Can the United Nations survive the Ukraine war? The question is being raised today in certain quarters as the world body stands paralysed in the face of another major global conflict that some warn could lead to the Third World War.
The question is totally valid as we look back at somewhat similar circumstances in modern history. As Hitler moved into Poland on September 1, 1939, the world order of that era was the first casualty. It collapsed right there, on that day. It was not a surprise fall though as the international organisation mandated to keep world peace at the time had been trembling for years before that.
That organisation, a predecessor to the UN, was called the League of Nations. The Geneva-headquartered body was established in 1920 by the victors of the First World War “to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security.” The terrible events, especially the great human losses in the Great War, led many around the world to conceive the creation of an international body that would settle international disputes and keep the peace.
Then United States President Woodrow Wilson and US allies, Britain and France, were strong advocates of such a body. And so on January 10, 1920, the league was born at the Paris Peace Conference, which formally ended the WWI. It was considered by historians and politicians at the time as “one of the greatest achievements in human history.”
However, it didn’t last long. By the end of its first decade, the league began to unravel, largely due to its failure to keep peace and address disputes, especially those of no interest to its key members, namely Britain and France. With its inability to deal with Japan’s invasion of the Chinese province of Manchuria in September 1931 and Italy’s fascist dictator Mussolini’s invasion and later annexation of Ethiopia in October 1935, the league was trembling. The fatal blow nonetheless came with the German invasion of Poland, which signalled the start of World War Two. At that moment, the League of Nations breathed its last.
History’s worst economic crisis
Politics and economics are forever intertwined that they more than often seem one. The death of the world’s first multilateral organisation therefore could also easily be traced to state of the economy, well before the start of WWII. The 1929’s Great Depression, which lasted until 1939, shattered all the economy of the industrialised world. The US, where history’s worst economic crisis began, was clearly the worst impacted by the catastrophe. But Germany was not far behind. As poverty took hold in Germany with less and less jobs available, the popular sentiment began to lean towards the populist parties that promised to increase social benefits, create jobs and ‘restore German pride’. Chief among them was the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, led by Adolf Hitler, who became chancellor in 1933.
Therefore, the Great Depression was a key factor, indirectly one could say, in the collapse of the League of Nations. The rise of Hitler, and his subsequent invasion of Europe, was mostly a result of rising unemployment, increased poverty and the popular feeling that Germany must take its ‘rightful’ place among the leading nations of the world.
Meanwhile, it should be noted here that as the League of Nations was inaugurating its Geneva offices in the late 1919, one of history’s worst pandemics, the Spanish Flu (from 1918 to 1920), was killing millions around the world. It is estimated that between 22 million to 50 million people died worldwide. The impact of the pandemic was still being felt, socially and economically, years after its deadliest waves subsided in 1921.
Any of this ring familiar? A pandemic, an economic crisis and a major conflict in the eastern edge of Europe? As if history, the forever-bloody history of Europe at least, repeats itself. This combination of a deadly virus outbreak, war and economic crunch has during the course of history proven to be fatal formula for any prevailing order. I am sure the fall of the great ancient empires, if studied thoroughly in this context, was due to similar factors.
Unlike the League of Nations, the UN has in fact lasted longer, much longer than its predecessor, more than it should have, some would say. It is already 76 years old. As a multilateral body, it may have fared a little better than the league, but not much. As any Arab would argue, this region has a long list of grievances that can prove that when it comes to effectiveness, the UN was mostly a League of Nations in disguise. The Security Council alone issued 187, that is right, (supposedly binding) resolutions in favour of Palestine — from 1967 until today. Not a single one of them has been implemented. Let alone resolutions by the General Assembly. The UN failed to stop the US from invading Iraq in 2003. It has failed to stop the carnage in Syria since 2011. The list goes on.
Despicable atrocities took place under the helpless watch of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, Bosnia and Asia — remember the Vietnam War in which the UN was for years a mere spectator, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?
Like the League of Nations, the UN has since its inception been a tool used by the great powers, the five permanent members, to advance their interests. All that the small players, that is the rest of the world, got is shallow statements. The veto power held exclusively by the Security Council’s five permanent members — the US, Russia, Britain, France and China — basically means that no decision can pass without the approval of those five countries. Justice have been denied repeatedly because of the veto.
Call for reforms
There have been calls for decades to reform the UN system, mainly to get rid of the veto power or expand it to all the 15 members of the Security Council. These calls fell on deaf ears. Today, the organisation is being put to the test, yet again. And so far, it has failed miserably, as usual.
Advocates of multilateralism argue that there is no alternative to the UN today to promote such important issues as collective security, human rights, fighting poverty and mitigating the risk of global warming. That is partially true. But today’s world needs more than a talk shop; it needs an agency with teeth. The UN is not that agency.
The Ukraine war may not be a fatal blow to the UN in the short run, in the same way Hitler’s invasion of Poland did to the League of Nations. But it can be the beginning of a thinking process to replace the helpless UN with a new body that has the right tools and the appropriate mandate to restore and preserve world peace.