UN, Great Powers and World Peace


Vijay Mehta – TRANSCEND Media Service

31 Aug 2023 – Since its inception in 1945, the United Nations has played an instrumental part in global affairs. It has served as a platform for resolving international disputes, maintaining peace in turbulent areas across the globe and played host to altruist diplomats and despotic dictators alike. It has not, however, being free of controversy. Criticism directed at the supposed ineffectiveness of the United Nation’s Security Council and accusations of abuse towards members of the peacekeeping corps, its inability to end ongoing wars demonstrate that it is not a perfect organisation.

As we delve deeper in the 21st Century, the future of United Nations especially its funding requirements and authority remains uncertain. Will it buckle and break under the pressure created by rising nationalism, militarism and populism among its member states or will it thrive in our ever more technological and connected world? Will it ever able to realise its UN Charter goal of –

…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind?”

Major Power Rivalries

Lots of changes are taking place in the world. Ongoing war in Ukraine, Sudan and Yemen, and its repercussions are spreading throughout the world. Experts have spotted a pattern: dissatisfaction against elites in countries where democracy is a source of disappointment, corruption is seen as brazen and a tiny elite, rich and political class lives lavishly while the majority of citizens struggle to get by.

The world seems spinning out of control. West vs Russia and China relations deteriorating with NATO trying to extend the membership to Ukraine. The senseless killing and destruction in the Ukraine war could be a trigger for us all to realise that we need a peace order that is not based on military superiority and powerful military alliances but on international understanding and cooperation, the peace order can only be based on principles of the UN Charger.

The Israel-Gaza border crisis festers with many protestors killed, and no just solution for Palestinians in prospect. US sanction on Iran and trade war with China further destabilises the already volatile region. Major power rivalries and proxy wars in the Middle East prevent the vitally needed peace in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq undermining the UN System.

China, Russia and USA are dominant major powers and each influences the world in very different ways. China seeks dominance in the Far East by economic power. The US sustains its global military power by huge arms spending, its network of bases, policies of interventionism, alliances such as NATO and sanction regimes against perceived enemies such as Iran and Russia, North Korea. Russia safeguards its frontiers against NATO expansionism in the West and Islamist forces by its military strength, keeps close links with most ex-Soviet states and has a de-facto military and political alliance with China.

It’s difficult to argue that any of these three powers (US, Russia and China) see the United Nation as a primary forum for its diplomatic influence and global role – though all will use the UN to try to build allies on key issues.  As permanent members of the Security Council, they are at the forefront of decision making on World Peace and Security. It is also noteworthy that the five permanent Security Council members, P5 (USA, UK, China, France, Russia) are also the leading global arms manufacturers and exporters and major cause of conflicts around the world by repeatedly violating and waging illegal wars, which shows contradiction at the heart of the UN system, since tensions and conflicts bring P5 economic benefit.

UN’s Role of Global Governance Is Slipping Away

Another troubling fact is global governance is slipping away from the United Nations – whether managing the internet, tackling climate change, rising inequality or global conflicts. Another recent development is while in the past NGOs were the largest on state entities attending the UN meetings, and now trans-national corporations have become the biggest players changing the UN agenda of trade, development and Human Rights Council and the high-level political body following up SDG (Sustainable Development Goals), according to what suits them. As UN is being starved of cash and a large number of countries have failed to pay their dues, corporate takeover of the UN has started which could severely restrict implementation of effective multilateralism, a founding principle of the United Nations. Where democracy fails, history tells us that violence, wars and conflicts usually follows.

All these argues for urgent restoration of the authority of UN as world’s leading and most representative forum for global conflict resolution and peace building. However the million dollar question is how 193 countries which are UN members including permanent 5 members of the Security Council (P5), USA, UK, Russia France, China can work together to solve some of the intractable problems facing the world today?

After 78 year of its formation, has UN become a talking shop, a toothless tiger or irrelevant to the formidable challenges of the 21st Century? Certainly, it has not been able to fulfil its preamble goal of …

“…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” (Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations)

It is evident from continuing wars in Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Libya, Sudan before and genocide in Myanmar, the UN has no power to prevent conflicts, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Dag Hammarskjold, 2nd UN Secretary General said, “The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but save it from hell.”

There is another group of people who are of the opinion that UN is a showcase or a front for the Western powers, corporations, elites and the military who have set up the UN to delude the majority of world population for its own gains. The 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, China, Russia, France, UK) are also the biggest arms makers and war mongers.  If that was not the case why there is continuation of wars, also why in a world of plenty in the 21st Century, 3 billion people are forced to live on $2 a day while according to a report by Oxfam, 8 rich people own as much wealth as 3.6 billion or half of the humanity. 20,000 people die of hunger every day, while at the same time $4 billion is spent on weapons, armaments and other military expenditure on a daily basis.

Strengthening the Role of the United Nations and Its Secretary General for Building a Peaceful World

For building a peaceful world, we need UN Reforms in areas of:

International Peacekeeping and Security, Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights, Climate Change, Poverty Reduction, Combating Terrorism, Gender Equality, Media and Public Relations and Funding of the UN.

Any plausible UN reform starts with compromise. The Security Council needs to be large enough to be representative, but small enough to do business. It should reflect real power in the world which means countries not represented in decision making like India, Brazil South Africa should be given a Security Council membership which will legitimise decision making.

For the sake of Global Peace, countries of the global South, must be given much greater decision making rights in the UN. In the wake of the Ukraine war, the position of the global South has already strengthen while the quest of the West for global supremacy are weakening. The positive outcome of the senseless war, we may see, a world that will move towards in more equal, fairer and multipolar global order for which the UN Charter is designed.

The Secretary General Antonio Guterres should as a matter of urgency implement the following recommendations for reform to strengthen the United Nations for world peace:

The UN Secretary General should adopt United Nation’s General Assembly draft resolution: ‘Building Ministries or Departments for Peace’ within governments to strengthen the culture of peace (draft resolution ref 4/26/10).

First and foremost, different parts of UN should work in unity in coherence for the same purpose without duplicating efforts in its agencies, programmes and funds.

UN should strengthen the role of developing countries (the global South) over the industrialised states (the global North) to eliminate the status quo of marginalisation of developing countries.

The UN should provide a friendly forum where politicians who have galloped away in their belligerent rhetoric can lower their tone, diffuse the war and tensions in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and Iran. It should bring all parties to the dispute between Russia vs Ukraine war for a ceasefire and a peace agreement.

The Secretary General should tackle propaganda of war. The prevalence of belligerent rhetoric, sabre-rattling and war-mongering, including irresponsible media-hype and blatant propaganda for war have been responsible for many armed conflicts. It happens because of incitement by politicians and the media, pursuing a logic of war and rejecting other options for the solutions of international disputes by negotiation and diplomacy.

The SG should work to deter military spending and the undemocratic impact of the Military-Industrial Complex on governments and the general lack of budget and fiscal transparency in most countries which constitutes a major problem. Few people know, in 2022, the world spent over $2 trillion in armaments. US on its own spend over $850 billion every year in engaging in foreign wars and maintaining military bases. As the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has famously said, “The world is over-armed and peace is underfunded.”

The SG should use his unique moral authority to uphold the rule of law which is a vital element of conflict prevention and peacekeeping as the rules – based international system as enshrined in the Charter of United Nations. The breach of peace by aggression constitutes an international wrongful act giving rise to state responsibility, the obligation to make reparation and personal criminal liability. There has been countless wars and aggressions since the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials whereas tribunals have produced significant case and law on war crimes and crimes against humanity, there has been no progress with regard with the prosecution of the crime against peace.

Way Forward

Today, it is urgent to overcome authoritarianism, destructive neo-liberalism, populism, pushing us into plutocracy, kleptocracy, replacing democratic norms.

In an age when more and more problems facing humanity are global and the world has more and more need for a global institutions through which to forge and implement global strategies, it is more than ever necessary for the United Nations to live up to the promise of its Charter – and, above all, the demands and hopes of future generations.

What has changed is that the permanent members of the Security Council are realising that they are no longer the superpowers of the world as they were once after the Second World War. Countries such as India, Brazil, Japan, Germany, South Africa and others are playing a very important role in the 21st century and should be members of the Security Council. It is increasingly being realised that if proper status and inclusion is not granted to the emerging giants, they will bypass the UN Security Council and take their own decisions as they will be the one who will be running the show by forming new alliances (like BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the 21st century. It’s time the UN becomes more representative of the people of the world, reflecting the importance of emerging countries of the world.

What else has changed is that the threats and challenges of today are increasingly global, like terrorism, climate change, financial crises, cyber security information and manipulation and misuse of artificial intelligence. They are so vast and huge that it cannot be tackled by one single country no matter how powerful it may be. We are living in an interdependent world, a global village in which co-operation and not rivalries will work for the survival of mankind.

The future of the UN lies in it as a major contributor of people, ideas and bringing new and invisible issues to the forefront. It creates a global forum for discussion, dialogue, communication for the progress of mankind. UN should mobilize international civil society and global public opinion to carry forward a vision for a just and fairer world. Its strength is evident from the fact that when the United Nations passes a resolution, it is seen as speaking for humanity as a whole, thus giving it unique legitimacy and support for an action to be taken by a country. 193 member states should embark on a reform agenda for security council which will make UN accountable, transparent and democratic decision making body, an organisation fit for facing challenges and threats of 21st Century successfully.

Positive actions by all of us should invest in establishing Ministries / Departments for Peace, peace education and Culture of Peace, promote the diversification of arms industries, swords into ploughshares. UN should lead by example through dialogue, diplomacy, building trust and work for maintaining peace and security by mediation, conflict resolution and through negotiation and no longer through military force.  A reformed, democratic, transparent and accountable UN, along with the cooperation of the international community and a strong civil society, can produce the result in consigning war to history and making the dream of achieving peace a reality.

‘Where nations work together, hope prevails and collective solutions can be found.’ Said Secretary General of UN, Antonio Guterres. History demonstrates that if multiple stakeholders NGOs business community, regional and local leaders and individual citizens work together global risks can be addressed effectively. The adoption of Ottawa Convention, creation of Sustainable Development Goals, the coalition which created the International Criminal Court and the Paris Climate Agreement are such examples of the UN success.

Remember there is no challenge that is beyond our capacity to achieve as human beings. People like you across the world have the capital, knowledge and technology to implement changes for not only to eliminate extreme poverty, bring peace and justice but also realise the UN Charter Preamble Goal of “…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.”

World peace will remain an elusive dream unless we dismantle continuing wars, militarism, military bases, arms trade around the world. Instead we open Peace Centres and establish Departments / Ministries of Peace in each country to impart peace education, teach skillset of dialogue, diplomacy and reconciliation to live together in peace, cooperation and harmony. This should be the agenda of the UN in the 21st Century.


Vijay Mehta is an author and peace activist. He is chair of Uniting for Peace, founding trustee of Fortune Forum charity, and board member of GAMIP-Global Alliance for Ministries and Infrastructures for Peace. His books include: The Economics of Killing (Pluto Press, 2012); Peace Beyond Borders (New Internationalist, 2016; and the most recent How Not To Go To War (New Internationalist, 2019) where he proposes that in countries and communities, in governments, private institutions and media, Peace Departments and Peace Centres be established to report on and promote peace.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Sep 2023.

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