How the World Lost Faith in the UN
How the World Lost Faith in the UN
Op-Ed / Global 1 minutes

How the World Lost Faith in the UN

Regaining It Will Require Accepting a Diminished Role for an Age of Competition.

Ever since 1947, when the UN General Assembly voted in favor of partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the organization has grappled with crises in the Middle East. In recent decades, discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the UN have featured the same basic dynamic: the United States uses its veto to block criticism of Israel at the Security Council while Arab states rally developing countries to defend the Palestinians. The debate at the UN in the weeks after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel has largely followed this familiar pattern. The United States has blocked the Security Council from calling for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, but it could not stop a resolution passed in late October by a huge majority in the General Assembly demanding a “humanitarian truce.”

Yet diplomats at UN offices in New York and Geneva say that this crisis feels different—and that its effects could spread beyond Israel and the Gaza Strip to the UN itself. Their warnings are in part a reaction to the brutality of Hamas, the rising death toll in Gaza from Israel’s bombardment, and the risks of regional escalation. But widespread pessimism about the UN’s future also reflects a loss of confidence across the organization. Skepticism about the efficacy of an institution designed to reflect twentieth-century power relations and deal with postwar problems is hardly new. Over the last year, however, the UN has seemed more rudderless than ever, unable to respond to crises ranging from violent flare-ups in Sudan and Nagorno-Karabakh to the coup in Niger. Security Council diplomats say that tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine—the topic of scores of fruitless UN debates since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—are undermining discussions of unrelated issues in Africa and the Middle East. In September, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned at the annual General Assembly meeting that a “great fracture” in the global governance system was looming.

The war between Israel and Hamas threatens to deal the coup de grâce to the UN’s credibility in responding to crises. Soon, national governments and UN officials will face a reckoning. They must confront the question of how the UN can contribute to peace and security at a time when the common ground among great powers is shrinking by the day. Since the end of the Cold War, states and civil society organizations have called on the UN to deal with conflicts large and small as a matter of habit. But now the institution appears to be running up against its geopolitical limitations.

The full article can be read on Foreign Affairs' website.

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