Where the UN’s limits lie

The UN should do this, or the UN should do that. It’s easy to ascribe a lot of agency to this one global institution, in the process often forgetting that it will always struggle to be more than the sum of its members and become a truly autonomous organism in world affairs. World government, it is most certainly not.

But between the poles of impotence and global Leviathan, how can we actually map out these its limits? Richard Gowan at Global Dashboard suggests that in one way, these might just be physical ones: there are parts of the world, where the UN’s most direct influence, in the form of Security Council decisions that are binding upon the entirety of the UN’s membership, is largely nonexistent:

Mark Leonard of ECFR once coined the term “Eurosphere” to describe those countries where EU has clout. The UN-sphere is  the geopolitical space in which the Security Council is (or, in the Balkans, was) a major force in regulating security affairs. IPI’s research suggests that this boils down to Europe, Africa and  outlying islands like Haiti and East Timor.  If you played with the parameters of the study you’d bring in the Middle East.  But it excludes most of the Americas and, critically given global power shifts, virtually all of Asia”

If this idea of the UN-sphere makes sense, then it seems a striking reflection of just how much the very agenda of the UNSC mirrors the concerns of its leading states. Europe’s interest in Africa and its own Balkans backyard bring those issues to the Security Council table; for the US and China, perhaps a Monroe Doctrine-type perspective on its regional backyards ensures that issues to do with the Americas or East Asia are kept away from the potential interference of nonregional countries, and instead turning to regional organizations where they wield more influence and clout.

In one sense this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, all that surprising – ‘great powers’ of one sort or another will always be with us. But another sense,  that there are great swathes of the world which are no-go areas for the core ‘peace and security’ mission of the Security Council is a rather sobering thought for the significance of (in Paul Kennedy’s phrase), the “parliament of man”.

This sense of limit is also powerfully expressed in a set of discussion papers for the Secretary-General’s top-echelon retreat, leaked by Fox News and summarised by Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blog. While these papers are of the taking-stock-and-asking-questions type (rather than providing answers), the stuck-in-the-mud impasse of the climate negotiations (one of many issues discussed) provides plenty to chew over:

“How will the world provide the clean water, food, shelter, energy and other resources needed by up to fifty percent more people, while simultaneously reducing global emissions by at least fifty percent?…This, in a nutshell, is the “50-50-50 challenge” that is facing humanity as a whole. Of course, it cannot be addressed by any single individual, nation or organisation. But especially for the world body that is supposed to bring everybody together to tackle these types of global challenges, our ability to respond coherently and effectively could determine the UN’s relevance – or lack thereof – in the 21st century.”

There’s a vision of the world here that privileges the UN at the epicenter of multilateral processes: it is ‘the’ world body. But the proliferation of institutions and mechanisms outside the UN family, particularly in the past two decades, if one takes a functional view of them, is to indicate that differentation of tasks among world (both global/regional) institutions is well underway. On climate change, as with so many other issues, a clearer recognition of its limits may serve it better for the long run.

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One thought on “Where the UN’s limits lie

  1. […] a recent post I wondered about where the limits to the UN’s modern-day influence lay, but whether one sees such limits in positive or negative terms depends on preconceptions about […]

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