Conservative politicians often portray the United Nations as a powerful monster, poised to gobble up the United States and other countries and put them under alien rule.
The reality, of course, is quite different. When it comes to international peace and security, the United Nations is notably lacking in power. Its resolutions along these lines often are ignored or go unenforced. Frequently, they are not even adopted. This situation leaves nations free to pursue traditional practices of power politics and, occasionally, much worse.
The weakness of the United Nations was illustrated once again on Feb. 4, when Russia and China joined forces to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution dealing with Syria. The resolution was designed to halt 11 months of bloodshed in that nation, where more than 5,400 people had been massacred, mostly by government military forces.
The rules establishing a great power veto were formulated late in World War II when three Allied nations (the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain) agreed to create a U.N. Security Council to maintain international peace and security. Thus, from the start, the great powers made sure that each of them had the ability to frustrate any venture of which they disapproved. And this, in turn, meant that, like the League of Nations, the United Nations was woefully weak when it came to enforcing international peace and security.
The result has been a dangerous world in which, all too often, rulers of nations — especially the rulers of the great powers — simply go their own way, squandering their resources on never-ending military buildups.
In the context of this continuing disaster, wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate the veto in the Security Council? After all, there is no justifiable reason why great powers — and particularly individual great powers — should be legally accorded the right to frustrate the wishes of virtually the entire international community. Furthermore, even if the veto were abolished, the great powers would still hold onto their permanent seats in the Security Council, thus ensuring that they would retain — albeit in a more democratic fashion — some influence over world affairs.
Plagued by dangerous arms races, bloody wars and human rights violations, the world desperately needs an alternative form of governance. Hasn’t the time finally arrived to supplement the legitimacy of the United Nations with enough power to maintain international peace and security?
Lawrence S. Wittner, emeritus professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany.
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