John Bolton, a famously controversial United States Ambassador to the United Nations, at an event in 1994, said, “The United States makes the UN work when it wants it to work, and that is exactly the way it should be, because the only question, the only question for the United States is what is in our national interest. And if you don’t like that, I’m sorry, but that is the fact.” Western audiences were horrified when this statement was released following Bolton’s 2005 nomination. 59 US officials, including many former diplomats, signed an open letter, which outright called Bolton “the wrong man for this position.”
Such a bold statement was less surprising, however, to those countries outside the West. Perhaps it was not usually stated so badly, but the fact that the current world order favours US interests was hardly a shock. Furthermore, it was not particularly surprising for the rest of the world that John Bolton’s nomination stood and he was appointed the official US Ambassador to the UN by President Bush in 2005. The term ‘United Nations’ was coined by President Roosevelt, the UN Charter was written in San Francisco, and the US and their World War II Allies were given the majority of veto powers that still exist today. The US contributes roughly 22 percent of the entire UN budget – Japan, the next highest contributor, only provides 10.8 percent. Since the end of the Cold War, the most crucial leadership positions within the UN Secretariat have been held by citizens of the United States, Britain or France. The US has dominated the UN since its creation, historically, fiscally and ideologically. Western nations that are ideologically aligned with the US have had the luxury of ignoring this fact, but countries like China, who opposed the US position throughout the Cold War and have maintained a cautiously adversarial stance ever since, have not been so privileged.
This cultural domination by the West has led to increased frustration amongst member states who feel inadequately represented within the current Western monopoly. The most prominent of these is China, which has consistently remained doubtful that the UN is a viable platform on which to promote Chinese interests globally. For example, due to its long-standing support of North Korea, China directly countered UN sanctions by delivering aid directly to Pyongyang. Rather than arguing against UN agreements, which would at least demonstrate an investment in the process, China has habitually chosen to simply ignore resolutions. While few countries can afford to be as bold as China, the belief that the UN disproportionately caters to Western preferences exists among many states. Last year, Filipino President Duterte famously threatened to “burn down the United Nations” headquarters in New York in response to American criticism of his domestic drug policies. Russian President Putin addressed the UN in 2015 and voiced his concern that “the bloc thinking of the times of the Cold War… is still present” on the Security Council.
As non-Western countries grow more powerful, international organizations’ focus on Western values and interests becomes ever more obvious. The West only contains 12 percent of the world’s population. The fact that the international order fails to recognize this reality in its representation is incredibly dangerous. The UN is a valuable tool for facilitating diplomacy, providing peacekeeping and administering aid. No other organization is as broadly entrenched or trusted. If the unipolar power structure remains embedded in the UN, while the world becomes increasingly multipolar, the UN and its potential could be consigned to the annals of history. Before 2016, the problem had been recognized but the potential solutions were weak and compromised. The US wanted greater investment from China but was also unwilling to lose any of its influence in the UN. Washington claimed to hope Beijing would become a more active player in the UN but responded warily whenever China attempted to assert itself.
Then, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, an act which could – unlikely though it may sound – usher in a new, more egalitarian era for the UN. President Trump is an avowed isolationist, and as such, is pulling away from international organizations like the UN, which he calls “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time”. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, tweeted recently that she had “urged [Palestinian representatives] to meet with Israel in direct peace negotiations rather than looking to the UN to deliver results”. Reports also emerged in February that Trump was “questioning the value of the US belonging to the Human Rights Council,” and considering withdrawing. The White House confirmed those statements, citing the UN’s “unfair and unbalanced focus” on Israel as a key factor. The UN and the new US administration are also butting heads over policy on North Korea as President Trump refuses to take nuclear retaliation off the table. The re-emergence of the US immigration ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries and the US withdrawal from a number of environmental commitments made by President Obama are a major policy re-orientation away from the UN. As the policy in Washington departs from the UN in a number of ways, a vacuum is being created for countries like China to move into.
Up until now, China has remained relatively detached from the UN, seeing no room for Chinese influence where the US has been so omnipotent. However, President Trump’s sudden shift in international policy leaves space for new powers to begin contributing more equally to UN decision-making. China has pledged to expand its already major contributions to UN peacekeeping missions by increasing the number of dedicated troops, leading a mission for the first time in the South Sudan and looking set to bid for the head position of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, recently called the UN an “important pillar” for the promotion of world peace and development. China has even turned North Korea by choosing to halt coal trade between the two countries, following North Korea’s first solid rocket fuel test and the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in February. China has taken the space left vacant by the US to contribute more actively in the UN.
Rather than irreparably damaging the UN, Trump’s threats to withdraw from components of the UN may actually save the organization. As it is, the current US domination over UN policy is obvious and has led to many non-Western countries refusing to significantly invest in the concept of a United Nations. If the US pulls back, space could be created for a greater diversity of voices and ideologies to be heard. China will likely assume the majority of vacuum power left by the US, but there is also an opportunity for other non-Western countries to reshape UN procedures to reflect greater equality and fairness. The future is multipolar and Donald Trump may give the world the opportunity to make sure our institutions are as well.