75 Years of the United Nations: A Conversation with Alex Eaton

Julie Luebken 5 October 2020
Image Credits: UN

The United Nations has existed for 75 years. In this time, no two democracies have declared war on each other. For Alex Eaton, president of the Cambridge United Nations Association, this is the institution’s biggest accomplishment. Initially created to maintain peace, the UN has become the world centre for cooperation. Naturally, the anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the institution’s accomplishments and what it’s role will be in the future.

Criticizing the United Nations is easy, and also fashionable, says Alex. Of course, there is always more it can do but the fact is, the United Nations is the only multilateral institution in the world that can make legally binding decisions. Since the ruins of the Second World War, the organization continues to use the same organizational mechanisms. The world has changed, so why not the UN? Acknowledging this need for restructuring seems key if the UN is to remain credible. The Security Council is a prominent example of this. Alex highlighted how countries like France and the United Kingdom can no longer justify their power on the Council. What about emerging economies? Or the fact that countries should be represented equally?

There seems to be little room for reform at the UN – there are too many vested interests. If the United States and China don’t have their veto power, who’s to say that any decisions can be made? When large countries stop meaningfully contributing (as the United States has done for the past 4 years) the credibility of the institution decreases. Commentators such as Rick Gladstone have remarked on the weakness of the United Nations, raising questions such as the inability to quell conflict in Syria and Yemen, the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and the lack of an emergency coronavirus response.

The deadlock that the Security Council often finds itself in also puts the effectiveness of multilateralism into perspective. While many countries retreat from diplomatic methods, Alex remains positive about the impacts of inter-state conversation; “Everyone can prosper together.” Multilateralism has undergone a period of crisis. And just as with everything else in life, we only appreciate things once they are taken away from us. Our propensity to protect multilateral institutions and liberal democracy seems to have been reinvigorated by the threat of its disappearance. Despite continuing attempts to undermine the United Nations, now more than ever its values must be vigorously protected. There is no more time for complacency.

With the United States no longer the central figure in international politics, certainly in the halls of the United Nations, will the institution be able to survive? Rule of law and democracy were enforced by the United States at the creation of the organization. A liberal world order overseen by the United States – a role that has now been relinquished with unknown consequences. When questioned, Alex remained skeptical of China’s potential as a large player. While the country’s influence is certainly expanding, thanks to their “One Belt One Road” initiative, they do not seem ready to change the way multilateralism works. As far as we can see, China is playing by the rules. Most remarkably, the country has vowed to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Economically, it is a dynamic member of the World Trade Organization. As long as China continues to benefit from participation, the country is unlikely to modify the values-based system.

The biggest challenge for the United Nations in the next 75 years will be the climate emergency. The Millennium Development Goals established in 2000, to be accomplished by 2015, failed. Lack of publicity, lack of commitment, lack of urgency. The United Nations have since stepped up in the domain, says Alex. The new Sustainable Development Goals have been increasingly publicized and talked about. He sees the potential for the goals to positively impact the lives of many people. The 75th anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate but also to continue to do the work that has changed our world for the better. Let’s hope cooperation can be stronger than division.