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Why is the United Nations still so misunderstood?

The UN’s next secretary general has apparently been chosen. Once confirmed as Ban Ki-Moon’s successor, António Guterres will take the helm of one of the world’s great institutions – albeit one that’s constantly maligned, belittled, and misunderstood.

A lot of this negativity will fall to him to deal with. Debates about the UN and its future usually revolve around the Security Council and the secretary general. That’s where the power is, so that’s where change is needed, runs the argument.

So it went during the process by which Guterres was selected, as a chorus of former insiders appealed for the appointment of a tough, liberated new leader. These critics argued that the UN was in danger of collapsing into diplomatic irrelevance and irretrievable internal dysfunction.

Some believe a reformed UN leadership could perhaps impose a ceasefire in Syria, and even protect civilians globally against the self-interest of the great powers, or the abuses of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers.

Coming from frustrated veterans of the fusty inner sanctums of the UN, the calls for sunlight and change are understandable. Yes, the UN needs reform. But as we, together with many colleagues, suggest in a forthcoming book, this reform has to start from an accurate sense of what the UN actually is – and critically, where it began.

The UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, is often misremembered as an irrelevant, hapless victim of realpolitik. But thanks to British diplomats such as its first secretary general, Sir Eric Drummond, its secretariat came into being as an internationalist body organised by area of expertise, not by national delegation.

After it was opened in 1920, the league became a vibrant forum for the internationalisation of world politics, and its Geneva headquarters gave non-state actors from Palestine to the Pacific a forum for protest. Its secretariat regularly hauled the world’s great powers over the diplomatic coals while the global press took notes.

The opening of the League of Nations in 1920. National Library of Norway/Wikimedia Commons

In the 1930s, the league’s international political role famously declined and collapsed in the face of fascism. But its legacy lives on. Its technical bodies developed the expertise and capacity in health and economics that was later transferred to the UN, and in updated and much-changed versions – from the International Labour Organisation to the International Court of Justice and the World Health Organisation – these institutions underpin our systems of global governance today.

All things to all people

It makes no sense for the UN’s critics to focus only on the Security Council and the nominations for secretary general. At best, this perpetuates a view of the UN as a passive institution without the grit – or the guns – to solve the world’s problems.

But the UN is not a unified whole. It’s not a top-down machine, and nor is it a mere byproduct of great power interactions. Instead, it’s a highly complex system made up of a mass of agencies and structures, from the UN Environment Programme to the UN Development Programme, each with their own officers, mandates and dynamics. Through these institutions the UN embeds and monitors global policies in myriad areas from health reform to humanitarian aid to climate change. This is where most of its work is done – 24 hours a day, around the world.

Similarly, the UN is often ridiculed for its accumulated traditions, which have supposedly condemned it to be little more than a ponderous anachronism. But the truth is that it was always going to take decades for its charter and its careful institutional practices to establish the norms that now underpin our international society.

Its deliberative, representative forum, the General Assembly, has debated and denounced the behaviour of states according to these accumulating norms since the era of decolonisation. Its success in doing so means that when the world faces challenges, the world still looks to UN agencies and their expert staff for solutions.

When European states seek to expel refugees, it’s to the UNHCR that the world turns for authoritative opinion, and when the warring parties in Syria try to talk once again (behind closed doors), it’s at the UN in Geneva where they sit down.

The UN’s 2016 General Assembly underway. EPA/Justin Lane

Indeed, taken as a whole, the UN has become genuinely popular among most of the international public. Ever more underrepresented people embrace it as it works with civil society actors to pull groups and individuals into the business of making and enacting policy.

Every time the September General Assembly rolls around, record numbers of people flock to New York to participate in events such as the Social Good Summit, an annual initiative to open more of the UN’s many doors to the general public. There’s power in such practices too, even if they are far from the Security Council or the secretary general’s office.

This broad popularity transcends the theatre of the Security Council or the globetrotting of the secretary general. Ordinary people can use the UN as a lab for testing ideas, political claims and best practices across the spectrum of long term global governance, not just as a venue for hashing out rapid responses to immediate geopolitical crises.

The long view

Even if the conflicts that roil the world today regularly involve non-state actors, the world is still primarily ordered by states. This means international organisations such as the UN don’t so much issue orders as offer tools for states and other actors to take up, develop and use.

Specific UN mandates, the fruit of diplomatic compromise between member states, are left open to interpretation to allow soldiers and politicians to adapt to situations on the ground. They also often run for years.

Both the UN’s hard-earned successes and its appalling failures should be assessed across the breadth and duration of its efforts, rather than just on the terms of reference laid out in deliberately woolly resolutions.

Like the League of Nations before it, the UN has hosted and amplified global conversations about the future of humanity, often in spite of the intentions of the great powers and usually well beyond the Security Council or the secretary general’s office. These are the conversations that generate the principles and practices the world needs to move forward.

Clearly, the UN is no “enchanted palace”; no international organisation ever has been. Plainly, it has its closed diplomatic backrooms and all the problems that that entails. It is a vast edifice, but it has a great many open doors. And in a global context of seemingly intractable war and the onrushing crisis of climate change, it remains the ultimate and vital arena for monitoring the global balance of power and adjudicating international relations as best we can.

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