What should we do about the United Nations?

The CoP21 meeting held in Paris at the end of last year, about which I wrote at the time, must have been the largest international meeting ever held, with the total attendance  approaching 50,000 ‘delegates’ and hangers-on, including 3,000 journalists. The numbers about attendance keep appearing. I was pleased that Australia’s contingent seems to have been reasonably modest. Canada’s, at 383 (including several photographers), was apparently larger than those of the USA, UK and Australia put together. In Justin Trudeau the Canadians appear to have their very own home-grown version of Kevin Rudd.

The whole show prompted me to look again at the United Nations as a body, because CoP21 was another UN-sponsored international meeting. There are those who would do away with the UN tomorrow, if they could. My own feeling is that, like it or not, the UN is a necessary part of global humanity. The real question for me is — how should a well-off nation-state like Australia deal with it? My own stance is that of a ‘nation-statist’, as I explained in an essay a couple of years ago. The nation-state, which is only  a couple of hundred years old, has so far proved to be the best mechanism for providing a decent life for a very large number of people. We should care for it, and help other nations achieve the same levels for their citizens.

If that is the right way to go (and I think it is) then we should lead by example and conduct our foreign relations mostly bi-laterally, rather than seek to have it all done from the centre, as internationalists would wish. There seem to be quite a lot of that tribe around. The world would be a better place, they suggest, if we treated everyone like brothers and sisters, helped all refugees to settle here if they wanted to do so, and dealt with ‘climate change’ by abandoning fossil fuels everywhere, now. I am less sanguine, and think that development needs to take place in a specific place with specific people who have a specific culture, and possess some idea of what they want to achieve where they live, and that won’t come through handing out money from the centre. It is most effective to help those who want to help themselves.

Actually, the UN has no true centre. The General Assembly and Security Council reside in New York City, but there are other large UN centres in Geneva, Rome, Vienna and Nairobi. Geneva is probably the site for meetings and work: In Geneva alone, the United Nations held 10,000 meetings in 2009, offered 632 training workshops and translated 220,000 pages of documents for its yearbooks, reports, and working papers, a New York Times piece reported.

And it is, as the same NYT piece offered, an amazing bureaucracy. I had experience of that myself 35 years go, when I was the Australian ‘delegate’ to a low-level UNESCO meeting in Paris. I was on study leave in Oxford, and asked to go to this meeting because nobody else wanted to go and I was close. It was an astonishing experience for someone who had never been to such a bunfight. People came and went without any reference to the agenda. Motions were put and ignored, a great deal of networking went on that had nothing to do with the topic, and the meeting dragged on to an inconclusive end for much longer than it ought to have. I expressed my wonder to a friendly Pom, also a delegate. ‘Oh, most of these people live on their per diems. The longer it goes on the more they’ll get.’ My report home was scathing.

The UN grew out of the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to deal with international tensions following the First World War. The League couldn’t handle either communism or fascism. The UN doesn’t seem to be able to deal with the big stuff either, but it has been able to do some peace-keeping, and it tries to do its best, I am sure, if you ignore the people who are there to look after their own passionate single interest, be it gender equality, climate change, income transfers from rich countries to poor countries, racial equality, or whatever. It has something of the quality of a noisy and ineffective parliament. The UN has absorbed a number of other international organisations, like the International Labor Organisation (ILO), the World Meteorological Organisation(WMO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). All of them have global programs too.

The communications revolution that has been under way through the last hundred years has provided us with two other kinds of international activity. One is the global non-government organisation, like Greenpeace and the WWF, and the other is the global enterprise, like Sony or Apple. The international NGOs (INGOs) are all over the place, have no necessary true home, and are funded by voluntary donations and often by governments that use them to do work that otherwise might be the job of the government itself. (You can see the domestic equivalent in Australia where the Federal Government pays some NGOs to do welfare work.)

The transnational corporations (TNCs) represent international capitalism at work, aided by ships, planes, the Internet — and by taxation laws that have still not been able to properly tax the profits made by these corporations in the country where the profits have been made, a matter of some moment to Australian governments of both sides of politics. We can add to TNCs the new global partnerships of banks, insurance companies, legal firms and accountancy practices that have evolved because it is simply sensible to add country-specific knowledge and networks to one’s own. Australia, as a major trading country, is well to the fore in this domain, as far as I can see. And I guess we should add ourselves, the busy travelling Australians, about a million of whom live and work in other countries, including a few of my extended family.

So  our messy world is becoming more global, and you will often hear people saying that national governments no longer truly govern. Maybe they never did. But I return to my view that we as Australians need to recognise that the country we have made was made through hard work and and a strong sense of ‘us’. I do not think that Australia is the model for developing countries that want to be able to do what we do, at least in providing a decent life for all its citizens. But Australia is at least one decent model, and its modern form is not the result of handouts by others.

Yes, it is hard to build a good society, and ours is unfinished and evolving, as all human societies always are. We need to preserve its capacity to provide the means for a good life for everyone, against the claims of the UN, the TNCs the INGOs and even the partnerships, and that means stating what it is that we are for, and ensuring that we do what we say. And that will lead me into an essay about Australian values, as my Australia Day essay next week.

Join the discussion 55 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    My own UN priority would be its peace-keeping role, in particular a quick-response agency that can be inserted in the immediate wake of Armies to deal with the turmoil of upset and dislodged lives such as we have seen in some of the ‘liberated’ towns of Syria/Iraq.

    • dasher says:

      Alan ..I would go a little further. (Pie in the sky but it never stopped anyone at the UN). Where circumstances allow, and that is not the approval of the delinquent state but the ability of the force to overcome. We should be able to step in and stop atrocities such as that which befell the Yazidis in Iraq, the slaughter in Africa where our (Australian UN) troops were under orders not to intervene, or the stealing of the girls Boko Harem ..the thought that the best the US could muster in this case appeared to be Michelle Obama holding up a sign #Bring Back our Girls…one dare not imagine what fate awaiting these kids. I remember when I visited Dachau many years ago the words “Never Again” were prominent and they made an impression on me. Sadly there have been many events that would qualify for this epitaph.

      A powerful demonstration of arms used selectively.

      Ok tell me i’m dreaming.

      • Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

        You are dreaming if you think that a multi-national body with 193 members with differing imperatives, moral standards etc could act more promptly and effectively than a small group of like-minded countries with compatible aims and force structures.

  • whyisitso says:

    The UN seems to exist mainly to reprimand civilised countries like Australia for straying from the standards set by uncivilised members.

  • PeterE says:

    I agree. The nation-State is the best organization for good government and we should protect our own. The UN sometimes does good work but it is more often corrupt, unwieldy and heading in the wrong direction. COP21 must have cost a fortune but it achieved nothing of importance. Let us support those UN programs that do good but starve the others of funds so that the least harm can be done by these unelected poseurs.

  • NameGlenM says:

    There was a time( if ever there was one) when there was “one world government”conspiracy theorists out there; the old League of Rights I recall used to have their meetings in Northern NSW- as Don is quite aware of and were labelled “Looney” by most.Integrated economies and currency etc. 40 years on and I believe the tendrils of this Mega supra world group is affecting our freedoms.Orwellian?

  • David says:

    Eradicating small pox; what were the UN thinking?

    • David says:


      This link describes how the WHO eradicated small pox. Its hard to imagine that the same result could ever have been achieved by a series of bilateral agreements, between nation states.

      • donaitkin says:

        Neither I nor anyone else who has commented here has claimed that the UN and its agencies have been entirely useless! Seventy years have passed since the UN was established, and I am arguing that its glory days have passed. If there is a choice between world measures and nation-state measures, I am opting for the second.

        It would be a help if the UN saw that building viable, economically active nation-states was the best way to alleviate poverty, improve living standards and reduce disease. At the moment it doesn’t. I think Australia should state firmly that we do, and that our international efforts have that as their goal.

        • David says:

          We don’t have to go back very far for other successes. Look at the management of Ebola in West Africa in 2015.

          “By September 30, 2014, CDC estimates that there will be approximately 8,000 cases, or as high as 21,000 cases if corrections for underreporting are made. Without additional interventions or changes in community behavior, CDC estimates that by January 20, 2015, there will be a total of approximately 550,000 Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone or 1.4 million if corrections for underreporting are made.”


          In the end the total number of deaths was kept to about 13,000. So that is not a bad effort, imho.

          Malaria is another disease that in the near future may be reduced because of the UN and WHO.

          So I am just wondering how many lives have the nay-sayers that frequent this website ever saved?

          • donaitkin says:

            Which is completely ad hominem.

            Should I infer from your two comments that you think everything about the UN is OK, just leave it alone, etc? And that Australia should keep going with its present position, which is, on the face of it, to curry as much favour as it can at events like CoP21 but do nothing of any consequence?

          • Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

            David, DDT was a proven response to malaria, attacked by activists such as Rachel Carson. The American environmental movement’s campaign against DDT paved the way for other, similar efforts all over the world. In 1975 the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) jointly called for a greater emphasis on alternatives to the use of DDT and other insecticides for the control of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. Four years later the WHO announced a global strategy de-emphasizing vector-control measures for combating malaria, and focusing instead on improvements in case-detection and treatment. That is, efforts to kill the mosquitoes that transmitted malaria would be scaled back; the new approach would allow people to become infected in whatever numbers nature might dictate, and would focus chiefly on the development of more effective treatments for the disease. Without the ant-DDT intervention, malaria would have been eradicated years ago; because of it, many millions suffered and died.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    There comes a time when a structure, whether physical or social, become so degraded that it is more efficient and less costly to demolish it and build a new structure. I think the UN is at that stage.

  • Gerard says:

    The UN has grown like topsy and through an increasing range of treaties is impacting national sovereignty. Perhaps the UN needs a trim, excising those agencies that are not needed to achieve its original aims.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    In a global sense, on the basis of one person one vote, the UN is far from democratic. However, it’s principle of national representation in a forum is sound; that allows small nations to voice their concerns. While the UN started its life as a sleek porpoise, it has become a barnacle-encrusted whale in a pod of so many of its offspring, it can barely come up for air, let alone get anywhere. That’s a rather tough judgment, but my respect for the UN as an organisation, and the confidence I have in its offspring, has decreased steadily over the last fifteen or so years.

    As NGOs have become enmeshed in policy debate, my respect for them has also tended to decrease. I used to see them as fundamentally altruistic, as I’m sure remains true for many of their staff. Nevertheless, my scepticism about what motivates their leadership has grown quietly. This is not to decry their real achievements, any more than I ignore those of the UN and its offspring.

    But that doesn’t prevent us from calling out the BS when we see it. These days we read the expression “confected outrage”; I wonder whether we have also a “confected altruism”, with its adherents seeking to occupy the higher moral ground from which to lambast the rest of us.

    One of those moral whips is the argument for equality. Ben Carson was flailing it wildly during the most recent US Democrat debate for the upcoming presidential candidacy. Too often such flailing ignores the need and mechanisms to grow the pie; instead it remains fixed on the quite unrealistic aim of all pie-eaters having the same-sized slice. I note that those wielding the whips usually have a quite large slice to begin with, not much of which they share.

  • JohnM says:

    The big problem for me is that the UN has implicitly encouraged a voting of developing countries to make demands on developed countries. I have no conceptual problem with assisting these countries but assistance can be in many forms and maybe even suspended when we object strongly to the governance of those countries, and it’s us who should make the choice about what we do not some unelected bunch of bureaucrats.

    Until about 15 years ago Switzerland had “observer” status regards the UN. This status makes a lot of sense to me. Watch closely what’s said and done then unilaterally adopt the bits you want to adopt and reject the rest.

  • Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

    Don, I agree that “The nation-state, which is only a couple of hundred years old, has so far proved to be the best mechanism for providing a decent life for a very large number of people. We should care for it, and help other nations achieve the same levels for their citizens,” but I don’t agree with retaining the UN. It is almost guaranteed to foster corruption, nepotism and kleptocracy while diverting energy and resources away from better options for resolving problems in various parts of the world. It is dominated by badly-governed countries which gang-up on Israel, for example, and which are serial human rights abusers who dominate human rights bodies, etc. Roosevelt sold out Poland, which the UK nominally went to war to protect, in a deal concealed from Churchill, in order to get Stalin’s support for his desired legacy UN. With such a birth, it was never going to be beneficial.

    • donaitkin says:


      I wasn’t proposing retaining the UN because I think that is going to happen what ever I or you or the USA or Australia thinks. What I was proposing is that we pay less attention to it and more attention to important bi-lateral initiatives.

      • Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

        Agreed. Years ago I worked with Dick (R G) Lipsey, who is best known for “The General Theory of Second Best.”

  • dasher says:

    I note Bob Carter..man of science and man of substance died. A skeptic in the old fashioned meaning of the term, a man who stood against the orthodoxy that would silence him (including being dumped from James Cook University and they call themselves an institution of ideas and learning) he will be missed.



    • bobo says:

      2016 is predicted to be hotter still in the surface air temp records, heat exchange between the surface air and the globally warmed oceans is occurring pretty dramatically.

      • David says:


        It will be interesting to see how David Evans’ prediction of substantial cooling goes over the next decade given the first three years have recorded substantial increases in temperature. The first three (2014 to 2016) being consecutive temperature records.

        • bobo says:

          I wonder if David Evans will try to claim that the inevitable drop in temp after 2014-6 is a validation of his hypothesis.

      • dlb says:

        True, the satellite data sets will probably show that 2016 will be a record. I don’t think they don’t show anything too special about 2015.

        • David says:

          “True, the satellite data sets will probably show that 2016 will be a record. I don’t think they don’t show anything too special about 2015.”

          dlb, I generally see you as one of the few skeptics on this site who retains an open mind.

          But, what have you been smoking? 🙂

          • dlb says:

            Finally got to look up the satellite results for 2015. Roy Spencer is calling 2015 the third warmest. Yes I suppose a bronze medal is fine but nothing like the gold medal you can get by using the surface data.

    • donaitkin says:

      Yes. Some, like me, prefer the satellite record. But each to his own.

      • Ross Handsaker says:

        If carbon dioxide was the cause of the record global surface temperatures in 2015 we would also expect to see record temperatures (as measured by satellites) in the troposphere where CO2 absorbs outward long-wave radiation.

        • David says:

          We do, see Skeptical science’s counter arguments Spencer and Christy’s analysis of the troposphere temperature trends.


          • You must be joking! The skeptical science blog article you refer to was written in 2007!

            Suggest you try looking at current graphs for troposphere temperatures from both RSS and UAH which show 1998 is still the warmest year on record.

        • bobo says:

          What we’re seeing is the inhomogenous distribution of thermal energy moving around in the climate system; heat is being disgorged from the oceans.

          To make the sort of claims you are trying to make you need to look at multidecadal trends.

          • Ross Handsaker says:

            That satellite data does not show 2015 as the warmest on record in the troposphere is a statement of fact – not a claim. Given the record high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the AGW theory of CO2 driving global warming surely you would expect record high temperatures in the troposphere.
            I am surprised you would look at multi-decadal trends to determine what year is the warmest on record.

      • bobo says:

        Both the surface temp and the satellite data could be fine. After all, the measurements are of different things.

      • bobo says:

        Don, interestingly, Carl Mears of RSS says that the TLT data has five time the margin of error as the surface data.

    • dlb says:

      By the “widest margin” of what?
      Wake me up when the error bars for 2015 don’t overlap with 2014.

      • bobo says:

        There is a 94% certainty that 2015 had the hottest global ave surface air temp on record, according to NASA.

        • David says:

          Thank you bobo 🙂

        • donaitkin says:

          Readers might go to Ole Humlum’s website where all the datasets are examined, and explained. As I’ve said before, his seems to me the best place to look at all temperature data.


          • donaitkin says:

            And there is a really excellent statistician’s discussion of global warming ‘trends’ here.


          • bobo says:

            Don, regarding the article by the statistician in WUWT, he is examining the temp record and concluding that it makes no sense to fit a multidecadal linear regression, because a segmented linear regression for that same time interval has statistically significant changes in trend, so he concludes that the trend is changing over the time interval.

            The reason a multidecadal linear regression is fitted is because of one extra piece of information: according to modeling, GHG warming is a roughly linear signal, and moreover, without GHG warming, the multidecadal linear trend should be zero.

        • David says:


          I have a question for you? I have not used a Bayesian approach before. But I wondered what do you think are the pros and cons of using a Bayesian approach to analyzing climate models. I have some climate data that am looking at. (Nothing to do with global warming)

          If you recall Curry and Lewis used this approach when they analysed Climate sensitivity. It currently give the lowest result.

          One the one had it seems to be a good approach given we have a lot of information about the distribution of the parameters that might go into a climate model but not sure how they should be specified.

          On the other hand, if the researcher has a lot of “skin int he game’ then choice of a prior can affect outcomes.

          What do others think ?


          • bobo says:


            Sadly I don’t know enough about this fascinating topic to offer any tips, I wish I could be of more help.

      • David says:

        The old record was broken by the widest margin

        dlb, the error bars you will see on a time series are NOT used to assess the statistical difference between two years (eg 2014 and 2015), they way you describe.

        They are used to tell the reader if a particular value (e.g for 2015) is statistically different from the long term mean.

        So if the 95% CI has one positive value and one negative value (i.e. “crosses” zero) you can conclude no statistical evidence of an increase.

  • David says:


    Response to

    “If carbon dioxide was the cause of the record global surface temperatures in 2015 we would also expect to see record temperatures (as measured by satellites) in the troposphere where CO2 absorbs outward long-wave radiation.”


    “I suggest you try looking at current graphs for troposphere temperatures from both RSS and UAH which show 1998 is still the warmest year on record.”

    Your argument that there should be some direct correspondence between changes in CO2 and temperature is clearly a silly one, given complexity of the earth’s climatic systems. You provide no evidence for your claim, just an unsupported assertion.

    These sorts of arguments boil down to a requirement that the statistical model must meet some R-squared threshold.

    And obviously, for questions, which examine causation, R-squared is a second order issue. The relevant statistics are the coefficient (time or CO2) and its corresponding p-value.

  • David says:

    Ross, I always find it ironic how willing skeptics, like you, are willing to incorporate an “unknown” into your arguments against AGW. 🙂

    • JimboR says:

      Speaking of which, does anyone know if there have been any developments on the Force X front? It seems to have gone quiet, or maybe I’m just not looking in the right places?

      • bobo says:

        Nothing on the matter seems to be posted on Jo Nova’s website, I’m not sure that anything ever will be.

        Incidently, Jo is getting herself into all sorts of contortions trying to minimise the fact that 2015 had the hottest surface temperature on record.

  • Vern Hughes says:

    Yes, we need major reform of the UN. It mirrors many of the dynamics we see in Australian domestic life (the growth of a managerial class, the emergence of NGOs as contracted-out bureaucracies, the outsourcing of ‘social well-being’ to agencies and consultants, and the decline of personal and social responsibility on a large scale). Like most people, I didn’t think too much about all this until meeting a colleague some years who worked for the UN in Afghanistan for 3 years, and with the pay for 3 years work was able to buy an townhouse in inner-city Melbourne. Very few people consider that there might perhaps be a waste of resources taking place in such work.

    The problem is that there is no domestic constituency for changing these international problems, while the NGOs and for-profit contractors who operate in this world are highly motivated in protecting their interests. In 2015 aid agencies in Australia campaigned for more aid spending, without the slightest awareness that they might just have a vested interest in the matter. Thoughtful citIzens who might have a disinterested curiousity about aid effectiveness have no chance of competing with the organisational self interest of the aid industry.

    What to do? Clearly, we need a global agenda for reform of the UN which aims to reduce the scope of the UN/INGO industrial complex, while increasing the priority of national engagements in solving international problems. But finding a political leadership that will do this is not easy.

  • DT says:

    The UN has oversight from its Board of Auditors, Office of Internal Oversight and members states, mostly but not exclusively through the Fifth Committee (UN Finance, Administration and Reform). Typically those
    Member States paying the highest fees seek reforms and value for money for their tax payers.

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