The idea of nations coming together – uniting – to address common challenges and to collectively work to prevent other challenges from starting was a brand new concept 75 years ago. In fact, 75 years ago this week. The United Nations officially came into being in October 1945, just 3 months before I was born. So for my entire life, and the lives of most other citizens of the world, the UN has always been there, helping solve problems of all kinds around the world.
When I was growing up, in my naïve, idealistic little bubble, I though the concept of the United Nations was simply magnificent. We’d all collect money for UNICEF when we went trick-or-treating on Halloween, knowing the money would be used to help poor children around the world. We knew that the vaccines that were being developed to eradicate diseases like polio and smallpox were being distributed by the World Health Organization to poor countries in other parts of the world to ensure that those children could also be helped. I couldn’t have imagined any organization more deserving of admiration.
Obviously, as with anything, once you grow up and take off the rose-coloured glasses, you realize that there are organizational issues within the UN, as there are with all large organizations. However, for me the original concept of having disparate countries coming together to work out global issues collectively is among the most laudable the world has seen. No-one ever said it would be easy.
The UN started in the aftermath of two massively destructive World Wars and a global depression, with 51 nations taking the unprecedented step of committing to work together to (try to) ensure that the world wouldn’t see such senseless human carnage again. For the first time in history, nation states came together, recognizing that when the problems are too big, working collaboratively and cooperatively is the way forward. Those of us who grew up with the UN and all its many agencies and actions just took this concept for granted, that countries would actually collaborate. And despite many warts, it has made a significant difference. Even having a common ground on which to speak to one another has extraordinary value.
The UN is now a collective of 193 countries that span the globe. Rich, powerful countries. Poor, struggling countries. Countries with massive populations and not enough arable land. Countries with small populations and lots of open spaces. Hot, dry countries. Cold countries with water to spare. Democracies, authoritarian countries, they run the gamut. And they all have their own challenges, their own aspirations, and their own cultures and values. But 75 years ago the founding members had come to realize that they couldn’t face all their challenges – or even all their aspirations – on their own. For some things, at least, we need each other. And on issues like global child poverty and hunger, disease reduction and prevention, human rights protection, support for refugees, and peace keeping, the role of the UN has been paramount. Together, we have made progress. Surely this is a lesson we shouldn’t be forgetting at this fraught time.
But the UN itself seems to be struggling these days. Struggling because it can only work by consensus of its members, which is tough enough, and also by veto of the same 5 countries that have made up the UN Security Council since day 1: Russia, the U.S., China, France, and the UK. Struggling because it has to walk a very fine line, trying to balance staggeringly competing interests. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that running a multinational organization of extraordinary breadth, with so little muscle power and completely reliant on the financial contributions from member states, is very difficult. And seemingly becoming more difficult all the time.
It is a shame that we humans find it so difficult to put our self-interest to the side when the really tough challenges arise. Sometimes the compromise has to be that we all have to give up something we desire in order to gain what is profoundly needed, like addressing climate change and all the attendant sacrifices that entails, so that we will still have an inhabitable planet in another few generations, when our kids’ grandchildren are ready to take up the mantel. Or sooner. Sadly, we struggle to embrace the challenge and put short term self-interest aside for the greater good – and for our own individual good if we’d look more closely.
We might all do well to take a page from the tale of spirit of cooperation and mutual support the late, great Fred Rogers relayed as part of a commencement address he gave at Dartmouth College in 2002.
Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics? Well, for the 100-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line, and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward, one little boy stumbled and fell, and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy, and said, “This’ll make it better.” The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together, and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up, and clapped, and whistled, and cheered for a long, long time. People who were there are still telling this story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.
Please. Let’s take the spirit of these special kids to heart and collectively endorse having all our nations continue to work together on the big issues, including climate change and pandemics. We need us all working together to build a better world.