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

William Davies
Mental Health and Neoliberalism

William Davies
Mental Health and Neoliberalism

Mental health and wellbeing are now major concerns for government and big business, as stress, depression and anxiety become widespread in modern societies. But their focus is often solely on the attitude of the individual, which ignores the particular social and economic causes behind such conditions. Here, I discuss with William Davies the psychological demands and effects of neoliberalism and the science of happiness.

William DaviesWilliam Davies is a Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is author of The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty & the Logic of Competition (Sage, 2016) and The Happiness Industry: How the Government & Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (Verso, 2015). His writing is at www.williamdavies.blog

Historically, most social formations have involved widespread inequality and poverty, and have placed many people under mental stress. It may therefore seem likely that people would experience anxieties and depressive feelings less now, given the relative ease of modern life. So, what is it that makes mental well-being such a prominent matter today? Is it simply that we understand and diagnose mental health issues much more clearly and efficiently now, or are these issues actually more prevalent?

William Davies: Clearly diagnostics techniques exert an influence over the thing they diagnose, meaning that symptoms present themselves differently in different eras, especially where there is a psychological dimension. It is true that the vocabulary and techniques for diagnosing and experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in particular have grown since the 1970s, and that this must be considered a factor in their current levels in Western societies. There isn’t some underlying ‘truth’ about distress, that exists entirely independently of the concepts and metrics society introduces for representing and managing it.

On the other hand, the question of why there is so much distress, represented in this way, must still be asked. This distress is not ‘fake’, even if it is conditioned by its historical and cultural context. I think two things are worth focusing on. Firstly, there is the meritocratic ethos of contemporary capitalism, which states that social class is no longer relevant, and therefore everybody ends up with the socio-economic position they deserve. This produces a chronic sense of self-blame, unease, anxiety and self-recrimination, with individuals having nobody to blame but themselves for not being famous, very rich or more attractive. Combine with digital tools that allow all time and space to be used productively, and you have a society without any sanctuaries from economic competition. This, incidentally, is partly why the phenomenon of ‘safe spaces’ is necessary, providing the possibility of being somewhere where vulnerability is accepted, and also why such a phenomenon attracts so much rage from those of an older generation not privy to them.

Secondly, we live in a time of psycho-somatic confusion, no longer knowing what to attribute to the ‘mind’ and what to the ‘body’, with the ‘brain’ serving as a medium between the two. A great deal of mental illness, as discussed and encountered today, hovers in a psycho-somatic space which is existential but also medical at the same time. The medical dimension stems partly from the fact that psychiatry has become increasingly medicalised since the 1970s, and more dependent on pharmaceuticals, but also from the fact that the medical doctor is one of the last experts that we truly trust, and – in Britain – the NHS is one of the last public institutions of all-round care and sympathy. So we turn in these directions in search of those things, as much as because of physical ailments. READ MORE