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What should we do about the United Nations?

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 18 January 2016

The CoP21 meeting held in Paris at the end of last year, about which I wrote at the time, must have been the largest international meeting ever held, with the total attendance  approaching 50,000 ‘delegates’ and hangers-on, including 3,000 journalists. The numbers about attendance keep appearing. I was pleased that Australia’s contingent seems to have been reasonably modest. Canada’s, at 383 (including several photographers), was apparently larger than those of the USA, UK and Australia put together. In Justin Trudeau the Canadians appear to have their very own home-grown version of Kevin Rudd.

The whole show prompted me to look again at the United Nations as a body, because CoP21 was another UN-sponsored international meeting. There are those who would do away with the UN tomorrow, if they could. My own feeling is that, like it or not, the UN is a necessary part of global humanity. The real question for me is — how should a well-off nation-state like Australia deal with it? My own stance is that of a ‘nation-statist’, as I explained in an essay a couple of years ago. The nation-state, which is only  a couple of hundred years old, has so far proved to be the best mechanism for providing a decent life for a very large number of people. We should care for it, and help other nations achieve the same levels for their citizens.

If that is the right way to go (and I think it is) then we should lead by example and conduct our foreign relations mostly bi-laterally, rather than seek to have it all done from the centre, as internationalists would wish. There seem to be quite a lot of that tribe around. The world would be a better place, they suggest, if we treated everyone like brothers and sisters, helped all refugees to settle here if they wanted to do so, and dealt with ‘climate change’ by abandoning fossil fuels everywhere, now. I am less sanguine, and think that development needs to take place in a specific place with specific people who have a specific culture, and possess some idea of what they want to achieve where they live, and that won’t come through handing out money from the centre. It is most effective to help those who want to help themselves.


Actually, the UN has no true centre. The General Assembly and Security Council reside in New York City, but there are other large UN centres in Geneva, Rome, Vienna and Nairobi. Geneva is probably the site for meetings and work: In Geneva alone, the United Nations held 10,000 meetings in 2009, offered 632 training workshops and translated 220,000 pages of documents for its yearbooks, reports, and working papers, a New York Times piece reported.

And it is, as the same NYT piece offered, an amazing bureaucracy. I had experience of that myself 35 years go, when I was the Australian ‘delegate’ to a low-level UNESCO meeting in Paris. I was on study leave in Oxford, and asked to go to this meeting because nobody else wanted to go and I was close. It was an astonishing experience for someone who had never been to such a bunfight. People came and went without any reference to the agenda. Motions were put and ignored, a great deal of networking went on that had nothing to do with the topic, and the meeting dragged on to an inconclusive end for much longer than it ought to have. I expressed my wonder to a friendly Pom, also a delegate. ‘Oh, most of these people live on their per diems. The longer it goes on the more they’ll get.’ My report home was scathing.

The UN grew out of the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to deal with international tensions following the First World War. The League couldn’t handle either communism or fascism. The UN doesn’t seem to be able to deal with the big stuff either, but it has been able to do some peace-keeping, and it tries to do its best, I am sure, if you ignore the people who are there to look after their own passionate single interest, be it gender equality, climate change, income transfers from rich countries to poor countries, racial equality, or whatever. It has something of the quality of a noisy and ineffective parliament. The UN has absorbed a number of other international organisations, like the International Labor Organisation (ILO), the World Meteorological Organisation(WMO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). All of them have global programs too.

The communications revolution that has been under way through the last hundred years has provided us with two other kinds of international activity. One is the global non-government organisation, like Greenpeace and the WWF, and the other is the global enterprise, like Sony or Apple. The international NGOs (INGOs) are all over the place, have no necessary true home, and are funded by voluntary donations and often by governments that use them to do work that otherwise might be the job of the government itself. (You can see the domestic equivalent in Australia where the Federal Government pays some NGOs to do welfare work.)

The transnational corporations (TNCs) represent international capitalism at work, aided by ships, planes, the Internet — and by taxation laws that have still not been able to properly tax the profits made by these corporations in the country where the profits have been made, a matter of some moment to Australian governments of both sides of politics. We can add to TNCs the new global partnerships of banks, insurance companies, legal firms and accountancy practices that have evolved because it is simply sensible to add country-specific knowledge and networks to one’s own. Australia, as a major trading country, is well to the fore in this domain, as far as I can see. And I guess we should add ourselves, the busy travelling Australians, about a million of whom live and work in other countries, including a few of my extended family.

So  our messy world is becoming more global, and you will often hear people saying that national governments no longer truly govern. Maybe they never did. But I return to my view that we as Australians need to recognise that the country we have made was made through hard work and and a strong sense of ‘us’. I do not think that Australia is the model for developing countries that want to be able to do what we do, at least in providing a decent life for all its citizens. But Australia is at least one decent model, and its modern form is not the result of handouts by others.


Yes, it is hard to build a good society, and ours is unfinished and evolving, as all human societies always are. We need to preserve its capacity to provide the means for a good life for everyone, against the claims of the UN, the TNCs the INGOs and even the partnerships, and that means stating what it is that we are for, and ensuring that we do what we say. And that will lead me into an essay about Australian values, as my Australia Day essay next week.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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