Reimagining the United Nations: a 2020 Vision

This essay is a revised and updated version of a story that appeared in Disarmament Times, the official journal of the United Nations NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security.

“Does the United Nations Still Matter?” It often seems so irrelevant to the problems of the modern age that those words appeared last year on the front page of The New Republic magazine. More than seven decades after the UN’s invention in 1945, our multiple planetary crises seem dramatically different from those confronting the generation that emerged from the rubble of the Second World War. Isn’t it time to devise architectures of global governance intended not to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s, but focused instead on the intertwined predicaments of our own 21st Century?

A New Global Governance Commission

If so, we have a new guide to start the journey. It’s the report from the “Commission on Global Security, Justice, and Governance,” co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.N. Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari. The name they chose reflects the inescapable links the Commission sees among those three variables. Their report elaborately makes the case that we can’t have security anywhere without justice, or justice anywhere without security. And it asserts that nothing could do more to provide both security and justice to much of humanity than smart 21st Century innovations in global governance.

The Commission employs this paradigm to tackle three broad issue areas – the impact of climate change on the poor and vulnerable, the intersection between “cross-border economic shocks” and various cyber nightmares, and intrastate violence “in fragile states.” Climate? The report proposes an “International Carbon Monitoring Entity” and a “Climate Engineering Advisory Board,” as well as atmospheric modification and climate adaptation efforts – a welcome move beyond the usual focus on emissions reduction. “A hyperconnected global economy?” Vastly increasing Internet access and cybersecurity in the Global South will both help prevent cybercrime and promote a renewed focus on the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Eruptions of intrastate bloodshed? The report calls for “peacebuilding audits” focused on atrocity prevention, investments in early-warning capabilities and rapid-response U.N. mediation teams, national military units designated and trained in advance for U.N. peacekeeping deployments, and “particular attention to inclusion of women in peace processes.”

The Commission does not just offer “policy proposals” about tackling these transnational issues, but asserts instead that reimagining key elements of international institutions can provide new tools to surmount them. The Commission subtly threads the needle of contemporary political reality, advancing new ideas which one might say stand somewhere in between today’s status quo and a more ideal array of global governance structures adequate to the magnitude of contemporary transnational challenges. So voices beyond the Commission can begin to think about the logical conclusions of some of its carefully parsed recommendations – and to define the eventual historical goals.

Expanding Our Global Governance Imagination


  • Regarding the U.N. Security Council, the Commission calls for adding new members beyond the present 15, creating a new kind of “dissenting vote … (that would) not block passage of a resolution,” and “restraint in the use of the veto.” Under Article 27 of the 1945 UN Charter, the representatives of Britain, France, America, Russia, and China—the winners of a war that took place during the first half of the last century—can “veto” Security Council action. This means that on any issue before the Council, one single country can prevent every other country in the world from any kind of collective action at all. Even when the heavy hand of the veto is not actually cast, it still dominates Council decision-making. The only initiatives that ever get advanced are ones which might actually fly with all five permanent members. It’s the most extreme case of what the American political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls “the politics of excluded alternatives.” If the UN is ever to become both democratic and effective, the veto doesn’t need to be “restrained.” The veto needs to be eliminated.
  • The Commission recommends the creation of a “UN Parliamentary Network … to raise greater awareness and participation in UN governance.” Today’s U.N. represents only national executive branches. An analogy might be if every single member of the U.S. Congress was appointed by state governors. This innovative new concept proposes that individuals already elected to national legislatures could be selected to sit in this new international body. That very idea has been promoted for years by the international “Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly” based in Berlin. But the hope of this international campaign is that eventually the representatives in such a body would be not selected from national parliaments, but directly elected to a new transnational chamber. That’s not such a far-fetched notion. An American woman living in Los Angeles elects particular individuals to represent her in the L.A. City Council, the California state legislature, and the U.S. Congress. Why shouldn’t she be able to elect particular individuals to represent her at the global level as well? Whether a Parliamentary Network now or a newly invented Citizens Assembly later, we might just see the emergence of transnational political parties, which could dramatically increase the direct participation of ordinary citizens in global affairs.
  • Besides providing a forum for national government executive branches alone, the structure of the UN General Assembly put forth in the United Nations Charter contains two other fundamental flaws – which unfortunately the Commission’s “UN Parliamentary Network” would do nothing to ameliorate. First, the principle of one nation one vote, for states large and small, India and Vanuatu alike, could hardly be more undemocratic or absurd.  Second, once votes are cast in the U.N. General Assembly, its decisions serve only as polite requests to the world. It has no power to make anything like universal laws. The obvious solution to those twin defects is to establish some kind of weighted voting system in the General Assembly (perhaps accounting for both population and monetary contributions to global public initiatives), and then to give the results of its balloting the force of international law (like Security Council decisions already possess). “One nation one vote” (and no power) is surely not the one and only concept we can ever envisage to legislate for and govern our one world.
  • “Tents, Water Run Short for Iraqis Fleeing Fallujah.” “Nigerians at Refugee Camp Face Starvation.” “Dire Funding Shortfalls Will Hit Aid to Yemen, UN Says.” These recent Washington Post headlines from one single day demonstrate that the single greatest hindrance to the UN carrying out its multiple and often overwhelming missions is the absence of any kind of funding source beyond voluntary ad hoc contributions from member states. Many proposals have been put forth to remedy this structural deficiency. Probably the most well-known is the “Tobin Tax,” devised by the late Nobel economics laureate James Tobin, which, by placing a microscopic fee on international currency speculation, could provide vast and reliable new resources for the entire U.N. system.
  • Finally, the Commission does not to put forth the most promising idea for preventing genocide and crimes against humanity – a permanent, directly-recruited, all-volunteer U.N. Rapid Deployment Force (UNRDF). Many don’t realize that “U.N. Peacekeepers,” in their distinctive blue helmets, are in every case national soldiers, dispatched and ultimately controlled by national governments on a case by case basis. A proposal for such a “U.N. Legion” was first put forward in 1948 by the first U.N. Secretary-General, Trygve Lie. A half century later, his successor Kofi Annan observed with some exasperation that the U.N. is the only fire department that cannot obtain fire engines until after the flames have broken out. A UNRDF would be poised to act not to serve the national interests of any individual state, but the common human interest we all share in relegating genocide to the dustbin of history. It could free the American president in particular from the excruciating dilemma of dispatching “the most powerful military in the world” to stop crimes that have little to do with us, or doing nothing while the nightmares continue to unfold. It might well deter the perpetrators of crimes against humanity from making their fateful choices in the first place. And it would give individual citizens of the world the opportunity not just “to serve their country,” but to put their lives on the line to serve humanity. To bring both security and justice to countless violent conflicts—where national governments are unwilling to deploy their own national forces because the fight in question does not engage their own national interests—the world needs a U.N. army.


It is the complete absence of these kinds of smart institutional innovations, 70 years on, which lead so many to consider the U.N. so ineffectual and irrelevant. The problem with the U.N. is neither “Council deadlock” nor “bureaucratic timidity.” The problem with the U.N. is the design of the U.N.

In 2020: A World Summit on Global Governance

Fortunately, however, the Commission atones for any of its hesitancies with one overarching recommendation. It calls for convening in 2020—the 75th anniversary of the birth of the United Nations – a formal global summit, of both governments and non-governmental actors, called a “World Summit on Global Security, Justice, and Governance.”

The Commission report emphasizes that most of what it proposes could be accomplished in 2020 without revising the 1945 U.N. Charter. But it does acknowledge that to advance the broad overall agenda, “consideration could be given … to Articles 108 or 109.” That first is the provision in the Charter for making individual Charter amendments, while the second provides for summoning “A General Conference of the Members of the United Nations for the purpose of reviewing the present Charter.” Indeed, Article 109(3) indicates that the framers intended for such a conference to be held no later than “the 10th annual session”—1955! Today the U.N. is into its 71st annual session.  But no such formal Charter review process has ever been launched.

A world summit on global governance during the U.N.‘s 75th anniversary year could provide a once-in-our-lifetime opportunity to reinvent humanity’s architectures of world order. It would allow many to suggest that a redesigned United Nations might tackle not just the bloody upheavals inside “fragile states” that the Commission identifies, but the ancient and omnipresent danger of military confrontations between nations—and actually find a way to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Civil society activists on a vast variety of other issues – climate, human rights, the education of girls, migration, poverty and inequality and ever-increasing economic globalization – all could pursue global institutional reforms to advance their issues through the vehicle of such a 2020 world summit. NGOs could engage their constituencies on a large menu of imaginative global governance proposals focused upon their own agendas. (The Commission to its credit urges nongovernmental participation and civil society agitation on nearly every page.) Indeed, the American NGO Citizens for Global Solutions (founded in 1947 as the “United World Federalists for World Government with Limited Powers Adequate to Prevent War”) is already laying plans to mobilize a broad coalition—of multiple actors who might possess a great many different issue priorities and world order visions—behind the singular call for governments to commit now to convening in the year 2020 a world summit on global governance.

Humanity’s “Ultimate Aims”

On November 12, 1946, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Clement Attlee, announced to the House of Commons that nothing less than a world government could serve as “the ultimate aim of Great Britain’s foreign policy.” (Attlee succeeded one Winston Churchill in that post – who repeatedly suggested much the same thing.) What strikes one about this utterly forgotten vision is not just how few world leaders would say anything like it today, but how rarely they speak about any sort of “ultimate aims” in the realm of world order at all.

As we approach the year 2020, our agenda should not be limited solely to what we might practically try to achieve in the year 2020. We also ought to begin to talk about the kinds of structures of global governance we might hope to enact by, oh, the U.N.‘s 100th anniversary year, in 2045. And, perhaps too, about the world political structure and the nature of the human condition that we might hope for at the very end of the present century, in 2099. That last might seem inconceivably remote and distant—far too much so to utter any kind of meaningful predictions or prescriptions. And yet a child 6 years old today will be 89 years old in 2099. Surely, we ought not hesitate to express our hopes regarding how future history might unfold during the space of a single human lifetime.

That leads to some Very Big Questions.

What kind of United Nations would we create if we were designing it from scratch today? If the League of Nations was the first and the United Nations the second, can we begin to envision a “Third Generation World Organization” – Version 3.0? Might the modest “UN Parliamentary Network” proposed by the Commission evolve someday into a true world legislature – what Alfred Lord Tennyson called in 1835 “The Parliament of Man?” Can we dream that some distant day the human race might eliminate both permanent national military establishments and endless international arms races, through the establishment of what the University of Chicago’s Committee to Frame a World Constitution in 1948 called a “Federal Republic of the World?”

That idea, of something like a world state, has been repeatedly advanced over the course of many centuries, by geniuses like Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, Victor Hugo, Immanuel Kant, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Penn … dating as far back as Dante! But is a world state in fact a desirable destination, or might its costs and risks exceed its benefits? If desirable, could it ever be achievable? If not desirable or not achievable, what are the likely costs, benefits, and risks of the contemporary state sovereignty system enduring indefinitely, on and on into the dim mists of perpetuity? Can we envision any hypothetical models of world order beyond tribes with clubs, Thomas Hobbes’s “bellum omnium contra omnes,” the war of all against all? If we are going to put a message in a bottle and dispatch it to the Earthlings of the 22nd Century – containing our hopes and dreams for them—what do we want it to say?

Almost certainly, the kinds of next steps in the social evolution of the human species suggested in these questions will not be accomplished in the year 2020. Politics, after all, as every freshman learns, is “the art of the possible.” But we profoundly constrain our ability to imagine a brighter human future if we insist that every single proposal be weighed down by the ball and chain of “PPP” – present political possibility. Nothing will ever become a realistic goal unless someone first declares it a desirable goal – and proclaims it, however distantly, as humanity’s eventual historical aspiration.

So civil society needs to begin working right now to persuade national governments to convene the world summit on global governance proposed by the Albright/Gambari Commission in 2020. Then it needs to endeavor to move those governments to push the edges of the envelope as far outward as possible during the U.N.’s 75th anniversary year. But perhaps more than anything else, campaigns for human progress ought to set out to shatter the limitations – the ones that so many so often so completely take for granted – on humanity’s collective political imagination, the future potential of our single global civilization, and the infinite historical possibility of One World.

Posted in Abolishing War