Despite Problems, UN Still Matters

Many of us watched with interest last month as leaders from around the world met in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. It was quite an impressive showing. The gathering in one place of nearly all the world's nations is something that only the U.N. can accomplish.

The United Nations has done important work since its founding 71 years ago. But there are those who point to its failings and say it has outlived its usefulness. Some say it is drifting toward irrelevance as member nations seek other paths to resolve conflicts.

The U.N. is not crumbling, but it is in trouble as an effective institution. As President Barack Obama told the Security Council, it is time for a course correction in our approach to global cooperation.

The United Nations is vast, with a budget of about $5.4 billion. The United States provides 22 percent of its funding, by far the most of any member, followed by Japan at 9.7 percent and China at 7.9 percent.

In addition, there are many international organizations within the U.N. family, including the Development Program, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Each has its own mission and budget.

The organization's agenda is ambitious, and its goals are altogether laudable. It seeks to maintain international peace and security, promote sustainable development, protect human rights, uphold international law and deliver humanitarian aid where it is needed.

It has become indispensable, but it is not close to either meeting the high expectations of its members or fulfilling the need for international cooperation. It can point to significant achievements, but it also has glaring deficiencies. Despite those deficiencies, the world would be worse off without it.

The U.N. has become the convener of nations, able to bring together its 193 member nations. It provides the rules of the road for international affairs, rules that most nations at least profess to respect. It provides a global platform for the sharing of ideas and for cooperative efforts that benefit millions of people.

It provides humanitarian services and resources, including disaster relief and emergency food aid, a job that entails working in difficult and dangerous situations. Last month, it distributed food to people in the northern Iraqi town of Shirqat, who had been controlled by ISIS and cut off from aid for two years.

The U.N. has 105,000 peacekeepers in the field in 16 separate missions, most of them in trouble spots in Africa and the Middle East. It investigates human rights violations around the world and seeks to uphold the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first legal document protecting such rights.

The organization often reminds nations of their moral obligations. It is calling attention to the crisis of refugees fleeing the Middle East and urging nations to share the task of welcoming refugees.

It brings the world's attention to urgent challenges that could be overlooked. It summoned the nations to do battle with "super bugs" that have learned to evade science's defenses. It has spotlighted troubling global disparities in access to cancer care. It also keeps track of global health. Last month, it declared measles had been eliminated in the Americas, culminating a 22-year effort of vaccination and education.

If the U.N. did not exist, we would have to create something like it.

While it has accomplished a lot, the U.N. has significant shortcomings. It has not resolved tensions between the United States and Russia, and it has not been able to stop the conflict in Syria. It has been unable to consistently deliver aid to war-torn areas; a U.N. convoy carrying aid to the besieged city of Aleppo was recently bombed, killing 20 people.

It has not halted North Korea's march toward nuclear weapons, and its warnings about a nuclear-armed North Korea have not been heeded. It has not prevented the spread of global terrorism.

These tasks, of course, are horrendously difficult, so the U.N. is not failing, but it needs help. It needs to become more representative of the nations of the world and to become more efficient and effective.

There is no magic wand we can wave to reform the U.N., but the United States and other nations need to do what we can to strengthen it. It requires the support of the world's leading powers, which must ensure that it has strong institutional leadership and adequate resources to do its job.

Many of our most serious challenges, including economic growth, climate change, terrorism, drugs and crime, can't be effectively addressed without international cooperation. The United States and other nations desperately need effective multilateral cooperative institutions, not only the U.N. but the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and others.

The world stands, as it often does, at a tipping point between order and chaos. The United Nations has become a notable force, however insufficient, for order. A decline in the institution would mean a less stable world and a less vigorous response to a long list of challenges.

In short, the world needs an effective U.N.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.