I am puzzled by cries of anguish at the outcome of the world summit in New York. The results, or, as the critics would say, lack of them, were unsurprising. The United Nations holds up a mirror to its members. If it has failed to produce a stunning new architecture for the global system, that is because national leaders are still divided over the design. It is too soon, though, to despair.

The UN is an imperfect institution. Its structures still reflect the outcome of a war that ended 60 years ago. Vast swaths of the globe are excluded from representation at the organisation’s highest levels. At some stage this will have to be fixed. It is apparent too that the UN’s political masters are far from a perfect consensus on the purpose and reach of global governance in the post-post-cold-war era.

The UN, though, is the stage on which these arguments between nations are played out rather than the source of the disputes. The chamber of the Security Council provided the theatre for the bitter clashes about Iraq, but the protagonists were Washington and London, and Paris, Berlin and Moscow.

In any event, an abiding ambivalence about where to fix the borders between nation states and the responsibility to the wider international community is piped through the air conditioning ducts at UN headquarters. Diplomats of every shape and colour will always seek to calculate when and where the national interest coincides or collides with the greater good. Self-interest, sadly, is not always enlightened.

The US, much lambasted for its unilateralism, is far from alone in resisting what it sees as encroachments on its national sovereignty. My view is that the present administration in Washington badly underestimates the gains from collective endeavour. Others have darker reasons to contain the UN. Many of the diplomatic battles of the past week have seen the US on one side and China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Syria on the other. It is this latter group, not Washington. that has sought to scupper the more effective oversight by the UN of fundamental human rights. Several leaders from middle income and developing nations also baulked at the idea of an agreed definition of terrorism and consented only reluctantly to give the global community a new responsibility to protect people from genocide and ethnic cleansing. Mostly, it was enough to look at the unpleasant nature of their own regimes to gauge the motives of these leaders.

It is easy to demonstrate that this week’s declaration falls short of the headier aspirations of the UN’s most fervent admirers. Efforts to broaden the Security Council’s membership have stalled. Fundamental reform of the way the institution is managed to avoid any repeat of the Iraq oil-for-food scandal was sidestepped.

The structure of the new Human Rights Council has been left to future wrangling. The attempt to agree an unequivocal definition of terrorism failed. The Millennium Development Goals of alleviating poverty and providing basic health and education services in the world’s poorest nations have been restated without firm new commitments from the rich.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, has voiced disappointment above all at a failure to give new impetus to international non-proliferation regimes. Non-governmental organisations, almost as numerous in New York as diplomats, have been harsh in their judgments. The west has been accused of reneging on its commitments to the poor and weak, the US of preferring military hegemony to multilateral disarmament.

It is the vocation of NGOs to be critical. But look closely at the summit communiqué and the cup is as half-full as it is half-empty. The responsibility to act against genocide has been agreed. The UN is now pledged to end the lunacy whereby governments that are serial abusers of human rights can sit in judgment on the record of others. There is an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations”. And, yes, George W. Bush publicly reaffirmed America’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.

Listening to his speech it also struck me that the US president has accepted the underlying logic, if not the precise forms, of Mr Annan’s proposed bargain between north and south. This was not the president who berated the UN over Iraq. The inescapable connections between security, development and conflict resolution have begun to win acceptance in the White House. We should not be starry-eyed. Mr Bush is an instinctive unilateralist. But self-interest is beginning to push the US along the multilateralist road.

One weary diplomat was heard to remark that the outcome this week was “not as good as it might have been, but better than it could have been”. That will always be the UN’s epitaph. For all that they blame the UN for their own shortcomings, the 150 or so presidents and prime ministers who gathered in New York all agree that it is indispensable.

Flawed as it may be, there is no other comparable source of international legitimacy. It is no accident that American-led coalitions in Afghanistan and, yes, lest we forget, Iraq operate under UN mandates. In a world defined for all but perhaps North Korea by its interdependence, legitimacy matters for the strong and weak alike. No one, not even any longer John Bolton, Washington’s cheerfully menacing ambassador to the UN, wants to tear the place down.

The tensions will always be there. And in the end the attitude of the world’s pre-eminent power will always be the most important determinant of whether the UN is effective. But my guess (partly hope) is that circumstance will propel future US presidents further along the road that Mr Bush has started to travel.

America (and most of the rest of us) face three challenges during coming decades. The first is to prevent the fight against jihadi terrorism from becoming a clash of civilisations with Islam. The second is to promote the further spread of freedom, democracy and liberal capitalism. The third is to accommodate the peaceful rise of emerging great powers, notably China and India.

Each of these tasks requires giving rivals a stake in the emerging status quo, in building a new global settlement which binds in potential enemies as well as friends. You might say that is a daunting task. But so was the one that faced policymakers in Washington at the end of the second world war. In 1945, the United Nations was a vital part of the answer. It still is.

philip.stephens@ft.com

Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article