The United Nations system of organizations has failed to respond effectively to many of the challenges faced by the world, if only because its decision-making processes were a victim of the paralysis of the Cold War period. Its institutions and programmes have been plagued by inefficiency and waste of resources which have drawn widespread publicity. Scandals have emerged around those in the highest positions within a number of its institutions. The response of UN peacekeeping forces to a number of regional conflicts has been perceived as inadequate. Because of the politicization of many debates on technical issues within its conferences and assemblies, its ability to deal with these matters sensibly has been brought into question. In a number of cases preference has consequently been given to other contexts in order to bypass these difficulties, thus effectively marginalizing its processes. The challenge of ensuring appropriate geographical representation amongst staff and officers at all levels, it has become difficult to guarantee that the best persons are allocated to any particular task, thus contributing to a perception that the quality of programmes is less than should be expected.
Because of its need to avoid offending particular member governments, the UN has been perceived as weak and ineffectual in its response to blatant abuses, especially in the area of human rights. This impression has been compounded by the presence of governments responsible for large scale massacres as members of its Commission on Human Rights responsible for investigating such abuses. Damaging publicity has been given to the mismanagement associated with the lobbying for power of the top office holders in such UN specialized agencies as UNESCO, FAO and WHO. In the case of UNESCO this was one factor in the withdrawal of a number of countries, including the USA and the UK, from membership. Especially damaging has been release of previously classified information concerning the involvement with Nazi programmes during World War II of Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the UN from 1972 to 1982. Information released in 1994 indicated that his unit, of which he was a key member, expedited and probably ordered a long series of atrocities and war crimes. Although his involvement appears to have been limited to providing intelligence information and some orders, his performance garnered praise, trust and promotion from his Nazi superiors. Perhaps more damaging to the credibility of the UN is that it is difficult for many to imagine that the wartime record of such a high official, carefully screened by the permanent members of the Security Council, would not have been known to their intelligence services prior to his election. The budgets and personnel of such services exceed by far those of the UN system of organizations. This raises questions concerning the need for the great powers to have a "hold" on any person occupying the office and the special influence of any such person whilst in office.
There is a school of thought which holds that the great powers do not need the world organization except as a symbol of the world community whose meetings may be used as a convenient opportunity for periodic bilateral exchange. This view is reinforced by dissatisfaction with the working of the UN expressed by one or another of these powers at different times.
The UN is a membership organization. Its credibility is directly related to the commitment of its Member States to work together through the UN framework and to allocate appropriate resources to the tasks they jointly define. Where this commitment is lacking, the UN cannot be expected to function as it was originally intended to do.