God, the UN, and the myths of global governance

By: Velibor Jakovleski
Head of Research, Global Governance Centre, Graduate Institute


On Tuesday 13 March 2018, the Graduate Institute’s Global Governance Centre was officially inaugurated with the help of over 150 guests from academia, the policy world and the wider public.

To mark the occasion, Michael Barnett, Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University gave a lecture entitled “Is the UN a source of progress?”

The title belied the content of the talk, which explored profound and difficult questions about how we understand compassion, humanity, and progress. It even touched on perhaps the biggest question of them all: is there a God?

Prof. Barnett took the audience on a tour of major historical disasters: from an earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, then at the centre of a global empire; to the trenches of the “Great War”; to the gas chambers of World War II; to the genocides and crimes against humanity committed during wars in the 1990s. These atrocities were interpreted as manifestations of evil on earth, and have resulted in profound human suffering. When made meaningful, suffering can create a sense of shared humanity. That sense of humanity, as the argument went, has been institutionalized in society.

The Portuguese empire instituted architectural and city planning codes to help minimize damage from future natural disasters. The League of Nations was created after the Great War to ensure that complex alliances do not lead to unwanted wars. The United Nations was created after the Second World War – which was “greater” by every measure, including human suffering – to temper the flames of nationalism. After the UN’s failures in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s, the international community said “never again” and created institutions like the Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court, and the Responsibility to Protect.

Yet it happened again, in 2003 in Darfur. Odds are that we will unfortunately witness other forms of human suffering as well.

The idea of theodicy – the explanation that an almighty God would somehow allow evil to exists in this world – was invoked by Prof. Barnett to make sense of these developments. Except that we have supposedly replaced spirituality with compassion and humanity through international institutions. In creating international organizations (IOs), the West was attempting to remove the burden of its guilt and attempting to atone for its failures. Taken at face value, that seems to suggest that our most important structures of global governance are coping mechanisms, to somehow make human suffering meaningful.

 “The UN was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” – Dag Hammarskjöld

International organizations are also a way to reconcile the existence and persistence of mass suffering with the (Western) conception of progress. Progress, according to Prof. Barnett, is moving towards a perceptively better position as a global society, both morally (through foreign aid, migration policies, development aid, all of which help people identify with the suffering of others) and materially (through improving individual income, heath, capacities and other so-called human development indices). In that respect, the main goal of IOs would be to sustain a belief in progress, and not necessarily to solve the problems of humanity.

The lecture presented an interesting explanation for the creation of IOs. It also implied a cyclical evolution of international institutions, whereby they are created in response to human suffering, but somehow fail to prevent future suffering, thus prompting a new phase of institutional revision or recreation. The underlying premise and implications for the future of global governance seemed bleak.

Others might take a different approach to explain those outcomes. Rationalist scholars, for example, would argue that the post-war institutions have simply institutionalized the power asymmetries of the day, creating a club of winners that has subsequently implored others – through both soft and hard power – to play according to their rules. If the root of all evil is social inequality, as Pope Francis suggests, then the institutions that propagate it can also be said to be evil. But if those institutions help to reduce social inequality, they would be a source of good, and perhaps even progress. The reality of today’s international institutions, both formal and informal, is somewhere in the middle.

In a time where multilateralism seems to be eroding and fundamental international norms are being violated, it’s easy to think the future is bleak. But there are tangible success stories of progress stemming from international efforts to cooperate. The European Union, for example, has succeeded in ending mass suffering after the Second World War, at least among a majority of Europeans.

And for all of its faults, the UN has its merits. The UN system has demonstrated institutional learning and a willingness to adapt over its history. A research project in which I am involved examines UN reform and effectiveness and attempts to shed light on some of these changes, both positive and negative.

Unfortunately one of the UN’s merits is not communication. I Googled “major achievements of the UN” to get a better idea of how the world organization’s historical successes have been self-perceived and presented publically. The forth search result was a link to a UN page entitled “Major achievements of the UN – the United Nations”.

In an ironic twist (or through divine intervention!) the link was broken.


Error page
Error page: Changing the negative perception of the UN will require a more effective communications strategy


Thankfully there is a functioning (albeit slightly dated) visual guide summarizing what are thought to be some of the oft-criticized organization’s major accomplishments. I was also surprised to learn that the various agencies of the UN system have received no less than 11 Nobel Prizes combined over the years.

Self-promotion without self-reflection is one thing, but the UN system would do well to better connect to and communicate with the public about its contributions globally. The International Geneva Perception Change project was launched by UNOG Director-General Michael Møller in 2014 to precisely deal with that issue, and the Global Governance Centre has contributed in some of those efforts.

Among other roles, international institutions provide invaluable information and help reduce uncertainty among their constituents. They help facilitate cooperation globally to manage complex problems. Such functions might seem mundane and are often lost on the wider public, but they are indispensable nonetheless.

Another important feature of IOs, which was alluded to during the inaugural lecture, is the important symbolic functions that they play. International organizations are “reservoirs of hope” according to Prof. Barnett, and give people a reason to believe that the world can be a better place. One might even say that the operation of the entire UN system is driven by institutionalized myth and ceremony. By adopting myths found in their environment, organizations increase their legitimacy and their prospects for survival, irrespective of whether their work is truly effective.

Thus, winning 11 Nobel Prizes becomes a gauge of performance that can be understood as an external, purely ceremonial criteria of worth that augments the UN’s legitimacy.

As a hospital uses widely accepted medical practices to treat – and not necessarily cure – patients, the UN employs widely accepted practices (e.g. technical assistance, peacekeeping) without entirely solving the problems of humanity. As the hospital might give an impression of hope, the UN might sustain a belief in progress. Perhaps it’s not very realistic to expect much more than that. As the UN’s second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld said: “The UN was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.”


un uninvolved in peace
Are the UN’s actions only symbolic? A photo that made the rounds on social media.


Institutional myths – like the idea of progress – protect organizations from having their conduct questioned seriously. That is precisely what the lecture by Prof. Barnett was intended to do. It is also part of the mission of the Global Governance Centre: to deeply engage and thoroughly investigate the ideas, norms, rules, and actors of global governance.

But perhaps such myths of global governance are manifestation of something deeper. Something not spiritual and above us, but something that is a fundamental part of our human constitution.

Some have hypothesized the existence of the so-called “God gene.” While the name is a misnomer – the gene is said to be associated with spirituality more broadly, rather than the existence of God as such – its existence is nevertheless important. Perhaps even for global governance. The presence of the God gene might imply that there is some evolutionary advantage to human spirituality. And if international organizations are indeed the manifestations of our spirituality, then perhaps the existence of the UN is a matter of survival.


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