United Nations: Looking Toward 2020

United Nations

There are two major issues today that the League of Nations did not have to face. Thus when the League was reincarnated in 1945 as the United Nations, no one considered how to structure appropriate responses. The major political issue today is the disintegration of Member States. The second major issue is the ecological and social consequences of global warming.

During the 1946-1990 Cold War, war between political blocs was the main concern. Today, with the exception of Saudi Arabia’s aggression in Yemen, and USA and allies in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the armed conflicts arise from the disintegration of Member States, Somalia being the “classic” example. Dag Hammarskjold had proposed during the disintegration of the former Belgium Congo that the U.N. could provide administrators to run the country. The proposal sounded too much like a return to colonialism and was not acted upon. In any case, a “trusteeship” is not as easy task as the European Union’s experience in former Yugoslavia shows.

The second major issue is global warming with the potential of mass migration – “ecological refugees”- the impact of rising sea levels on coastal areas and other challenges which are being increasingly discussed but less often acted upon.

Nearly all the economic and social issues which have been central to the work of the United Nations – food, work, health, education, population pressure, drugs – had their start in the League of Nations. The size of the challenges grew with the independence of what had been colonies at the time of the League. However, the type of activities and the institutional structures are largely the same.

There have been suggestions made for “improving”, “reforming”, “transforming”, or “replacing” the United Nations. Some of the suggestions have come from initiatives from within the U.N. system. Other suggestions have been made by non-governmental organizations or from international relations – international law specialists. Joseph Schwartzberg’s book is a good overview of these proposals. He has given very full references and websites where proposals are set out in greater detail. (1)

There have been few structural changes since 1946. When a new major issue has come on the world agenda, a new body has been created, either as a Specialized Agency or a U.N. program. Most of the Specialized Agencies have expanded their mandates but have rarely modified their structures. There have been repeated calls for better coordination within the U.N. system and the need to cut out “overlapping”. There have been repeated calls for strengthening the quality of the Secretariat, the inclusion of more women, better geographic representation of Secretariat members. On the whole the U.N. Secretariat is no better but no worse than the administration of Member States.

What distinguishes a national administration from the U.N. system secretariats is that national governments have a power to tax and therefore are more or less assured of a predictable income. National governments also can and do go into long-term debt which the U.N. cannot do. There are yearly debates in the U.N. over the funding of the organization and the division of the regular budget among the Member States. However, much of the U.N. system is funded by voluntary contributions which can be increased, decreased, or delayed according to national policies. There have been suggestions for a sort of U.N. “tax system” but none has been put into practice.

As 2020 and the 75th anniversary of the U.N. approaches, there are likely to be new evaluations and new suggestions. Joseph Schwartzberg is a welcome guide.


1) Joseph E. Schwartzberg. Transforming the United Nations System: Design for a Workable World (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2013, 364 pp.)

Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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