In recent weeks, the United Nations has suffered threats from various parts of the US government — a bill in the House of Representatives calls for the US to sever all ties with the UN. Another bill, in the Senate, threatened to slash UN funding.  

With all these attacks on the UN, we decided to take a look at the history of this global organization and its broad impact around the world.

The League of Nations folded after World War I and international treaties like the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war as a tool of international policy, were unenforceable. But after World War II, international efforts aimed at establishing a world order for peace stuck with the creation of the United Nations.

Formed in 1945 and headquartered in New York City, the organization works to “take action on the issues confronting humanity in the 21st century, such as peace and security, climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, governance, food production, and more.”

But how does the organization actually achieve such lofty goals and how successful has it been? Let’s break it down:

How is the United Nations organized?

The United Nations has six main organs, but the two primary ones are the General Assembly and the Security Council.

The General Assembly (GA) is the main branch in terms of representation and policymaking, consisting of 193 Member States. The body recommends action on international issues. These recommendations are called resolutions and are voted on by member states – one state, one vote. Issues like peace and security, budgets, and the admission of new members to the GA and Security Council require a two-thirds vote.

The Security Council (SC) consists of five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – and 10 non-permanent members holding two-year terms – currently Bolivia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Sweden, Ukraine, and Uruguay. The body can also issue resolutions but is primarily charged with the “maintenance of international peace and security.” Permanent members can veto actions passed by the GA.   

A nation becomes a member state by submitting an application to the Secretary-General and gaining approval from nine of the 15 Security Council members (including all five permanent members) and a two-thirds majority vote from the General Assembly.

The secretary-general is the chief administrative position with a five year, renewable term, currently held by António Guterres. The office was previously held by Ban Ki-moon, and Kofi Annan before him. The former left office at the end of 2016 with a mixed legacy, leaving behind crises in nations like Syria and Yemen, and failing to properly address sexual abuse among UN aid workers in the Central African Republic. On the other hand, his supporters cite his unprecedented success in bringing climate change to the front of global affairs, manifested in the Paris climate agreement.

Read More: Sexual Assault is a Hidden Menace for International Aid Workers

Kofi Annan enjoys a much more admirable legacy after being elected secretary general in 1997. Praised as an advocate for Africa and for his diplomatic skills, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2001. He was criticized as the head of UN Peacekeeping Operations during the ethnic cleansings in Rwanda and Bosnia but is still remembered for reviving the UN during a period of organizational decline.  

What has the UN achieved?

The UN is affiliated with numerous organizations that work to support its goals of a safer, healthier, and more just world.

The World Health Organization, for instance, has been at the forefront in the global effort to eradicate polio amid greater efforts to respond quickly and effectively to malnutrition and outbreaks in disease.

The World Food Programme meanwhile, aims to feed 80 million people in 80 different countries and works to develop food security so that famished areas can achieve self-sufficiency.

Arguably the most-needed UN affiliate right now is the UN Refugee Agency. UNHCR provides clean water, sanitation, food and shelter to 16.1 million refugees who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

Read More: United Nations Requests $2.1 Billion to Curb Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

If you’ve ever gone trick-or-treating on Halloween, you’ve heard of the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), even if you never knew what the organization does. In case you still don’t know, overarching goals include: working to fight child mortality, provide pediatric medicine and access to education, and ensure equal rights for women and girls.

Ever been to the Great Pyramids of Giza? How about the Galapagos Islands? If you have or someday wish to, you can thank the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for helping to preserve their existence. Under the World Heritage Convention, sites that are, “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity” are deemed World Heritage Sites and receive special protections under international treaties.  

In addition to helping those affected by global crises, all of these organizations publish data and provide reports to keep people informed about critical developments and international responses.

When considering all this, in addition to the UN’s role in global disarmament, even the most ardent isolationists can’t deny the tangible benefits the UN has facilitated throughout the world during the past 70 years. Nevertheless, many believe it can do more.

What are the UN’s shortcomings?

In a word, realism (in a legal sense, that is).

The description of the International Criminal Court (which handles judicial cases among individuals, unlike the International Court of Justice which handles cases between nations) summarizes the dilemma:

“As a judicial institution, the ICC does not have its own police force or enforcement body; thus, it relies on cooperation with countries worldwide for support, particularly for making arrests, transferring arrested persons to the ICC detention center in The Hague, freezing suspects’ assets, and enforcing sentences.”

Basically, if the ICC were a Dick Wolf television series, it would just be called Order because it has zero capacity to enforce Law. Remember how the General Assembly makes recommendations? That means they’re technically not legally binding.

The core of the UN’s shortcomings is identical to critiques of legal liberalism in general — it relies on idealism and commitment by parties to adhere to its laws because of a higher moral calling, not because they necessarily have to. Case in point: the US doesn’t even recognize the ICC.

Furthermore, permanent members of the Security Council have the power to veto actions passed by the General Assembly. Though this may seem like a logical mechanism for checks and balances, it has handcuffed the UN from responding to extreme humanitarian crises.

For instance, the Syrian genocide and civil war is precisely the type of conflict the UN is meant to prevent and relieve. Nevertheless, conflict has continued to devastate the nation because Russia has favorable relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the Western powers in the Security Council support those rebelling against his regime. Even UN efforts to deliver humanitarian aid have become corrupted.

Read More: How to Ensure Donated Goods Are Helping, Not Hurting, After a Crisis

Another older, yet ongoing, example dates back to 1967. The UN ordered Israel to relinquish the territory it took in the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza during the Six-Day War but the nation has not followed suit. Why? Because Israel is backed by the US.

Some argue the territory was justly taken in a pre-emptive strike that was required to ensure Israel’s existence. Regardless, people are suffering in Gaza and the UN is virtually powerless to enforce its humanitarian decrees.

UN Peacekeeping forces have repeatedly failed to protect vulnerable populations, most notably prior to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

What is the UN’s future outlook?

General Assembly

South Sudan was the last nation to be admitted as a Member State in 2011. Palestine has been recognized by 137 of the 193 Member States, granted non-member observer status, and its flag is raised at UN headquarters, but full-member status has been elusive.

John Kerry abstained from a UN vote last December that condemned the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the UN, vowed to reaffirm the US alliance with Israel – which means blocking UN membership for Palestine.

Within the organization itself, the GA has acted to increase transparency and accountability. The body’s president must now swear an oath of office, honor a code of ethics, and provide financial disclosures on assumption and completion of duties. In addition, the body requested the Secretary General review budgets and make financial records more available.    

Security Council

Security Council reform is another primary objective for many Member States. The G4 nations – Germany, India, Brazil, and Japan – have all committed to supporting the other’s bids for permanent Security Council status.

In addition to increasing geographic representation within the body, other areas that need addressing include its size, veto power, and relationship with the General Assembly.

Geopolitical Challenges

The ongoing Syrian civil war has damaged the legacies of the last two Secretary-Generals. In spite of delays, peace talks are underway.

The conflict has also fueled the global refugee crisis, another challenge facing Guterres. Having served 10 years as the head of the UN Refugee Agency, he may be the perfect man to address the issue.

Other challenges include the expansion of nuclear arsenals and the ongoing threat of climate change. The Paris climate agreement, which went into effect on November 4, 2016, aims to limit global temperature increase this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The potential loss of the US as a participant could derail those efforts.    

Read More: Why Donald Trump Might Stick With the Paris Climate Agreement

The UN has done enormous good but has fallen short of its utopian goals. The task could get tougher soon. With the new White House administration, the UN may have to continue its work without the United States.

President Donald Trump campaigned on “America first” rhetoric and has already led retreats from global initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He’s also called for the US to leave NAFTA.

Last, month, a bill was presented in the US House of Representatives to completely withdraw from the United Nations.

Without US support, the League of Nations faded into obsolescence prior to World War II. If Trump’s isolationist agenda is successful, who knows what will happen to the UN?


Demand Equity

As the US Threatens to Cut UN Funding, Here's What the UN Actually Does

By James O'Hare