Editor’s Note:This article is drawn from the inaugural James N. Mattis Lecture at the American Academy in Berlin, delivered by Jeffrey Feltman on February 22, 2023. The speech has been lightly edited for clarity, length, and minor updates. It is part of the Talbott Papers, a series that assesses the broader implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Today, when we talk about global order, we often lament the divisions inside the United Nations Security Council. This year marks the 50th anniversary of important unity: when the U.N. Security Council unanimously recommended German membership in the United Nations. The German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany both entered the U.N. in September 1973.
John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy – Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Germany today is the U.N.’s fourth-largest financial contributor and has been elected to six different Security Council rotations. Germany, along with Namibia, is currently facilitating consultations for the U.N.’s 2024 “Summit of the Future,” to consider how the multilateral system should address old and new challenges.
My own career had two primary chapters: as a U.S. diplomat, mostly serving overseas, and then as the U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs. Those two jobs put me in touch with different types of folks.
I will draw from both of those experiences in discussing the impact of the war on Ukraine in four areas:
First, an overview of the existing multilateral system and why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is almost unprecedented in its breach of the “rules of the road” that have guided post-World War II interstate relations.
Second, for comparison, two examples from the 20th century of how the U.N. responded to earlier challenges to peace and security.
Third, my analysis of how the U.N. has reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (spoiler alert: so far, the U.N. response to the challenges created by that invasion has been better than I anticipated, despite our collective failure to prevent war).
Fourth, how we should think about the future of the U.N. and the multilateral system more generally, in light of the war on Ukraine? Russia’s invasion creates new challenges and exacerbates existing concerns about the global order.
First, the existing multilateral system.
The multilateral system, or the global order, rests on a number of overlapping and intersecting mechanisms that work in tandem. We’ve inherited most of these from the post-World War II and Cold War periods: the U.N. with peace and security at its heart; the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; NATO; the European integration project that became the European Union; the World Trade Organization that evolved from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; the Helsinki process that eventually became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); and others.
These institutions, treaties, and alliances have different purposes and governing structures, along with distinct yet often overlapping memberships. Some, like the U.N., have enormous bureaucratic reach. Others, like the Group of Seven, have no permanent secretariat. Their legal statuses vary considerably. But together, these comprise the so-called rules-based international order. “Guidelines” is probably a more accurate description than “rules,” as states choose voluntarily to sign up, out of recognition of reciprocal benefit.
Even if not always followed, these guidelines are more or less universally accepted as legitimate. In increasing predictability, they reduce risks for all. And the system has been sufficiently flexible to endure through three distinct geopolitical phases: the Cold War, the immediate post-Cold War years when the United States dominated the agenda, and the emerging more multipolar environment of today.
We all know examples where this international order has failed — Srebrenica and Rwanda, to name two notorious examples. But the system has succeeded at its most fundamental level: there has been no World War III. That is not nothing. Indeed, that was the primary objective in 1945 of the key architects of the international system.
But is that sufficient? Even before February 24, issues such as economic inequality, the climate crisis, and the pandemic prompted nagging questions about how effective institutions created in a different geopolitical climate are in today’s world. Russia’s war has hyper-charged that debate.
Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security advisor, argued recently in Foreign Affairs that the war in Ukraine is seen by many to be about the future of Europe, not the future of the world order. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar went further, claiming that Europe thinks its problems are the world’s problems, but that the world’s problems are not considered to be Europe’s problems.
These are thought-provoking charges. And it is indisputable that Russia’s war unhelpfully distracts us from urgent problems elsewhere. But let’s not understate the impact of Russia’s invasion. Russia dropped a barrel bomb on the fundamental principle of the international system: respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.
To quote the preamble of the charter, the U.N. aims to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Whatever else it may do, the irreducible purpose of the U.N. is peace and security.
Article 2 of the charter offers clarity: “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means … All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
Unlike murky diplomatic language, including things I’ve drafted in my career, this is unambiguous. And this is key to the entire international order.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the first violation of the charter, but it’s a particularly egregious example. Since World War II, there have been very few examples of states attempting to steal territory and change borders by force. Contrast that with the frequency of wars of territorial conquest before 1945. How many times did the frontiers in Central and Eastern Europe shift because of wars prior to 1945? The 2003 U.S.-U.K.-led invasion of Iraq made a mockery of international law, with an estimated 200,000 Iraqi civilians slaughtered in the civil strife and terrorism unleashed by the war. But the intention was never to erase Iraq from the map. Washington and London did not cite history to annex Iraqi territory. Countries have overwhelmingly accepted that respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the heart of today’s multilateral system. The U.N. Charter signaled that the era of imperial conquest had ended.
Article 51 of the U.N. Charter does permit the use of force for self-defense. But Ukraine in February 2022 posed no military threat to the Russian Federation. As for NATO, U.S. forces stationed in Europe prior to Russia’s invasion were one-seventh their size compared to their Cold War presence.
Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, gave an African perspective from his Security Council seat:
“Today, across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural, and linguistic bonds. At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial, or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later. Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited, but we would still pursue continental political, economic, and legal integration. Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known. We chose to follow the rules of the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations charter, not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.”
Let’s now consider two earlier U.N. reactions to threats to international peace and security.
First, the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the world came alarmingly close to direct superpower war and possible nuclear Armageddon.
Much of the story is well-known. But the role of the United Nations is largely overlooked, at least in the United States. Throughout the crisis, U Thant was acting U.N. secretary-general — Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld had been killed in a plane crash in 1961, as he tried to bring peace to the Congo. U Thant was in direct communication with U.S. President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and their advisors.
Exchanging letters and calls, adjusting proposals based on the U.S. and Soviet reactions, U Thant personally brokered the face-saving trade-off — suspending U.S. invasion plans in return for the removal of Russian missiles from Cuba and (as we found out later) U.S. missiles from Turkey. U Thant went to Cuba to mollify Fidel Castro — this was not the first or last time that great powers worked behind the backs of affected clients. The U.N. verified the withdrawal of the missiles. The world exhaled.
This was preventive diplomacy at its best, averting superpower conflict and possible escalation to a disastrous nuclear showdown.
To close the file, the United States and the Soviet Union submitted a joint letter to U Thant expressing appreciation for his “efforts in assisting our Governments to avert the serious threat to the peace which recently arose in the Caribbean area.” (Fun fact: the negotiators tasked with coming up with agreed text were, for the Americans, John J. McCloy — former U.S. high commissioner for occupied Germany — and, for the Soviets, Vasily Vasilyevich Kuznetsov, then first deputy foreign minister. Kuznetsov, in a quirk of history, later became, on three different and brief occasions, the head of state in the Soviet Union’s dying days: he became acting chair of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet after the deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, then Yuri Andropov, then again Konstantin Chernenko.)
The point is the critical, effective role that U Thant played in the most significant threat to international peace and security since World War II. (Later, the U.S. relationship with U Thant cooled considerably. U Thant criticized the U.S. war in Vietnam and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This may explain American amnesia about U Thant’s 1962 peacemaking.)
My second example is the U.N.’s reaction to Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In this case, the action moves from the U.N. Secretariat to the U.N. member states.
In speeches leading up to the invasion, Saddam rejected the very concept of Kuwait’s independence, citing shared history and culture. After seizing Kuwait by force, he initially, and briefly, set up a puppet regime before announcing the annexation of Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province.
The Security Council immediately demanded withdrawal, imposed sanctions, and declared Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait null and void. In November 1990, the Security Council authorized force to liberate Kuwait, should Iraq not withdraw by January. In April 1991, the council mandated that shares of Iraqi oil revenues would be used to pay reparations to Kuwait. Thirteen Iraq-related resolutions between August 1990 and April 1991 alone, all defending the territorial integrity of a U.N. member state. The Russian Federation voted in favor of all of them.
After Kuwait’s liberation, the U.N. assumed the task of delineating and verifying the international border and overseeing the reparations payments.
As in the Cuban missile crisis, the U.N. acted effectively to a threat to international peace and security.
That brings me to the third point: evaluating the effectiveness of the U.N.’s response to the war on Ukraine, especially in light of the previous examples cited.
As we remember, Washington in late 2021 began sharing intelligence about the Kremlin’s invasion plans. Skepticism was understandable as citing distorted intelligence as a pretext to invade Iraq in 2003 had damaged American credibility. Leaders questioned whether Russia would really violate the most fundamental understanding of the global order that Moscow itself had helped esablish in 1945.
But the U.N. could have checked the warnings of Russian troop deployments via commercial satellite imagery, as the media did. Whatever he might have been doing discretely, I wish that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres had — before the invasion — briefed the Security Council, using the drama of Article 99 of the U.N. Charter allowing the secretary-general to bring to the council’s attention “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” Guterres could have demanded an explanation from the Russian Federation about the troops positioned at Ukraine’s doorstep. He might have used his council presentation to remind all member states of their obligations to settle disputes peacefully. He might have traveled to Moscow to offer his good offices.
On the one hand, none of that would have been likely to prevent the Russian invasion. But the U.N. would have been caught trying. Even when member states behave badly, the secretary-general should have a responsibility to represent the principles of the charter.
Yet, on the other hand, had someone asked me a year ago to predict the U.N.’s impact on Russia’s invasion, I would have been dead wrong. I would have assumed that such a breach of international norms by a major power would propel the U.N. into utter irrelevance, like the League of Nations in the 1930s. After Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Italy’s attacks on Ethiopia, and Nazi Germany’s rise, the league ceased to matter. That has not happened to the U.N. today. There is more resilience in this 78-year-old institution than many suspected.
Yes, the Security Council is gridlocked on Ukraine. But the council has continued other work: renewing and updating mandates of peace operations and adopting in December a landmark resolution exempting humanitarian deliveries from U.N. sanctions. Russia’s invasion may have exacerbated the council’s differences on contentious issues such as how to address the threat of North Korea’s nuclear and weapons programs — but it did not create them.
Action regarding the war itself shifted to the General Assembly, which voted 141 out of 193 to condemn Russia’s invasion. The assembly later rejected Russia’s annexation announcement by 143 out of 193 votes, or about 75% of the membership.
In April, responding to Russian vetoes of Ukraine-related Security Council drafts, Liechtenstein successfully pushed a General Assembly resolution to raise the political costs of vetoes. Now, a veto by any of the five permanent members (the P5) triggers a General Assembly meeting where the P5 member must defend its veto. This doesn’t change veto privileges. But it makes the P5 more accountable to the U.N. membership as a whole. While sad to say, this is the most significant reform to the Security Council since its membership was expanded from 11 to 15 in the 1960s.
The Security Council and General Assembly are member state organs. What about the U.N. as an institution? It, too, has reacted to the war with more creativity and effectiveness than many would have predicted: The International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections and reports on, and presence in, Zaporizhzhia. The evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, which included the secretary-general’s personal engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rapid assistance to displaced persons, refugees, and the communities that host them. The World Food Program’s early warning about potential food insecurity — creating the international pressure that enabled the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Work is still underway on restarting Russian exports of ammonia, a key component of fertilizers. The U.N.’s establishment of direct and indirect channels to Moscow and to Kyiv to troubleshoot humanitarian and other issues.
For the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the U.N. showed unusual internal coherence for a notoriously decentralized bureaucracy. This is essentially two deals linked: one set of U.N. officials worked to overcome constraints in terms of sanctions, financing, shipping, and reputational risk to the export of Russian grains and fertilizers. Another U.N. team worked to broker an understanding on the export of Ukrainian commodities from Odesa, to transcend the Russian naval blockade. The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development transcended Washington’s dismissive perception of its utility through rapid, creative trade-related initiatives. Other parts of the U.N. worked on technical issues, such as how to use existing maritime law for inspections (to avoid needing Security Council authorization). The U.N. worked closely with a private foundation on initial arrangements, and a Russian oligarch helped troubleshoot. U.N. officials privately established ongoing communications with key capitals, including Washington, to brainstorm, develop ideas, and garner support. Turkish outreach to both Moscow and Kyiv was essential. A joint operations center between the United Nations, Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey in Istanbul keeps all this working. In summary, it is a complicated but successful arrangement of political mediation and technical competence wrapped up in humanitarian imperatives. (Update: On March 18, the date the Black Sea Grain Initiative was scheduled to expire, the U.N. announced its extension but, curiously, made no reference to its longevity. The Turks, Ukrainians, and United Nations had all pushed for a six-month technical rollover, while the Russians offered only two months. It is not clear what happens in two months if the Russians refuse a further extension.)
Other parts of the U.N. system have also reacted well: the International Court of Justice, the high commissioner for human rights, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and others.
So, good marks for the U.N. in reacting to the consequences of the war. This is not like the League of Nations in the 1930s. But none of these responses address the United Nations’ irreducible peace-and-security purpose. For even if Guterres were to jump into peacemaking the way U Thant did (and be welcomed by key capitals in doing so), the U.N. is unlikely to serve as the peace broker that ends the war. But whenever the fighting stops, the U.N. will likely be needed. The Security Council remains the only universally accepted body that could endorse an agreement and make it universally applicable. Who knows what Russia and Ukraine will require in terms of guarantees or third-party monitoring, verification, and compliance mechanisms? The formula should be for parties to hammer out arrangements outside the U.N., and then take any agreement to the U.N. as part of codification and implementation. This applies whether the war ends or whether it morphs into a stalemate and frozen conflict.
This is exactly the formula used with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program and the 2016 peace agreement ending five decades of conflict between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia: negotiations did not take place around the Security Council table or via shuttle diplomacy by U.N. officials. But the Security Council and U.N. officials were instrumental in making the agreements work in practice.
And that brings me to my last point: how to think about the multilateral system going forward in light of Russia’s war? Of those legacy institutions, we’ve seen NATO re-energized, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its consensus rules, is paralyzed. What about the U.N. and the international order more generally considering the most serious threat to peace and security since the Cold War? And at a time of rising Chinese-U.S. tensions and a closer Chinese-Russian relationship expressly designed to push back against a values-based international order?
As I said, nearly 75% of the U.N.’s membership rejected Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. But the 25% or so that did not — most abstained — account for about 50% of the world’s population, including states like India and South Africa. It’s unlikely that these countries applaud stronger countries invading and stealing their neighbors’ lands or stronger states changing recognized borders via military force. This is also not an example of countries pledging allegiance to Moscow. Even the Cubans, surely thinking of their giant northern neighbor, abstained rather than voted with Russia in favor of the latter’s annexation of Ukrainian sovereign territory.
So, what’s going on? Many countries may have had specific reasons, such as India’s aspirations to be an acceptable mediator. (If New Delhi abstained to retain its access to Russian military exports, one hopes that Indian defense officials are paying attention to the poor performance of Russian arms in Ukraine.) But more generally, these are protest votes. This is hedging. These countries are annoyed at being badgered to choose sides in a European war that they do not see as posing a threat to themselves. And part of Russia’s message probably sounds compelling: that the current, U.S.-dominated international order has not delivered sufficient results for the Global South. That it is skewed toward “the West” rather than providing equivalent benefits for “the rest.”
“The rest” resent vaccine hoarding and border closures during the pandemic. They see the failure of rich countries to adequately fund climate mitigation measures, while quickly cobbling together resources for Kyiv. They are receptive to Moscow and Beijing’s arguments that the focus on individual political rights and freedoms is accompanied by the West’s alleged downplaying of the economic and social needs also required for a dignified life. They suspect that concepts such as “conflict prevention” and “the responsibility to protect” have become new euphemisms for the old game of external interference by the Global North into the internal affairs of the Global South, license for the strong to patronize and pressure the weak.
Some argue that Russia’s war on Ukraine is such a shock to the system that it creates an opportunity similar to June 1945 when representatives of 50 governments gathered in San Francisco to conclude the U.N. Charter. There is certainly an argument to be made, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that we need to radically reimagine the global order, as indeed happened in 1945.
But I disagree, not on the argument’s merits but on its practicality. San Francisco was characterized by a sense of unity forged by two devastating wars in a quarter century. Today, the world is polarized. Global North vs. Global South, East vs. West, China vs. the United States. 193 governments as opposed to 50 represented in San Francisco. Polarization abroad and populism at home. We cannot create a new U.N. or a new global order based on shared understandings in this political climate. The atmosphere simply is not conducive for a “San Francisco” moment.
And yet our collective action in the current system has been inadequate in so many areas. There’s a risk that the multilateral architecture, unless it is refreshed, simply deteriorates, with behavior between states no longer mostly moored in shared understandings.
So, what can we do? First, let’s go back to basics and relearn some history. During the Cold War — which was not anticipated when the U.N. Charter was signed — the United States and the Soviet Union, despite whatever else was happening, cooperated on nuclear non-proliferation, the eradication of smallpox, arms control, the development of peace operations tools such as peacekeeping, and other issues. We’ve forgotten that great powers can confront each other and cooperate simultaneously.
Second, let’s be serious about addressing weaknesses in the current system. I mentioned the Global South’s resentments that risk eroding support for the rules of the road. Those countries will probably remain unaligned regarding the war on Ukraine and the U.S.-China rivalry. But we want them to stay committed to the principles of the international system: imagine the territorial wars that might occur otherwise. Imagine the risks of dangerous misunderstandings if the predictability of interstate relations deriving from the current architecture evaporates.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva reports that 60% of low-income countries are in or near debt distress. The financial crisis of 2008 provoked important changes to the international financial system. The Global North traditionally emphasizes the importance of internal reforms and aggressive anti-corruption efforts as keys to successful development; the Global South insists on more equitable financial distribution. Perhaps India, as chair of the G-20 this year, can find mechanisms to achieve balance between these approaches.
As part of fixing the system, intergovernmental organizations need to reach out beyond governments. Multilateral institutions need to work with civil society, scientists, businesses, and others when it comes to issues such as antibiotic resistance, species extinction, or artificial intelligence. Some governments resist the idea of “diluting” interstate discussions with non-state participants. But the U.N. itself has already — wisely, if gingerly — moved toward a more inclusive approach in practice. The Black Sea Grain Initiative would not have come together without the support of outside, non-state actors. And international work on climate change incorporates civil society, city governments, scientists, geographers, and others. Now, only about one-third of those working on international climate initiatives are purely intergovernmental. In terms of process, this is a model for other issues.
And then there’s the Security Council, discredited by inaction not only on Ukraine but on Syria and elsewhere. Article 27 of the U.N. Charter notes that “a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.” If one can strip Russia of the right to shield itself, great. But it’s a mistake to advocate expelling Russia from the Security Council or United Nations. Consider the International Criminal Court: how strong can the court really be when the United States, China, Russia, and India have not joined? (As principled as the March 17 indictments of Putin and the Russian commissioner for children’s rights are for accountability, the court’s lack of universality blunts their practical effectiveness.) One of the reasons the League of Nations descended into irrelevance is that Japan and Germany withdrew, and the United States never joined. The Russian Federation, perhaps remembering the Soviet Union’s experience when it boycotted the Security Council as war in Korea broke out, has not withdrawn from the U.N., despite condemnation from the General Assembly. The universality of the UN remains an asset.
President Joe Biden, in his September address to the U.N. General Assembly, called for Security Council expansion. Good. The current Security Council membership does not reflect current economic, political, or demographic realities. And while Biden did not “name names,” Germans surely know that his reference to “nations we’ve long supported” includes Germany. Unfortunately, Security Council expansion so far is another example where governments agree in theory but fail to rally around a single proposal. But we need to push. And let’s see what China does when faced with potential council membership for Germany, Japan, and India.
But in addition to trying to save and improve the current system, let’s also fill in the gaps. What do we need to address specific challenges not covered by the existing architecture? This, too, is kind of a “back to the future” proposal. I noted earlier that the multilateral system includes layers of organizations with different mandates and memberships that, in practice, work in tandem. This layered multilateralism is not frozen in amber. The financial crises of the late 1990s prompted the creation of the G-20. The more recent Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia — does not undermine the U.N.’s universality and is focused on the specific issue of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. Other new mechanisms to deal with issues related to emerging technologies and the environment can embrace participation from beyond governments.
In essence, then, I advocate a three-part agenda: We save what we have. We try to fix the system — improve what we save — including by addressing the global inequality that leads to so much understandable resentment in the Global South. And we overlay the current global order with new institutions and mechanisms that will have varied memberships and mandates depending on the problems to be addressed.
These proposals may sound like I’m merely tinkering, when we are facing multiple global crises, from Russia’s aggression to the climate emergency and inequality, crying for radical new approaches. Putin’s February 21 speech announcing Russia’s suspension from the New START Treaty reminded us that even the arms control achievements of past decades are now in the past. It is conceivable that the entire edifice of the postwar multilateral architecture crashes down. And even if it doesn’t, the institutional arrangements, of course, exist in a time when great power competition will increase, not decrease.
But think about Brexit as an example of the unintended consequences of abandoning existing institutions. By preserving and improving the prevailing institutions but adding new layers to address specific challenges, we can promote a turning point in the multilateral system that is less disruptive than Brexit was to the U.K. but more serious than previous reform efforts.
Still, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises a fundamental question: can we count on Article 2 of the charter, cited at the beginning of this talk, remaining a guiding principle of the international system? Without any sense of irony, in July 2021 — that is, seven months before Russia’s violation of Article 2 by invading Ukraine — Russia was one of the founders of the “Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations.” With Belarus, China, North Korea, Syria, Eritrea, and other like-minded countries, it’s an interesting club for sure. Let’s pocket this as evidence, notwithstanding the horrors Russia is inflicting on Ukraine, that peaceful resolutions of disputes remain the accepted default in international relations, even if not always followed. It’s frightening to think about how the vacuum will be filled if we lose that altogether. Preventing Russia from winning its war on Ukraine helps us preserve this fundamental principle, without which we are back in what Brookings scholar Robert Kagan has described as a geopolitical jungle. Without shared respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and a universal aspiration for the peaceful settlement of disputes, the risk of World War III escalates.
Let me close with a 1954 quote from the U.N.’s second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, that, while often repeated, is worth keeping in mind: “The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.”