The United Nations in a Post-Nation World

70 years after its founding, the UN faces a world that looks nothing like it did in 1945.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor, right, at the UN in 2012 (Chip East / Reuters)

ASPEN, Colo.—The UN Charter turned 70 years old last Friday. But if you ask Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, the United Nations itself isn’t aging very well.

“After the Second World War, it was a great body,” Prosor told the audience at an Aspen Ideas Festival panel. In 1945, Prosor said, when the United Nations encompassed only the original 51 member states, it was a coherent body. But today, he argued, it has lost that coherence: “193 member states, out of which only 87, by UN standards, are being described as democracies. Over 100 countries have really no concept of what we’re talking about. You have a body that gradually is taken hostage, is taken over, by countries and sometimes even non-state actors that change the whole essence of what this body was initially established for.”

The panel’s moderator, NPR Morning Edition host David Greene, had begun the conversation by asking Prosor to encapsulate an argument he’d made in The New York Times. “[The UN] was intended to be a temple of peace, Prosor wrote in that op-ed, “but this once great global body has been overrun by the repressive regimes that violate human rights and undermine international security.”

Prosor’s co-panelist, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, was a little more sanguine about the organization’s value and effectiveness, although he allowed that it has significant faults. But there’s one aspect of Prosor’s diagnosis that seemed to resonate with Churkin. “What we are seeing,” Prosor said, “is the disintegration of nation-states. … And we’re seeing, similarly, the rise of non-state actors.”

The conversation among Greene, Prosor, and Churkin took place at a moment when several institutions born during a period of post-Cold War optimism and international cooperation are showing their vulnerabilities. Greece, having defaulted on its debt and closed its banks, may demonstrate what happens when a poorer European country can’t hack it in the eurozone. South Africa, formerly one of the strongest African supporters of the International Criminal Court, recently displayed its ambivalence toward the institution when the government failed to arrest the visiting Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the ICC on genocide charges.

Twenty-three years ago in The Atlantic, Benjamin Barber argued that sovereign nation-states would soon come to feel pinioned between two opposing forces, a clash he dubbed “Jihad vs. McWorld”:

The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe—a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food—with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald's, pressing nations into one commercially homogenous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.

The world Barber describes—where nation-states are threatened on the one hand by small, semi-autonomous, ideology-driven factions with asymmetric power to wreak havoc, and on the other hand by corporations with the economic heft to bend governments to their will—might seem very familiar to an observer in 2015.

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Barry Pavel of the Atlantic Council has another name for this world we now inhabit: The “Westphalian-plus” world. (The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia created the modern concept of sovereign nations.) An April report from the Atlantic Council described this state of affairs thusly:

In our new era, nation-states are increasingly joined on the global stage by powerful individuals, groups, and other actors who are disrupting the traditional world order, for better and for worse. … Nation-states will have to engage on two distinct levels: dealing with other nation-states as before, and dealing with a vast array of important nonstate actors. A series of unfolding megatrends are driving this dual reality, particularly disruptive technological revolutions that have set in motion a new, vast dynamism in global affairs. A hybrid world is emerging, one that is in flux and whose direction is not yet fixed.

At the panel in Aspen, Churkin sounded a bright note about the UN and its still-valuable role in the world. “As you walk into the building, you can really feel what it’s all about,” Churkin said. Answering Prosor’s criticism that most of the UN’s membership is undemocratic, he urged the audience not to mistake the organization’s purpose. “The United Nations is not about democracy,” he stressed. “If we start kicking out countries, for whatever reason … then we will not have a body that is representative of the entire world.”

“The United Nations cannot be much better than the world it lives in, because it was created by countries and countries, unfortunately, have different political interests,” Churkin said. But nothing quite like it has ever existed in the history of humankind, and really, 70 years is quite young for such a bold experiment. If we must become used to a world where non-state actors exert outsized power, then a body that includes countries both stable and notional,  and—to use Prosor’s words—“even non-state actors,” may be just what we need.