Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an impassioned rebuke to the United Nations Security Council for its failure to prevent Russia’s invasion of his country.
“Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee?” he demanded. “It’s not there.” Rather than taking forceful action to arrest or even condemn Russia’s behavior, he said, the body had devolved into a venue for “conversation.” It was obvious to all that “the goals set in San Francisco in 1945 for the creation of a global security organization have not been achieved,” Zelenskyy concluded.
Zelenskyy’s indictment, which cited evidence of horrific atrocities committed by Russian forces, rattled U.N. ambassadors, as well it should have. Ukraine presents a potentially existential crisis for the U.N., given that it was created 77 years ago with the express intent of “sav[ing] succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” With the Security Council paralyzed by the Russian veto, the question lingering in the air is whether the U.N. will repeat the history of its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations, which abjectly failed to stop fascist aggression during the 1930s. That sad tale is worth remembering now, as we assess whether the U.N., too, is destined for history’s trash bin.
The league, which emerged from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, marked the first serious effort to create a universal system of collective security. Its mission was to settle interstate disputes peacefully and, if necessary, to deter, defeat and punish unlawful aggression.
Unfortunately, these noble aspirations outstripped the league’s meager authorities and capabilities. The body’s most fatal shortcoming was its lack of effective measures for peace enforcement, despite the warnings of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who had insisted, “If you say we shall not have any war, you have got to have force to make that ‘shall’ bite.” In fact, the league was toothless. Its 1919 Covenant, for example, gave every member of the League Council, where true power resided, an effective veto on any non-procedural issue. It also permitted any state involved in a dispute to sit on the council, and to vote on the matter. This effectively meant that aggressor nations could block any collective enforcement action against them.
In principle, the covenant committed league members to respond forcefully to aggression, including through sanctions and contributing military troops. In practice, member states diluted these obligations when they realized they might have to wage war to protect peace.
The League of Nations’ lack of universality compounded this weakness. The U.S. Senate rejected the covenant, despite Wilson’s entreaties in its favor, so the United States never joined it. And the U.S. was hardly the only actor on the sidelines. Germany joined in 1926, only to depart in 1933. Japan also quit in 1933, as did Italy in 1937. The Soviet Union abstained for the first decade of the league’s existence, joining only in 1934. These absences sapped the body’s legitimacy, undercut its practical effectiveness and reinforced its image as a tool of satisfied powers against revisionist states.
Eventually, the league’s impotence undercut that latter point, too, as, in the 1930s, it began to cave to the demands of those revisionist states: Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union. It proved powerless when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931; when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935; when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936; and again when Germany and Italy armed fascist rebels in Spain in 1937. By 1937, when Japan launched a full-scale assault on China, the league had become a marginal player in international security.
On the surface, there are striking similarities between then and now. Once again, revisionist powers seek to overturn the territorial status quo and create an alternative world order. They include not only Russia, but also China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, signed a pact with Russian President Vladimir Putin against the West just weeks before the Ukraine invasion. China has since thrown its partner an economic lifeline to help it survive international sanctions. No doubt Beijing is also tracking Russia’s invasion with an eye to its own irredentist claims on Taiwan.
As in the 1930s, too, some countries are straddling the diplomatic fence rather than condemning Russia’s naked aggression. The most prominent and disappointing is India, the world’s largest democracy. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for an inquiry into potential atrocities, but apparently fears alienating its Russian ally, on whose military aid it depends to deter its strategic rivals, China and Pakistan.
Finally, there are lingering doubts about the long-term U.S. commitment to the United Nations. President Joe Biden has sought to use the U.N. and other multilateral forums to ostracize Russia and hold Putin accountable, but the merits of internationalism are still disputed at home. The Republican Party, which could easily win majorities in Congress in this November’s midterm elections and the presidency itself in 2024, remains in the thrall of former President Donald Trump, who has explicitly embraced the “America First” slogan of interwar isolationists. Whether the U.N. goes the way of the league will depend in large measure on the outcome of this domestic U.S. debate.
The war in Ukraine marks the biggest test for the U.N. in three decades, but its failure is not inevitable, nor is it destined for irrelevance. What the crisis has revealed are the inherent limitations of any structure of international peace that depends on great power unanimity. And this was an explicit feature—not a bug—of the blueprint negotiated at Dumbarton Oaks and endorsed during the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.
Seeking to avoid the league’s fate, the architects of the U.N. Charter created a Security Council with the authority to pass binding resolutions on U.N. member states and authorize massive coercive power. In return for serving as joint custodians of world order, the council’s permanent members were granted the prerogative under Chapter 7 of blocking any U.N. enforcement action they perceived as contrary to their national interests. This was the price that the United States, with no less fervor from the Soviet Union, insisted upon in accepting this new peace and security arrangement.
During his impassioned speech to the Security Council last week, President Zelenskyy proposed a global conference in Kyiv to discuss sweeping reforms to the United Nations. Such a future gathering could have merit, but it is important to temper expectations about what it could possibly accomplish, particularly on the veto. The United States, as well as China, would be unlikely to accept any significant limitation on this privilege. More generally, there is a risk that such a conference, if it opens up the charter for negotiation, could end up weakening what works at the U.N., without correcting what does not. It could also empower nationalists who advocate abandoning the world body, both in the United States and in other critical member states, to chart a more isolationist or unilateralist course.
The inability of the U.N. to surmount great-power divisions is maddening to all who believe in the international rule of law. It is important to remember, however, that we have been here before. During much of its first four and a half decades, the Security Council was marginalized thanks to the U.S.-Soviet confrontation. The growing possibility of a new Cold War pitting the West against a China-Russia axis, with the rest of the world up for grabs, could return the U.N. to those bad old days.
If such a division does come to pass, the most promising strategy for the West would not be abandoning the U.N., but reverting to the Cold War method of working within it to achieve plausible aims, while simultaneously diversifying its portfolio of multilateral options. In other words, the United States and its allies should try to compartmentalize. In the Security Council, this means seeking agreement where possible to resolve grinding conflicts and authorize peacekeeping missions, while continuing to oppose China and Russa where necessary. In the U.N. more generally, it means rallying the broader membership behind the fundamental purposes of the charter—as the U.S. did last week in helping engineer Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council—while continuing to support multilateral agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Refugee Agency, which do indispensable work.
At the same time, the U.S. and its Western allies must expand their multilateral options by redoubling their support for narrower “club” arrangements that unite advanced market democracies, including NATO, the G-7, the U.S.-EU partnership, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as more informal “coalitions of the willing” that can more directly counter assaults on the open, rules-based international order.
The war in Ukraine is an extraordinary crisis for the U.N., but it need not be a fatal one. The fortunes of the world body may ultimately depend as much on events in the U.S. as in Eastern Europe. Frustrated by the Security Council’s inaction, Americans may be tempted to throw up their hands and quit the world body altogether—but that would be a mistake, akin to the disastrous U.S. decision not to join the League of Nations. It would accelerate the world’s descent into lawlessness and decrease the likelihood that Putin will ever be held accountable for his crimes.