almost unnoticed today, 75 years ago, on 24 October 1945, the probably most
important international treaty, the United Nations Charter, came into effect. Its
aim was not only to end WWII, but to save, once and for all, succeeding
generations from the scourge of war. In San Francisco, the victors against Nazi
Germany pledged that not military power, but international cooperation and
human rights, should govern future world affairs. For a generation that went
through two World Wars and unimaginable human suffering and atrocities, the UN
Charter brought hope for a lasting peace. Three years later, the Charter was
complemented with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Taken
together, the global ban to use military force and the universal respect for
fundamental human rights were historical breakthroughs for humankind. As of
today, 193 countries have signed the UN Charter.
many setbacks, the world has indeed become more peaceful. Over time, wars among
UN Member States – the Charter’s core concern – have practically ceased to
exist. Except for minor local clashes, national armies or military alliances no
longer fight each other in battles. Today’s violent conflicts are almost
exclusively intrastate armed conflicts involving belligerent non-state actors –
a type of conflict the UN Charter was not designed for. But even if we include
intrastate armed conflicts and the effects of foreign interventions in them,
the risk for anyone in the world to be killed in a war or armed conflict today
is less than 2% of what it was in the 1950s.
then, has the UN Charter become so discredited in the West? Nowadays, most
Western politicians, analysts and even society in general consider the UN
Charter as irrelevant and the UN as largely obsolete. Western media generally
ignored its 75th anniversary and where it published articles the tone was too
often condescending, if not outright hostile. After experiencing 75 years of
peace ourselves, are we in the West no longer considering wars a threat to us?
Or are we believing that we have alternative mechanisms to deal with wars in
other parts of the world and, hence, no longer need the UN?
The UN is
an intergovernmental treaty body and its governing bodies such as its General
Assembly and the Security Council simply reflect existing political divisions
in the world. To abolish or circumvent the UN would not solve any of those
divisions. It would deprive Member States of the only global forum where they
can air differences and seek solutions. If we now argue that the UN has failed,
this implies that also we have failed. Three of five of the Security Council’s
Permanent Members are Western powers, and the West holds most senior UN positions.
So, before blaming others, we should ask ourselves first what our
responsibility is in making the UN – at least in our eyes – so unattractive.
the UN was largely paralysed during the Cold War, the relevance of its Charter
was then not questioned as it is today; NATO and the Warsaw Pact remained
defence alliances. This only changed with the end of Cold War and the collapse
of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The United States became the sole
uncontested political, economic and military superpower. Communism was defeated
and our system of liberal democracy, rule of law and free market economy had
proven to be the better one. It was hence not surprising that we began to aim
at creating a liberal world order under our leadership.
power was now in Western hands; the world had become unipolar. Russia had
descended into anarchy and China was nowhere to be seen. Why then, would we
need a UN Charter and a UN system in which weaker states – in particular,
non-democracies – would have a say and potentially restrict our decisions? From
then on, we spoke about a rules-based system – with which we meant our rules –
and no longer about upholding the UN Charter.
failed in bringing about a more peaceful and democratic world. For a believer
in liberal democracy, it is painful to admit that we wrecked this unique
post-Cold War opportunity through a mix of hubris, arrogance, an addiction to
military force and the obsession of preventing the emergence of a competing
superpower. Instead of bringing global peace, we got caught up in seven US-led
military interventions around the world – under the UN Charter, most were
illegal. Our justifications to go to war were questionable, if not outright
false. Though some military engagements lasted for decades (and still last) and
cost trillions of dollars, we could not win them. Instead of bringing liberal
democracy and prosperity, we brought mostly destruction and chaos.
while we accuse others, we bomb major cities and villages with heavy civilian
casualties, finance and arm local militia with awful human rights records and
ally with undemocratic governments when it suits us. We commit targeted
killings, mistreat prisoners, de-stabilise governments and feel justified
breaking up sovereign nation-states. Has unilateral power corrupted us?
the most damaging of our post-Cold War mistakes was our effort to reduce
Russia, in the words of former President Obama, to a regional power. Russia,
due to its huge nuclear arsenal and sheer geographical size, had remained an
irritation in a world dominated by us. We refused Russia the same financial
support we provided so generously to other East European countries, expanded
NATO right to its borders, stationed antiballistic missile batteries directed
against them, fomented so-called colour revolutions in the Ukraine and Georgia
and tried to block Russian access to the Black Sea. It would backfire!
resurgence of Russia and the rapid ascent of China as global players, our
dominance of world affairs begun to shrink. Almost seamlessly, we made the
U-turn from a victorious to a defensive posture. We now alleged that Russia
would militarily threaten Eastern Europe and China would want to attain global
power. The leading argument among a new breed of “realist” political analysts
became that great-power rivalries – and not any ideological hopes for a liberal
world order – was driving geopolitics. Great-power rivalries, they allege, are
inevitable and tensions between the West on the one hand and Russia and China on
the other was simply a return to a “normal” state of affairs.
rivalries will bring us back to the harsh realities of sheer power politics in
which the winner will no longer be decided by superior liberal ideals but by
superior technological and military systems. We see already the results.
According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) 2020
Yearbook, worldwide military expenditures have risen to over $1.9 trillion –
the highest level since 1990, with 2019 seeing the largest annual increase of
3.6%. Has a new arms race set in? Although we like to fault Russia and China
for this, much of the responsibility for the militarisation of conflicts lies
with the West. After all, according to SIPRI, in 2019 NATO and its Asian allies
accounted for about 61% of worldwide military expenditures while China
accounted for 14% and Russia for less than 4%.
worrying is that, while arms control agreements have successively been
dismantled, advancements in military technologies have made frightening
progress in biotechnology, guided weapon systems, tactical nuclear warheads,
and hypersonic rocket systems. We have begun militarising space, once
sacrosanct to military use, with so called killer satellites. The most
troubling development is, however, the applications of artificial intelligence
(AI) in military weapon systems. AI are essentially independent digital systems
that calculate, learn and decide infinitely faster than any human being. Will
we still be able to control such weapon systems or are we delegating decisions
of war and peace to artificial intelligence? In this brave new world, the UN
and its Charter would indeed be meaningless. But is this what we want?
to be at the threshold of a new horror scenario in which wars among states as a
means of achieving political aims have, once again, become acceptable or even,
as some would now argue, inevitable. What had begun in 1999 with NATO’s illegal
war against Serbia could, in the heated atmosphere of great-power rivalries
over issues such as Taiwan and control of the South China Sea, lead to a
military confrontation among nuclear powers. Is this the consequence of having
given up on the UN Charter?
after the end of the Cold War, the West finds itself in a vastly different
world and we must reconsider our options. The dream of a liberal world order is
no longer a realistic option; we no longer have the strength to pursue it. Our
political influence in the world is waning and we are pulling our military
back. Our share in the global economy is declining and our share in world
population is dwindling. Moreover, we are increasingly weakened by divisions
within the transatlantic alliance as well as by internal political divisions
within the US but also within and among European countries.
If we break
the UN Charter, others will too – and already do – and we will not be able to
prevent this. Under such circumstances, upholding the Charter that is built on
equal sovereignty, the ban of use of military force, the promotion of international
cooperation and universal human rights – in essence, on our norms and
principles – would be our best option. The UN Charter applies to all countries,
irrespective of their political systems. And it is breaking with the notion
that great power rivalries, and therefore the risk of wars, are inevitable. To
believe in the UN Charter is to believe in people’s ability across continents
and cultures to agree on a peaceful future and not in any inevitability of
confrontations among great powers.
leave the barrage of hostile reporting aside, UN Member States – despite all
their disagreements – differ much less today in political and economic outlooks
than ever since the end of WWII. When the UN Charter was signed, none of the
five great powers fulfilled the ideals of the Charter or the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights and ideological differences among them ran deep. Then,
the Soviet Union was a ruthless and expanding communist state, China was stuck
in 20 years of brutal civil war, the UK and France used military force to
maintain their colonial empires and half of the United States was still under a
strict apartheid regime.
extreme differences no longer exist. Although political systems will continue
to differ across the wider UN membership, to argue that the world is divided
between democracies and autocratic regimes, between good and bad is a dangerous
simplification. All countries adopted market policies, are increasingly
integrated into the world economy, and focus on economic and social progress
for their societies. Though far from being perfect, there is progress on core
demands of the UN Charter in bringing about greater social justice and
US and, with it, the West in general, must decide if we support a world order
that accommodates not only Russia and China but also many other up-coming
regional and global powers with a diversity of political systems, or if we are
we sleepwalking into another militarised global conflict in the hope to
ascertain our global supremacy? If we
choose cooperation over confrontation, we will need the global inclusiveness of
the UN and the universality of its Charter.
*Michael von der Schulenburg is a former UN
Assistant Secretary General. He escaped East Germany in 1969, studied in Berlin
London and Paris and worked and lived for 34 years in many of the world’s
trouble spots including Haiti, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Sierra
Leone with shorter assignments in Syria, Somalia, Central Asia, the Balkans and
the Sahel. He has written extensively on peace operations, internal UN reforms,
the failure of nation-states and the role of armed non-state actors. In 2017,
he published a book On Building Peace – Rescuing the Nation-state and Saving the
United Nations (Amsterdam University Press, 2017).