New Orleans There’s nothing much to like about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, except the courage of its people and the amazing performance of President Zelenskyy. He appeared, remotely of course, before the United Nations asking for help in stopping the Russian invasion. He has been beating that drum fiercely, and with some success, to the USA and countries throughout the world, trying to do anything he can.
In his presentation to the UN, he raised a very pointed question. He demanded to know what the United Nations was worth, if it was unable to stop an invasion of a member country by one of its own Security Council? He has a point. That’s a great question with nothing but disappointing answers.
The UN has a big budget and the well-deserved reputation for many important programs. UNICEF for children and UNESCO for globally important historical sites are among the most well-known and popular. The UN’s primary mission and its sole reason for being is to bring peace in the world between its various member nations. Allowing Russia to once again invade another country, as it has done earlier with parts of Ukraine and Georgia, highlights the UN’s failure to be able to do what needs to be done to achieve peace. The horror and atrocity of this war, especially its toll among innocent civilians, its displacement of millions, and the flight of over 10% of its population as refugees, underline the tragedy of the UN’s powerlessness.
Zelenskyy’s demands seem to fall on deaf ears at the UN because of the problem of Security Council vetoes, an artifact of the Cold War on one hand and its permissiveness when it comes to big power bullies, right or wrong. Russia can both be the invader and also exercise a veto when it comes to demands by member nations – and all of the rest of the Security Council – to stop an invasion. They can do so with impunity, partly because this is the way this UN game is played, including and maybe even especially, by the United States, particularly as we hopscotch between various administrations in our love-hate affair with this body. The US and other countries’ rationale is that we need to protect the prerogatives of our own sovereignty, but of course, even in the Ukraine war, that is also exactly the Russian argument.
The UN was created after World War II to stop world wars, and the special entitlements of major powers, was part of the rewiring of these efforts that failed in the efforts after World War I to create the League of Nations. President Woodrow Wilson’s almost unilateral efforts there might have been good for a Noble Prize run, but didn’t move Congress who wouldn’t approve our participation in our own proposal. Nonetheless, the UN was supposed to be able to stop a World War III, and Zelenskyy is right, it doesn’t work. The UN can’t do its job.
Maybe there’s nothing that would work? Worse, maybe countries, including the major powers, need something like this mini-WWIII to reshape the efforts to stop something worse in the future? The terrible truth is that all of us now know, if there had been any hope earlier, that there is no longer any global buffer between peace and war, and the world is now well-armed, dangerous, and a very unsafe place for all of us. Zelenskyy and Ukrainians are feeling the burnt of this, but all of us are now sharing some piece of the pain and peril.