Ever since 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the organization has grappled with crises in the Middle East. In recent decades, discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the UN have featured the same basic dynamic: the United States uses its veto to block criticism of Israel at the Security Council while Arab states rally developing countries to defend the Palestinians. The debate at the UN in the weeks after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel has largely followed this familiar pattern. The United States has blocked the Security Council from calling for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, but it could not stop a resolution passed in late October by a huge majority in the General Assembly demanding a “humanitarian truce.”
Yet diplomats at UN offices in New York and Geneva say that this crisis feels different—and that its effects could spread beyond Israel and the Gaza Strip to the UN itself. Their warnings are in part a reaction to the brutality of Hamas, the rising death toll in Gaza from Israel’s bombardment, and the risks of regional escalation. But widespread pessimism about the UN’s future also reflects a loss of confidence across the organization. Skepticism about the efficacy of an institution designed to reflect twentieth-century power relations and deal with postwar problems is hardly new. Over the last year, however, the UN has seemed more rudderless than ever, unable to respond to crises ranging from violent flare-ups in Sudan and Nagorno-Karabakh to the coup in Niger. Security Council diplomats say that tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine—the topic of scores of fruitless UN debates since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—are undermining discussions of unrelated issues in Africa and the Middle East. In September, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned at the annual General Assembly meeting that a “great fracture” in the global governance system was looming.
The war between Israel and Hamas threatens to deal the coup de grâce to the UN’s credibility in responding to crises. Soon, national governments and UN officials will face a reckoning. They must confront the question of how the UN can contribute to peace and security at a time when the common ground among great powers is shrinking by the day. Since the end of the Cold War, states and civil society organizations have called on the UN to deal with conflicts large and small as a matter of habit. But now the institution appears to be running up against its geopolitical limitations.
A UN fit for the current age will need to scale down its ambitions. On security matters, the organization should focus on a limited number of priorities and hand off the reins of crisis management to others when it can. Certain international problems will still require the kind of coordination that is only possible at the UN. Even when competing countries seem to abandon diplomacy, the institution remains a place where adversaries can hash out their differences and find opportunities to cooperate. Rather than let current conflicts tear the institution apart, national governments and UN officials alike must work to preserve its most vital functions.
STARTING TO SPIRAL
The crisis of confidence in the UN has been building since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks afterward, diplomats worried that tensions between great powers would paralyze the UN. At first, it looked as if their fears were misplaced. Russia, the United States, and its European allies engaged in fierce debates over the war in Ukraine, but they grudgingly continued to coordinate on other matters. The Security Council, for instance, managed to impose a new sanctions regime on the gangs terrorizing Haiti and to agree on a new mandate for the UN to work with the Taliban government in Kabul to deliver aid to suffering Afghans. Both Russia and the West seemed willing to use the UN’s most powerful body as a space for residual cooperation.
Meanwhile, the United States and its allies rallied considerable support for Ukraine in a series of votes in the General Assembly to condemn Russia’s aggression. Until the early months of this year, many diplomats hoped that the UN would retain its capacity for joint action even as many of its members faced off over the war in Ukraine.
By the spring, this fragile balance started to break down. Russia has acted as a spoiler at the UN with increasing frequency. In June, Moscow schemed with the government of Mali—which had turned to the Kremlin-backed Wagner private military company for security assistance—to force UN peacekeepers to withdraw from Malian territory, ending a decade-long mission. In July, Russia vetoed the renewal of a Security Council mandate, in place since 2014, for UN aid agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held parts of northwestern Syria. Moscow also pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered by the UN and Turkey in July 2022 that had allowed Ukraine to export agricultural products without Russian interference.
Over the last year, the UN has seemed more rudderless than ever.
The war in the Middle East has underlined this increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to UN diplomacy. During past eruptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the outbreak of violence in Gaza in May 2021, Russia and China refrained from criticizing the United States’ involvement too loudly at the UN. This time, China has once again avoided the controversy, limiting its comments to calls for a cease-fire. But Russia has gone out of its way to take advantage of the situation. After the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian assistance to Gaza in mid-October, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, lamented the “hypocrisy and double standards of our American colleagues” and implied that Washington might be fueling the war to boost U.S. arms sales. Russia’s posturing over the conflict has annoyed its fellow Security Council members, which have sought common ground on humanitarian issues, and even Arab states, which suspect that Moscow is exploiting Palestinian suffering for its own ends.
If Russia is ruffling feathers at the UN, the United States’ unconditional support for Israel has caused greater diplomatic damage. The effects are clearest in the General Assembly, where the coalition of states that previously backed Ukraine has splintered over Gaza. On October 27, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a “humanitarian truce” between Israel and Hamas, with 120 yeas, 14 nays, and 44 abstentions. The United States voted against the resolution, citing the text’s failure to condemn Hamas for its atrocities. European countries were divided, with some voting in favor, some against, and some abstaining. The fallout was predictable. Diplomats from developing countries privately indicated that they might reject future UN resolutions in support of Ukraine in response to the lack of Western solidarity with the Palestinians.
This latest divide is likely to undercut the United States’ recent push to improve its relations with the global South at the UN. The Biden administration has called for reforms to the Security Council that could give powers such as Brazil and India a greater voice in the body, and it has promised to work with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to deliver much-needed financing to debt-laden developing countries. Before the current conflict, Washington had made tentative headway with the latter gestures: poor countries may appreciate the kind words, but they are still waiting for the cash. Now, the Biden administration’s position on Israel and Gaza may undo what fitful progress it had achieved.
SITTING ON THE SIDELINES
The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have not just aggravated diplomatic frictions between UN member states. They have also put enormous pressure on the UN’s leader, Guterres, and the institution’s entire conflict-management system. Without unified support from the Security Council, Guterres and the UN Secretariat, which has day-to-day oversight of UN peace operations, have struggled to keep the organization’s conflict management work on track. In trouble spots such as Sudan, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, governments and warring parties have refused to work with UN mediators or demanded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, conscious that they are unlikely to face any real penalties for doing so. The organization has managed to maintain its humanitarian presence in places such as Afghanistan, but it faces growing shortfalls in funding for this work as many Western donors trim their aid budgets while spending considerable sums on military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
Guterres has found himself caught in the diplomatic crossfire over events in the Middle East. After he said that Hamas’s attack on Israel “did not happen in a vacuum” in a speech before the Security Council on October 24, Israel called on Guterres to resign and reduced its cooperation with UN humanitarian officials. Guterres denied any suggestion that his words could be interpreted as justification for what he called Hamas’s “acts of terror,” and the Israeli response ended up giving Guterres a boost as other countries, including the United States, rallied to his defense. But the way the comment spiraled into a diplomatic incident underlined just how vulnerable UN aid operations are to political discord. That vulnerability has been tragically clear on the ground, as well: nearly 100 UN employees have been killed in Gaza since the war began.
Depending on the length and scope of the war between Israel and Hamas, the UN’s presence in the region may expand or shrink. If hostilities end relatively quickly, UN relief agencies will play a significant role in recovery efforts. In one post-conflict scenario that has reportedly been floated as a possibility by U.S. and Israeli officials, the UN could be asked to administer Gaza after the Israeli military clears Hamas from the territory. Conversely, if the war lasts long enough to spread across the region, it could put the UN’s long-standing peacekeeping presence in southern Lebanon and in the Golan Heights at risk. When Israel last launched an operation in southern Lebanon, in 2006, the Security Council came close to shutting down the UN mission there but reversed course after the Lebanese government objected. Today, a widening war that draws in Hezbollah and Iran could not just force the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers but also threaten the organization’s humanitarian and diplomatic work elsewhere in the Middle East, such as in Iraq and Yemen.
No matter how the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine end, trends at the UN point to problems ahead. The diplomatic disunity and operational vulnerabilities that plague the organization now will likely persist or worsen as global divisions widen. The UN is not about to return to the dog days of the Cold War. In 1959, the Security Council passed just one resolution. Since the start of 2023, despite the poor state of relations among its permanent members, the council has passed more than 30 resolutions to update the mandates for various UN peace operations and sanctions regimes. But the UN is also far from its post–Cold War heyday, when the body regularly authorized peace operations, mediation efforts, and sanctions packages in response to emerging conflicts.
There may not be a clear path for the UN to reclaim its former role as an all-purpose platform to address the international crises of the day, but the organization can still make the best of a diminished role. UN officials already appear to recognize their shrinking mandate. In July, Guterres released the UN’s “New Agenda for Peace,” which played down the organization’s peacekeeping missions and instead urged UN members to focus on new security threats, such as artificial intelligence. Even here, it is unclear how much influence the UN can have: the big players in artificial intelligence, particularly the United States and China, may not want the organization to preside over the regulation of AI technologies.
But there seems to be an appetite for the UN to maintain its role of promoting global security, even if it takes on a more limited operational involvement in conflict than it has in the past. Rather than deploying its own forces, the UN could support other crisis managers, namely regional organizations and even individual countries. This model is already being tested. In October, for example, the Security Council authorized Kenya to lead a multinational security assistance mission in Haiti. The United States is also working with several African countries on proposals for the UN to fund African-led stabilization missions on the continent, in the hope that these forces will be more motivated than UN peacekeepers to fight militias and insurgents.
If adapts to new global realities, the UN can still find its footing.
Although the United States, China, and Russia now find themselves at loggerheads at the UN over many issues, the Security Council could yet settle into a new equilibrium. It can still serve as a venue for defusing conflicts among great powers and tackling a small but significant subset of crises in which those powers share an interest in cooperation—a scope of action that recalls the UN’s function during the Cold War. The major powers are unlikely to agree on much, but there are cases—including the Security Council’s March 2021 agreement that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan should remain in the country to deal with the Taliban—in which Washington, Beijing, and Moscow still have reasons to work through the UN.
Even with the Security Council in the doldrums, the wider UN system can still play a substantial role in international conflict management. UN relief agencies have unique capacities to mitigate and contain the effects of violence, and they continue to operate despite their current budgetary headaches. UN officials are also looking for ways to work on conflict prevention that do not rely on Security Council oversight, such as harnessing funds from the World Bank to support basic services in weak states. In a period of geopolitical tension, the UN may not take the lead in resolving major crises, but it can do a lot on the margins to protect the vulnerable.
The wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, as well as tensions between China and the United States, are making international cooperation both more difficult and more vital. In recent weeks and months, many UN officials and diplomats have worried that the organization is in free fall. But if it updates its diplomatic and security roles to adapt to new global realities, the UN can still find its footing.
-By Richard Gowan