The UN must not be powerless

March 02, 2023 10:33
Photo: North Korea's Korean Central News Agency/ REUTERS

The first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a good opportunity to reflect on the war’s global implications. In addition to untold human misery, Russia’s aggression triggered a historic food and energy crisis and caused global inflation to spike, endangering the world’s fragile economic recovery from COVID-19. But the war also highlighted the shaky foundations of the international security order that emerged after the end of World War II, sending shockwaves around the world and encouraging countries like Germany and Japan to rearm.

While some still try to justify Putin’s actions by claiming that Russia was somehow provoked by the “eastern expansion” of NATO, the fact is that Ukraine posed no threat to Russia when Putin invaded the country. Putin was not seeking to defend Russia’s territorial integrity from Ukrainian or Western encroachments; he simply wanted to pursue his imperial ambitions.

The possibility of a Russian victory in Ukraine has caused panic among Russia’s neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as governments across Central and East Asia. If Russia, a nuclear power, can invade its much-smaller neighbor and prevail, what is to stop Putin from going after Poland next, or China from invading Taiwan?

While the world desperately needs a unified strategy, the United Nations is splintered and dysfunctional. After Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution denouncing its invasion at the beginning of the war, the UN General Assembly has passed toothless resolutions, including one on February 23 calling for Russia’s immediate withdrawal. Faced with the biggest threat to global stability in a generation, it seems that the body created to oversee and defend the international liberal order cannot stop it from unraveling.

The problem lies with the UN’s governance structure. The Security Council was created to maintain global peace, but the veto power granted to its five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom – has always been a major obstacle to achieving this goal. Now that one of its veto-holding permanent members is waging an aggressive war against a neighboring country, in flagrant violation of international law and the UN Charter, the Security Council is virtually powerless to impose economic sanctions or bring about a peaceful resolution.

The Security Council’s authority has been further undermined by North Korea’s repeated violations of its resolutions. The North Korean regime launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone on February 18 and is reportedly preparing for its seventh nuclear test. Last year, it fired more than 90 missiles over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. Yet the Security Council has remained silent since China and Russia vetoed a US-led bid to impose new sanctions on the country, leading to a US rebuke.

The UN’s inability to address these growing threats to global stability has encouraged Germany and Japan to shed their decades-long aversion to developing robust military capabilities. With a land war raging in Europe, Germany has pledged to increase its defense budget by €100 billion ($106 billion) and (reluctantly) agreed to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. And Japan, deeply shocked by Russia’s invasion, plans to double defense spending by 2027 (though Prime Minister Fumio Kishida must first figure out how to pay for it) and is revising its national-security strategy to enable the military to strike enemy targets abroad in the event of an actual, or imminent, attack.

Despite its newfound commitment to remilitarization, Japan has maintained its pacifist constitution and remains opposed to acquiring nuclear weapons, owing to the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While most of the Japanese public supports the boost in defense spending, many still believe that the US-imposed constitution was right to restrict the military’s role to self-defense. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, together with North Korea’s provocations and China’s increasingly aggressive posture, has highlighted the importance of building up the country’s deterrence capabilities and accelerated its shift away from pacifist idealism.

At the same time, protecting liberal democracy against aggressors like Russia and North Korea requires a multilateral body capable of tackling threats to world peace. To fulfill its peacekeeping role, the UN Security Council must undertake significant reform. At the very least, Japan and Germany should be granted permanent seats and veto power. Alternatively, a permanent member’s veto power should be suspended if, like Russia, it becomes an aggressor. With the world on the precipice of disaster, there is no alternative to overhauling the cornerstone of global governance.

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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A former Japanese deputy vice minister of finance, the writer is a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and Senior Professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.