What if the United Nations didn’t exist? It’s a question easily answered, because for nearly all of human history, it didn’t. History “teaches us that order in international relations is the exception, rather than the rule,” Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, writes in a new report on the uncertain future of the UN. “Since the rise of the modern nation-state, both prior to and following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, disorder has been the dominant characteristic of inter-state relations.” We tend to think of the United Nations as just another part of the global furniture. But it’s actually a recent addition.
Over the last 500 years, Rudd notes, “there have been four major efforts in Europe to construct order after periods of sustained carnage”: in 1648, after the Thirty Years’ and Eighty Years’ wars; in 1815, after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars; in 1919, after World War I; and in 1945, after World War II. “The first three of these ‘orders’ have had, at best, patchy records of success. The jury is still out on the fourth.”
That fourth attempt—the United Nations—is now in a period of transition as the race for the organization’s top job nears its end. It’s the most important election nobody’s ever heard of, and hinges on secret straw polls at the Security Council that could yield a result within the month. Rudd, whose name was once mentioned among the potential contenders to replace Ban Ki-moon as secretary-general, is not in the mix. (Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull refused to nominate him.) But the study he released this week as chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism is a guide to the global forces that will confront whoever takes the job—including the possibility that the United Nations itself, though it’s unlikely to collapse anytime soon, might gradually atrophy to the point of irrelevance.