Reform or die: the United Nations as second superpower

Phyllis Bennis
16 December 2004

The United Nations desperately needs reform. The power relations of the global organisation’s structure - particularly the undemocratic Security Council - cry out for transformation. Yet the most powerful member-states determinedly resist any prospect of reduced authority; the desire of the second world war victors to orchestrate the post-war world, however anachronistic, is undiminished.

Also in openDemocracy on United Nations reform:

- Johanna Mendelson Forman & D Austin Hare, “A 21st-century mission: the UN high-level panel report” (November 2004)

- Grahame Thompson, “Learning tolerance” (December 2004)

- Pere Vilanova, “The good, the bad, and the unjust” (December 2004)

Yet it would not make sense to give up on the UN and build something else. A “new” UN that reflected the realities of its birth-era would be likely to confirm the strategically unchallenged might of the United States - the global hyperpower.

A better way forward is to ask: what kind of a UN do we want, and what UN reform is possible and achievable?

The starting-point is to acknowledge the continuing reality that the world is still organised - despite globalisation and the empowerment of multinational corporations - on the basis of nation-states. The UN reflects that reality. Any notion of UN “democratisation” is limited by the inherently undemocratic nature of national borders and governments. But within those limitations, the UN can and must be far more democratic than it is today.

Security Council reform - expanding the number of members (as called for in Kofi Annan’s high-level panel report), limiting and eventually ending the veto - is useful to a point; but as long as the 1945-era “permanent five” continue to have exclusive, unfettered veto rights, discussion of such reform is more public relations than democratisation.

A more likely location for UN reform in the foreseeable future is the general assembly - which despite its limitations remains the most democratic agency of the UN. That will require mobilisation of the assembly to assert its will in relation to decisions of the Security Council. UN precedent already has a precedent for asserting the primacy of the general assembly over security issues that would otherwise belong solely to the Security Council - the “uniting for peace” resolution that allows the assembly, on determining that the council is unable to act, to take decisions regarding war and peace.

The irony here is that the origins of this resolution lie not in any concern with democratisation, but in the United States’s success - taking momentary advantage of a Soviet walkout of the Security Council - in forcing the assembly to put a UN stamp on the 1950-53 war in Korea. But the general assembly in principle has the capacity to broaden the “uniting for peace” precedent - if sufficient political will can be found.

This is where the tension between the United Nations as a tool of governments and as an institutional part of global civil society comes to the fore. The general assembly’s political will to challenge aggressive war and defy the US drive to empire depends on global public opinion taking the lead. That means successful popular movements that can hold national governments accountable to public anti-war sentiment, and a global campaigning coherence so that enough governments are prepared to say no to war – in turn making the United Nations venue, vehicle and player in the opposition to war.

An extraordinary moment in New York on the morning of 15 February 2003 – a day of tumultuous worldwide demonstrations against impending war on Iraq – is emblematic here, when a delegation led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu met Kofi Annan and told the UN secretary-general that “those people marching in those cities all around the world claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of our global mobilisation for peace.”

The optimism in Tutu’s claim, like the millions of demonstrators, could not prevent the war. But 15 February 2003 does illuminate what will be required to recover the UN as part of the global movement for democracy and against empire. Activism, demonstrations, mobilisation – all must connect to demands for transparency and real democratisation within the UN, alongside clear support for actions against empire taken by the international organisation.

The day before the 15 February 2003 demonstrations when “the world said no to war,” the Security Council debating Washington’s imminent assault on Iraq welcomed the French foreign minister’s assertion that “the United Nations must be an instrument for peace, not a tool for war” with an unprecedented standing ovation. On 17 February, the New York Times announced the birth of a “second super-power” challenging the United States; on 18 February, openDemocracy’s editor hailed “world opinion”, rather than the United Nations, in similar terms.

For those around the world who defied war on that historic day, finding a way to fuse the “second super-power” with global public activism is an essential task. An international civil society supported by an alliance of governments responding (however reluctantly) to pressure, backed by a reformed and democratised United Nations – this would be a three-part “second super-power” standing at the centre of the worldwide fightback against war and empire.

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