Happy 75th birthday to the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.
It was on this day in 1945 that fifty countries ratified the UN Charter, which established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems”, and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.
Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even this one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.
Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), after a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.
From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.
Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”. If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Iran and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of war some months ago, but instead to the UN to make their cases and take diplomatic shots at each other instead. It likely no coincidence that despite so many close calls, the UN-centered world has seen an unprecedented decline in the large scale interstate wars that were once so common (though this is not to make light of the numerous proxy and civil wars that have continued to exact a heavy toll).
Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.
Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted in private that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt” — though Thant is scarcely known today.
Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Heck, even seat belts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.
Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition;\and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.
The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.
The World Food Programme provides food and assistance to 86.7 million people in 83 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation. The Food and Agriculture Organization has helped eradicate rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second one in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.
The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.
The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.
All these achievements no doubt come with caveats, and do not undo the very real and tragic failings, from Rwanda to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo 250,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”. And considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular budget dues to the UN, I think it is a work in progress worth supporting and improving upon.