Is the United Nations a Failure?

Arne Immanuel Bänsch/picture alliance via Getty Images

U.N. peacekeepers patrol the border between Israel and Lebanon.

When 51 countries banded together and founded the United Nations in 1945, the world had just emerged from the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Leaders envisioned an international forum where countries could work out differences and prevent armed conflicts. Today, the U.N., with 193 member nations, manages global health and food programs, aid for refugees, peacekeeping operations, and much more. But the devastation resulting from wars—most recently Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—continues, and many people wonder whether the U.N. is doing what it was originally intended to do.


Two international affairs experts face off about whether the U.N. has failed to live up to its founding principles.

Former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld once observed, “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” Unfortunately, recent events have shown that neither goal is within its grasp.

The U.N.’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been anemic. The General Assembly passed nonbinding, hand-slap condemnations. Other U.N. organizations similarly condemned Russia’s actions. But punitive measures have been largely absent. In 1974, the U.N. suspended South Africa from the organization as a punishment for its apartheid policy. But today, Russia, despite invading a sovereign nation and committing numerous war crimes, remains a member in good standing, and no U.N. sanctions have been applied because Russia can veto Security Council resolutions.

It’s business as usual at the U.N., even as Russia invades a sovereign nation.

The U.N. has also failed to condemn China for its many atrocities against the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang Province. These include the unfair detention of more than 1 million civilians, forced labor, and torture. The United States has called China’s treatment of the Uighurs a genocide, yet China continues to sit on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.

Then there’s the U.N.’s Covid response. The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) initially abetted the spread of the pandemic by parroting China’s deadly falsehood that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Later, the W.H.O. praised China’s response, while letting Beijing impede the investigation into the origins of the disease.

Meanwhile, the U.N.’s chronic deficiencies persist. Inadequate oversight has left millions of dollars vulnerable to misuse, and many U.N. development projects have been subject to fraud and corruption.

It’s undeniable that the U.N. does beneficial work: Its food and refugee programs feed and shelter many people. But the U.N. is without doubt much less than it could be, and the past few years have revealed plainly its limitations and failures.



Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Despite its faults, the United Nations is the only forum where world leaders can come together and try to resolve the most urgent issues of our time.

The U.N. is where the world goes to address problems that transcend national boundaries and can’t be solved by any one country acting alone. This includes the environment, the outbreak of a pandemic, the distribution of vaccines, delivering humanitarian aid, protecting human rights, upholding international law, assisting development efforts, protecting the rights of women, and helping refugees who are fleeing war, famine, and persecution.

Keeping global peace is the U.N.’s primary objective. Currently, more than 100,000 military, police, and civilian personnel from 125 countries serve in 12 U.N. peacekeeping missions mainly in Africa and the Middle East. Peacekeeping is also cost-effective: The annual U.N. budget for peacekeeping is less than 0.5 percent of global military spending. The U.N. has won the Nobel Peace Prize 12 times—a record that proves the organization’s global value. The U.N. has been recognized not only for its peace efforts but also for climate change work, for attempts to prevent nuclear energy being used for military purposes, and for work on behalf of children, refugees, and other vulnerable groups.

The U.N.’s 12 Nobel Peace Prizes are proof of the organization’s global value.

In the General Assembly, every country, regardless of geographic size, population, or economy, has one equal vote. And while it’s true that the much smaller Security Council is where most of the U.N.’s big decisions get made, the work of the General Assembly is also critical: The process of negotiating resolutions forces a discussion among nations, and dialogue is the first step to addressing differences—and reconciling them.

To see the U.N.’s value, one needs to look at the whole picture of what the organization does. The U.N.’s most critical work, which is often done out of the limelight, is the daily struggle to make a small contribution to a better world.



Sam Nunn Distinguished Fellow, Nuclear Threat Initiative

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