To Better the World, Fix the U.N.

May 25, 2018

In the face of increasing nativism, a new book by Professor Thomas Weiss examines the U.N.'s effectivness.


After working in the United Nations for a decade and studying it for nearly 50 years, Professor Thomas Weiss (GC, Political Science) believes he has a “pretty decent feel for its history, politics, administration, pluses, and minuses.” His 2018 book Would the World Be Better Without the UN? poses two key questions: Where would the contemporary world be without the United Nations? And where could it be had the U.N. performed better? In the face of increasing nativism around the world, as well as widespread skepticism about multilateral cooperation, Weiss began to “think seriously about how many steps forward we’ve taken, but also how many we have to go.”
Weiss’ book straddles the center, devoting equal airtime to critiquing and commending the U.N. The first half is addressed to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and the Trump administration as a pushback against “alternative facts.” “Would it really be possible to argue that the planet would be better off without the U.N.’s campaigns to eliminate smallpox or polio?” Weiss asks. “What about the expansion of women’s rights, or getting to the bottom of climate change, or delivering aid to victims in war zones?” He marks these initiatives as clear assets on the U.N.’s ledger, a counter to those who claim the U.N. is nothing more than a bungling bureaucracy.
The second half of the book, however, targets the organization’s “cheerleaders.” Despite the U.N.’s many pivotal accomplishments, Weiss maintains there is much more ground to cover, more creative and effective solutions to be devised. He cites tepid reactions to crises in Rwanda, Syria, and Myanmar, as well as the deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti imported by U.N. peacekeepers. On a broader scale, Weiss adds, “What if the U.N. had done a better job of implementing development projects or conducting research into underlying problems? What if agencies were less conscious of turf and more concerned with genuine collaboration?” In the final chapter, he offers suggestions for reform in arenas such as operations, development, accountability, and recruitment. But Weiss’ ultimate verdict is clear: the U.N. is imperative for world peace, civility, and prosperity.
An escalation of U.S. nationalism now seems more likely than ever, particularly in the wake of President Donald Trump’s withdrawals from UNESCO and the Paris climate agreement. While Weiss’ book speaks primarily to the international relations community, he urges citizens of the world to think critically about global issues and reject reactionary discourse — and to remember that the U.N. was only established after the “tectonic shock” of World War I. For, as the book notes, “Surely there is a better way to move toward a more stable and just world order than waiting for a global catastrophe?”

Weiss recently spoke about his book at the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies in Seol.