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July 2, 2006

Can the United Nations Survive the Next Fifty Years?

By Gregory R. Copley[1]

Presented at the International Conference on The Rôle of the United Nations in the 21st Century, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, Greece, July 2, 2006

History has proven that all institutions, alliances, confederations, even nations, religions, and cultures have their time, and then fade. Some re-invent themselves to find new leases of life, and new missions. Some survive only as historical lessons for future generations. Why, then, do we suppose that the United Nations (UN) will re-invent itself to endure beyond the strategic era and framework for which it was created?

The UN had a clearly-defined initial mandate — couched, perhaps, in utopian terms — to manage or at least dampen the process of change which existed, or was foreseeable, at the time of its birth in 1945. To achieve its goal — and to succeed, which it did admirably in some major respects — it became a complex and capable organism. So, too, however, did the Western European Union (WEU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), amphictyonies born around the same time as the UN.

The evolution of history rendered first the WEU obsolete and then NATO, although both confederal organizations linger. So it is not unreasonable to ask whether the UN, too, has reached the end of its season.

This paper, then, poses the arbitrary question: “Can the United Nations Survive the Next 50 Years?” Indeed, while it is clear that the global society needs, perhaps more than ever, mechanisms of cooperation, it must be asked whether the UN itself — as our present major mechanism — has a mission commensurate with the needs of a world which differs in prospect vastly from the rigid structures of Westphalian states which characterized the Cold War Era? Has the UN become sclerotic? Has its original purpose been usurped or corrupted; or has its mission been completed? Is it unable to adapt its mission, personnel, and structures to new realities?

It has been said that the UN was created to provide justice to the smaller, less powerful nations of the world. While this may have been a byproduct of its development, it was not the basis for its establishment. The creation of the United Nations after World War II attempted to impose the peace of the victorious upon the world, affording paternalistic protection to the defeated and the smaller nations. In reality, it attempted, de facto, to freeze the world through treaties and coercion into an acceptance of the 1945 status quo, and 1945 values and concepts of society. It contained the natural aspirations of peoples — and the normal, historical cycle of the creation, development, and even the death, of societies and nations — as a means of constraining war.

The fear of apocalyptic war, with overwhelming weapons, which seemed to be the promise of the next era after World War II, was sufficient to cause obedience to the tenets of the United Nations. The alternative to adherence to a common structure appeared to be the destruction of the planet. Indeed, as has been evidenced since the early Delphic amphictyony, war, or the threat of war, has proven the best condition for the creation of confederacies. And peace and wealth have proven the cause of their end.

In this regard, then, the United Nations proved to be resoundingly successful. If not the United Nations itself, then the threat of the alternative. A Cold War did not merely emerge after World War II. Its existence was guaranteed by the United Nations, and the artificial structure which it created. And indeed this seemed preferable to the alternative of revived global hot war. But when the Cold War collapsed, so, too did the structural framework, or at least the need for it in its 1945 form.

And as the Cold War ended, the world’s response was to flow around the pseudo-status quo of rigidly-defined states. Globalization — the reality of the marketplace — pays only lip service to borders, and the free movement of ideas, technologies, and peoples have reduced the sovereign powers of states.

The reaction to globalization by the Union Nations has been to attempt to enshrine and enforce transnational behavioral modalities — “international law” — as a means of constraining the phenomenon, rather than to allow a return to the more visceral and customary modalities of inter-state behavior which have their origins in historical societal competition. All evolution and the continued existence of all living organisms, after all, have always depended upon constant challenge.

Thus, the groans of fear and anguish which arose in parts of the world when the US was viewed as the “sole global superpower”, after the end of the Cold War, were unwarranted and unrealistic. The utopian belief in the eventual creation of a single “world government” — that is, the UN, not the US — is equally unrealistic, and yet many seemingly intelligent people hold the hope that the United Nations could fulfill such a function.

However, the UN has acquired none of the qualities which historically would qualify it to achieve the status of “world governance”: it neither reaps, nor does it sow.[2] It has no intrinsic power to enforce compliance, other than to act as the rallying point for weaker states against the stronger. But it is the stronger states alone, because of their funding and forces, which give the UN what credibility and capability it has. If the UN moves too overtly to oppose its major sponsors, then these sponsors will — to protect their own interests — quite validly remove their economic power for the UN to survive.

But as we saw with the American Continental Congress and the European Union, among others, the UN has exhibited a tendency to creep toward federalism, using the confederation only as a transition to greater dreams. In this light, then, the later ambitions for world governance for the UN were certainly beyond the desires of the founding intellects of the organization, who merely wanted it to guarantee for as long as possible the sovereign powers and accumulated victory of their states. Those ambitions for world governance are indeed breathtaking in scope: to achieve global dominance without a shot fired.

History has proven that a unipolar strategic environment is not sustainable for any great period; absolute control absolutely and rapidly gives way to the bifurcation of power, at the very least, until a multi-polar strategic environment re-emerges. When the end of the Cold War, through force of strategic power, created a brief thought of a unipolar strategic environment, the situation soon gave way to the reality that the end of bipolarism in fact spawned multipolarism. This in turn will ultimately lead again to a new bipolarism, as smaller states once again coalesce around major powers.

The thought, then, that unipolar global governance could emerge through voluntary abdication of power by states to the United Nations is indeed utopian in the light of the constancy of human patterns of behavior which dictate otherwise.

In any event, six decades of growing bureaucratic entrenchment have limited the ability of the UN — or NATO and the WEU, for that matter — to adapt to the trauma of post-Cold War realities. The “trauma of post-Cold War realities” represent a strategic upheaval every bit as transforming as the end of World War II itself. In this new world, globalization has vitiated the very building blocks of the UN: the Westphalian-style sovereign states. And most of the states which have recently emerged are not truly viable without paternalistic protection, and were not viable even before globalization struck.

By definition, for the UN to be viable even as a confederal structure, its members must have true characteristics of sovereignty, including viability of economy, security, and the ability to determine their own fates. Increasingly, and particularly since the end of the Cold War also ended the patrimonial sustenance of many minor states, many members of the UN have not exhibited the qualities of true sovereignty which could give substance and credibility to the UN itself.

There are major similarities, and major differences, between the situations which prevailed at the end of World War II and those which prevail today. In 1945, the principal world leaders — Churchill, Truman, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-shek — were in a position to agree on a structure to prevent further conflict. They had imposed peace, but were either economically, militarily, or socially exhausted to different degrees, and while the end of the war saw them considering their own separate, and often mutually competitive, futures, they all agreed on the need for the chaos of a transformed world to be tamed and managed.

That situation does not prevail today. There is little or no agreement between the major global leaders as to the ideal path toward the future victories of their societies. Only the societies which became independent in the post-World War II and post Cold War periods, and those who had squandered the peace of the Cold War era, cling to the belief that the United Nations offers them protection. The end of the Cold War and the consequent flood of globalization not only brought about a revival of multipolarism, it also brought about an era — perhaps a transitional era — in which states could once again grasp control over their own destinies. So while globalization vitiated some aspects of sovereignty, the end of the constraints of the Cold War also reinstated the concept of the responsibility of societies for their own survival, wellbeing, and victory.

This, then, is a very different world from 1945. Will China today in its climb toward victory subordinate itself to the United Nations? Will India? Will Russia? Will the US? All will use existing amphictyonies as mechanisms of maneuver, but the dynamic elements of the new power structure will not depend on, or revere, the authority of the UN.

The decision to create the United Nations locked the spoils of war into the responsibility of the conquering parties, and the subsequent decolonization of much of the developing world was automatically swept into this process. Indeed, it was an essential component of the move from colonial state to recognized sovereign entity. And many in the world believed that a permanent and defined structure had come as the salvation for all humanity; the start of a world government capable of ending the rigid state structures which had supposedly caused war, and which would henceforth become structured elements within a global government.

The United Nations was never likely to be anything other than a temporary solution to humanity’s perpetual internecine competition.

Yet today many view the UN as a permanent edifice; a promise of tomorrow, freezing the comfortable status quo into a definition of the future. History has shown that there can be no such permanence in a world constantly changing. The same beliefs shaped the creation of the first “United Nations” at Delphi, 2,500 years ago, and the formation of the League of Nations after World War I.

The chaos of population growth and population movement, as well as the accompanying new age of the birth and death of nations, spells the end of the artificial rigidity which the UN brought to the world. The antagonisms which many in the US feel toward the UN will not be the cause for the UN’s gradual disappearance into insignificance. Neither will the UN be saved by the hopes of its supporters, who pray for the UN to be their guardian and to substitute for their own obligations to strive individually for the victory of their own societies.

The United Nations will soon become largely irrelevant because its principle job, the freezing of the status quo in 1945 terms, is finished. The UN staved off, for as long as possible, the chaos and lawlessness which — because of globalization and the movement of humanity, searching to find its own boundaries — is now defining itself in natural terms, not through the artificial construct of the old men of Yalta. Part of humanity is on the move as never before; the boundary fences have been trammeled by people, ideas, electronic signals, and the flood of goods and money. But human reaction to the disruption is to rebuild classical nationalism of a type which predates Westphalianism. This will unquestionably lead to a threat to the multi-cultural modern nation-states — the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, etc. — as individual “nations” within them seek sovereignty. We are already seeing the tendency to either break states into their regional or cultural components, or to make states mono-cultural, mono-ethnic, or mono-linguistic.

The task of nation-building, or the retention of national cohesion, then, is increasingly challenged, and the threat of conflict escalates dramatically as new borders are demanded.

With this in mind, the UN in its present form belongs now to a bygone era, just as Delphi’s amphictyony and the League of Nations, and other confederal structures of multi-society governance come and go. Some functional UN components clearly lend themselves to development into viable, stand-alone amphictyonies. It is the overarching structure of the UN which no longer relates to the changing situation, partly because the building blocks — the member states — are either changing or will change.

And while some UN functional agencies will find new life, some are clearly resisted by reality. For example, the UN’s attempt to build a new priesthood for the pseudo-religion it now calls “international law”, some of which is based on historical practice, is in large part based on the imposition of the current moral and political values of one set of societies onto other societies.

Much of the self-righteousness of the UN’s attempts to broaden the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to the war crimes tribunals and the like will ensure that the international legal system will be the first to be relegated to the sidelines in the transforming global structure. It is likely that the next to be treated with pragmatic selectivity is the World Trade Organization (WTO), the efforts of which to impose logic and harmony in the trading system have already been stubbornly rejected by the major signatories to the WTO, such as the US and the European Union.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has already passed from the realm of reality to that of a Greek tragedy in its pretence to be an amphictyony of realism, as a subordinate part of the UN, which controls the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It has failed completely to control the real spread of nuclear weapons technology; it merely manages a global charade where stated positions have little or nothing to do with reality. We have only to observe also how the UN’s office of the Secretary-General allowed itself to be mis-used in the Annan Plan for the supposed resolution of the division of Cyprus in 2004 to see that reality, or even the UN’s mission to protect, are now absent from many UN operations.

So we would indeed be fortunate if the overarching body of the UN itself was able to survive the next few decades as anything other than an increasingly irrelevant shell, and a forum for frustrated rhetoric and the handwringing assignment of blame for the lot of those states which do not take their destinies into their own hands. We saw that just such a decline into meaninglessness of the League of Nations — when it abdicated its self-appointed duty to stop the invasion of Ethiopia, for example, or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria — led to the vacuum in confederal relationships. This may have allowed World War II to begin. Certainly, the League could not prevent it.

The UN today unquestioningly allows the sovereign recognition of states such as Montenegro and Kosovo, which fail to meet the historical criteria for sovereignty, while denying recognition to, for example, Somaliland, which does meet such criteria. [Meanwhile, UN-recognized Somalia, former Italian Somaliland, no longer even exists as a state, other than by the recognition it has internationally.]

This all demonstrates how far the UN has drifted from reality. And the emerging global transition will, over the coming decade, essentially bypass the artificiality of the UN, deeming it irrelevant. States will do what they have to do to survive and succeed. Blood will be shed in the process, and, to paraphrase Omar Khayyàm, not all thy piety or wit can call it back, nor cancel half a jot of it.[3]

In short, then, the United Nations would be required to transform itself in a way which most of its members could not imagine nor condone if it was to be able to manage the coming Age of Transformation with the success with which it handled the post-World War II era. There is no indication at the organizational level — let alone the membership level — that the UN even wishes to change; it merely wishes the world to conform to it.

King Canute could not turn back the tide; and the great achievements of our current science do not yet give the UN the ability which Canute lacked.

So, no, the United Nations cannot survive the next 50 years. It is even now in the throes of death. Perhaps, as with the practice which bankrupted ancient Incan culture, the world will continue to expend its treasury to feed the body long after the spirit has left the flesh. But ultimately, dead is dead.

[1] Gregory Copley is President of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), based in Washington, DC. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Defense & Foreign Affairs publications, and the Global Information System (GIS), an on-line, encrypted-access, global intelligence service which provides strategic current intelligence to governments. He is a founding Director (and currently Acting Chief Executive) of Future Directions International (FDI), the Australian strategic research institution. Mr Copley is author of numerous books, and several thousand articles, papers, and lectures on strategic issues and history. One of his latest books, The Art of Victory, is being published in October 2006 by Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions in New York. Meanwhile, the 16th edition of his 2,340pp encyclopedia, the Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook, was published in June 2006, and his Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook on Azerbaijan will be published in July 2006. His Washington-based institute has for more than three decades worked grand strategy issues, and he has advised a number of governments at head-of-state level. He can be reached at email: or

[2] See, for example, Lister, Frederick K., The Early Security Confederations: From the Ancient Greeks to the United Colonies of New England, Westport, Connecticut, 1999: Greenwood Press. In this well-researched book, Lister — a 34-year veteran of the UN Secretariat — implicitly notes that the UN lacks the power to enforce. “… [T]he post-Cold War years have confirmed how ill-prepared that [world] community is to evolve into an all-inclusive confederal-type union. the inability of the members of the League of Nations and of the United Nations to make their respective collective security systems work effectively supports the pervasive pessimism regarding the present potential of any global confederal-type system to keep the peace. A global peacekeeping organization may eventually become feasible. But first, much greater support will need to be generated among political decision makers and world public opinion.”

[3] See Copley, Gregory R., The Art of Victory: How Nations Can Survive and Individuals Succeed in the Coming Global Transformation; New York, NY, 2006: Threshold Editions of Simon & Schuster. See particularly Chapter 21, Welcome to an Interregnum of Cratocide and Cratogenesis.