Expert Commentary

Growing Skepticism of the UN

James Cockayne
Head of the New York Office, United Nations University

The United Nations is at an important point in history, where growing skepticism of multilateral institutions and the current liberal international order led by the United States threatens to derail organizations like the UN. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with James Cockayne, the head of the New York office of United Nations University, a think tank in the UN system, about the UN today and what its future could look like.

The Cipher Brief: What is the current state of the United Nations as an institution? Where has it succeeded and failed over the past few years?

James Cockayne: I think we have to begin by acknowledging that there is a growing skepticism of the United Nations and, frankly, of multilateral institutions’ effectiveness more broadly. It’s probably, in some quarters, part of a broader skepticism of the liberal international order, based in part on a mismatch between the structures of power that are embedded in those institutions, for example the makeup of the Security Council or the leadership of the World Bank and IMF, and today’s global economic and political realties.

But it’s also because of the performance failures of some of these organizations, including the United Nations. We think of the ongoing tragedy in Syria, too many instances of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers, the introduction of cholera into Haiti, and – in many parts of the world – the longstanding presence of rather inert peacekeeping operations.

It has to be recognized that to the average man or woman on the street, the UN probably feels more distant today than it did 30 or 40 years ago.

So our successes – and there are many, like fighting polio, measles, and tuberculosis; nuclear nonproliferation; the reduction of civil wars in the 1990s and the 2000s; the way that UN treaties underpin global telecommunications; bringing international criminals like Charles Taylor to justice – all of those successes are either taken for granted or obscured by our failures.

TCB: So how should the UN respond?

JC: I think we are at an important point of reckoning. There are certainly growing calls for reform, but the question is really what does that actually mean – which direction should reform take us in? There’s certainly a sense at the UN at times that we’re an indispensable organization, that if you didn’t have the UN, if it didn’t exist, we’d have to create it, because there has to be some universal forum for solving problems through diplomacy and negotiation. I think that’s a persuasive argument. It was Winston Churchill who said, “it’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.”

But, frankly, that norm is weakening at the international level, and there does seem to be a growing willingness to use force to solve problems at the international level. I would also argue that the assumption that there has to be a UN assumes two other things. First, that universal solutions are always better than regional, bilateral, or even unilateral solutions. That might be true on something like climate change, but it might not be true on something like conflict resolution. So the UN has to get better at articulating its specific comparative advantage and be willing to work in partnership with other actors.

Secondly, the assumption that there has to be a UN assumes that people are going to continue to believe in the state itself. The UN is an organization of states, by states, and for states. But if people don’t believe that states are delivering them the outcomes that they’re looking for from political life, then they’ll start looking for other forms of governance. In some parts of the world, we see that, we see movement towards rule by criminal organizations, by gangs, or by transnational terrorist ideology. We can’t take that for granted, which means that we have to make the case for collective action much more effectively.

The irony here is we’re at a moment of unprecedented global challenges: climate change, global terrorism, pandemics, the transformation of work, rapid urbanization, and all things that you can’t solve effectively on your own, and it would be better if we were addressing these problems collectively.

There’s that famous saying that you shouldn’t allow any crisis to go by without it becoming an opportunity. We’re at one of those moments in the international system and at the UN itself. But we have to take seriously the concerns about waste and inefficiency and ineffectiveness, and use the reform agenda to articulate a clearer vision of where we can add value to the life of the common citizen worldwide.

TCB: Two follow up questions. The first is more concrete. What are the specific comparative advantages of the United Nations, that is, where does the UN actually add value and therefore should focus its resources? The second is a bit more philosophical. I attended a recent event at Brookings that featured Derek Chollet, Michele Flournoy, Steve Hadley, and others who have recently written this report on the future international world order. And the report is really focused on a reversion to spheres of influence versus what they believe would be a better option, which is reforming liberal internationalism, liberal multilateralism. But throughout the conversation I kept asking myself, is there something beyond liberal internationalism that we can work toward? And if there is, would the UN still be relevant?

JC: They’re great questions, Kait. I think the central point is to recognize that the UN is not simply an institution in perhaps the slightly pejorative sense of that term, telling its members or even the common man or woman what to do in the way we sometimes think of institutions. It’s a platform for collective problem solving.

To come back to your first question – what’s the comparative advantage of the UN – there are two ways we can answer that question. One is to think about what that space – that universal, collective, problem-solving platform – allows you to solve that you otherwise wouldn’t, or ways you can solve problems that you would not be able to if you were not working universally. And the second is to think about specific thematic areas.

So, in some ways, the second question is easier. There are problems now that are global problems – like mass migration, climate change, global terrorism – where we need as broad a platform as possible to help states get access to the capabilities and legitimacy they need to solve those problems. It won’t work necessarily for them to do that in small groupings, or even in spheres of influence, because the problems of terrorism in the Middle East are also the same problems that are affecting Europe and North America and parts of the Asia Pacific. Similarly, we’ve seen with some of the recent pandemic challenges – Ebola and Zika – how quickly some of those problems can move worldwide. You need a universal platform to coordinate a collective response.

But I think the deeper answer here – and that goes to your question about what is beyond the traditional understanding of the liberal international order – is that the UN can help member states actually deepen their own sovereignty. What I mean by that is it can help them understand and work with a range of civil society, even private sector and faith community partners.

The new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres likes to recall a key insight from Jürgen Habermas, that the strength of modern democracy lies in the permanent communication between the political sphere and the civil society sphere. And I think what we’re seeing now worldwide is a growing disbelief from some parts of the community that politics, that democracy is delivering just, effective, and efficient outcomes. And so people are looking for other alternatives. If the UN can help states deliver better work, better life, better health, better education, peace and security for people, then it’s actually empowering states.  It’s helping them reconnect with their citizens, it’s deepening their sovereignty – and that’s quite beyond our traditional conception of the liberal institutional order at the international level, but potentially a very powerful selling point.

TCB: What has the new U.S. administration’s position toward the UN been so far, and how do you see that developing in the coming years?

JC: I think the exact position of the new administration is still emerging. It’s very clear that they bring a healthy skepticism to orthodoxies at the UN, and more broadly, internationally. And in some ways that’s not so new at the UN. The great powers – the permanent five on the UN Security Council, for example – have always seen the UN as a platform for amplifying their messages and their impact.

But what is new under the Trump administration is the apparent willingness to contemplate broad defunding of UN institutions, for example, if they don’t make decisions strictly in line with U.S. policy preferences. With that, it seems there is a favoring of a more short-term, transactional approach, and glimpses of a rejection of institutions and institutionalism. 

Practically speaking, that means that certain UN agencies may need to prepare for the possibility of potential reductions in U.S. funding. The danger there, from an American perspective, is that by reducing your equity in an organization, you’re also reducing your influence over it. And that when you need it later, it may not be as cooperative as you might wish. But I also think that the American willingness to expose some orthodoxies will find many willing supporters at the UN.

The new Secretary General, for example, has made clear he is determined to see that the organization becomes more integrated, both in thought and deed, and more streamlined. Reform is not necessarily a dirty word at the UN. On the contrary, I think there’s a broad recognition of the need to reform the organization.

And there are also going to be certain key areas where the U.S. government may decide the UN is actually a very useful vehicle for creative internationalism. One that recently cropped up, for example, was the strong support from the U.S. mission and from Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) around modern slavery and human trafficking – an area where the UN, both at a normative and operational level, is doing a great deal, from the work of the International Labour Organization to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime through to UNICEF. These organizations are all, one way or another, working to tackle this global problem. This is a classic example of something where, as important as leadership from countries like the U.S. is, it’s not something that any single country can solve on its own, and it does clearly require a collective response. 

The Author is James Cockayne

James Cockayne, PhD, is an Australian strategist, international lawyer and writer. He currently runs the New York office of United Nations University, a thinktank in the UN system. He was previously Co-Director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation and a Principal Legal Officer in the Australian Attorney-General's Department. His most recent book is "Hidden Power: The Strategic Logic of Organized Crime."

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