The helplessness of the UN in the months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be impossible to ignore at the annual marquee event of international diplomacy.
For an institution born out of war to preserve peace, its struggle for relevance in the face of the worst conflict in Europe since World War II revives an existential question: If it could not stop the numerous clashes that have arisen since its formation — most recently, Russia’s attack on a modern democracy and neighbor — then what is its purpose?
As leaders descend upon New York this week, speeches decrying Russia for a brutal war are likely. Interviews with several officials reveal a rising frustration with a body founded nearly 80 years ago that is increasingly powerless to shape global events from Yemen to Afghanistan.
Illustration: Mountain People
These diplomats trace the UN’s downward trajectory to events in 2011, when Russia felt tricked into abstaining from a UN Security Council resolution that allowed US allies to bomb Libya. It was a turning point.
What was hailed in London, Paris and Washington as a triumph of multilateralism was viewed differently in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin was appalled.
He saw images of the violent killing of dictator Muammar Qaddafi by an angry mob, and railed against the overreach of the US and its allies as a “medieval call for a crusade.”
Putin’s anger over Libya proved somewhat well-founded as the North African country plunged into civil war and years of turmoil as the US and Europe pulled back following the military campaign. His later intervention in Syria reflected Russian determination to push back at what the Kremlin perceived as US-led efforts to oust another regional leader.
As soon as Putin was back in the driving seat, the dynamics among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — the winners of World War II — changed for good.
US and Russian ambassadors used to spar publicly, but privately they enjoyed moments of levity. That could be hard to believe against the backdrop of a mural of a phoenix rising in the chamber. Now diplomats describe the mood in the room as toxic, with trust as low as during the Cold War.
They compare when there were once robust, even feisty, debates with a forum where people talk over each other, disseminate propaganda or simply tune each other out. They see it as a UN reduced to observer status.
The UN still plays a critical role in many global challenges, including climate change negotiations, fighting poverty and disease. Under the leadership of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the agency helped broker an evacuation of civilians during the devastating Russian siege of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and facilitated international negotiations to free up shipments of Ukrainian grain amid a Russian blockade and a global food shortage.
However, within the Security Council, an erosion of mutual respect has been happening for some time. At one meeting on Afghanistan a few years ago, one official remembers how the Russian ambassador listened to what his colleagues with similar veto-wielding status had to say, but when other Security Council members came to speak he buried his face in a newspaper.
From a Russian perspective, the 2003 invasion of Iraq underlined the growing impotence of the UN when the US and its allies invaded after the Security Council refused to support military action. Putin sided with the leaders of France and Germany in opposing the invasion while US evidence presented to the Security Council in support of war was later shown to be untrue.
Russia has deployed its veto more than any other permanent council member. The runner-up is the US, which has frequently used its power to block resolutions affecting Israel.
Russia and China often operate as a tag team, a practice that reflects the “no limits” friendship between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). On the opposite side, there is a trio that Russia is deeply suspicious of — the US, the UK and France — working in unison.
As one senior diplomat put it, the war in Ukraine has contaminated every single item of the international agenda, laid differences bare to such at an extent that there is no room left to maneuver on anything.
US President Joe Biden addressed the world body on Wednesday, continuing to rally support for Ukraine and making the case for an expansion of the Security Council to include Japan and Germany.
A former Western official who spent years casting votes in the Security Council recalls a golden age following the fall of the Berlin Wall, only to see that idealism begin to evaporate toward the end of the 2000s.
That warmer period coincided with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s decade-long stint as Russia’s envoy to the UN. It was a period of greater international cooperation following the end of the Cold War and through the invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US.
That came to an end in the fallout from the Iraq crisis. Veteran diplomats have fond memories of Lavrov lighting cigarettes and downing whiskies in the delegates’ lounge, whose vintage 1950s decor was lost to an unpopular refurbishment.
His reputation at the time was as a wily diplomat able to outfox the Americans. Now he is viewed firmly as an attack dog for Putin.
The US granted him a visa to return to his old stomping ground to represent Russia from the green marble podium. His intervention at the UN Human Rights Council in March, where he accused Ukraine of seeking a nuclear arsenal, prompted a walkout. A similar reaction in New York, in front of a bigger audience, is likely.
The last time Putin traveled to New York to address fellow leaders was in 2015, when he slammed the US over Syria. Two days later, Russia sent military jets to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch ally and one determined not to meet the same fate as Qaddafi.
However, that does not mean China and Russia do not view the UN as important. In a February joint statement that exceeded 5,000 words and was released shortly before Putin invaded Ukraine, the two countries mentioned the UN a dozen times while saying they would encourage the Security Council to play “a central and coordinating role” in their push for a multipolar world.
China has used the UN and its agencies for its claims to have broad support on issues such as Taiwan, its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and the probe into the origins of COVID-19. Beijing has cited backing from a range of developing countries at the UN to cast the US and its allies as out of step with global public opinion, with one top diplomat telling US officials last year that the “so-called rules-based international order” is only advocated by the US and “a small number of countries.”
Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN Bob Rae said much of the criticism of the global body tends to fall under former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s famous quip that blaming the UN for things going wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden every time the Knicks basketball team play poorly. In short, you cannot blame the building.
Rae said the body’s true value lies in its myriad agencies — rather than the high-profile Security Council — in driving policy on climate change, providing humanitarian assistance and food aid.
“There might have been a lot of rhetoric about how the UN would bring an end to war,” Rae said, adding that “the reality is the institutions that were established in 1945 on the peace and security side never had the capacity to do that.”
Others say the UN is a vast bureaucracy resistant to reforming itself.
The UK, France and Soviet Union were imperial powers when the body was founded, while poorer states and colonies had little say in global affairs, a UN diplomat from a major developing country said.
However, while many of these nations are now populous regional powers, the diplomat said, they still lack meaningful influence at the UN because the organization’s structure remains basically unchanged.
One senior diplomat from a veto-wielding nation added that in an ideal world the veto power would be scrapped, but the reality was that no country enjoying such a privilege would willingly give it up.
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