Landgraff: United Nations’ ineffectiveness on display in Ukraine

Jack Landgraff, Columnist

Content warning: This story contains mentions of genocide.

The United Nations is an organization revered by foreign policy pundits and everyday citizens around the globe for its help in resolving all kinds of crises, from public health to refugee flows to open military conflict.

Despite this generally positive reputation, I contend that the last 25 years of post-Cold War history tell us to expect absolutely nothing from the U.N. in the security realm. The organization is feckless; at best, it distracts global leadership and foriegn policy specialists from actual solutions. 

Russia’s invasion into Ukraine is a fresh example of this. Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N. offered sharp barbs at Russian President Vladimir Putin, emergency sessions have been called and the U.N.’s Secretary-General has begged for peace. In short, statements of fluff have taken precedence over real solutions. 

Despite this, the war in Ukraine rages on. Putin is wholly undeterred by U.N. words because as a member of the Security Council, he can veto any practical action while China abstains. Statements mean nothing to a dictator. Regardless of what Putin’s motivations are in Ukraine, whether they are to restore the Russian Empire, rally domestic support or something else all together, he does not need the support of the West to accomplish them. U.N. pleas do absolutely nothing to hurt Putin. NATO, the EU and other United States allies all act independently anyway when enacting sanctions and moving troops

This is not the first time the U.N. has failed to act in the face of Russian aggression. The Kremlin took whatever it wanted from Georgia in 2008, and unilaterally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. This is at least the third time in the twenty-first century Russia has started a war, and the U.N. can do nothing to stop it. The U.N. does not control the military force necessary to deter anyone from acting, especially as Russia sits, permanently, on the Security Council.

But the U.N.’s total ineptitude in the face of offensive military action and crimes against humanity by powerful states is not limited to Russia. For almost 20 years, the U.N. was powerless to stop the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many have argued the U.S. committed war crimes in Iraq, and beyond that, it was an invasion of a sovereign state. International law never stopped the United States in the Middle East, so there is no reason to expect it can stop Russia in Eastern Europe. 

Furthermore, the U.N. was totally unable to do anything about a multitude of late 20th century genocides. In Srebrenica, a small mountain town in newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, U.N. peacekeepers were horribly undersupplied and constrained by U.N. rules, which played a significant role in the mass murder of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. During the course of the broader conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the U.N. relied on NATO for implementation of things like a no-fly zone. However, these NATO operations also involved potential war crimes with the use of depleted uranium munitions.

In Rwanda, the U.N. was rendered even more ineffective. The organization pulled out peacekeepers or left them helpless as attacks began that would kill at least 500,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group.

In the aftermath of both the Rwandan genocide and the genocide in Srebrenica, retroactive punishment was applied. But ultimately, these crimes were not deterred by the U.N.. That turns us toward a growing and important black mark on the U.N.’s record today, such as the uninhibited mass genocide of the Uyghur people perpetrated by the Chinese government. The Chinese government is quite literally erecting concentration camps to mass sterilize Uyghur women with the goal of eliminating an entire ethnic group.

The U.N. has done its posturing, producing reports while senior leadership condemns Chinese actions. But the truth seems to be that no one is willing to do any of the hard work necessary to end China’s genocidal campaign. Western leadership seems to find the economic cost too high, and the U.N. lacks any military or economic force on its own. As such, resolving this active and ongoing ethnic cleansing will not be done by the U.N. 

None of this is to say that the U.N. should not continue to use their platform to advocate against Russian aggression. That work is good, and if it moves the needle for states that have economic and military capabilities to help end the crisis, then it is worth it. 

This is also not at all an attempt to endorse an isolationist foreign policy that has America retreat from international institutions. Leaving the U.N. would be of no benefit to the U.S. right now, and it would only serve to threaten the chance of non-Russian nations presenting a united front in response to Putin. 

The main takeaway: the U.N. cannot be looked upon to solve problems. The U.N. lacks any of the hard power necessary to impact the decision calculus of most leaders. There is nothing to suggest that calls to the U.N. for help in Ukraine will be met with any meaningful solutions to the crisis. 

Jack Landgraff is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.