One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part two. Click here for part one.

Part two responses from: Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad; Ramzy Baroud; Helen Lackner; Gerry Simpson; Obiora Chinedu Okafor; Anne Marie Goetz; Dan Plesch; Tom Farer.

United Nations Part Two

Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad

The question is wrong. It is not whether the UN is ‘relevant’: which UN are we talking about?

The UN is not one thing. It reflects the contradictions of the world order and the imperatives of geopolitics, but also serves as a site of contestation where world order is actually produced and struggles from below for legitimacy, recognition and rights are played out. Meanwhile, UN bureaucrats in New York, Geneva and in the field go about doing their work, sometimes on behalf of power and other times for the marginalised, disadvantaged or vulnerable.

The most visible face of the UN is the Security Council (UNSC), which has come to stand in as the executive of the UN body on all matters of international security. It comprises fifteen states, five of them permanent members (the P5: China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) that hold veto power, allowing them to define which matters to deliberate on and which decisions to scuttle. So, Yemen is off the table, Russia blocks resolutions on Syria, and the US halts otherwise unanimous decisions on Palestine. These vetoes, however, are the exception not the rule: the UNSC was set up precisely to further great power interests. Vetoes reflect anxiety at the top in policing world order. When France and the UK broke ranks to veto US plans to invade Iraq in 2003, it precipitated a moment of genuine crisis in Atlantic relations. The fate of Iraqi civilians did not much bother them.

The UNSC stands in for the General Assembly, whose one hundred and ninety-three members set the tone for world opinion and produce or oversee the bulk of the UN’s huge social, development, environmental, and humanitarian agenda and actions. Following de-colonisation, the General Assembly mounted a radical challenge on behalf of the global South against the stifling structures set up by big powers. However, it has been largely tamed by the P5 in the post-Cold War period and after the Third World bloc broke apart. The relationship between the UNSC and the General Assembly remains fraught, with the former seeing itself as independently able to chart policy while the majority of the world’s states see the latter as the embodiment of a true democratic institution.

As the UN passed resolutions and drew up conventions, a myriad of indispensable, specialised agencies developed to deal with the various crises of the modern age. These UN agencies provide relief and advocacy for refugees, protect labour rights, move nuclear energy from war to peace, improve telecommunications around the world, provide development assistance, and many other functions. They are routinely taken for granted by critics of the UN, and pay the price for dependency on funding from, and the political whims of, rich states such as the US. When the P5 do agree on an important task, such as eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, funding and political will become non-issues in the completion of the task. When they do not agree, there is paralysis.

The UN, in all its forms, mirrors the contradictions and tensions in the world’s political environment. That is both its strength and its weakness. The question, then, is not about relevancy but about what the crises say about humanity. READ MORE

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part one. Click here for part two.

Part one responses from: Hans von Sponeck; Richard Falk; Rose Parfitt; Balakrishnan Rajagopal; ; Zillah Eisenstein; Sital Kalantry; Göran Therborn; Ian Hurd.

United Nations Part One

Hans von Sponeck

In 2000, US Senator Jesse Helms, attending a meeting of the UN Security Council, reminded his audience that the US would support the UN as long as it was in the interest of the United States. The UN was relevant whenever the US and the UN agendas tallied. Long before, meetings preparatory to the creation of the UN during the years 1941 to 1945, especially at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Woods and Yalta, had unequivocally confirmed the competitive ambitions of Stalin, Roosevelt/Dulles and Churchill to take control of the evolving post-WWII global order. Who should own the United Nations was the issue. The Mexican delegate to the San Francisco UN conference observed: the 51 founding members ‘had created an institution which could control the mice but the tigers would roam around freely’.

Western economic power, finance and leadership, with a majority of permanent members in the UN Security Council, led to a UN multilateralism controlled by the western world, with decision making essentially dictated by the United States. Subsequent globalisation, de-westernisation and the failures of the West in responding to geo-political challenges in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere led to a questioning of unilateral US leadership. The UN became an arena of increasing confrontation. As a tool for western, or more accurately US, interests, the UN began to lose its political relevance.

UN relevance, it must be stressed here, relates not just to its political but also to its operational dimension. National representatives in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly have a political mandate. The UN operational system of Agencies, Funds and Programmes led by the UN Secretary-General is responsible for multifarious tasks in development, peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance. It is considered an important, albeit chronically under-financed, contributor to the global order. Its relevance is rarely questioned.

In order for the political UN to be the credible institution defined by the UN Charter, reforms have to be introduced with a sense of urgency. The shelves are full with many proposals for change. The 193 UN member states (governments and civil society) at long last have to muster the political will to consider such change. East, West, North and South have to be ready for compromise, convergence and accountability in handling global relations. Once this process has started in earnest, the affirmative answer concerning UN relevance will be easy to give. READ MORE

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Adam Kotsko
The Political Theology of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is primarily considered an economic logic which promotes ideals of ‘free trade’, and reduces the role of government to a facilitator of deregulation and privatisation. But accompanying the economics has always been a particular worldview or ideology, and neoliberalism in fact relies on a whole social system of support and legitimation.

In his new book, Neoliberalism’s Demons, theologian and social theorist Adam Kotsko considers neoliberalism as a form of political theology, to understand how it functions in societies not only as a mode of economics, but also politically and culturally as a moral order. In this interview, I discuss with him some of the core ideas in the book.

Adam Kotsko teaches in the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. He is the author, most recently, of Neoliberalism’s Demons (Stanford University, 2018) and The Prince of This World (Stanford University, 2016), and the translator of many works by Giorgio Agamben. Visit his professional site for more information about his work, including links to articles and interviews.

Adam Kotsko

In your book, you approach neoliberalism from the perspective of political theology. What does political theology bring to the analysis of neoliberalism?

Adam Kotsko: Political theology has meant many things since the term was coined in the early 1920s by the German jurist Carl Schmitt, and so I was aware going into this project that I was at the risk of trying to explain the unknown by the unknown. In the book, I try to define the term in a way that is faithful to the intentions of earlier political theologians like Schmitt, while also making it more broadly useful. Ultimately, I view political theology as the study of the structures and sources of legitimacy – of the ways that people attempt to answer the question of who should be in charge and why.

A lot of times, people think of political theology as a discipline that points out parallels between theological and political structures – for instance, the sovereignty of the executive branch bears comparison with the sovereignty of God – but I think that the focus on legitimacy allows us to account for why those parallels exist: namely, because both the theological and the political orders are asking for our trust, for our faith. Neoliberalism is no exception to that, though most analyses of neoliberalism as a system do no foreground those questions of how the system legitimates itself. READ MORE