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Multilateralism in the National Interest

Elizabeth Cousens, Lise Morjé Howard
Sunday, October 18, 2020, 10:01 AM

Taking stock of the United Nations' first 75 years.

The U.N. Secretariat building in Turtle Bay, New York, Sept. 2012. Photo credit: Foreign Ministry of Ecuador via Wikimedia

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Editor’s Note: As the United Nations celebrates its 75th year, it is a good time to take stock of its success and failures. Critics, especially in the United States, have long criticized the U.N. for being bureaucratic, ineffective and expensive. The organization, however, has enjoyed many successes—some more visible than others. United Nations Foundation president Elizabeth Cousens and my Georgetown colleague Lise Morjé Howard take stock of the U.N.’s record and argue that the organization deserves credit for a range of achievements over its many years.

Daniel Byman


As the United Nations rang in its 75th birthday, a familiar chorus of complaints accompanied the opening session of the General Assembly—from broadsides against multilateralism to mischaracterizations of the international organization as an “utter failure” on matters of peace and security. Many of the populist leaders who lined up to address the world body were predictably unilateral in outlook.

As two people who have spent their careers working in the United Nations and on international cooperation more broadly, we are no strangers to some of the well-founded critiques of the organization and its performance. We’ve leveled some of them ourselves. But at a time when a pandemic is raging, America’s coasts are burning and flooding, and geopolitical tensions among Security Council members are rising, let’s keep our eyes on the big picture. The world faces collective threats, and countries need collective action to solve them.

That is not naïve idealism—that’s just being realistic.

The victors of World War II didn’t create the United Nations because they had misplaced faith in global governance. They created it because their countries’ interests depended on it, and they understood the need for global “circuit breakers” to keep the world from going back to war.

The United Nations coordinated the international response to war on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s, helped to settle the Suez crisis of 1956 and spearheaded the decolonization process of the 1960s. Millions of people in Namibia, Guatemala, Timor-Leste, Liberia and elsewhere can attest that they enjoy greater peace and stability, due in no small part to the presence of U.N. peacekeepers on their soil during the fragile aftermath of wars.

Although some expert commentaries focus on problems, an avalanche of scholarship details the positive benefits that U.N. peacekeeping brings. Peacekeepers contain the spread of war, both within and across borders. They save lives, both military and civilian. Civil wars often restart, but they are shorter and recur less often when peacekeepers are present. Peacekeepers also help to build robust postwar institutions and open space for the growth of civil society.

The international system is experiencing the longest period of interstate peace in history—yes, due to strategic alliances and nuclear deterrence, but also due to the stabilizing influence of international institutions. The U.N. Security Council is the highest authority in international law and final arbiter on the legitimate use of force between states. This role has arguably led to less interstate conflict, as without it, there would be no institutional brake on the use of force among the 193 U.N. members.

Another common criticism of the United Nations is that it is simply a talking shop. Well, it turns out that talking matters. A 2017 study examining U.N. General Assembly votes over 60 years found that the simple process of coming together, where countries both small and powerful can air grievances, helps nations build trust and resolve disputes peacefully. Doing away with that forum would leave only more exclusive venues like the G-7 and G-20, and fuel charges of Western dominance and global racism.

And then there’s everything else the U.N. system does. It provides humanitarian relief for millions of the world’s hungry, displaced and desperate—including through the World Food Programme, which was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It stewards the mountain of international norms that are often taken for granted on issues ranging from the universality of human rights, to gender, good governance, and religious freedoms. And it serves as the forum for countries to unite on everything from bans against chemical and nuclear weapons to prohibitions on torture of prisoners. In August, the wild poliovirus was declared eradicated in Africa after a collective effort facilitated by the United Nations in creative alliance with governments, nonprofits and philanthropies.

Too often critics pose an either-or choice when we live in a “yes-and” world. Countries don’t need to choose between sticking with the United Nations or going the route of coalitions of the willing. The United Nations has always worked with coalitions, whether providing global security or global vaccines.

Another complaint is that the United Nations is a vehicle for China’s growing influence in international affairs. China’s contribution—now up to 12 percent of the U.N. annual budget—makes it the second-largest contributor. But this is no great surprise; countries pursue their interests at the United Nations as anywhere else. The surest way to extend Beijing’s influence at the United Nations is for Washington to step out of the game. The truth is China’s financial contribution is a small fraction of the U.S. contribution and vastly less than the combined contribution of the United States and its allies. This is even true of the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite claims that China has come to dominate the WHO, which led the Trump administration to cut off U.S. funding and begin the process of withdrawing from the organization, China contributes only a modicum—some $86 million—of the WHO’s $4 billion budget. Nature and politics both abhor vacuums, and you can’t win a fight if you walk off the field.

A far greater concern is the growing complexity and transnational nature of today’s problems, from pandemics to a warming planet. Collective threats require collective action. Turning inward is suicide, not strategy. No country “wins” the battle against climate change if we don’t win it collectively. Nobody beats the coronavirus unless we all do. Spoilers may profit in the short term, but we all lose in the end without collective resolve.

As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently put it, “In an interconnected world, solidarity is self-interest.” The way to beat back the pandemic or avoid a Thucydides Trap between China and the United States is not by shunning the United Nations and other international institutions. It is by embracing and strengthening them. Solidarity is not the opposite of national self-interest; it is necessary to advancing it. That is more realistic than realists might admit.

Elizabeth Cousens is the president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation.
Lise Morjé Howard is professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University and author of “Power in Peacekeeping” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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