Conservative politicians often portray the United Nations as a powerful monster, poised to gobble up the United States and other countries and put them under alien rule.
The reality, of course, is quite different. When it comes to international peace and security, the United Nations is notably lacking in power. Its resolutions along these lines are often ignored or go unenforced. Frequently, they are not even adopted. This situation leaves nations free to pursue traditional practices of power politics and, occasionally, much worse.
The weakness of the United Nations was illustrated once again on February 4, when Russia and China joined forces to veto a UN Security Council resolution dealing with Syria. The resolution was designed to halt eleven months of bloodshed in that nation, where more than 5,400 people had been massacred, mostly by government military forces. Backing an Arab League plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, the resolution was supported by 13 members of the Security Council. But, with Security Council rules allowing even one great power to veto action, the resolution was defeated.
The rules establishing a great power veto were formulated late in World War II, when three Allied nations (the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain) agreed to create a UN Security Council to maintain international peace and security. The Security Council would have 15 members, but five of them would be permanent members (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China), and each of these members would be empowered to veto any resolution or action. Thus, from the start, the great powers made sure that each of them had the ability to frustrate any venture of which they disapproved. And this, in turn, meant that, like the League of Nations, the United Nations was woefully weak when it came to enforcing international peace and security.
In the first decade of the post-war era, the Soviet Union led the way in drawing on the veto to defend what it considered its interests. But, in later decades, the United States surpassed the Soviet Union (and its successor, Russia) in use of the veto to block international security action. Indeed, since the establishment of the United Nations, all of the permanent members have relied upon the veto, which they have used hundreds of times to frustrate the majority in efforts to maintain international peace and security. As in the case of two Security Council resolutions dealing with the mass killing in Syria, this includes action to protect civilians in an armed conflict.
The result has been a dangerous world in which, all too often, rulers of nations (especially, the rulers of the great powers) simply go their own way -- squandering their resources on never-ending military buildups, invading other nations, and massacring civilian populations.
In the context of this continuing disaster, wouldn't it make sense to eliminate the veto in the Security Council? After all, there is no justifiable reason why great powers -- and particularly individual great powers -- should be accorded the right to frustrate the wishes of virtually the entire international community. Although scrapping the veto is no panacea for conflicts among nations, it seems likely to result in a more equitable and more secure world.
Furthermore, even if the veto were abolished, the great powers would still hold onto their permanent seats in the Security Council, thus ensuring that they would retain -- albeit in a more democratic fashion -- some influence over world affairs. And if, as supporters of the current structure insist, it is important to match authority with power, why not elevate additional great powers to permanent membership in the Security Council? Nations that have sometimes been mentioned as useful additions to that UN entity include Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan.
Plagued by dangerous arms races, bloody wars, and human rights violations, the world desperately needs an alternative form of governance. The great powers have the power to provide it, but not the legitimacy to do so, while the United Nations has the legitimacy but not the power. Hasn't the time finally arrived to supplement the legitimacy of the United Nations with enough power to maintain international peace and security?
Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual" (University of Tennessee Press, http://utpress.org/bookdetail-2/?jobno=T01559).