•Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau absent at 2019 UNGA
Annalisa Merelli (Quartz Editorial)
The world’s biggest diplomatic festival, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), is about to kick off in earnest. But with high-profile absentees that include Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping, and Justin Trudeau, and governments raising doubts about the UN’s efficacy, this is also a good time to entertain a big question: Does the world even need the UN?
A systemic power imbalance gives permanent members of the UN Security Council—the US, UK, China, Russia, and France—and large donors (notably the US, which contributes about a quarter of the UN’s budget) an upper hand in the organization. This supports the image of the UN as a bureaucratic institution, ill-suited to meet the needs of countries whose priorities might not align with those of its key members. White House threats to cut UN funding add to the sense of doom.
But these limitations aren’t new to the UN—more important, they haven’t kept the organization from doing its job. Many UN agencies and programs still manage to accomplish the unglamorous work of promoting and coordinating international development, which can be credited with dramatically improving the lives of millions around the world. The UN has helped reduce extreme poverty, child mortality, and maternal mortality, and guarantee access to at least primary education for most of the world.
Though the UN is not capable of acting as the world’s policeman, it does do the vital work of collecting reliable information, conducting investigations, and demanding accountability, raising international scrutiny on violations even when it can’t address them directly. The world’s powers need that scrutiny, though before it loses credibility, the organization must do a better job of policing itself.
Even the threats of funding withdrawal have a silver lining. Losing US financial support would limit the UN’s activities, but could also bolster its credibility in the rest of the world. It might actually be an opportunity to reform the organization so that it represents member states more democratically, keeping them accountable, regardless of their wealth—as it was always meant to do.