“OH WHAT A great day this can be in history,” enthused President Harry Truman in San Francisco on June 26th 1945, at the end of the conference that gave birth to the United Nations. Fifty countries had put aside their differences “in one unshakable unity of determination—to find a way to end wars.” Seventy-five years on from the signing of its founding charter, the UN has proved durable. Its membership has grown to 193 through decolonisation and the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. It has moved into peacekeeping and humanitarian relief. There has been no new world war.
Truman’s high hopes soon confronted reality, however. For decades the world was divided by the cold war (the UN played a part in defusing the Cuban missile crisis in 1962). For a brief period after the fall of the Berlin Wall the UN worked as its founders envisaged, launching a flurry of peace missions as well as authorising the American-led liberation of Kuwait in 1991.
But America, after invading Iraq in 2003 without a Security Council mandate, has grown weary of its global burdens. Rivalry with other powers, first Russia and now increasingly China, has grown. The Security Council is stuck, unable even to agree on a resolution on covid-19. President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic—most strikingly his threat to withdraw from the WHO—is a far cry from Truman’s internationalism.
The UN has had dark moments, such as the genocide in Srebrenica, and no shortage of scandals. Lately, critics accuse it of weakness on human rights. Yet global challenges, from pandemics to climate change and (still) security, make it as relevant as ever. As its most revered secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjold, said: “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
Editor’s note: This Daily Chart is based on the opening chapter of “UNhappy birthday”, a special report on the new world disorder, published in the issue of June 20th 2020.