Talking Points

The irrelevance of the United Nations

Did you hear that the U.N. General Assembly voted last week to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council? You'd be forgiven if not. President Biden praised the decision as "historic" and a "meaningful step by the international community." But it barely cracked the algorithms that are the 21st-century replacement for the front page.

This isn't the only recent U.N. action that's evaded much notice. Early last month, the body passed a resolution demanding that Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine. Like the decision regarding the Human Rights Council, it made little impression on either the news or the course of events.  

The irrelevance of the U.N. to the war in Ukraine doesn't just reflect the body's failure to live up to expectations for worldwide cooperation that surrounded its formation at the end of World War II. It's the consequence of a dramatic decline in relevance over the last few decades. Not quite 20 years ago, the organization was the main forum for debate about the Iraq War — including the late Colin Powell's notorious speech asserting Saddam Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. 

Although they turned out to be false, Powell's claims about WMDs were based on the premise that the U.N. mattered. He wasn't the only one to think so. In the 1990s, "black helicopter" theories that the U.N. was planning to take over the U.S. government were a staple of the flourishing militia movement. These fears were obviously fanciful. But they too assumed that the U.N. was a significant body capable of influencing and perhaps controlling world affairs.  

No one believes that anymore. With its credibility undermined by the revival of open competition among great powers, ineffective peacekeeping missions in Africa, fruitless diplomacy in the Middle East, and corruption scandals, the U.N.'s reputation is at its lowest ebb at least since the late 1960s, when Soviet opposition helped stymie collective action.

In the past, American presidents have invested in periodic attempts to rebuild the U.N., which they've seen as an effective platform for American values and interests. This time, however, the U.N. may have fallen too far to be saved. Like its landmark headquarters building in New York, the U.N. has become a relic of 20th-century optimism, unsuited to harsher times. The proof isn't that we care what it does — it's that we don't.