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U.N. doesn’t work, and a U of M professor has a plan to fix it

UN General AssemblyCreative Commons/Jay ReedThe United Nations General Assembly is little more than a debating society, says University of Minnesota Emeritus Professor Joseph Schwartzberg.

In 1945 — the same year that World War II ended with the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the United Nations was created and its charter was adopted by the first member states.

In 1946, Albert Einstein wrote:

The splitting of the atom has changed everything, save our mode of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. Henceforth, every nation’s foreign policy must be judged at every point by one consideration: Does it lead us to a world of law and order or does it lead us back to anarchy and death?

University of Minnesota Emeritus Professor Joseph Schwartzberg,  a lifelong crusader for world federalism and a more effective United Nations, put the Einstein quote atop the preface of his new book, “Transforming the United Nations System.” Then Schwartzberg expounded, in his own wisdom-drenched words:

The correctness of Einstein’s admonitions ought to be self-evident; but that is clearly not the case. Rather, most of the influential inhabitants of our planet prefer to live in a state of denial. Were that not so, they would sense the need to bestir themselves and try to correct glaring shortcomings in our system of global governance.

And it is not only the threat of nuclear annihilation that is being denied. Comparable threats arise from other sources: global warming, loss of bio-diversity, depletion of vital resources such as petroleum and fresh water, and the explosive potential inherent in the obscene gap between the world’s haves and have-nots, to cite but a few.

The reasons for inaction are many. But, among them, the inadequacies in the design of the institutional machinery of the United Nations system and the total absence of certain institutions that are urgently needed are especially noteworthy.

The United Nations General Assembly is little more than a debating society, Schwartzberg notes. The U.N. Security Council has some real leverage, but lacks the respect and credibility it would need to be an effective force for world peace, and it is hamstrung by the provision, which dates from the original design, that specifies five permanent members and gives each those five the power to veto resolutions.

Over a lifetime of studying the U.N. and wishing it was more effective, Schwartzberg asserts that much of the problem is in the structure. The U.N. lacks credibility and efficacy because of the way power is distributed in the United Nations.

Emeritus Professor Joseph Schwartzberg
Citizens for Global SolutionsEmeritus Professor Joseph

So, at the age of 85, Schwartzberg has outlined a set of changes in those power arrangements that, he writes, “if adopted, would help remedy, those deficiencies” in the U.N. structure that undermine the credibility and therefore the power of the world body.

In a conversation with me last week, Schwartzberg said: “Nobody takes the U.N.  very seriously because the distribution of power in the U.N. bears little relation to the distribution of power in the real world.”

Schwartzberg’s book has been endorsed by one former U.N. Secretary General (Boutros Boutros-Ghali) and one former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (Thomas Pickering). He will speak about his book and his proposal Thursday at 7 p.m. at a meeting of at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, 4537 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis.

He has a book tour scheduled for the East Coast starting later this month.

Structural reform

OK, enough throat-clearing by me. What are Schwartzberg’s ideas for U.N. structural reform? They mostly come down to who votes on what and how the votes are counted. Specifically:

The U.N. General Assembly has always operated on a one-nation, one-vote basis. He would change that so that each nation’s vote is weighted to reflect not only its independent nationhood but also size of its population and its economy.

The most populous U.N. member state (as I’m sure you know) is China with a population of 1.35 billion. The least populous member state (don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know, I certainly didn’t) is Nauru (it’s in Micronesia), population 9,300 (slightly smaller than Waseca, Minn).

The population ratio of China to Nauru is 150,000 to 1. (For a further comparison, the ratio of the most populous U.S. state (California) to the least (Wyoming) is 66 to 1. If it’s problematic to give equal weight in the U.S. Senate to both states (which is somewhat offset by the population weight in the House), what is it to allow equality of voting weight across a population disparity 2,000 times larger?

The second least populous member state, by the way, is Tuvalu (but of course we all knew that), with a population similar to that of Arden Hills. Schwartzberg calculates that if all the least populous U.N. member states banded together against the more populous, a two-thirds supermajority of the General Assembly — which is necessary to pass a vote on a substantive global issue — could be constituted by nations comprising 8 percent of the world’s population. And, since it takes two-thirds to pass such a measure, the U.N.’s 65 least populous nations, comprising less than 1 percent of the world’s total, could block an action favored by nation that contain 99 percent of the world’s population.

Schwartzberg’s formula is a step in the direction of globalizing the principle of one-person, one-vote. But his formula also takes into account the size of each nation’s economy. At first blush it may seem a tad crass to endorse any move toward one-dollar, one-vote. But Schwartzberg says you have to look at each nation as both a stakeholder and shareholder. Every nation, and in fact every person, has a stake in creating a viable U.N. able to oversee global approaches to global challenges.

But the economic cost of implementing those challenges falls disproportionately on the wealthier nations. Here, too, of course, the disparities between rich and poor are staggering. For illustrative purposes, the ratio of the gross national income of the United States (the biggest economy in the world) and that of Tuvalu is roughly 560,000 to 1, Schwartzberg’s book says.

Part of his overall thesis is that if the nations of the world are going to accept the leadership and authority of the U.N., they must feel that they are treated fairly in the division of influence over U.N. decisions. If the United States is going to pay the largest share of the costs and (as the world’s strongest military power) probably contribute a large share of the military power to back up U.N. decisions, then it’s reasonable and probably necessary for the United States to feel that its influence is somewhat commensurate with its contributions.

Perhaps it occurs you to note that as one of the five permanent veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States already has power that recognizes its size and wealth. But Schwartzberg’s reform plan does away with both permanent membership and veto power in the Security Council.

Two observations

We’ll get to that in a second, but allow me to conclude the discussion of Schwartzberg’s plan to revise  voting power in the General Assembly with two related observations he made in our interview.

Observation One: Because a General Assembly in which votes are counted this way would be more legitimate and credible, the General Assembly would be empowered to pass real, binding legislation to address global problems that cannot be addressed any way other than globally, but are not addressed now because the General Assembly lacks the credibility. Imagine the implications of this for issues such as global climate change, which are going nowhere for lack of a global approach.

Observation Two was prompted by my asking this question: Why should small or poor nations, which now have an equal one-nation single vote in General Assembly matters, go along with a change that would reduce the power of their vote relative to larger rich, nations?

Schwartzberg’s answer: Because in exchange they would get a United Nations that works. Having an equal vote in a body that can’t accomplish much isn’t really such a great deal, especially if you — as a small nation — can’t do much about global issues that often may affect you as much or even more than anyone.

As part of Schwartzberg’s vision, the General Assembly would become the legislative branch of a meaningful world body, able to legislate on matters other than security which, since the U.N. was founded, have been reserved to the Security Council.

The ultimate power assigned to the United Nations when it was created in the aftermath of World War II was to unite the world against military aggressors and assemble a multinational military force to face down those aggressors.

In fact, this has seldom worked. One reason is the rule, embedded in the charter, which gives permanent Security Council membership to five nations (known as the Permanent Five or P-5). They are: the United States, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), China, Britain and France. Ten other nations are elected to serve for staggered two-year terms, but they lack the veto power. This setup gives the P-5 enormous power compared to anyone else, including other very wealthy (Germany, Japan) and populous (India, the most populous non-P-5 nation, has almost 20 times more people than France or Britain) countries.

The P-5 lineup was set at the end of World War II and obviously reflected the biggest powers on the winning side. (The reason Germany and Japan were excluded is obvious.) But the world has changed in many ways. One major example, which rendered the P-5 unworkable for its originally intended purpose, was the onset of the Cold War, which continued for most of the history of the United Nations, and which pretty much guaranteed that the Communist and non-Communist members of the P-5 (especially the United States and the Soviet Union) were unlikely to agree on a multilateral military action and whichever one disagreed could prevent the action with their veto power.

Veto system

There are lots of other absurd aspects of the P-5 veto system. But nothing short of a change in the U.N. charter can change it. In Schwartzberg’s vision, no nation would be guaranteed permanent membership, and no nation would possess a veto. A small number of nations (at present, he said, this provision would apply to the United States, China and India) would qualify for Security Council membership based on the same factors described above – size of population and size of economy. But since those factors are subject to change over time, those “automatic” memberships could change. The other members of the council would be elected by the General Assembly based on a complex system that would make it likely that each region of the world would be represented.

The Security Council, constituted this way, would be authorized to act militarily to maintain international peace and security without worrying that one member will veto the action. Schwartzberg said that, unlike the current system that allows member states to decide whether or not to contribute troops to a particular peacekeeping mission, the Security Council would have a U.N. military force it could deploy.

Of course I have no idea of the chances that any of Schwartzberg’s ideas could be adopted by the U.N. I assume it’s a longshot. I asked Schwartzberg if he believed that a reform plan like his was realistically doable.

He said it was not something that could happen with the next five to 10 years, but “the reason it’s doable is that it’s necessary.”

I’ll leave you with a last paragraph from the book itself:

“The aim is not to create an unrealistic utopia, but rather to establish a workable world, a world in which the force of law supplants the law of force, a world committed to justice and continuous, yet sustainable, development. Given the many existential threats now confronting our planet, the time frame for decisive action is short. The task before us is daunting and success is not guaranteed. But, in view of the urgency of our situation, we must and can find ways of mustering the will, imagination and other resources to do the job.”

This piece was revised slightly late Tuesday to correct error regarding how the Security Council is chosen.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/14/2014 - 09:10 am.

    Problems with the UN

    If you’re identifying “global warming, loss of bio-diversity, depletion of vital resources such as petroleum and fresh water, and the explosive potential inherent in the obscene gap between the world’s haves and have-nots”, then giving more power to China may be at least a little bit self-defeating. And I have very big doubts that tiny countries such as Palau will actually come out ahead simply because the UN ‘works’ in some manner. For them, it already does as it allows them to punch above their weight on the global scene.
    The biggest obstacle though, is the idea that it would be acceptable for the UN to be a global legislature. I don’t want a collection of other countries deciding what rights and responsibilities U.S. citizens will have. Deciding things like gun rights is something that should happen *here*, not by the fine folks of India, Brazil or Palau. Likewise, I shudder to think of what our tax situation would look like if it was decided externally.
    But take a step back. If the UN is to act as some kind of functioning legislature, shouldn’t countries have to prove some kind of experience in democracy? Should China have at least some form of democratic rule before it’s given so much power? Should anyone be comfortable with the power behind whoever Putin sends to the UN? Perhaps the good professor addresses these problems but I’d need some strong convincing on these points.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/14/2014 - 09:11 am.

    An interesting intellectual excersize

    but the key word is still POWER.
    It’s like proposals to reform Congress:
    why would groups (in this case nations) who currently hold power give it up?
    The United States currently provides most of the U.N.’s funding. What if it held it hostage (threatened to withhold funding unless it got its way)?
    We’ve already have examples of hostage holding in Congress, so we know that Congress would do it.
    There’s a leap of faith here to implementation.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/14/2014 - 09:37 am.

    New World Order 101

    No offense, Professor, but anyone who believes that the UN needs to be given broad legislative powers is someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of sovereign nations.

    The UN Charter was to establish a mechanism to prevent world war. It has surprisingly succeeded thus far. But international agreement on most matters ends there. Any attempt to create a world body to force laws, taxes, currency or governance of any kind will not be well received by free people.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/14/2014 - 10:00 am.


      Only WE can do that.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2014 - 10:22 am.

      Receipt by free people

      The idea is also not going to be received well by un-free people, or at least not the nations that subjugate them.

      You are right about the disregard of national sovereignty. Professor Schwartzberg’s plan amounts to a formalization of the neo-colonialist powers exercised by the biggest, or at least best organized, national economies.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/14/2014 - 01:12 pm.

      The problem is

      that we still can exercise overwhelming (or at least whelming) military power, we are steadily losing economic power to the Euro and Renminbi zones. While we will continue to be able to set laws governing the behavior of our own citizens on our own territory, our economy is increasingly subject to the laws of other nations. Once the dollar ceases to be the currency of last resort, we will lose control of our currency since its value will be tied to that of foreign currencies.
      And we already pay taxes to foreign nations (they’re called tariffs).
      All a strengthened U.N. would do is formalize these relationships.

      Welcome to the 21st century!

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/14/2014 - 01:02 pm.

    *Very* interesting

    It’s hard to argue that the U.N. has been effective in the ways originally envisioned, and I’m inclined to agree that it’s the structure of the organization itself that’s probably the biggest flaw. Things might have gotten off to a better start, with more effective precedents set, if the Cold War hadn’t descended quite so quickly on the planet after 1945, but half a century and more later, wishing for a different beginning is no more than an exercise in nostalgia.

    Mr. Tester takes a somewhat accusatory tone in denouncing the professor’s thoughts as those by “…someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of sovereign nations.” I can’t speak for the professor, of course, but it might be useful to keep in mind that the nation-state is a relatively modern human invention. 800 years ago, more or less *no one* believed in the concept of sovereign nations as we think of them today. There were areas of the world with particular, relatively homogenous *cultures,* but they lacked the formal political and economic rules by which most modern nation-states now operate. 800 years from now, historians may look back on the period of nation-states as an anachronism.

    As an organizing principle for political and economic societies, the concept of the sovereign nation has roughly reflected RB Holbrook’s last sentence – “…a formalization of the… powers exercised by the biggest, or at least best organized, national economies. I left out the term “neo-colonialist” because, while it might be accurate enough, the implication (to me, at least) is of a particular time frame. Be that as it may, Holbrook’s 2nd paragraph brings up an interesting point.

    That said, of course, a reasonable argument might be made that a “…formalization of the… powers exercised by the biggest, or at least best organized, national economies…” is precisely what’s needed to deal with global issues like environmental degradation, which frequently affect many, and potentially all, of the world’s “nations,” and against which effective action is often made more difficult or impossible by the parochial interests of a particular nation.

    Peder Defor also makes a couple of good points, as well. His first sentence seems to me self-evident, and while I’m not as horrified as he is about the faint possibility of gun rights in the U.S. being in the hands of nations less worshipful of firearms, his offhand comment about taxes raises another sticking point. Presumably, as the world’s biggest economy, we’d have considerable influence over tax policies, just as the wealthy do now inside our own borders, to the detriment of the other 90+ percent.

    Mr. Defor’s most interesting point, for me, is in his last paragraph. It sounds very much like the professor, and all of us to some degree, start from the viewpoint that some sort of legislative function would be necessary for any legitimate “world government” to operate fairly, and that implies an assumed belief in, perhaps faith in, democratic tradition and function. In that context, Mr. Defor seems right on the mark by asking about the demonstrated experience of a given nation in actually practicing democracy. Given the influence of money in our current domestic politics, I don’t think Americans should be too smug when talking about democracy. We may not be quite the gold standard (no pun intended) we often think we are. Not everyone outside a corporate board room regards “Citizens United” as a step forward in that regard.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/14/2014 - 04:01 pm.

      and of course

      Prof. Schwartzberg -does- build the concept of one dollar one vote into his system, which since Citizens United is -very- Amurican.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/14/2014 - 04:07 pm.


      Excellent point by Mr. Schoch. I would maintain that the concept of “sovereignty” in today’s world dominated by multinational corporations is all but completely obsolete. Mr. Schoch’s comment about Citizen’s United is right on target in that regard. Unfortunately, the same stranglehold which multinational corporations have on our “sovereign governments” through the dubious extension of constitutional protections to them also stands as an obstacle to the sort of reforms to the UN suggested by the professor in this article.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/14/2014 - 04:21 pm.


      Well, I don’t take quite as cynical a view of the American process as you do, but I think we have some agreement. One of the most serious problems of the UN is that they put dictators on an even footing with representatives of democracies. That’s why we get silly things like having Syria on the board of Human rights.
      I’m not as worried about what some kind of League of democracies would do, because democracies have some self correcting features that keep them from going off the rails. That just isn’t true with authoritarian dictatorships.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2014 - 05:15 pm.

      “Parochial” interests

      You also raise some good, thoughtful points.

      There are many areas where international cooperation is necessary, such as environmental protection, refugee issues, and transportation safety. There are a number of others where it is strongly desirable, such as public health. Within the framework of the specialty areas, I think the UN is doing a capable job.

      My concern about revamping the UN is that the model that gives the most power to the wealthy overlooks the legitimate aspirations of the less-wealthy nations, while freezing the economic status quo in place. This is what I meant by “neo-colonialism.” The big economic powers are not seizing political power directly anymore. The power seizure is indirect. It’s taking control of the economic institutions of poorer nations. It’s exploiting the resources–natural and human-of other nations for our own profit and convenience. The big powers are no longer convening conclaves amongst themselves to divide up continents, but the practical effect is the same (actually, the practical effect is different: some statesmen in Europe viewed their colonial power as a transitional phase. Is global capitalism temporary as well?).

      Someday, nation states may be regarded as a relic, just as we look at city-states today. In the meantime, those nations can represent more than just borders on a map.

  5. Submitted by Tom van der Linden on 01/15/2014 - 08:13 am.

    How to pay for it

    I realize the theme of this is the organizational aspects of the UN, but can you discuss that without also discussing paying for it all? What about “taxes” to support the UN? If more populous countries get more power, I assume they would pay a “person” tax to the UN. Then, if bigger economies get more power, they would also pay a “sales” tax? Or, perhaps a “value added” tax. Should high-tech economies pay more than agrarian economies dollar-for-dollar?
    Would the UN replace or subordinate various multi-country organizations that exist? Once the nation-state formally becomes just another subordinate layer of government: “UN – ie: earth,” “hemisphere” region, nation, state, county, township, etc, things get interesting, don’t they!
    Also, what would the professor do about representation for “countryless” indigenous tribes and Antarctica.
    And, a final flight of fancy. Should we discuss the moon and mars – any celestial bodies we could potentially rule?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/15/2014 - 09:12 am.

      Not fancy

      Sovereignty of moon bases is already an issue.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2014 - 11:33 am.

        Already dealt with

        Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty says that no nation may claim sovereignty of the moon or any other planet.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/15/2014 - 02:36 pm.

          I’d have to wade through

          the actual treaty to evaluate the specifics of the situation.
          It’s clear that no country that signed the treaty (did China? did the U.S. Congress ratify it?) may claim sovereignty of the moon. However, may a country claim sovereignty of a limited portion of it? If we set up a moon base, may China land in the middle of it?
          What was the People’s Republic’s U.N. status in 1966 when the treaty was signed?
          As of a year ago, 26 countries had signed the treaty. That leaves quite a few out.
          And then there’s the question of private corporations….

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