The international community’s swift and unified response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been nothing short of historic. Countries around the world have offered their individual repudiation of Russia’s aggression, from sanctions to much-needed aid for Ukrainian forces and civilians. But it’s the resurgence of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations that has been one of the more interesting — and potentially powerful — developments so far.

President Joe Biden meets with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in New York City. September 20, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden meets with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in New York City. September 20, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

In recent years, much of the discussion surrounding these institutions has centered around the risks that declining global cooperation and an increasingly fragmented global community pose to collective peace and security. It seemed as though the shocking rise in authoritarian coups and renewed great power competition had put democracies on the defensive, looking for a way to navigate a diplomatic environment that was only growing more complex.

But the last few weeks have proven these institutions remain extremely effective at unifying resistance to wars of aggression and challenges to peace and security — particularly when the United States takes a leading role, something that U.S. policy has shirked away from in the 21st century thus far.

As Russia’s invasion wears on, and the number of casualties inflicted on the Ukrainian people tragically grows, the United States must seize the chance to reinvigorate our previously stagnant engagement in the United Nations to defeat the threat Putin poses to world peace.

U.N. Efforts on Ukraine to Date: Security Council and General Assembly

Four of the principal organs of the United Nations — the Security Council, the General Assembly, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Secretariat — have been activated in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

At the start of the war, the Security Council met to discuss resolutions for either the peaceful settlement of the conflict or the use of collective hard power (i.e. economic sanctions and/or a kinetic intervention) to stop Putin’s aggression.

Ultimately, the exercise could only force a public debate, as Russia’s veto power in the Security Council ensured no action would be taken. But using a known — but rarely implemented — tactic, the Security Council referred the situation to the General Assembly.

Since that referral, there has been continuing action by the General Assembly to address the expanding security threats in Ukraine. By a vote of 141 to five, with 35 abstentions, the General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned the Russian violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called for the immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces.

Overall, like so much of the rhyming history in this Russian invasion, the General Assembly vote can be traced to Cold War coalitions — both pro-Soviet and the non-aligned members. Interestingly, 17 of the 35 of abstentions were from African states. Many of the other abstentions were unsurprising, such as known Russian allies like China, Nicaragua, Cuba and Armenia. The five votes against included some of the most politically marginalized countries on the global stage: Eritrea, Syria, Belarus, North Korea and Russia itself.

U.N. Efforts on Ukraine to Date: ICJ and Secretariat

Meanwhile, on February 27, Ukraine filed an application in the ICJ arguing that Russia’s aggression was based on false claims of genocide and a request for provisional measures, including the immediate suspension of military operations. 

On March 1, the president of the ICJ cautioned the Russian Foreign Minister by reminding him of members states’ requirements to enable any [binding] order for provisional measures to have the appropriate effects. 

Finally, the Secretariat of the U.N. has prioritized the war in Ukraine. Secretary-General António Guterres has issued statements decrying Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which he found inconsistent with the principles of U.N. Charter.

The Department of Political and Peacekeeping Affairs has warned of the shrinking diplomatic space available to settle the conflict peacefully and limit civilian suffering. And the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has issued detailed reports on the humanitarian impact and secured an emergency allocation of $40 million.

Commentators have called for the U.N. chief to do more, like his predecessor U Thant during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That, however, was a different time and a different U.N., and Guterres is limited in his capacity to act due to the shifting nature and limited capacities of the contemporary United Nations.

It should also be noted that U.N. humanitarian and human rights bodies have been the most active in supporting Ukrainians on the ground. And U.N.-supported accountability mechanisms through the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council have been issuing statements and reviewing evidence of war crimes and other violations of international law.

The History of U.S. Leadership — and Retreat — From the U.N.

Beginning in 1945, the United States, then part of an alliance of “United Nations,” helped forge this central intergovernmental forum and meta-organization and saw it grow from 50 original member states to 193 today.

With U.S. leadership, the U.N. system helped ensure the lowest rate of interstate violence since the dawn of civilization. Mutually assured destruction and the balancing tensions of the Cold War ensured greater compliance to the rules, particularly for the Soviet Union and the United States.

And immediately following the Cold War, the U.N. adopted many forceful mandates now that it was freed from the often-paralyzing Soviet Union veto in the Security Council. Initially, the United States supported and was a fierce advocate for expanded U.N. operations to address the turmoil unleashed at the end of the Cold War.

However, following this initial flurry of action after the Cold War, the 2000s saw a great cynicism towards the U.N. and a decline in U.S. participation in this global system.

In 2002, the United States “unsigned” the Rome Statute for the formation of the U.N.-supported International Criminal Court (ICC). And in 2003, the United States led the invasion of Iraq despite the Security Council’s explicit refusal to sanction the action.

During the 2011 revolution in Libya, the Security Council endorsed a NATO-implemented no fly zone — availing itself of the much-debated responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine. Arguably, the U.S.- and French-led air operations blatantly went beyond the Security Council’s mandate with offensive actions that enabled the toppling of the Qaddafi regime. Permanent members Russia and China would use this example as an excuse to veto future R2P attempts, notably in Syria.

The United States also failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2012. With 184 parties, the CRPD is one of many almost universally embraced human rights conventions that the United States has not ratified.

The most rapid withdrawal from the U.N. system occurred in 2017. That year, the United States started blocking all appellate appointments to the World Trade Organization and gave notice of its withdrawal from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2018, the United States withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council and stopped funding the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

It was, however, President Trump’s rhetoric in his 2019 address to the General Assembly and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that marked the most severe U.S. retreat from the U.N. system.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has begun returning to many of the U.N. bodies from which President Trump withdrew. But due to the complicated U.N. bureaucracy and some loss of good faith, this will take time. Still, the Biden administration has also shown a clear overall reengagement with longstanding international rules and norms — with much more that can be done.

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