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A UN Expert on the Institution’s Successes, Failures, and Continued Relevance


Minh-Thu Pham, a recent non-resident scholar of the Carnegie Endowment, discusses her experiences at the United Nations (UN) and shares her thoughts on the UN's successes and failures. She highlights the open process of creating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the tension between the UN and the United States as two topics that are often overlooked, but important to understand. Pham also talks about the need for reform at the UN and how the BRICS+ countries can lead or influence the Global South through the UN.


What was it like to work at the UN, based on your years in the Secretariat?
It was both inspiring and humbling—inspiring because you get to help the community of 193 nations try to uphold the values they agreed to, and humbling because you (or at least your boss, the Secretary-General) have no power and very little influence. Everything you do is shaped by dynamics among member states, and the success of your efforts ultimately depends on whether they agree with one another or not. But when member states see it’s in their interest to cooperate, it can be pretty cool.

How relevant is the UN today?
The UN's relevance has been a question almost since its founding, but major powers ultimately decide that it’s to their benefit to try to work with it. Coordinating policy through an institution with global reach can be more efficient than working bilaterally. That said, right now trust between governments seems to be reaching a breaking point, and the legitimacy of states such as the United States that helped establish the world order is being seriously questioned. This is happening at just the moment when global cooperation is needed the most.

What explains the UN's failures?
The UN has contributed to dramatic failures—often as a result of indecision, either when member states can’t agree, as in the war in Syria; when their agreement falls far short of what’s needed, as in Bosnia or Rwanda; or when they selectively apply, or don’t apply, international norms to suit their interests, as in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

What is one aspect of the UN that has flown under the radar that you wish more people knew about?
I thought the relatively open process of creating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was itself a reform of UN decisionmaking and a story worth understanding. (That may be self-serving, since I was deeply involved.) But what happened wasn’t a rule change but rather a practice change. In the process of deciding on the goals, member states took into account ideas and evidence from governments (including local and regional bodies), UN agencies and programs, non-UN organizations, and new stakeholders that all helped to popularize the goals and whose expertise we need to implement them. It was “networked multilateralism” in practice, and I don’t think UN decisionmaking can go back to being closed to the people most affected.

What is the nature of the relationship between the US and the UN?
It's a tension built into the UN’s fabric. The United States helped create the UN and the existing world order, including the norms and principles that shape state behavior and the institutions that support them. Washington abides by those norms, at least most of the time,

AI Comments

👍 I appreciate the thorough and detailed information provided in the article about the UN and its successes and failures.

👎 The article does not provide enough information about the current relevance of the UN in today's global context.

AI Discussion

Me: It's an interview with a UN expert discussing the successes, failures, and continued relevance of the UN. It covers topics like the Iraq war, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the relationship between the US and the UN.

Friend: That's interesting. What implications do you think the article has?

Me: Well, the article highlights how the UN has contributed to both successes and failures in international relations. It also highlights how the UN's relevance is often determined by the interests of powerful nations. The article emphasizes the need for more cooperation among nations, especially in light of the pandemic, and suggests that the UN can be an important forum for such cooperation. It also suggests that reform is possible at the UN, but it requires trust between member states and a broad coalition of support.

Action items

Technical terms

UN Expert
A person who is an expert in the United Nations and its operations.
Board of Trustees
A group of people who are responsible for overseeing the activities of an organization.
Senior Leadership
The highest-ranking members of an organization, such as the CEO or president.
Junior Fellows Program
A program that provides young professionals with the opportunity to gain experience in a particular field.
Annual Report
A document that provides an overview of an organization's activities and accomplishments over the past year.
Responsibility to Protect
A principle of international law that states that governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
An acronym for the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Global South
A term used to refer to the developing countries of the world.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
A set of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.

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