The Queen, of all people, understands the value of a good institution. Today, at the General Assembly of the United Nations, she will address a body which is, like the monarchy itself, a much-criticised foundation. And indeed much of what it has done – since it was founded in 1945 after the Second World War ended to provide a platform for dialogue to prevent future wars – has been worthy of criticism. It has had big failings, like deciding not to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and small ones, like being bureaucratic and wasteful. But it has had huge successes too, in peace-keeping, in international justice through its court in The Hague and in working for the poor through UNICEF, the World Food Programme and its other arms.
Success and failure, alike, are the outcomes of the core tension at the heart of the UN system between competition and co-operation. It promotes simultaneously the need for internationalism and the protection of national sovereignty. So it has been ambitious over the past half century, venturing into the politics of security, the soldiery of peace-keeping, the protection of human rights, the promotion of democracy and good governance, and addressing the social and economic imbalances between the northern and southern hemispheres of the planet.
It has been easy for the powerful to ignore, as the Soviet Union did throughout the 1950s and the United States did under the unilateralism of the Bush era which reached its low point with its contemptuous disregard of the UN in declaring war on Iraq in 2003. Yet it has remained a yardstick, even when honoured in the breach rather than the observance. The Chilcot inquiry has even this week shown how, seven years on, it stands in cold silent judgement over Tony Blair in his war against Saddam Hussein.
Ours is a globalising world full of challenges – like climate change, nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, energy security, and pandemics like Aids – which can only be addressed at a global level. For all its failings the United Nations offers the only aegis under which many such issues can properly be addressed. That is not a starry-eyed utopianism but a recognition that the weary drudgery of diplomats and politicians is the best hope we have for the promotion of peace, the regulation of law between nations and the promotion of prosperity among them. Democracy, Winston Churchill once said, is the worst form of government except for all the other kinds. We might say something similar of the United Nations.