UN Headquarters, New York. CREDIT: United Nations Photo/(CC).

The United Nations: A Distinct and Exceptional Purpose

Jun 17, 2022

This article was originally published on June 17, 2022 by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation as part of their report, The Art of Leadership in the United Nations.

The story of world politics in the early 2020s can be told in one word: fragmentation.

Just as humanity is becoming more connected, political forces are driving us apart. Whether the issue is climate change, pandemics, refugees, or the vast new powers of digital technology, the need for global cooperation grows, only to be answered by fracturing politics.

The United Nations stands as the preeminent symbol and hope for the universal aspirations of human society. Built on the ashes of failure, the UN is a political answer to the moral imperatives of avoiding war, affirming human rights, and promoting social progress. It tells us that the UN founders were realists. The catastrophe of world war, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb required a bold response. A new structure was needed, and the United Nations would become the mechanism to avoid another cycle of economic depression and global-scale conflict.

Simultaneously we can see the founders were also idealists. In addition to politics, they wanted the UN to embody the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimension in the quest for peace and human dignity. It is no coincidence that after the initial founding moment, deliberate action created a myriad of signature moments. Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, followed by the establishment of numerous humanitarian, social, and cultural agencies dedicated to health, education, and human development shows significant commitment to these ideals.

The founders have now passed from the scene. As their experience fades into the background, so too perhaps, does the clarity and urgency of their purpose.

Making its case anew

Given the passage of time and an understandable undercurrent of skepticism, the United Nations needs to make its case anew. In doing so, it should emphasize rather than retreat from the moral dimension of its case.

The moral compass of those born in the late 20th and early 21st century is not informed by the catastrophes and legacies of World War II. It is rather oriented by serial failures such as the global war on terror, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crisis of 2008, worsening climate change impacts, numerous refugee crises, a loss of faith in democracy, and a rising tide of autocracy around the world.

By moral, I do not mean that the UN can or should claim a superior set of values or a sacred mission. In this case, I take moral to mean that the institution is uniquely positioned to express universal human needs and common human interests.

Encoded in the DNA of the UN is a distinct and exceptional purpose—to create a world body "to harmonize the actions of nations" in pursuit of peace and mutual respect. In principle, this mission gives the UN moral standing unlike any other international political organization.

The moral dimension of the UN mission has been recognized from time to time even if it has been questioned in moments of political disagreement, ineffectiveness, and bureaucratic scandal. Pope Paul VI gave expression to the idea of universality in his address to the General Assembly in 1965: "It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres, and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war!"

In the Pope's words, "the agreement that unites you" is based on the recognition of our common human experience. While this high-minded speech might be deemed irrelevant in light of the UN's actual performance, even the most hardened skeptic understands the power of moral conscience. Stalin famously dismissed such thinking with his remark, "How many divisions has the Pope?" And yet, world history proves that moral voices do matter, especially in response to the crimes and cruelties of ruthless actors.

Universality alone is not enough

Universality cannot transcend politics, but it can inform it. The UN's ethos is based on the equal moral standing of every human being. Its constituency includes every person on the planet. Its goals are inclusive and ecumenical. In this sense, the UN is truly peerless.

What can the UN do with this unique position? This is where the hardest work begins. Assertion of universality alone is not enough. Any universal principle must be case specific. No organization can express universality without running into inevitable tradeoffs and compromises. Limitations always loom. Disappointments are inevitable.

This insight is one of the lasting legacies of one of the greatest UN leaders of all time, the 1950 Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. Described by his biographer Brian Urquhart as a practical optimist, Bunche was wary of platitudes and declarations of good intentions.

Urquhart concludes his biography of Bunche with a revealing quote about the limits of universal thinking for a practicing diplomat — specifically, questioning the utility of the idea of "brotherhood." Borne out of Bunche’s frustrations with the unresolved issues of civil rights in the United States and race relations around the world, Bunche said:

"May I say a word or two against brotherhood? . . . We can save the world with a lot less . . . Brotherhood is a misused and misleading term. What we need in the world is not brotherhood but coexistence. We need acceptance of the right of every person to his own dignity. We need mutual respect. Mankind will be much better off when there is less reliance on lip service to ‘brotherhood’ and ‘brotherly love,’ and much more practice of the sounder and more realistic principle of mutual respect governing the relations among all people."

Bringing lofty visions down to earth

Bunche's sober message, delivered at the end of a life of so much accomplishment is a reminder that utopian visions can inspire. But these visions must be translated to life as it is lived, shaped by vast inequalities, dueling narratives, competing moral claims, and clashing egos. For all the grandeur of an idea such as "brotherhood," Bunche’s life shows that ground-level virtues like persistence, humility, trial and error, and self-correction are the keys to human progress.

Following in the tradition of Bunche, the next generation of leaders will be called upon to bring lofty visions down to earth in specific and practical ways. New ideas will be needed, systems put in place and networks created. This will spur the emergence of novel models of leadership likely to be intergenerational and more inclusive. Necessity will breed invention as it did in the founding days of the UN more than 70 years ago. Now more than ever, our common future depends on our common humanity. Now more than ever, leadership must embrace this message and rise to this challenge.

Joel H. Rosenthal is president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Subscribe to his President’s Desk newsletter to receive future columns translating ethics, analyzing democracy, and examining our increasingly interconnected world.

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