The UN turns 75 — is it still relevant?

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?

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

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