Gaza and the post-Cold War order

Nabil Abdel Fattah
Saturday 10 Feb 2024

The failure of the UN and its specialised agencies to take decisive action to end the Israeli war on Gaza highlights the failures of the post-Cold War international order.


The use by certain permanent members of the UN Security Council, pre-eminently the United States, of their veto power to prevent the condemnation of the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip and in other international conflicts is one of the crises facing this post-World War II international organisation.

During the Cold War, we saw a relative weakening of some major international organisations and, consequently, international law. The quest for solutions to armed and political disputes among members of the international community and non-state political actors has been highlighted since. It is a dynamic that has been evident throughout the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict since the establishment of the state of Israel after the decision to partition Palestine in November 1947.

This approach was seen during the Israeli aggression against the Arab countries of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967, the ongoing attacks on Lebanon, the failure to continue the political processes with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after the Oslo Accords in September 1993, the obstruction of the transitional phase of self-rule, the failure to complete the negotiations leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, the repeated strikes on Gaza, and the systematic settlement policy in the West Bank.

The Security Council’s inability to issue a ceasefire resolution amidst the tragic civilian situation in the Gaza Strip, coupled with the Israeli operations leading to genocide and forced displacement, has highlighted the dominance of the major powers, particularly the US, Britain, and France, over the UN, exacerbating its multifaceted challenges.

The Israeli war on Gaza embodies some of the crises of this post-World War II international organisation, taking place through the Cold War, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, and the rise of the US empire to the pinnacle of a unipolar international system. In a phase seemingly marked by transitions, relative disorder, fluidity, and the uncertainty of a multipolar world, these shifts have unveiled structural flaws in the UN and some of its global and regional entities, such as in the Middle East and the Arab region.

International and regional organisations are subject to the power dynamics among their members, and the competition for power and status among these has contributed to the UN’s failure to assist in resolving the Palestinian issue and other armed conflicts. This failure has been caused by the transformation of the UN and its subordinate organisations into tools in the hands of the permanent members of the Security Council, which are driven by their national and global interests.

UN General Assembly resolutions only amount to non-binding recommendations, as has been seen in its decisions on the Palestinian issue and its resolution regarding Israel’s war on Gaza. Small or medium-sized states in regional systems can find little effectiveness in the General Assembly’s decisions, which serve at best as moral support for their policies.

The crisis of the UN’s effectiveness and its impact on international conflicts, especially armed ones, has revealed its susceptibility to power dynamics among its members. The relative inability of regional institutions to formulate joint strategies, the dominance of technocratic characteristics within the UN agencies and personnel, and the choices of their leadership limit political imagination and renewal, hindering their potential to play a role in reducing political tensions. Meanwhile, the post-colonial states use the international organisations to showcase their national and independent identity on both the international and regional levels.

Some of these states, facing challenges in building national integration, adhere only symbolically to membership in international and regional organisations, thus impacting their performance. They often rely on international recognition to obtain assistance, grants, and loans from international economic and technical organisations. This stems from a failure to achieve internal national integration, leading to an inability to form a unified concept of nationalism through internal integration policies.

The dominance of authoritarian rule and internal repression exacerbates these challenges, contributing to the negative impact on the effectiveness of the international organisations.

Some countries with military or monarchical or family-based systems, particularly in certain Arab nations, tend to prioritise a personal understanding of regional relations. They emphasise the centrality of stabilising their internal systems and ensuring their own continuity at the top of the political hierarchy. Often, the leaders of these countries seek to utilise regional organisations to support their regimes, either by hindering the resolution of some bilateral conflicts or by using them to declare certain positions.

The decline in the recruitment of the international and regional organisations can be attributed to several factors, among them the absence of creative thinking, the spread of patronage systems, and biased recruitment practices.

Regarding the first of these, some officials within the UN and other international and regional organisations lack creative thinking, resulting in a pattern of functional behaviour in all international and regional conflicts. This often leads to stereotyping and the adoption of similar approaches that do not contribute creatively to finding solutions to conflicts or problems.

Moreover, the patronage systems used by authoritarian regimes rely on client relationships and loyalty for recruitment to major political positions, and this is also true of appointments within the UN and other international organisations, leading to negative effects on their performance and effectiveness.

Lastly, the competition system for appointments within the organisations, whether global or regional, sometimes reveals standardisation in criteria, personal biases in selections, and deviations, especially in the appointment of women. Complaints from women about certain behaviour at different levels of internal administrative structures underscore these issues.

Such factors collectively weaken the effectiveness of international and regional organisations, hinder creative political, systemic, and administrative thinking, and impede their ability to invigorate their work in their respective fields of activity. The war on Gaza, the Israeli genocide, the famine hovering over the civilian population, and the absence of safe shelters for children, women, and the elderly also indicate a slowing down of some specialised organisations’ interventions and services to civilian populations in conflict zones.

However, it is also essential to highlight the significant challenges faced by employees of the UN Palestinian refugees agency UNRWA and others working in the relief and humanitarian aid fields, especially in the besieged and destroyed healthcare sector in Gaza. This has occurred because of Israel’s brutal policies disregarding the laws of war, international humanitarian law, and public international law, as well as the human values and ethics upheld by the major Western nations.

Such actions have prompted worldwide public protests against the blockade, the prevention of humanitarian aid reaching Gaza, and the demand for a ceasefire and an end to Israel’s brutal war on civilians, including by incursions, assassinations, the bombings of buildings, and the targeting of individuals and families in the West Bank.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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