At the end of World War II in 1945, the United Nations was established with the aim of preventing further devastating wars. It is a member-based international organization open to all legitimate sovereign states in the international community. While it has a broad and expanding mandate that changes with the times, maintaining international peace and security remains a central aim.
The United Nations (U.N.) is both an international organization and a transnational association of countries. Its primary mission is to maintain world peace and security and promote social development and human rights. The U.N. was officially established by fifty-one nations on 24 October 1945 in response to the catastrophes of the two world wars, and met for the first time in Westminster Central Hall in January 1946.
The U.N., which emerged from years of intense debate tainted by the failure of the League of Nations during the interwar period, was founded on many of the conclusions reached at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks conference in Washington, D.C., which was attended by representatives of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The U.N. promised to end the dominance of feuding empires and imperialism—the results of which were the social and economic devastation of the two world wars—and to order the world based on statehood, national sovereignty, and the stability believed to be associated with such a model. The U.N. Charter did not define the concept of the state as the Peace of Westphalia (based on the Treaties of Osnabrück and Münster of 1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1815) had, but it granted general recognition of the concept to those outside western Europe, an action unprecedented in world politics.
The U.N. cannot simply be called an international organization; it comprises a conglomeration of institutions, nations’ domestic priorities, and individual personalities. The U.N. operates under six principal organs: the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council (effectively suspended in 1994), International Court of Justice, and Secretariat. These organs oversee twenty-one distinct programs, institutes, and entities. Nothing puts the magnitude of the U.N.’s work in perspective better than the numbers: it has forty thousand employees from all member countries and a budget of $4.2 billion, excluding peacekeeping operations.
To accommodate the voices of all member countries but maintain a small body that acts in times of crises, the General Assembly and the Security Council were created in 1945 and remain at the center of U.N. politics. As of mid-2010, 192 nations—all member countries—are represented in the General Assembly, which acts primarily as a deliberative body funneling research and recommendations to other organs of the U.N. The five permanent Security Council members—China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States (i.e., those nations responsible for the defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II)—and ten rotating members decide on plans of collective action involving all member countries, with the use of force if necessary, as outlined in Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. The five permanent members have the controversial veto power to block any proposal brought before the council by casting a negative vote.
While the United States and the former Soviet Union battled for political ground in the Security Council during the Cold War, the General Assembly underwent a rapid transformation because of the influx of new decolonized members during the 1960s and 1970s, with the membership trebling to reach 154 by the end of the 1970s. Previously marginalized issues were given unparalleled legitimacy on the world stage. Concrete results of this paradigm shift include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the establishment of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951, the Freedom from Hunger campaign begun in 1960, the decrease of child mortality rates around the world by 50 percent during the last forty years, and the legal recognition of commercial sea boundaries for all countries in 1994. The promotion of the needs of developing countries during the last half-century—the institutionalized effect of the U.N.’s global design—is no accident. This agenda is most evident in the eight U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which include achieving poverty, education, health, gender equity, and sustainability targets by 2015.
The U.N. has a mixed record on achieving what the League of Nations never could: the ability to use force to preserve international stability. Whether force is justified, implemented quickly enough, and agreed upon democratically informs much of the criticism and praise given to the U.N. Its successful roles in easing armed conflict in the Congo (1960), El Salvador (1995), and the former Yugoslavia (1999) have been praised, whereas its failures in halting the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the more recent Cambodian (1979) and Rwandan (1994) genocides have threatened its credibility. Moreover, we cannot ignore the role that individual national interests play in the cohesion of U.N. member countries. For example, U.S. domestic politics have yielded many unilateral decisions, namely the decision not to initially sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change or to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Most recently the unilateral U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have again posed some serious questions about the U.N.’s role and credibility. The U.N.’s ability to work in the interest of all member countries has been routinely challenged.
U.N. reform is needed in order to evaluate seriously the following questions. How can the imbalance of power between the Security Council, composed of the so-called Great Powers, and the General Assembly be remedied? Should the Security Council be expanded to include powers such as Germany and Japan and rising powers such as India and Brazil? At what point during a civil conflict should nonviolence mean stability and result in the exit of U.N. peacekeepers? Should the U.N. have its own military force and end its reliance on contributor countries for armed needs? How should national sovereignty be redefined in light of the crimes against humanity committed by a range of governments and the differing international reactions that these regimes received from the international community? How can arms control be made more effective for industrialized and developing countries alike? How should the U.N. work with other transnational associations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? Can the U.N. effectively implement results-based budgeting? How will the U.N. fix its infamous bureaucratic backlog and systematic managerial problems? And how is the U.N. best funded in order to allow it to pursue its expanding mandate?
The U.N. continues to be an undeniable force in world affairs. Even when acting in the national interest, the fact that superpowers seek U.N. backing for their actions, as seen in the determination of the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush (served 2001–2009) to receive U.N. sanction for the 2003 Iraq War, demonstrates the continued relevance and legitimacy of the organization. To be sure, the U.N.’s inability to act in the majority interests of member countries against this war also threatens how future crises will be handled. The ongoing situation in Darfur, Sudan, called “the next Rwanda” by some critics, has proven to be yet another test of the U.N.’s ability to act as an international body working, in the words of its charter, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”
The U.N. has successfully managed to avoid another major international conflict such as a world war, but in respect to its primary aims and objectives, the U.N.’s scorecard for much of its sixty-four years of history reveals a mix of successes and failures. Perhaps the best test of the ongoing significance and importance of the U.N.’s role in maintaining international peace and security is to admit that if it did not exist, something very similar would have to be created from the ground up.
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