As the UN Falters, Can Capitalism Stop Russia? | Opinion

Where is the United Nations? The international behemoth's charter mandates that it "maintain international peace and security." Despite sucking up billions of American taxpayer dollars every year, it has achieved neither in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.

Meanwhile the free enterprise system, led by American businesses, has done more to rout Vladimir Putin's reckless power grab than the bloated and increasingly irrelevant U.N. And it has used entirely peaceful means.

As Kemal Dervis and Jose Antonio Ocampo of the Brookings Institution observed, the Russian invasion "exposed many grave weaknesses in the international order." Dervis and Ocampo highlighted the failures of the U.N. Security Council, a point that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized when he spoke to the United Nations last week.

"What is the purpose of our organization?" Zelensky asked. "Its purpose is to maintain and make sure that peace is adhered to. And now the U.N. charter is violated literally starting with Article 1. And so what is the point of all other articles?"

Exactly. While this intergovernmental bureaucracy writes endless rules and articles that it cannot enforce, the free enterprise system is built to respond rapidly to ever-changing conditions.

Companies around the world have been suspending or scaling back operations in Russia in support of Ukraine. Private enterprises offer more than moral support—they are stepping up to deliver to Ukrainians the goods and services that can mean the difference between life and death, and perhaps between victory and defeat.

Shortly after the Russian invasion began on February 24, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov used Twitter to solicit help from Elon Musk, asking that Starlink satellites be made available to supply internet access to his country.

While NGOs were wringing their hands about how to keep Ukrainians informed, Musk took steps to aid the war-torn country, activating the service and sending terminals. The internet system has proven invaluable in keeping Ukrainians connected with each other and with the outside world.

The Ukrainian army is even using Starlink to target Russian tanks with drone attacks.

Red Square Moscow
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - ARRIL 22: Russian police officers guard the Red Square on April 22, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Hundreds communists took part in the rally at Moscow's Red Square near the Kremlin marking the birthday of revolutionary, political theorist and founding head of government of Soviet Russia Vladimir Lenin. Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images

"What at first looked like a PR coup now seems to be playing a significant role in Ukraine's defense," The Wire reported.

Ukraine believes that tech can make a difference on the other side of the border as well. Officials are calling on companies to exit Russia quickly as part of what they call a "digital blockade."

Like many others, Airbnb initially suspended all operations in Russia and Belarus, blocking new bookings in those countries and restricting native users from making reservations. But the company did more than pressure Russia; it offered vital humanitarian relief.

While the U.N. and NGOs debate how to help Ukrainians fleeing the fighting, Airbnb stepped up to offer free temporary housing for up to 100,000 refugees. Those stays will be funded by donors to the Airbnb.org Refugee Fund and facilitated by Airbnb hosts opening their homes for free or at a discount. Airbnb has raised millions of dollars so far. This was not the first time Airbnb stepped up to meet a crisis. Last fall, it opened doors to 40,000 Afghan refugees.

Compare that with the performance of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said "had prioritized the safety of its own personnel over the lives of Ukrainians facing the worst of the Russian shelling."

The feckless response from purportedly humanitarian international institutions goes beyond the UNHCR. "Unfortunately, not a single foreign or international NGO was ready for the war in Ukraine to start despite the fact that six months ago everyone was talking about that and everyone was warning everyone that the war was going to start," Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said.

The ability of free enterprise to make a real difference on the ground is nothing new.

McDonald's was an early intervener back in the days of glasnost, before the fall of the Soviet Union. The fast-food giant made a significant long-term investment in the country, becoming a symbol of the Russian people's yearning for all things Western. So the company's decision to halt operations in Russia in light of the invasion was no small matter, especially because most of the local restaurants there are company-owned.

"In Russia, we employ 62,000 people who have poured their heart and soul into our McDonald's brand to serve their communities," the company said when it announced the move. "At the same time, our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine."

The difference between the effective action of private companies and the muddled response of international organizations is stark. It's time to recognize capitalism, while imperfect, is a force not only for voluntary exchange, but for the good of humanity.

Jennifer Stefano is executive vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation and an Independent Women's Forum visiting fellow. Jonathan Goldstein is a serial entrepreneur and constitutional attorney based out of Pennsylvania.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.