The United Nations commemorates 75 years of existence in October. Yet there is little to celebrate—the UN has largely failed to deliver collective security and disarmament. It now faces unprecedented challenges from the United States through the Trump administration’s rejection of “globalism”.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly on 22 September, Trump spent most of his time attacking China and the World Health Organization. He extolled the US’s recent foreign policy measures—withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal and paralysing the World Trade Organization through trade disputes with China. All are attacks on the UN system.

There is widespread consternation that Trump has accelerated a shift to “unilateralism” over “multilateralism”. Trump’s administration has defunded and disengaged from the UN and most recently withdrawn from the WHO. While Trump’s rhetoric reflects deepening international conflict, the UN’s historical efforts at achieving “multilateral” cooperation are not a great alternative. They have historically often been a different or perhaps “softer” means to achieve similar ends: defending and extending the interests of the world’s biggest powers and international capitalism.

The UN was meant to uphold and enforce international law, including by force. While it is claimed that the UN institutionalised a commitment to “liberal” and humanitarian values, it relies on the leading Western powers (above all the US) to enforce them. Yet these powers were never committed to these ideals. Trump’s reassertion of US national interests is mostly another step in a long history of manipulation and power politics.

One of world capitalism’s main contradictions is between the system’s international character and its reliance on nation-states for governing. Nation-states are bound to find ways to extend their power to ensure the operation of the system. An early consequence was the colonial enslavement of much of the world by the main industrialised powers. Far from promoting liberty and equality, nineteenth-century capitalism facilitated the most ruthless system of imperialism the world had seen.

Great Britain was the strongest power, with its empire and large navy. The two so-called world wars were fought to prevent latecomer Germany from becoming a greater rival through the conquest of territories in eastern Europe. The other main later emerging power, the US, pursued a slightly different approach. As historian William Appleman Williams documented, starting with disputes over China in the 1890s, US governments aimed to maintain an “open door” approach.

Of course, the US was also a colonial power, built upon the ruthless subjugation of indigenous people and territories. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, US capitalism’s access to new markets was threatened by the colonial empires. The US wanted a “multilateral” institution to maintain order and open these territories to US exports. After failing in its attempts to use the League of Nations for these purposes in 1918, it was more successful with the UN. Its military defeat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in 1945 gave the US unprecedented hegemony in world capitalism, and it obtained cooperation from lesser powers.

Based in the US, the UN’s most powerful multilateral institution became the Security Council. Five permanent member states could veto any measures that they disagreed with. Three were the oldest and most powerful imperialist powers: the United States, Great Britain and France. The others were the large, but less economically developed powers Russia and China (after 1971).

Yet the UN lacked any independent or permanent military to enforce its will. US military power played a de facto role. While all member states could vote in the UN’s General Assembly, it had little ability to implement decisions. Its main function was to elect the UN secretary-general to oversee a sprawling collection of agencies and institutions (with limited capacity and mostly symbolic power). These specialised agencies focus on areas such as health (WHO), human rights (Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights) and agriculture (Food and Agriculture Organization), and have met limited success. Now, these organisations face funding shortages that could severely curtail their work.

The UN’s contribution to international security has always been limited. Even the US’s attempts to use the Security Council as a multilateral cover for a pax America after 1945 quickly ran into difficulty. The onset of the Cold War between Stalin’s Russia and the US and its allies in the late 1940s meant the UN did little to facilitate international cooperation. The Soviet Union’s membership of the Security Council meant it could block the US from using the UN as a cover for its aggression and vice versa. The Soviet Union paid the price in 1950s for boycotting Security Council sessions when the UN backed a Western intervention in Korea.

The US created its own multilateral organisations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These enabled the US to encircle the Soviets with nuclear-armed forces. By 1949, the Soviets had also developed nuclear weapons, and an arms race ensued. The UN was powerless to prevent escalation of the conflict.

However, the UN retained some symbolic authority. The US and its allies often went to great lengths to legitimise their actions through Security Council or General Assembly support. This gave its activities a cloak of multilateral approval.

The US’s other “open door” project of disbanding the colonial empires was more successful. Its impacts were ironically contradictory. The ex-colonial states increasingly acquired membership of the UN General Assembly but were mostly excluded from the Security Council. While an International Court of Justice was also established, it relied on the voluntary compliance of member states.

An Economic and Social Council was supposed to oversee crucial issues concerning the world economy and international development. Real power, however, rested with bodies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Votes and control were allocated according to the proportional contributions of lender states. Wealthy and powerful countries like the US retained control.

Yet the newly independent countries’ ruling classes sometimes pursued interests that contradicted the wishes of the big powers. They even occasionally defied US power, largely under pressure from the deeply rooted anti-colonial sentiments of their citizens.

The threat of military intervention to enforce this world order remained ever present. In the case of Vietnam, French colonial intransigence contributed to a deep political radicalisation. A widely supported national liberation struggle emerged. The UN was unable to prevent the US and its allies’ military onslaught against the Vietnamese from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Some “peacekeeping” forces were deployed in secondary conflicts. All too often, their involvement even worsened conflicts. One of the most notorious early cases was the United Nations Operation in the Congo between 1960 and 1964. The mostly Western force failed to prevent a rebellion by groups aligned with the former colonial power, Belgium, from destabilising Patrice Lumumba’s democratically elected and anti-colonial government. Evidence exists that the UN mission even aided attempts to overthrow his government and helped with his assassination. 

Getting General Assembly approval for these missions and other matters became increasingly difficult as more and more independent states joined. A Non-Aligned Movement first emerged in 1955 and became stronger over time. A majority of General Assembly members increasingly voted against the US over most contentious issues. The UN’s peacekeeping activities even ceased altogether between 1978 and 1988 after anti-colonial struggles and Cold War tensions again intensified.

Some UN agencies also developed a slightly more critical and independent role. The “Group of 77” coalition of developing countries emerged in 1964 through a declaration at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. UNCTAD sometimes pursues policies that, while not challenging capitalism, attempt to advance the interests of ruling classes of the poorer countries of the world.

Faced with inaction by the Security Council, isolated in the General Assembly and often at odds with policies of some UN organisations, the US became less engaged with the UN in the 1980s. Its governments increasingly opted for “unilateral” over multilateral action across a wide range of issues. Sections of the extreme right of the US elite had long favoured US withdrawal from the UN. While US Republican President Ronald Regan never went that far, he did appoint arch-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick as ambassador. The US withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and stopped contributions to the UN Fund for Population Activities.

For a while, the new détente and the decline of Soviet power after the late 1980s reversed the trend. The US was able to obtain partial backing for its first military attack on Iraq in 1990. US President George Bush senior’s “new world order” rhetoric claimed that the UN could help maintain international law. The 1991 Iraq war showed this was cover for the US and the other great powers to pursue their imperial interests.

The indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995 mostly consolidated the existing atomic powers’ monopoly of control over these weapons. Limited agreements over climate change and the environment emerged from the 1992 United National Conference on Environment and Development. The resulting UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has lingered on, mostly ineffectually. The broader discourse of international politics was shaped by a new language of “sustainable human development”.

Increased cooperation on security and use of peacekeepers resulted in notable failures. The outbreak of civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s led to the Security Council imposing an arms embargo on “all sides” of the conflict. The main result was that the Serb forces loyal to Slobodan Milošević’s government inherited most of the hardware and ammunition of the former Yugoslav army. They rampaged for several years and eventually occupied large parts of Bosnia, committing many atrocities. Peacekeeping forces stood by as Serb militias massacred thousands of civilians in Srebrenica in 1995. The big powers had little concern for the mostly Muslim Bosnian population and eventually facilitated the partition of the country.

The US embarked on a second and more intense phase of unilateralism with the election of Republican George W. Bush in 2000. The neoconservative current in the Republicans was dismayed by the UN’s commitment to tackling climate change and the difficulty often involved in obtaining Security Council support for its actions. The resulting unilateral “war on terror” came to define international politics for the next generation. The US spent considerable effort trying and eventually failing to obtain Security Council support for its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unable to convince the Security Council that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, the US led its “coalition of the willing” into war.

The UN had fully collaborated up to that point, imposing thirteen years of crippling sanctions on Iraq. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, declared explicitly that the US-led war on Iraq was illegal and was not sanctioned by the Security Council. Yet the UN did nothing to prevent the invasion.

US policy toward the UN became more collaborative again during the Obama presidency. There was no significant alteration of US foreign policy, except for the use of fewer troops on the ground in favour of drones and remote warfare.

Both the failure to prevent atrocities in the Balkans and the Iraq invasion led some to believe that the UN could avoid similar mistakes in the future. In line with these hopes, the General Assembly adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in 2005 to facilitate increased “humanitarian interventions”. Yet the R2P’s promises proved empty. The major imperialist powers once again found ways to manipulate humanitarian intervention. The 2011 Libyan civil war and the aftermath of the Arab Spring are illustrative cases.

The Arab Spring began in 2011 with mass protests demanding political and social change across the Middle East and North Africa. The Western imperialist powers and Russia were mostly content to watch events while quietly supporting their client rulers in the region. Libya, however, provided the West with an inroad to intervene more directly and assert its control. Libya’s autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi had never won any international popularity contests. In power since 1969, Gaddafi’s idiosyncratic “petro-Islamist” regime had long been tagged as a terrorist sponsor by the US and its allies.

The Libyan regime had more recently tried to ingratiate itself with the Western powers. It cooperated in the war on terror and embraced a hardened version of neoliberal economic policy at home. By 2011, there was mass unemployment, especially among the country’s youth, who rebelled in a series of mass protests. The regime responded with repression. By March, a civil war raged between the government and a loose coalition of opposition groups. In a 2013 piece republished in Socialist Alternative magazine (Red Flag’s antecedent publication), John Pilger noted: “NATO backed the ‘rebels’ with a fabricated story about Gaddafi planning ‘genocide’”. While there was repression and violence in many countries—including many key allies of the main powers—Libya was singled out for political reasons.

The Security Council passed resolution 1973 to impose a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace. NATO began air strikes against the regime with UN support. By April, it was backing the rebels with ground forces. Gaddafi eventually lost control of most of the country before being tortured and killed by a NATO-backed militia. On the surface, it seemed the UN had played a positive role. It had ended Gaddafi’s dictatorship and its associated political repression. But this was largely an illusion: the UN had provided political cover for a foreign occupation in alliance with local warlord factions.

Elections in 2012 excluded any candidates linked to the old regime. By 2015, the US and international capital were able to buy lucrative oil leases. Libya quickly became embroiled in a renewed civil war. Islamic militants attacked and assassinated the US ambassador and began to seize oil facilities. The UN-backed government in Tripoli rapidly lost control of much of the country.

Far from bringing peace, the UN-backed intervention resulted in political and social chaos. Using the cover of “humanitarianism”, it replaced a traditional political adversary of Western interests and facilitated the plunder of oil resources. The Libyan intervention also marked the onset of an Arab Winter. It became clear the West would intervene only to promote its interests. Other repressive regimes became more, not less, emboldened. Russia and China blocked measures that might have curtailed some of the worst atrocities committed by the Assad regime in Syria. Russia even directly joined in the conflict to prop up its Syrian ally.

Trump’s coming to power in 2016 resulted in a further deepening of unilateralist rhetoric. Yet while his policies have often been incoherent, the UN has not offered much in the way of an alternative. The Trump government’s abandoning of the UN Framework Agreement on Climate Change reflects his desire to boost the profits of fossil fuel corporations. Yet the final round of negotiations—the Paris Accords of 2015—committed only to emissions targets that would lead to a two-degree increase in global mean temperatures. There were no serious mechanisms for enforcement.

Trump’s claims in his September General Assembly speech that the WHO is “virtually controlled by China” can’t be taken seriously. But the WHO is severely compromised by its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, giving contradictory and changing advice on appropriate measures since the start of the year.

As Rob Wallace predicted in the book Big Farms Make Big Flu: “The Second World War destroyed the League of Nations. A pandemic could do the same to WHO”. The WHO has little power and is constrained by diplomatic needs to maintain cooperation with member states. In the case of China, it appears the WHO did “soft pedal” for too long on recommended travel restrictions.

While Trump’s moves to unilateralism reflect and may worsen international conflicts, the UN’s version of multilateralism is not an alternative. The power vested in the Security Council and dependence of international organisations on cooperation from governments means it will do little to resist the desires of the more powerful states in the capitalist world order.