The UN turns 75 — is it still relevant?

This Friday marks 75 years since the signing of the United Nations charter, a document that established the biggest and longest-lived experiment in global political cooperation in modern history.

But the organization celebrates this milestone at a time of uncertainty about whether it is still fit for purpose in the 21st century — and not only because of the critical global challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.


First, the good news. The UN has much to be proud of. Its programs help hundreds of millions of people to ward off hunger, poverty, and violence. It's the leading platform for the fight against climate change and its refugee agencies care for almost 60 million of the most vulnerable people around the world. UN observers help to ensure free and fair elections, and its peacekeepers intervene where few countries would do so alone. And without the Non-Proliferation Treaty, many more countries today would have deadly nuclear weapons.

But on the other hand, it's hard to think of a major international crisis that the UN Security Council — the UN's most powerful body — has resolved since the 1991 Gulf War. The Council is too often a stage for rivals like the US, Russia and China to simply veto each other's initiatives. It was unable to prevent genocides in Rwanda, Darfur and more recently Myanmar, and powerless to restrain the 2003 US invasion of Iraq or Russia's annexation of Crimea a decade later. It did almost nothing on Syria.

So here are three big questions that the UN will need to resolve in the coming years.

First, does power at the UN reflect today's world? In some ways, the organization is still stuck in 1945: France and the UK remain permanent members of the Security Council, which has only one permanent member from Asia (China), and none from Africa the Middle East or Latin America.

Second, who's going to pay for the UN? The UN's regular budget is covered by mandatory contributions from all member states, but most UN agencies rely on voluntary contributions. This discretionary funding was already at high risk, and it's likely to decline even more as coronavirus clobbers national budgets. UN agencies will have to find the money elsewhere.

Third, will COVID-19 help or hurt the UN? On the one hand, a global public health crisis underscores the importance of precisely the kind of international cooperation that the UN is meant to foster. And as the pandemic deepens throughout the developing world, the UN will play a big role in managing the twin public health and economic impacts there.

However, the coronavirus is also heightening major countries' inclination to turn inward. The US, in a deepening rivalry with China, has already cut funding for the World Health Organization — a UN agency — over complaints that it's too cozy with Beijing. Will the pandemic and its aftermath empower political forces that favor cooperation or nationalism?

Happy Birthday, but… Three-quarters of a century on from its founding, the United Nations is at a potentially major turning point. As they blow out those 75 candles, what should the UN wish for?

In Italy, stacks of plastic boxes in supermarkets and stores are not garbage - they are collected and reused, thanks to a consortium that specializes in recycling them for food storage. How do these "circular" plastic boxes help reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions?

Learn more in this episode of Eni's Energy SUPERFACTS series.

Over the past few years, we've seen three major emerging powers take bold action to right what they say are historical wrongs.

First came Crimea. When the Kremlin decided in 2014 that Western powers were working against Russian interests in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula, which was then part of Ukraine. Moscow claimed that Crimea and its ethnic Russian majority had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries until a shameful deal in 1954 made Crimea part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Americans and Europeans imposed sanctions on Russia. But Ukraine is not part of NATO or the EU, and no further action was taken.

More Show less

"Neither America first, which is ultimately America alone, nor America the world's policeman," Sen. Chris Coons told Ian Bremmer in describing VP Joe Biden's approach to foreign policy should he win the presidential election in November. In the latest episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer, Sen. Coons provides details of how U.S. relationships with foreign governments and multilateral alliances could change in a Biden presidency. He also defended President Obama's track record, saying "I think it is a mischaracterization of the Obama-Biden foreign policy for President Trump to say that we were picking up the tab and fighting the world's wars and that we were disrespected." Coons stated that Biden would work to restore U.S. involvement in alliances like NATO, and shore up global support to pressure China on labor and environmental standards. The exchange is part of a broad conversation with the Senator about COVID response and economic relief, Russian interference in elections, and the 2020 presidential race. The episode begins airing nationally in the U.S. on Friday, July 10. Check local listings.

Jon Lieber, managing director for the United States at Eurasia Group, shares his insights on US politics:

How is coronavirus jeopardizing the legitimacy of a 2020 presidential election?

Well, what coronavirus is doing is a lot of states are worrying about people who aren't going to want to come to the polling places in the fall, and they're worried about a shortage of polling workers who are going to want to come out and volunteer to get sick by interacting with a bunch people in person. So, what they're doing is they're looking at making a shift to vote-by-mail. Most states allow some form of absentee balloting today. Five states just automatically mail you a ballot and they don't do any in-person voting. But the challenge here is that a lot of states are unprepared for the sharp increase that's expected. In the last election, 25% of ballots were cast by mail. You may see 50, 60 or even more percent of ballots cast by mail this time, which could overwhelm election administration, which happens at the state level.

More Show less

The United States and the European Union have comparable population sizes, but their COVID-19 death toll trajectories have diverged. As of July 8, the average number of new deaths every three days in the EU had fallen 97 percent since peaking at the beginning of April. The US number, however, has fallen only 67 percent over the same period. That means that although both regions' death tolls peaked with only two weeks difference, the EU has flattened its COVID-19 fatality curve faster than America. Some experts attribute the difference to EU countries' more robust public health systems and better compliance with mask-wearing and other social distancing measures.