The United Nations is often criticised as a talking shop. Rather than a place of action, it is the place where a crisis is discussed but not resolved. All too often “talk” or discourse is portrayed as cheap, whereas deeds not words are needed. Perhaps worse, discourse is regarded as “window dressing”, the after the fact offering of justifications for a policy already decided, or the manipulation of norms (understandings) to support rather than inform a decision. Yet norms rather than serving simply as a veil for power can only be stretched so far. Yes, states will stretch them to justify their behaviour in an attempt to legitimate it, but international society usually through the UN still gets to decide whether to confer that legitimacy – and they often don’t as states find to their not inconsiderable cost. While there are those who would say the abuse by a state of a norm proves it to be ineffectual, the often vociferous reaction of international society suggests otherwise, indeed as John Vincent wrote – “international law locates international society like a miner’s lamp locates gas”. Be that as it may, as Louis Henkins reminded us, although most states obey most laws most of the time, when they don’t, we all notice and the UN often gets blamed for talking about the rules rather than enforcing them. But is this appropriate?
While there are occasions where the UN as an organisation gets it (badly) wrong, more often, our most pointed criticisms should be targeted at the international society of states, and not the UN itself. That bears repeating – we shouldn’t blame the UN for the at times very real failings of international society. Despite the first words of the Preamble of the Charter reading “We the peoples”, the UN is an organisation of states, created by states whose remit has remained by and large state-centric. The United Nations exists within the confines of an anarchical international society which it must be remembered is ill suited to the domestic analogy whereby a centralised authority enforces the rules. To be clear, yes the enforcement of international law matters, but that is not presently in the gift of the UN, and to expect otherwise is as to wish the sky were a different colour.
What role then for the UN if not enforcing the rules, ensuring that norms are obeyed and institutions respected? Well, all of these must be agreed upon and operated, and while this is up to states they require a framework within which to do it, a place to talk to one another. So while contemporary international society is bigger than the UN, the UN remains essential to the working of contemporary international society. Rather than being merely symbolic of international society, or sitting atop it as a colossus, the UN can and does play a vital role in sustaining it by facilitating the socialisation of states and their adaptation of the rules. And this is why talk is not cheap, albeit with the caveat that it is just as important for the states of international society to listen to one another instead of just talking over or at one another. In their private if not public discussions at the UN, states would do well to attempt discursive as well as strategic discourse, which is to say be open to persuasion as part of the deliberations as well as trying to persuade or set the terms of debate. Practitioners will aver that the larger the forum the more unwieldy it is, and that the national interest is sacrosanct. But the discussions imagined here go beyond agreeing the wording of specific texts by a set deadline and instead take the form of agreeing the shared understandings (norms) which are the basis of an international society.
This problem of talking about what the rules should be and how to implement them merits as much attention as punishing rule breaking. While these tasks also require the political will of the society of states, the role of the UN is essential because international society has to agree what the rules are before it can even attempt to implement them - the development of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) as an international response to mass atrocities is a case in point. Much has been written as to the efficacy of RtoP, and clearly the World Summit Outcomes Document of 2005 was never an end in and of itself. Nor will the very profound differences in international society over how to implement RtoP and make sense of its creative ambiguities be overcome through talks alone. The point here is that successful or not, RtoP touches upon constitutive and fundamental understandings around state sovereignty and the rules of non-intervention, non-interference and limiting the use of force. For international society to even broach reframing these rules necessitated a multilateral framework to guide their deliberations and anchor the change in understandings by providing for their practical implementation. The UN provided the authoritative framework for the society of states to consider these problems and it is now up to international society to act through it.
In a sense therefore, the UN with the Security Council which states defer too and the General Assembly where all states have a voice, could be classed the cockpit of international society, if not because that’s where the power lies then because it sits at the forefront of the society of states. Rather than being an ill equipped talking shop that could lose ten stories without making much difference, the UN is the ideal place to address the *big* problem of cooperation under anarchy by sustaining a consensus among states as to what the rules of international society should be. What are the hallmarks of that consensus? Ian Clark has written of the horizontal consensus in international society among the P5 and the vertical consensus between the P5 and the rest. Given their power and primary responsibility for international peace and security under the Charter, a consensus among the P5 carries great weight and the alternative, discord, rightly makes us all nervous. But equally, the legitimacy of the responsibilities and rights of the P5 will require social sanction by the rest of the UN membership, which is where the vertical axis of consensus comes in. Added to which is the aforementioned distinction, again cited by Clark, but owing to Habermas’s theory of communication action, between an instrumentally sought and communicatively derived consensus.
Ultimately our measure of the UN depends on what we measure it against. If that is consistently and collectively addressing threats to international peace and security; consistently enforcing international law; or consistently protecting civilians from armed conflict and mass atrocities (all of which are reflected in the Charter and various resolutions); then as Dag Hammarskjold chastened we would do well to recall that, “the UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”. What measure therefore is suggested here? That international society needs a talking shop because discourse matters as much as deeds in that it has a key role to play in shaping the norms, rules, institutions and expectations which underpin international society. In other words, talking about and agreeing the rules matters as much as taking action to enforce them, and as Ian Hurd and others have surmised, the UN girded by the legitimacy garnered by its universal membership is the authoritative forum to do this. As Dag’s successor as Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has written, “the convening power of the UN is the ultimate "soft power" on the globe”, however it is still incumbent on the states of international society to act on this and so we should not be so quick to judge the UN for that which its members will not do.