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Department of Political Science Asks, Does the U.N. Really Matter?

By Kate McAvey, '11

James McGann, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science, led a provocative discussion, which posed the question, “Does the U.N. Really Matter?”, on Wednesday March 26, in the DeLeon Room of the St. Augustine Center for the Liberal Arts. The discussion focused on the problems and flaws of this important world organization.

McGann began the discussion stating that there are three inescapable realities when it comes to the shortcomings of the United Nations: dysfunctional global order, a conflict-prone state system, and a flawed architecture. He made it clear that although many may think that the primary and/or exclusive detractor of the United Nations is the United States, they are quite wrong. The United Nations has detractors from all parts of the world.

One problem facing the United Nations is that its member states are comfortable with the organization “as is” and can’t seem to agree on how to make a change since its inception more than 60 years ago, McGann explained.

Another problem is the fact that the original mission of the United Nations – to keep peace – has broadened. Is the United Nations causing more conflict and doing less good? Originally, the United Nations was envisioned to be a peacekeeping institution; now, there is a broader mandate, which questions whether the United Nations should even get involved in security issues. Should these types of issues be left to the bigger world powers?

McGann referred to extension of the U.N.’s mission as “mission impossible.” In the end, the United Nations seems to emerge as the scapegoat, which is why it needs to leave the security issues to the world powers, McGann said.

The next functional flaw that McGann explored is the financial and funding aspects of the United Nations. Unlike the European Union, there is no independent means for financing the United Nations, he said. There have been proposals to tax for funding, but as of now, funding is completely dependent on individual states. Twenty countries contribute to 80 percent of the U.N. budget, and with this type of financial support, it is impossible for the United Nations to act independently of its member states.

This discussion then led to the next problem that McGann examined, which is that U.N. structure is not truly democratic. He explained how the work of the United Nations is centered on the “P5,” or the permanent council, which is comprised of the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, and France. These countries hold too much power within the institution, he said. In addition, McGann said that the Security General, who is selected on the basis of personality and politics, is problematic and not an effective way to direct such a large nonprofit organization.

The last key flaw of the existing structure of the United Nations that McGann identified is its lack of a standing army. If the United Nations had a standing army, then the organization would have a degree of power. It would possess the ability to activate and deploy troops. As McGann put it, as of now, the United Nations has to “beg, borrow, and steal” from other countries in order to organize and activate a peacekeeping operation.

Although the problems affecting the United Nations are many, and some of its work, such as the oil for food scandal in Iraq, has not been effective, there are other situations that the United Nations has handled successfully. When looking at the way its has effectively ended many conflicts in Cambodia and the way it is leading sanctions against Apartheid in South Africa, not all U.N. activity has been unproductive.

“We can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them,” McGann said. “The bottom line is that the U.N. is not made to get us into heaven, it is made to keep us out of hell.”

Changing the United Nations might not be the answer to its problems, because no one knows for certain if the result will make it a better and more viable organization. The fear of a radical change, which very well may create a worse-off situation, is why the United Nations has and will remain the same United Nations it has been since its inception more than 60 years ago, McGann explained.

Kate McAvey, ‘11, is a first-year student from Mahwah, N.J. She plans to major in Communication. Kate is working as an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Kate’s professional ambitions include broadcasting, public relations, and journalism.

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