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Introduction: Fine-Tuning the UN.

In the warm glow of the peace following World War II, the nations of the world yearned mightily for a global organization that would be a forum for brotherhood, debate, and resolution of all of the problems that plagued the family of man. With the horrible carnage of the war years fresh in all minds, efforts were set in motion to ensure that such a widespread bloodbath would never again occur.

The movement was not a new one. Just after the First World War, with nations steeped in a similar environment of worldwide longing for permanent peace and revulsion for violent conflict, the League of Nations had been hopefully launched. But the League, like a child slowly strangled by cystic fibrosis, gasped for breath throughout all of its years as it was ineluctably smothered by the stubborn selfishness of its members. Set up in January 1920, the apple of President Woodrow Wilson's eye tottered through the twenties and thirties, becoming increasingly irrelevant, until a new world war rendered it altogether supine.

In 1946, the League's few remaining assets were transferred to the newborn United Nations, which had been officially established on October 24, 1945. During its fifty-nine years of existence, the UN, like the League before it, has likewise had to contend with the debilitating self-centeredness of its members, which now number 191. The fortunes of the world body have waxed and waned with the passing of time. Sometimes it was used as a pawn by the world's great powers; at other times it exercised decisive influence on global affairs, as when the UN Security Council in 1950 authorized a multinational, U.S.-led force to counter the bloody invasion of South Korea by the North.

All told, however, the UN has exercised influence in the world far beyond its relatively meager size and budget (its two-year allocation for 2000-2001 was $2.5 billion, with an additional $2 billion for peacekeeping, which pales in comparison with the U.S. defense outlay, which approached $300 billion in 2000). With its Charter heavily inspired by the United States and other Western democracies and woven tightly with the principles of human rights and compassion for the poor and deprived, the world body has acted as a moral mother lode, despite occasional scandals and appearances of political favoritism.

Over the years, it has sought to hew to its original purpose, as set forth in the Charter, of maintaining international peace and security; developing friendly relations among nations; and cooperating in solving international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. To these ends, the UN has conducted countless peacekeeping missions and development projects.

Nonetheless, its goals have remained elusive and its relevance has been increasingly questioned in a post-Cold War world in which conflict seems as persistent as ever and in which poverty seems insufferably intractable. In the following essays, The World & I delves into a handful of the issues that are most important for the UN today. Tim Murithi, himself a UN program officer, says in "Rethinking the United Nations System: Prospects for a World Federation of Nations" that the very system of the nation-state, with all of its slavish dependence on national self-interest, is an inherent drag on the UN's progress. There needs to be far more concern, he says, for subnational groups and minorities than currently exists--ultimately placing the interest of the individual human being at the center of the world order rather than the interest of the state.

Albert J. Venter, a professor at a South African university, notes in "Reform of the United Nations Security Council" that the UN's fifteen- member executive body is anything but democratic. He lays out the major complaint of most of the developing-world nations over the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of the five permanent, veto- wielding members of the Security Council--the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia. He notes proposals for making the Security Council more democratic and representative of the family of nations, but concludes that change is unlikely until there is a major geopolitical shift in the world.

In "UN Development Goals Fall Short," Stephanie Dornschneider writes that improving the quality of life of the world's impoverished is proving to be a will-o'-the-wisp for the United Nations. The world body in 2000 adopted a set of "millennium development goals"--eight broad benchmarks for developing countries to achieve by 2015. But the goals, which include poverty reduction, improved health, gender equality, better education, and environmental sustainability, are proving to be all but impossible to achieve.
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Publication:World and I
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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