The United Nations — What is it Good For?

By Rafael Hoffman

The United Nations has little to brag about. Though the organization is quick to tout what it presents as myriad accomplishments, the multi-agency behemoth founded upon promises of international peace and security does little to remedy the world’s wars, conflicts, and crises.

In 2022, when a Russia retreat from the Kyiv region revealed hundreds of Ukrainian civilians killed in the city of Bucha, President Volodymyr Zelensky castigated the U.N. for its inaction.

“If there is no alternative and no option, then the next option would be [to] dissolve yourself altogether,” he said in a Security Council address. “Are you ready to close the United Nations?  Do you think that the time for international law is gone?”

Russia’s veto power on the Security Council prevented any U.N. resolution or intervention in the Ukraine war. A few months ago, Mr. Zelensky again addressed the body.

“Humankind no longer pins its hopes on the U.N.,” he said. “Ukrainian soldiers now are doing at the expense of their blood what the U.N. Security Council should do by its voting: They’re stopping Russia and upholding the principles of the U.N.”

Its inaction is not limited to Ukraine. While the U.N. is well known for its frequent condemnations of Israel, it has never once condemned China, much less done anything, about its well-documented oppression of the Uyghur people and other human rights abuses. If China moves against Taiwan, Beijing’s Security Council veto effectively blocks any useful response.

The U.N. has a 10,000-strong force on Lebanon’s border charged with demilitarizing the area. Hezbollah’s massive weapons buildup and recent, steady stream of rocket attacks speak to that force’s success.

Amid talk of what post-war governance in Gaza will look like, there is no serious discussion of the U.N. playing a significant role.

A visit to the U.N. or perusal of its literature confronts one with a great deal of high-flying sentiment about its mission to root out suffering and injustice, and to replace war with dialogue.

Yet its 70-year history is largely a record of not only failing to deliver on these promises, but in many instances of making the world’s problems worse.

Surviving on member nation donations, the U.N. is not a cheap endeavor, either. In 2022, the United States, the organization’s largest contributor, gave some $22 billion.

All this leaves many very reasonable people asking what, if any, purpose the U.N. serves. And why do American taxpayers contribute so much to keep it ticking?

An UNRWA truck arrives to distribute supplies to Palestinians from Beit Lahia, Beit Hanoun and Gaza, on November 21.

High Hopes and Hard Realties

The idea of the U.N. was born during the Second World War and began taking shape in its last months when 50 nations gathered in San Francisco to draft its Charter. By October 1945, the document was drafted and signed forming an organization “determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights…and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.”

The group’s leaders, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, were keen to prevent the U.N. from the follies that rendered the interwar League of Nations irrelevant. One of their moves was to form a five-member Security Council giving the U.S., Britain, France, China, and the Soviets veto power over most significant decisions.

As the Cold War set in, hopes of the U.N. serving as a forum to heal the war-ravaged world, build up budding nations, and serve as a stage for diplomatic conflict resolution soon dissipated, as most international struggles fell in the framework of U.S.-Soviet competition.

An early exception to this was the U.N. force that fought off an invasion of South Korea by communist forces from the north. The move would have normally met with a Soviet veto, but for several months in 1950, Moscow boycotted Security Council votes to protest China’s seat being occupied by the Republic of China, already exiled in Taiwan. Its absence allowed the U.N. to authorize force and send a 14-nation U.S.-led army to liberate South Korea. The organization has yet to act so robustly since.

A few months after the vote, the U.S.S.R. dropped its boycott. Communist China would not replace the Taiwan-based government at the U.N. until 1971.

In the decades that followed, the U.N.’s mediating roles were overshadowed by competition between the west and the Soviet bloc. Yet, it was during that period that worldviews in some U.N. agencies took shape. Holding outsized power were a grouping of nations like Yugoslavia, India, and Egypt that formed the non-alignment movement. This identification meant that they were not formally associated with NATO or the Warsaw Pact, but in general its members’ ideology was anti-American and anti-capitalist.

“The non-aligned movement in reality lined up more with the Soviet Union and tended to focus on economic issues from a statist perspective,” said Brett Schaefer, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. “It began a trend at the U.N. of blocs of nations supporting positions based on affiliation and obligations to allies.”

The end of the Cold War ushered in the U.N.’s brightest decade. During the 1990s, a weakened Russian and Chinese leadership, eager to appease the U.S. in exchange for favorable trade terms, allowed America to take the lead on the Security Council.

The high mark of this redeemed U.N. was the 1990 Gulf War. Just after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Security Council condemned Iraq’s incursion and demanded its withdrawal. After a set of deadlines passed, in early 1991, a U.N. resolution authorized members states to use “all means necessary” to expel Iraqi forces. When that mission was accomplished, subsequent resolutions dictated ceasefire terms.

“The Gulf War is an artifact of that period of time when the U.N. was willing and able to act with clear purpose to protect a nation’s territory,” said Mr. Schaefer. “That happened because there was no other superpower around to prevent it.” 

Another achievement of this period was the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal which held perpetrators accountable for crimes committed during the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 

“The post-Cold War era was the best the U.N. ever had, and in the ’90s we started seeing the U.N. in a useful light,” said Richard Goldberg, Senior Advisor at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). “Then Russia got stronger, the Chinese became more assertive, and both started looking for ways to coopt agencies and advance their own interests, and to stymie American interests.”

In addition to Russia blocking action on Ukraine, its power also enabled Moscow to skirt decades worth of arms control treaties. 

“The Russians are obstructionists who act as a smokescreen for them and their allies to breach arms treaties,” said Mr. Goldberg.

More insidiously, China increasingly used its seat on the Security Council and large financial contributions (second only to America’s) to advance its international interests and deflect U.N. scrutiny from its shores.

“China is focused on pushing its belt and road project, but also on whitewashing its human rights abuses, and setting international technology standards that make it easier for its products to dominate the world market,” said Mr. Goldberg.

China’s nefarious influence at the U.N. was prominently on display in its effort to evade responsibility for the COVID pandemic. It faced no consequences over its failure to accurately report on the virus’ existence and dangers until months after it began to spread within its borders. When the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO) travelled to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak, the team was given limited access and signed off on a narrative molded by the Chinese government.

“It showed that if a government doesn’t want to cooperate, the U.N. is unable to make them,” said Mr. Schaefer. “Ultimately, the WHO director general’s failure was that he was too credulous with China’s information and too conciliary when he let his team drag their feet in Wuhan. It was his responsibility to call out those failures and get members to act. Instead, he cooperated with China, and no one held them accountable.”

The U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Redeeming Qualities and their Limitations

Even as the return of rival world powers pushed the United Nations back into limited effectiveness, most agree that some of its agencies remain vital.

“The areas where the U.N. is most positively carrying out its responsibilities are where it gets the least notice,” said Mr. Schaefer. “Lots of things the U.N. does serve in a managerial role to make sure rules apply evenly worldwide; these agencies are a great benefit to governments and nations.”

Among these organizations are the Universal Postal Union which manages mail delivery between nations and the International Telecommunication Union, which serves a similar role for information and communication technology. A network of U.N. agencies regulates satellite orbits and other outer space activities, and its Intellectual Property Organization enforces patents and other legal protections across borders.

The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is another of its branches that even critics say serves a valuable purpose. For more than a decade its public face has been dominated by efforts to hold Iran to the commitments it agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal, still active with all signatories except the United States.

While the IAEA’s impact is marred by Iran’s defiance and obfuscation, it has been a consistent source of reporting on the Islamic Republic’s atomic progress. That, said Mr. Goldberg, is in large part due to its internal structure and the persistence of its Director General, Rafael Grossi.

“We wouldn’t have any idea what Iran is up to without the IAEA,” said Mr. Goldberg. “IAEA’s rules and structure are written in the U.S.’ favor which gives us a lot of leverage over the board and the right leader makes a lot of difference…Grossi’s done his job on the investigation side. He’s stood up to the Iranians when they tried to shake him down.” 

Agencies like UNICEF (the U.N. Children’s Fund) and others continue delivering food, medical care, and other social services to impoverished parts of the world and those hit by war or disaster.

“There are U.N. organizations that serve purposes which would be hard to replicate,” said Mr. Goldberg. “They have the infrastructure to deliver humanitarian aid and do development work in third-world countries and conflict zones…On a global basis, if you’re looking to distribute vaccines or educational materials, or to teach farming techniques, who else is going to do that work?”

Yet, even where the U.N. theoretically shines, its reputation is tainted. In several delicate areas including Gaza and Syria, reports show that U.N. aid has fallen into the wrong hands.

A 2021 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) showed that millions found its way into the coffers of President Bashar Assad’s regime. U.N. aid in Gaza, mostly funneled through United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is notorious for allowing its supplies to fall under the control of Hamas and other terrorist groups.

“The problem in Gaza and some other places is that the U.N. doesn’t recognize certain groups as terrorist organizations, so their employees are told to work with them and not to discriminate,” said Mr. Goldberg. “In Syria, Assad was able to basically control distribution of aid. In Afghanistan, even thought the U.N. does designate the Taliban as a terror group, they were able to exploit aid to their advantage.”

If the U.N. gets mixed reviews on its humanitarian aid delivery, its peace-keeping missions have been even less successful. While U.N. forces effectively played referee in nations like the Ivory Coast where warring parties agreed to stop fighting and abide by treaties, other missions did little to improve the fights they were sent to resolve.

Among its greatest failures is Rwanda, where a U.N. mission was sent to mitigate a war between Hutu and Tutsi tribes. The force sent there was robust, but its rules of engagement handicapped effectiveness and the U.N. presence mostly looked on as mass murder was perpetrated in the country. Its longstanding force in the Congo has done little to stamp out violence perpetrated by militia groups there and its soldiers in Mali rarely leave their base while Islamicist terrorists plague the country.

Mr. Schaefer said these failures are due to the U.N. shooting beyond its reach.

“The U.N. doesn’t have any real authority; it was never expected to have a standing army,” he said. “When the U.N. sends forces to resolve a conflict, it tends to end badly.”

A Palestinian waving a flag outside the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza City on June 20.

Fiddling while the Levant Arms

High on the list of U.N. peacekeeping failures is UNIFIL, its force in southern Lebanon. UNIFIL was first sent to the region in 1978. Its mission shifted several times since then, following clashes between Israel and various foes that found safe harbor on its northern border.

After the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, UNIFIL was tasked with demilitarizing the area. Yet, while the agency maintains a 10,000-strong force and has an annual budget of over $470 million, it did little more than watch as Hezbollah built up the mammoth arsenal of rockets that have been used to target Israel in recent months.

“Everybody on the U.N. Security Council understands that UNIFIL is not fulfilling its mandate, but there’s no one holding them accountable or saying it should be sized down,” said Mr. Schaefer.  “All they do is drive around in jeeps, but there seems to be a desire to preserve the illusion they’re doing something there.”

If the stakes were not so high, UNIFIL’s social media statements since the Hezbollah rocket attacks commenced would be comical. While projectiles rain down on Israeli civilians from the ostensibly demilitarized zone they are charged with policing, UNIFIL calmly reports on exchanges of fire and releases self-congratulatory messages about the valuable role they play in Lebanon.

“Looking back on 2023, our peacekeepers worked tirelessly to prevent escalation and safeguard civilians, facing unexpected challenges. As we step into 2024, we hope for lasting peace through diplomatic efforts,” read a recent statement posted by the agency.

Aside from determining whether UNIFIL’s leaders have a desire to rein in Hezbollah, the U.N. mandate’s conditions essentially prevent it from doing so.

“The mandate text says the peacekeepers can only act if requested to do so by the Lebanese armed forces, which will never ask the U.N. to do anything,” said Mr. Goldberg. “They’ve hid behind this language for 17 years and taken zero actions to disarm Hezbollah.”

Despite the open fact that UNIFIL served little purpose, changes to its mandate have been blocked by France, which Mr. Goldberg says is beholden to Lebanon due to the two nation’s deep economic ties.

“The bizarre result is that the mandate just keeps getting renewed instead of letting it expire which would probably be the right thing at this point,” he said.  

Hezbollah terrorists beside rocket launchers near Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Making Problems Permanent

While UNIFIL is merely worthless, UNRWA is infamous. The agency was first formed in 1949 to help Palestinians displaced during Israel’s War of Independence. It took a back seat during the decades that followed as Arab states waged a series of wars against Israel. Yet, when by 1973 these nations’ military attempts to defeat Israel proved unsuccessful, UNRWA gained increased importance.

“Arab states wanted to drive Israel into the sea, but when that didn’t happen in 1967 or 1973, they turned to political and economic warfare through an agency that perpetuated a permanent refugee class; that’s the entire premise of UNRWA,” said Mr. Goldberg. “Rather than change its mandate to acceptance of Israel’s existence and work towards conflict resolution, UNRWA was an institutional way to weaponize the refugee issue.”

UNRWA is unique as it is the only U.N. agency dedicated solely to one population. The organization’s High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the address for other displaced persons issues, is mandated to end refugees’ status by finding permanent resettlement for them. UNRWA has no such mission. It is also unique in that the vast majority of its employees are Palestinian, rather than made up of international teams that staff most U.N. agencies.

“UNRWA is making the problem worse by perpetuating a view of Palestinians as refugees,” said Mr. Schaefer. “It foments resentment and keeps the idea of a ‘right of return’ alive, which prevents a path for a long-term solution.”

That bizarre mandate was kept in place for decades through the advocacy of Arab states and protection of the U.S.S.R., and later Russia and China. Even as the Arab world has evolved, UNRWA became self-perpetuating.

“Give a bureaucracy a mandate and funding and it will keep growing,” said Mr. Goldberg. “Now, even as some Arab states turned against it, UNRWA advocates for itself.”

Long before Hamas’ attack, wide reporting demonstrated the safe home UNRWA institutions served for radical anti-Israel and antisemitic ideas. Lessons and textbooks in its schools taught generations of children to embrace violent resistance against the “occupier” state of Israel.

In recent months, the extent of UNRWA’s moral corruption became ever clearer. One released hostage said they were imprisoned in the attic of an UNRWA teacher.

U.N. Watch reported that UNRWA principal Iman Hassan described Hamas’ massacre as “restoring rights,” and addressing Palestinian “grievances.” UNRWA school administrator Hmada Ahmed’s response to the attack was to post, “Welcome the great October.”

Mr. Schaefer said that UNRWA not only harbors radicalism, but its operations allowed Hamas and other groups to develop their terror infrastructure.

“By fulfilling the tasks of a state, UNRWA relieved Palestinian government of doing the actual work of governance, which allowed them to focus their time fomenting extremism,” he said.

The first session of the United Nations General Assembly on January 10, 1946, at Central Hall in London. (UN Photo Archives/Flickr)

United against Israel

The roots of the U.N.’s anti-Israel bias run deep into its history and sprout from many of the same sources that align it against the United States. 

During the 1950s and ’60s, the United Nations grew exponentially as a result of western nations divesting themselves of colonies in Africa and Asia. The organization began in 1946 with 35 members. By 1970 it had 127, the overwhelming majority of which were third- world counties including many Arab and Muslim-majority states. These nations generally aligned themselves against the interests of the United States and the western European states that had ruled and developed them, augmenting the anti-western bloc vote. These countries also became integral parts of a culture that directed communist-inspired anti-colonialist fervor against Israel, which they viewed as a European outpost on Arab land.

This anti-Israel position was promoted by an axis of Arab nations and the Soviet bloc. One of their crowning achievements was the 1975 U.N. resolution that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.

As this third-world bloc’s power at the U.N. was rooted in solidarity, it evolved into a convenient means for Muslim states to mobilize against Israel, a phenomenon that continues till the present day.

“A majority of the African and Asian states are Muslim and the rest vote with them because nobody wants to break up the bloc’s power,” said Mr. Schaefer. “That leads to a lot of countries that don’t feel strongly about Israel voting for resolutions that fit with Muslim states’ views on Israel.”

As western Europe divested itself of colonies in the post-war period and moved politically towards a globalist center-left positioning, many from those nations serving at the U.N. adopted this anti-colonialist philosophy, ensconcing it firmly in much of the U.N. bureaucracy’s culture, long outlasting the Soviet Union that inspired it.

A commonly used rubric to demonstrate the U.N.’s anti-Israel obsession is the disproportionate condemnations its Human Rights Council issued against it. Since that body was founded in 2006, 104 of its resolutions, or 36%, relate to Israel. It issued 16 on North Korea, 14 on Iran, and seven for Russia. The Council never condemned Cuba or China, which are both members.

A general view of a base of United Nations peacekeeping forces (UNIFIL) at the Lebanese-Israeli border, in the southern village of Markaba, April 7. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

U.S. Disinterests

Given its numerous problems and pervasive opposition to American interests, the U.S.’s relationship with the U.N. has long been a subject of political debate. Almost since its inception, there has been a steady stream of proposals for the U.S. to withdraw from the organization unilaterally, but none picked up much mainstream support.

Still, there have been several efforts to scale back U.S. funding and involvement, and to use its vast financial leverage to move the U.N. more in line with American interests. 

“The U.S. should be very clear about telling the U.N. what its interests are and condition aid on getting the reforms it needs to serve those interests. Now, its cutting a check to fund an organization that’s working against us,” said Mr. Goldberg. “There are some organizations that cannot be reformed because of the structure of their rules like the Human Rights Council which needs to be obliterated. But we are the number-one donor to the WHO. If we leverage that, we can get it reformed.”

Former President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of several U.N. agencies.

In 2017, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would quit the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) due to its pervasive anti-Israel positions. UNESCO is charged with protecting cultural sites and in many areas in Israel only recognizes Muslim associations to locations held sacred by both them and Jews. They have also been a steady critic of Jewish control over the Old City of Yerushalayim and surrounding areas.

It was not the first time the U.S. left UNESCO. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan pulled America out of the agency saying it had become corrupt and was manipulated to serve Soviet interests.

In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the Human Rights Council, also citing its “chronic bias against Israel.” When the council was formed in 2006, President George W. Bush held back from joining over concerns the body would align against the interests of the U.S. and its allies. In 2009, President Barack Obama announced the county would join the council, arguing that it could do more to rein in its behavior from within.

In the summer of 2020, Mr. Trump withdrew from the WHO, claiming the organization’s COVID-related failures stemmed from undue Chinese influence.

These moves not only served as protests and denied agencies the legitimacy lent by U.S. membership, but also saved American taxpayers billions in contributions.

President Biden subsequently rejoined the U.S. to all three U.N. agencies and steadily raised the nation’s contribution levels, paying $6 billion more in 2022 than the previous year. This returned the U.S. to funding roughly a quarter of the U.N.’s expenses. Over a billion of the new contributions went to UNRWA, making America responsible for over 34% of that agency’s budget.

Amid its many shortcomings, Mr. Schaefer suggested the United States examine its benefits agency by agency and that the U.N. itself would be best served by lowering its own expectations.

“Now, nothing is off its table — peace, security, health, humanitarian issues, technology, AI regulation. The problem is that the U.N. doesn’t do any of these things particularly well,” he said. “The U.N. would be better served if it would return to being a more modest organization and focus on areas where there is genuine international consensus.”

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!