There are two fundamental problems with the United Nations: representation and cost allocation. The problems can be summarized as follows:
UN General Assembly Representation – Tyranny of a Population Minority. As an organization, the UN must do something on behalf of somebody. Without clarity about who the UN represents, it will not be able to actually do anything effectively. So who does the UN represent today? All countries in the UN General Assembly have an equal vote, which can result in 2/3rds (required to pass resolutions) of the General Assembly representing only about 8% of Earth’s population while the other 92% are left without meaningful representation.
UN Security Council Representation – Tyranny of the Elite. Voting behavior in the UN Security Council is also dysfunctional, but in this case, the Security Council represents the interests primarily of the five permanent members who have veto power over every Security Council decision. Under these conditions, the interests of only 3% of nations on Earth control the other 97% of all other nations who must beg for a place at the table on every major international issue.
Two Tyrannies Do Not Create Meaningful Balance. It might be tempting to believe that the two forms of tyranny create some kind of “checks and balances” like should theoretically exist in a national government between a legislature and executive branch. However, the General Assembly and Security Council are focused on entirely different agendas, they control different decision-making processes within the UN, and their political and financial pressure points are often very different. More importantly, the five most powerful nations, and especially the United States, simply ignore any resolution that they don’t like, but they have the power to enforce resolutions that are in their interests. So there is no meaningful balance of power benefit derived from the two tyrannical aspects of the representation problem described above.
A Personal Experience. I’ve faced this “representation problem” up-close and personal at several UN events in NYC whenever I’ve asked tough questions about the UN’s hypocritical resolution to stop certain nations from imposing a “diaspora tax” on their citizens while ignoring the far greater abuse of the diaspora tax perpetrated by the U.S. Government. My conversation with a former UN Secretary General was indicative of this “representation problem”. He said, “Nobody is going to alienate the United States. It’s just not going to happen. . . . .” Then he went on to explain all the delicate tap-dancing that he and his colleagues at the UN must perform to satisfy the demands and agenda of the US Government.
Cost Allocation. Assuming we fix the representation problem with some form of democratically elected global assembly that does not spiral into global tyranny (obviously a huge assumption), the next question is: Who should pay for it? As every entrepreneur knows, if you take VC money from an investor, you better be prepared to accommodate that investor’s desires at every stage of your company’s development. The same is true of Intergovernmental Organizations like the UN.
There is Only One Meaningful Place to Look for Solutions. Depending on how you measure it, the U.S. provides funding for 35%-50% of the UN budget across the UN’s vast portfolio of programs. The employees of the UN have families, children to feed, bills to pay, and dreams to pursue. They’re not going to bite any hand that feeds them. Since the US dominates the UN with its power and money and no significant decision at the UN can be made without at least tacit US consent, there is no other meaningful place to look than the dysfunctional performance of the US Government if we want to improve the UN’s performance.
The Solution. The only meaningful, sustainable solution is to improve the US electoral system so that the American people get more meaningful democratic representation, more accountable national budget management, and more effective foreign policymaking performance from the US Congress and White House. The UN’s performance will not substantially improve until the stakeholders that have the most power over the UN’s decision-making processes have meaningful checks and balances on their own self-serving agendas. The most powerful stakeholder is the US; so until and unless we elect political leadership in Washington that understands how to conduct truly fair and enlightened foreign policy in good faith, there is no hope to improve the UN.
What is “Fair and Enlightened” Political Leadership? “Fair and enlightened” means sincerely thoughtful leaders who can escape the Cold War mentality of Allen Dulles, Jim Forrestal, George Kennan, Joe McCarthy, Curtis Lemay, Henry Kissinger, and all their ideological descendants that control US foreign policy today. “Fair and enlightened” means conducting yourself knowing that you have the power to do virtually anything you want, but you have the wisdom, imagination, and foresight to check your power against the long-term consequences of your decisions. This simple rule of thumb alone would have saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars if it was embraced by US policymakers over the past 70 years since WWII.
Until we have that kind of political leadership running the US Government, the performance of the UN will continue to reflect the poor performance and woefully deficient accountability of the US Government across many different quality-of-service metrics.