Seventy-five years ago, on 24 October 1945, the United Nations Charter came into effect.
In the ensuing decades the sprawling global institution that the charter brought into being has enjoyed significant triumphs…but also many failures.
Its core mission is "to promote international peace and security". Yet since 1945 more than 60 conflicts have flared up, from the Indochina and Korean wars to the current civil wars in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. War casualties have exceeded 10 million and growing.
So, is the UN is still worth the material resources and diplomatic effort that it consumes? Before answering, consider the following five perspectives.
First, the functions of the UN extend beyond just stopping the shooting. The UN mandate, "to promote international peace and security", prioritises crisis negotiations and post-conflict peacekeeping initiatives. In fact, UN peacekeepers were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. They are now moderating tensions in 13 trouble spots.
Second, the UN acknowledges each conflict has underlying economic and social causes and tries to identify and mitigate these causes. So the UN is more than the Security Council and Secretary General, which attract the most attention.
It includes myriad affiliated agencies devoted to international co-operation on issues such as food, health, the environment, finance, development, women, children, refugees, international justice, and human rights. Examples range from the Economic and Social Council, World Health Organisation, UN Development Programme (administered recently by Helen Clark) to High Commissions for Refugees and for Human Rights.
In includes the venerable World Meteorological Organisation and the Universal Postal and
Telecommunications Unions, and dozens more. The UN-affiliated World Food Programme won this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Taken together these agencies constitute the globe's most extensive and multi-faceted socio-economic safety net.
Third, the costs of the UN are relatively modest. The yearly cost is approximately US$50 billion. By comparison, the cost of the Syrian civil war is over $US$400b, the United States defence budget is over US$700b, and the world GDP is US$20,000b. New Zealand's total UN contributions (core plus affiliated agencies and special programmes) in 2020 were approximately NZ$53 million or .002 per cent of GDP, a small price to pay for a seat – and a voice - at the world's broadest negotiating table.
Fourth, critics should apply a realistic yardstick when assessing the UN. As a multi-faceted institution with 193 members, it is not a coherent super-government empowered to impose order but rather a venue for inter-governmental debate, negotiation and compromise.
When the Security Council is paralysed by the veto of one of the five permanent members (US, UK, France, Russia, China) as at present regarding wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan, or mass human rights violations in China, Burma, India, Congo, Venezuela or Russian-occupied Chechnya and Ukraine, then members states are left to respond on their own (albeit assisted by UN-affiliated agencies, regional associations, and NGOs).
To be fair, judgment should focus on UN achievements that lie within the UN's political and institutional mandates and the political support it can rally from members, not on "failures" to resolve crises lying beyond its authority and capabilities.
Fifth, if the UN were to be rendered impotent by policies of criticism, parsimony, or neglect such as those pursued by US President Trump and other nationalist and populist leaders, what would replace it?
Unless one believes that China will emerge as the next hegemony and construct a new international order, there is no credible alternative in sight. Realists fear that, absent the UN, the world's nations would lapse into unregulated rivalry as they did in the 1930s.
Then, the League of Nations failed and Nazi Germany and militarist Japan invaded their less powerful neighbours, precipitating World War II.
And tit-for-tat trade barriers drove the world economy deeper into the Great Depression.
We have learned from these debacles how to do better, in part by working through UN agencies.
In my view, the next 75 years will not see the dissolution of the UN. The UN has survived criticism, boycott, dues non-payment, block voting, veto paralysis, ideological lobbying, selfishness, corruption, policy evasion and neglect.
It has adapted by taking on new functions and reforming its procedures and agencies while adhering to its founding principles and legitimate bureaucratic processes, as shaped by changing circumstances.
Often unheralded, it has prevented or dampened down many armed conflicts and mitigated much human suffering.
Nor do I expect the UN to achieve the ideals of inter-governmental cooperation and world peace in the face of selfishness and polarisation by states, leaders, and societies.
The alleged controversies, incoherence, inefficiency, and ineffectiveness of the UN are simply a reflection of the inherently anarchic characteristics of the international system.
Nevertheless, it is clear to me that the world in the 21st century will be better off with the United Nations as its premier international institution than without it.
• Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.