The ratification of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945 ushered in a new era of international relations, worldwide cooperation, and the international prioritization of democracy. The United Nations is, for all intents and purposes, meant to be a democratic international organization. Unfortunately, it is vulnerable to many of the same weaknesses that failing democracies fall victim to today and reflects many of the flaws we abhor in national regimes.
Some could claim that the principle of sovereign equality of all nations is proof of this; after all, every member state of the United Nations gets a single vote in the General Assembly, structured in a similar fashion to the United States Senate. Though it borrows its structure from various structures of democratic government, even those most involved in domestic politics are woefully unaware of the impact, structure, and purpose of the United Nations. Despite some understanding, the United Nations is not meant to be a world government. At least, not in the way that a national structure like the Parliament of the United Kingdom is. The United Nations is, instead, a political union “whose decisions are dominated by considerations of political opportunity,” as described by Sven Gareis. This is best understood as the prioritization of individual national interests within such a political system, with the intent of collective action limited to what can benefit an individual state.
It is in this sense that the international political system differs so aggressively from many democratic regimes on the natural level. Simply put, the United Nations represents the states, not the citizens within them. While this representation of state interest should theoretically include the interests of states, it is not guaranteed. This may seem unsurprising in the case of authoritarian regimes, but the vulnerability of eroding democratic regimes inherently jeopardizes the effectiveness and security of the international system as organized by the United Nations.
In the case of democratic backsliding, as outlined by Nancy Bermeo, democratic institutions are subject to subtle but significant changes, ranging from the empowerment of the executive to institution-based election manipulation. However, when the appointment of a government official to an international position is done strictly by a government, often only through elements of the executive with no checks and balances, this international representation becomes a reflection of the quality of the home democracy. The representatives, after all, advocate for their states, not their people.
Yet a question still remains, one that many unfamiliar with the international system don’t even know to ask: does it even matter? I ask this question because the current framework of representation is not binding. UN General Assembly resolutions are not binding on the member states. If that were the case, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have ended long ago. General Assembly resolutions are practically little more than an opinion poll on your Twitter feed; they are not enforceable, nor is there an enforcement mechanism within the General Assembly. I want to direct your attention to the United Nations security council, outlined in Chapter V of the UN Charter. The Security Council consists of eleven member states at any given time, with the United Kingdom, France, the United States, China, and Russia having permanent status within the council, and is the only binding instrument of the United Nations as outlined in Article 25. UN General Assembly resolutions do not inherently have weight in the proceedings of the Security Council, eliminating the potential for a binding effect of international consensus. Not only this, but the Security Council can be derailed by any permanent member at effectively any time; the Permanent 5 each hold automatic veto power. Intended as a check against the victimization of one party against military action without widespread agreement from a wide range of interests, it has become unfortunately bastardized by the disproportionately powerful to prevent meaningful collective action through the United Nations. Just at the end of September 2022, a security council resolution to condemn Russia’s annexation of occupied territories failed. Russia employed its automatic veto, single-handedly killing the resolution.
When analyzing state-level democratic regimes, political scientists and activists may call this democratic backsliding. If the checks and balances of democracy suddenly had no meaning, and the executive could automatically veto any action without opportunity for recourse, articles would be written left and right about how democracy is falling apart. If we cannot accept this mode of representation on a national scale, why is there not more outrage for it on the international level? The most democratic organ of it is unenforceable and ineffective. The enforceable organ is subject to the tyranny of the powerful, a tyranny that is written into the very text of the UN Charter. The efficacy of the international system is not merely in question: it is indisputably undemocratic. Demanding a new international order is no easy task – it is nigh impossible to do through layers upon layers of representative democracy. But it is up to citizens of democracy to put the passion they have for domestic political issues into those abroad as well. As an American citizen, I am fortunate to have the luxury of not having to worry about international politics. No citizen of Ukraine has the same privilege.