Is the UN Doomed?

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan; drawing by David Levine

The United Nations is a curiously contentious topic. Mention it in the United States (especially in Washington) and you will likely be referred to “scandal,” “waste,” and “failure”; to the popular image of an expensive international excrescence, a breeding ground for inertia, sinecures, and time-servers, an impediment to the efficient pursuit and prosecution of American national interest. In these circles, the UN is at best a good idea gone badly “wrong.”

Elsewhere, however, you are just as likely to be reminded of the astonishing reach of the UN: through its various agencies in the fields of population, environment, agriculture, development, education, medicine, refugee care, and much else besides, the United Nations addresses humanitarian crises and challenges that most people in the West cannot begin to imagine. And then there is peacekeeping: between its blue-helmeted soldiers, its border observers, police trainers, election monitors, weapons inspectors, and the rest, the UN mounts an international peacemaking and peacekeeping force not much smaller than the entire US military complement in Iraq. Seen from this angle the world would be a decidedly nastier place if the United Nations didn’t exist.1

That the United Nations should be so controversial might have surprised its founders—especially the many Americans among them. Back in 1945 there was great enthusiasm for the project, whose justification and purposes appeared self-evident. The very scale of the catastrophe that the nation-states of the world had brought upon themselves suggested grounds for optimism: governments and peoples would surely know better than to let that happen again. The United Nations, its charter, and its agencies would be their chosen means of prevention. The inadequacies of the League of Nations would be addressed and powerful sovereign states would work through the United Nations rather than around or against it.

Six decades later, the UN certainly has problems. One of these was present from the start. In the aftermath of Nazism, whose surviving leaders were being tried at Nuremberg for, among other things, the crime of “planning, preparing, initiating and waging a war of aggression,” the UN’s founders emphasized the right of sovereign states to be secure from foreign interference—including, except in very unusual circumstances, interference from the UN itself. Article II, Part 7 reads, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”

But the UN was also intended to be far more proactive than the League when it came to preventing rulers and governments from abusing citizens and others within their own borders. Over time it has established demanding expectations with respect to human rights and the treatment of minorities—whose abuse might legitimately trigger international intervention. This apparent contradiction between sovereignty and internationalism has been steadily exacerbated by the expansion in member states,2 many of whom abuse their subjects as a matter of course; but also by the rise…

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