The United Nations has, in many ways, been declining since the end of the Cold War. The failure of the UN to stop the 1994 genocide in Darfur when they had clear knowledge of its occurrence led many to doubt its effectiveness. At the turn of the millennium, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the need to reform the UN was urgent. Then, following America's failure to get the UN to back the 2003 invasion of Iraq, renewed calls were made that the UN had lost its relevance. In many ways, this is true. But for all its shortcomings, the UN is still necessary in the world -- reform, if effectively done, can remedy many of its ills.
Following the Second World War, it was decided that the League of Nations, which was the UN's precursor, was a failure. Set up in 1919 at the Treaty of Versailles, the League was primarily made to stop war. When the Second World War began, the organizational structure of the League was powerless to stop it. The UN kept the goals of the League but changed the method of achieving these ends. Since its inception the UN has taken on a number of additional goals, including nuclear non-proliferation, agricultural development and has grown a peacekeeping force provided by member states.
The crisis of relevance the UN is facing takes two forms. One is that the UN's goals are being more effectively fulfilled by other bodies. The second is that the things that only the UN claims it can accomplish are going unfulfilled, making the international community suspicious of investing resources in it.
The first problem isn't so bad as long as the goals are being met by another group. Organizations independent of the UN, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, along with the G20 and G8, have taken over important duties previously claimed by the UN. The two financial institutions, for instance, are much more important for aiding developing countries with loans then the UN is. For addressing other financial issues, the G20 has played a more significant role in setting policy and acting as a forum for finance ministers to meet. The Copenhagen climate summit last December was a marked failure, but there is no reason that other groups, perhaps smaller in size, could make a difference.
An issue more difficult to resolve is the second problem: finding ways of reforming the UN so that the tasks only it can perform are done properly. Powerful countries have an interest in maintaining the status quo if it seems like reform might dilute their influence. America, for instance, has supported reform of the Security Council, but is unlikely to allow more members with veto status. Less powerful nations have frequently defied the UN without facing retribution, leaving little reason to reform their own practices. The best example of this was Iraq's unwillingness to meet resolution demands made after the first Gulf war.
The risk of irrelevance is most discernable with the Security Council. Calls for reform have been around for decades. In September of 2002, American President George W. Bush made his case for invading Iraq and called on the UN to fulfill its duty to prevent aggressive threats in the world. The UN denied Bush's case, claiming that an invasion of Iraq would break Article 51, which states that recourse to use force is only permitted in self-defense or with the approval of the Security Council when necessary "to restore international peace and security." Pre-emption isn't allowed if these criteria aren't met -- the UN decided that the case for Iraq involved unjustified pre-emption.
The problem isn't so much that the UN failed to do its job. Rather, it is that America ignored the UN and invaded Iraq anyway. Pre-emptive force has been claimed by other countries -- Israel used it in 1967 to justify the six-day war against Egypt, Jordan and Syria (though a resolution never passed through the Security Council). While America might be a special case, the worry is that other countries will follow suit and invade on less justified grounds than the 2003 occupation of Iraq.
What can be done? The most obvious solution is to amend the Security Council so that it more accurately reflects the political situation of today's world. It is folly to think that any of the states with veto power (America, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom) would be willing to give theirs up. It is strange, however, that Russia has a veto yet India, Brazil, Japan or Germany lack even permanent membership. The danger of expanding the Council to include more permanent members is that it will become more difficult to reach consensus on issues, leaving the Council even more helpless. No reform is going to happen without the backing of the veto countries and America has an even more powerful influence than the others. Adding countries such as Germany or India, however, would likely work in favour of America's goals, so long as the Council wasn't drastically expanded beyond a few new members.
For all its shortcomings, the UN is still a force for good in the world. There is no other forum in which every fully-recognized independent country can take part in dialogue with one another. This is an important service, even if it allows Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez to call America the devil or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to promote the annihilation of Israel. The UN still does a number of valuable services -- such as peacekeeping, monitoring human rights and aiding refugees -- that are vitally important in the world. Any organization the size of the UN will have shortcomings. Reform is certainly needed, but the UN isn't obsolete yet.