Ever believers in the old dictum ‘there is no such thing as permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests’, realists like myself are often tempted to dismiss the unrealistic aspirations of the United Nations (UN). For many, the organisation’s failure to achieve its lofty ambitions of ending global conflict proves the institution is best ignored. Yet as we will soon discover, once President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is finalised, the world body is not the paper tiger realists so often depict it as being. There are real world consequences that come with forgoing the UN.
As a rising China grows in confidence and power, the next United States (US) President would do well to re-engage with the UN. By using the body as a natural forum for coalition-building, the US can create the critical mass necessary to challenge Beijing’s unilateralism. There is a realist case for American re-engagement in the world’s largest international organisation.
The Cold War
Recent moves by the Trump administration have certainly brought the US-UN partnership to a historic low, but the relationship was not always this frosty. During the Cold War, the UN served as a tangible and impactful complement to US foreign policy. Established on Washington’s initiative at the end of the Second World War, the UN was deliberately designed along old Wilsonian values of equality between states. Big or small, all nations in the UN have been given equal rights and a voice within the organisation, repudiating the notion that might makes right. Amid the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, this mechanism gave Washington a meaningful advantage over its adversary.
Simply put, there were always more non-socialist states in the UN than there were states aligned with the Soviet Union. Obviously certain non-socialist states were ambivalent or outright opposed to the US, but generally speaking, most of the non-socialist world preferred Washington to Moscow. Thus, by emphasising the equality of states, giving each UN member a say no matter their size or geopolitical might, the US had by default outnumbered the Soviets in the world body. This did not necessarily mean the UN followed American dictates, especially given Moscow’s veto powers in the Security Council, but it did mean that a useful tool for coalition-building, established firmly along American values, generally leaned towards Washington throughout the Cold War.
It is worth remembering that American influence within the UN has yielded real world benefits for US foreign policy. While the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council in the 1950s, forfeiting any leverage within the organisation, the Council unanimously backed America’s intervention in the Korean War. This turned a US military mission into a UN mission, not only enhancing its legitimacy, but allowing additional states to commit troops to an American-led coalition. Similarly, one could argue the UN’s sustained emphasis on human rights and democratic freedoms throughout the Cold War took a genuine toll on the legitimacy of Soviet-backed