For the United Nations, Ukraine is an existential crisis
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an impassioned rebuke to the United Nations Security Council for its failure to prevent Russia’s invasion of his country.
“Where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee? he ordered. “That is not here.” Rather than taking strong action to stop or even condemn Russia’s behavior, he said, the body had become a place for “conversation”. It was obvious to all that “the goals set in San Francisco in 1945 for the creation of a world security organization have not been achieved”, concluded Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyy’s indictment, which cited evidence of horrific atrocities committed by Russian forces, shook UN ambassadors, as it should. Ukraine presents a potentially existential crisis for the UN, given that it was created 77 years ago with the express intention of “saving[ing] future generations from the scourge of war. With the Security Council paralyzed by the Russian veto, the question that remains is whether the United Nations will repeat the history of its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations, which failed miserably to stop fascist aggression in the 1930s. This sad story deserves to be remembered now, as we assess whether the UN, too, is destined to be the dustbin of history.
The league, which emerged from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, marked the first serious effort to create a universal system of collective security. Its mission was to settle disputes between states peacefully and, if necessary, to deter, defeat and punish unlawful aggression.
Unfortunately, these lofty aspirations have overwhelmed the league’s meager authorities and capabilities. The body’s most fatal shortcoming was its lack of effective peace enforcement measures, despite warnings from former US President Woodrow Wilson, who insisted: “If you say we won’t have war, you must have the strength to do so”. will bite. In fact, the league was toothless. His Covenant of 1919, for example, granted each member of the Council of the League, where the real power resided, an effective veto over all non-procedural matters. It also allowed any state involved in a dispute to sit on the council and vote on the matter. This effectively meant that aggressor countries could block any collective coercive action against them.
In principle, the pact committed league members to respond forcefully to aggression, including sanctions and the contribution of military troops. In practice, member states diluted these obligations when they realized they might have to go to war to protect the peace.
The lack of universality of the League of Nations has aggravated this weakness. The U.S. Senate rejected the pact, despite Wilson’s pleas on its behalf, so the U.S. never joined. And the United States was not the only player on the sidelines. Germany joined in 1926, only to leave in 1933. Japan also resigned in 1933, as did Italy in 1937. The Soviet Union abstained for the league’s first decade of existence, only joining than in 1934. These absences undermined the body’s legitimacy, undermined its practical effectiveness, and reinforced its image as a tool of the satisfied powers against revisionist states.
The war in Ukraine marks the biggest test for the UN. in three decades, but its failure is not inevitable, nor doomed to futility.
Eventually, the league’s impotence undermined this last point as well, for in the 1930s it began to give in to the demands of those revisionist states: Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union. * She proved powerless when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.; when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935; when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936; and again when Germany and Italy armed fascist rebels in Spain in 1937. By 1937, when Japan launched a full-scale assault on China, the league had become a marginal player in international security.
On the surface, there are striking similarities between yesterday and today. Once again, the revisionist powers seek to overturn the territorial status quo and create an alternative world order. This includes not only Russia, but also China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, signed a pact with Russian President Vladimir Putin against the West just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine. China has since thrown its partner an economic lifeline to help it survive international sanctions. No doubt Beijing is also following Russia’s invasion with an eye to its own irredentist claims on Taiwan.
Also as in the 1930s, some countries are riding the diplomatic fence rather than condemning Russia’s overt aggression. The biggest and most disappointing is India, the world’s largest democracy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has called for an investigation into the potential atrocities, but apparently fears alienating its Russian ally, whose military aid it depends on to deter strategic rivals China and Pakistan.
Finally, doubts remain about the long-term commitment of the United States to the United Nations. President Joe Biden has sought to use the UN and other multilateral forums to ostracize Russia and hold Putin accountable, but the merits of internationalism are still disputed at home. The Republican Party, which could easily win a majority in Congress in November’s midterm elections and the presidency itself in 2024, remains in the thrall of former President Donald Trump, who has explicitly adopted the slogan ” America First” of the interwar isolationists. Whether the UN goes the way of the league will depend to a large extent on the outcome of this American national debate.
The war in Ukraine marks the greatest test for the United Nations in three decades, but its failure is neither inevitable nor doomed to futility. What the crisis has revealed are the inherent limits of any international peace structure that depends on the unanimity of the great powers. And it was an explicit feature – not a bug – of the plan negotiated at Dumbarton Oaks and approved when the United Nations was founded in San Francisco in 1945.
Seeking to avoid the league’s fate, the architects of the UN Charter created a Security Council with the power to pass resolutions binding on UN member states and authorize massive coercive power. In return for their role as joint guardians of the global order, the permanent members of the Council were granted the prerogative under Chapter 7 to block any coercive action by the UN that they perceived to be contrary to their interests. nationals. It was at this price that the United States, with no less fervor on the part of the Soviet Union, insisted on accepting this new peace and security agreement.
During his impassioned address to the Security Council last week, President Zelensky proposed a world conference in Kyiv to discuss sweeping reforms of the United Nations. Such a future gathering might have merit, but it’s important to temper expectations about what it might eventually achieve, especially on the veto power. It is unlikely that the United States, as well as China, will agree to a significant limitation of this privilege. More generally, the risk exists that such a conference, if it opens the charter to negotiation, ends up weakening what works at the UN, without correcting what does not work. It could also empower nationalists advocating abandonment of the global body, both in the United States and other critical member states, to chart a more isolationist or one-sided course.
The inability of the UN to overcome divisions among the great powers is maddening to all who believe in the international rule of law. It is important to remember, however, that we have been here before. For much of its first four and a half decades, the Security Council was marginalized thanks to the US-Soviet confrontation. The growing possibility of a new Cold War pitting the West against a China-Russia axis, with the rest of the world up for grabs, could bring the UN back to those bad old days.
If such a division were to materialize, the most promising strategy for the West would not be to abandon the UN, but to return to the Cold War way of working within it to achieve plausible goals, while simultaneously diversifying its portfolio of multilateral options. In other words, the United States and its allies should try to compartmentalize. In the Security Council, this means seeking agreement where possible to resolve thorny conflicts and authorize peacekeeping missions, while continuing to pit China and Russia against each other if necessary. At the UN more broadly, that means rallying the full membership behind the fundamental goals of the charter – as the United States did last week by helping to organize Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. – while continuing to support multilateral agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Refugee Agency, which are doing much-needed work.
At the same time, the United States and its Western allies must broaden their multilateral options by redoubling their support for closer “club” agreements that unite advanced market democracies, including NATO, the G-7, the US-EU partnership and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as more informal “coalitions of the willing” that can more directly counter attacks on the open, rules-based international order.
The war in Ukraine is an extraordinary crisis for the UN, but it need not be fatal. The fortunes of the global body could ultimately depend as much on events in the United States as in Eastern Europe. Frustrated by the Security Council’s inaction, Americans might be tempted to give up and leave the global body altogether, but that would be a mistake, similar to the disastrous decision by the United States not to join the League of Nation. It would hasten the world’s descent into anarchy and reduce the likelihood that Putin will ever be held accountable for his crimes.
*Editor’s Note: This sentence has been edited for clarity.
Stewart Patrick is James H. Binger Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.