation of human beings and run by human beings. Through the global pandemic, climate change, concerns over energy and food security, and massive migrations, we are seeing many nations turn inward. We are seeing the emergence of nationalism, the increased importance of a nation’s sovereignty, and bilateralism versus multilateralism. Of course, this seems to work against the efforts of a united nations. However, it is possible that these are the moments where the purpose and importance of the United Nations can be fully realized. We are also seeing nations work together in new and exciting ways. As the former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a debate on maintenance of international peace and security back in 2015, “in many respects, the world is shifting beneath our feet. Yet the [United Nations] Charter remains a firm foundation for shared progress.”[2] This remains true today. We share this progress because all of us around the globe now share these human centric challenges we face. We are becoming more aware that when one nation acts alone it impacts the rest of the world. When Brazil burns the rainforest, it impacts the global climate. When the civil wars in Syria and Yemen cause their citizens to flee, it impacts neighboring countries across the Middle East and into Europe. When the United States places sanctions on Iran, German exports are impacted, and relations between other nations in the middle east are affected. When the French government bans the wearing of a Hijab in public, it generates a reaction from Muslim women around the world. When diamond sales are used to finance an insurgency or a warlord’s activity in Africa, it impacts the global diamond trade. When farmers around the world strike because they are not able to improve their wages and livelihoods, the coffee, cocoa, wheat, and rice prices, along with trade can be impacted across the globe. Finally, when a deadly virus breaks out in China, the pace of global travel makes it near impossible to contain the virus from spreading across the world and creating a global pandemic. Our economic and financial systems have become so intertwined– connecting humans and their nations worldwide–that it has made structure and peace through multilateral efforts more important than ever before. The United Nations was founded after the Second World War for, “maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.”[3] Through its efforts to reach these goals, the United Nations has created the Sustainable Development Goals, acted as a mediator and peacekeeping body to manage conflict, developed international laws to protect the sea, led efforts toward decolonization, developed treaties and taken action to protect human rights and human security, and developed international organizations and agencies to take on justice, trade, health, security, human rights, and climate change.[4]

Despite these advances, there are several criticisms of the United Nations that are worth noting. These criticisms point toward the United Nations as remaining a symbolic institution at best. From an experienced diplomatic point of view, the renowned German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger recites four common criticisms in his new book, World in Danger.[5] The first common criticism is the abuse of the veto. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) all enjoy the power to veto UN resolutions. Ischinger references times where the veto was specifically used to block peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts. For example, “in 1999 the extension of a peacekeeping mandate in Macedonia was blocked; China had vetoed the extension to punish Macedonia for establishing relations with Taiwan.”[6] In some cases, the threat of a veto is enough to keep conflicts from showing up on the UNSC’s agenda.[7]For the United States this is over issues concerning Israel, for Russia it is Serbia, the Arab countries, and Belarus, and for the Chinese this includes Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar, among others.[8] This leads to skepticism surrounding how much authority the UN truly has to complete its goals and mission versus the interests and positions of its most powerful, permanent members. The second criticism is the unjust composition of the security council. There are two factors at play with this criticism. The United Nations General Assembly is made up of all nations, ranging in size. Not only can so many players make it difficult to come to consensus on decisions and act, but the UNSC reflects where the balance of power was after World War II. Today the balance of power is much different and Ischinger states that the ten nonpermanent members on the council, as well as members left in the general assembly, can sometimes feel like “tourists” or spectators.[9] Examples of major economic powers with significant populations that are not included are Brazil, Japan, Germany, and India. This of course doesn’t even include a single country in Africa where the population will soon reach 3 billion people.[10] The third criticism is that the United Nations lacks armed forces. Within the United Nations Charter there is essentially a desire for a monopoly on the use of force. Without armed forces, that monopoly, determining who can use force and when, is mostly “wishful thinking.”[11] The fourth common criticism is that the UN is full of empty words. In other words, there is a lack of assertiveness. Ischinger uses The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as an example.[12] It was signed by 122 member states, but not a single nuclear power approved it. This also points toward a lack of authority the UN holds when its agenda may conflict with the interests and positions of the most powerful nations. Ultimately, according to these major criticisms, the UN can be seen as powerless in many ways and therefore simply a symbolic institution for unity and peace.

The United Nations is understandably criticized for a lack of true power, assertiveness, effectiveness, and being out of touch with the current balance of power, but the evidence of significant progress and evolution that led to its creation cannot be overlooked. It can provide confidence that these criticisms, as well as the global human centric concerns of today, can bring about new ideas and actions to enhance the United Nations and improve the role international organizations can play to peacefully engage our globalized world. This progress and evolution began with the creation of diplomacy, and the first diplomatic conference in Greece in 463 BC. Representatives from different cities or states, called Proxenos, would utilize their influence to develop alliances and friendships within the nation. This is our first glance at attempts to, at the very least, avoid certain conflicts or avoid escalating certain matters through new strategies of communication regarding regional interests. Between 452 and 743 BC, Pope Leo I appointed representatives, called nuncios, in the Byzantine Empire to ensure more secure transportation of information across the vast empire. Diplomacy was in its infancy and continued to develop over the centuries, and so eventually were ideas surrounding sovereignty and the nature of modern political societies.

A common occurrence in bringing nations together to create some form of peace has been war. The Thirty Years’ War may have lasted longer had it not been for the gathering of representatives from all parties involved to create the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This balanced out the power in Europe, a critical step toward maintaining global order, and was an experience that humanity has since been able to learn from repeatedly. The Treaty was also the first large conference to convene with representatives from many countries to speak on economic, political, religious, and other national interests. It “was diplomacy conducted by members of an avowedly ruling class, who frequently had more in common with each other, across land and sea frontiers, than with the majority of their own people.”[13] Although it may not be with respect to the general population at the time, this was the beginning of a powerful realization of commonalities across borders and the ability to convene and communicate more effectively on behalf of sovereign states’ interests. As time passes, and communication between nations grows and evolves further, we see embassies emerge for diplomats. According to the Swiss lawyer Emmerich de Vattel, these embassies are where “each nation possesses both the right to negotiate and have intercourse with the others, and the reciprocal obligation to lend itself to such intercourse.”[14] Diplomacy, and this view of embassies, became “an essential element to the functioning of international society.”[15] The mention of an international society is yet another tremendous step forward in the evolution of communication and international relations for peacebuilding and peacekeeping. In the following century it was the Congress of Vienna that “codified more concretely the new world of diplomacy,” and led to Europe’s, “longest sustained period of peace.”[16] Again, however, it was only a successful balancing of power after wars. We see this pattern continue with the creation of the League of Nations after World War I and then finally the United Nations after World War II. Despite the peacebuilding process only seeming to follow wars, there is still significant progress being made with each new institution toward advancements in diplomacy, international relations, and more effective communication and cooperation between nations.

With each new international institution developed after wars, there are more advanced and improved capabilities and responsibilities to avoid the next world war. Today, there can be optimism that the United Nations Charter is that firm foundation that former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon references to help prevent catastrophes due to conflict between nations. The inception of the United Nations established a body of international law and the International Court of Justice.  This has led to more than 500 multilateral treaties on topics such as human rights, protection of the environment, and disarmament.[17] The United Nations has played a significant role in advancing women’s rights, combatting world hunger, saving the pyramids, eradicating smallpox, protecting the Ozone, and saving more than 90 million children’s lives.[18] These achievements are not simply symbolic. Advances like these provide optimism and hope for evolving toward a world where we can converge on important issues that would otherwise spark and escalate conflicts to wars.

The United Nations is built to make progress toward unification, peace, and human security in the process of our societal evolution and growth. Humanity has proven that we can innovate and adapt to the challenges we face. The COVID-19 pandemic offers us incredible insight into the status of our global systems: the pain points and where the balance of power truly stands. It is a wakeup call for all of us to recognize the new “enemies” humanity will face that can be tackled more effectively together through global cooperation. Although the United Nations may be criticized for its inability to effectively work through this pandemic, it is a chance for the United Nations and international organizations to reset, adapt, and evolve. We all must do this as we collectively fight a common enemy instead of fighting between nations. The common criticisms of the United Nations, like many problems we face in our world, can be solved through new and innovative solutions. What if this pandemic is the war that can reset the institution? This might allow for the opportunity to rethink the UNSC permanent members, the revision of the rules surrounding the use of a veto, and additional advances utilizing new forms of diplomacy, mediation, and communication techniques to avoid the escalation of conflicts to war and find ways to gain more support behind a united vision. Relative sovereignty remains an important way for nations to address the issues we can converge on in a manner unique to their nation. Advances and baby steps have a different execution in different cultures and in different nations, so we cannot expect a one-size-fits-all approach. The United Nations is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, but it offers hope and can act to re-balance global powers before another world war does it for us.

There is a quote by the Dalai Lama that says, “know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” As we examine the advancements in diplomacy and the international institutions we have created, we can see how our rules change over time to adapt and adjust to the changing dynamics of our world. If we can stay on top of these changing dynamics with improved communication and diplomacy, we have a chance at having less rules needing to be broken effectively, and less rules broken to cause destruction, conflict, greed, and war. Analysts Ian Brenner and Nouriel Roubini suggest a G-Zero world is coming, where “countries go it alone or form ad hoc coalitions to pursue their interests.”[19] Their line of work puts them in a position to see things that I cannot. However, just because we may take Chomsky’s comments with a glass half full approach, does not mean we cannot acknowledge the chaos and unpredictability in our world. Ian Brennar and Nouriel Roubini may not have taken into consideration a global pandemic happening a year after that source was written. This is the chaos and unpredictability that helps us learn, adapt, and evolve to further our understanding of the meaning and structure we give to things, and to provide constructive progress for the future of humanity. The United Nations, therefore, is not only a symbol and a reminder of the efforts that are being made to move toward peace and human security. It also happens to be in a once in a lifetime position to become more significant than it has ever been…more effective in the years to come than any international organization has ever been. This is right in line with the progress we have made since 463 BC. It all may be a part of our evolution here on earth. It is now up to us to collectively decide how we would like to approach the massive challenges that we will all face ahead. Do we accept war, then peace, then war, then peace, etc. as a way of life? Or do we recognize that we have the power to potentially change that trajectory and take advantage of it while it is on the table for the taking. I personally vote for the latter.

[1] UW Video. 2014. The Concept of Language (Noam Chomsky). March 12.

[2] UN. 2015. History of the UN.

[3] UN History of the UN

[4] Symons, Jonathan. 2020. 75 years of the UN: its triumphs and disasters. June 22.

[5] Ischinger, Wolfgang. 2021. World in Danger: Germany and Europe in an Uncertain Time. Brookings Institution Press.

[6] Ischinger, 173

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 177

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.,180

[12] Ibid.

[13] Roberts, Ivor, and Ernest Mason Satow. 2009. Satow’s Diplomatic Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[14] Vattel, Emer de. 1758. The Law of Nations. Translated by C.G. Fenwick. Vol. 3. Washington 1916. Book IV, Chapter V, 362.

[15] Roberts and Satow, 11

[16] Ibid.

[17] UN. 2020. International Law and Justice.

[18] Zorthian, Julia. 2015. 5 United Nations Achievements Worth Celebrating on U.N. Day. October 23.

[19] McBride, James, and Andrew Chatzky. 2019. The Group of Twenty. June 10.