How Powerful is the United Nations? Essay

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Considered the most significant supranational organization in our times, the United Nations Organization comprises one hundred and ninety one member countries. The organization was founded in the year 1945 for the promotion as well as maintenance of international peace and security, in addition to finding necessary solutions for economic as well as humanitarian issues that concern the entire globe. The United Nations has six main departments to handle its mission: the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, the General Assembly, and the Trusteeship Council (United Nations, 2007).

Today, the organization is also responsible for guiding governments and non-governmental organizations for efficient management of the environment. Many nations that must face conflicts over environmental issues take their problems over to the International Court of Justice. Nevertheless, the United Nations does not have the power to force all nations to adopt the policies that it suggests, whether these policies concern the environment or peacekeeping. The International Court of Justice cannot compel nations to approach it for conflict resolution.

Neither could the United Nations stop the United States and United Kingdom from starting the war in Iraq. Hence, Newman, Thakur, & Tirman (2006) write that the principles, values and manifestations of multilateralism, including the United Nations, are under sustained scrutiny and assault. Their performance and effectiveness are questioned, as are their decision-making procedures and their representation according to 21st Century standards of accountability and democracy. All this has a corrosive effect on their legitimacy.

The power of the United Nations seems to have waxed and waned since the time of its establishment in 1945. A brief overview of the early history of the organization sheds more light on the subject thus: President Franklin D. Roosevelt foresaw the need for Four Policemen”the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China (France was added later)”to order the post World War II world and repel all attempts at aggression and violence. Meeting in San Francisco in 1945, the founders of the United Nations tried to fulfill that vision by creating a

Security Council with five permanent members charged with saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The UN Charter set up a military staff committee”consisting of the chiefs of staff or their representatives from the five permanent members”to take over the strategic direction of any military operation of the Security Council. Although this committee has met regularly for more than a half century, it has never directed any UN military operation. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union could never agree sufficiently on military issues

to share a joint command. Even after the Cold War, this kind of cooperation proved impractical. Yet, despite an inert military staff committee, the United Nations has been heavily involved in military action. In one instance, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, the Security Council did act like a team of Roosevelt-inspired policemen. The Council condemned North Korean aggression, called on the world to aid South Korea, and authorized a UN command under U. S. Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur. But the United Nations managed to do all this only

because the Soviet Union was boycotting sessions of the Security Council to protest the denial of a Council seat to Communist China. Although fifteen other countries dispatched troops or air support to Korea under a UN flag, the Americans commanded and dominated the UN force and fought the three-year Korean War as if it were their own. Aside from the accident of the Soviet boycott during the initial Korean crisis, the United Nations had no significant role in dealing with the Cold War. During the Cuban Missile Crisis

of 1962, for example, the United Nations served as no more than a theater as U. S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson displayed photographic evidence of the Soviet Union installing missiles and launchers in Cuba. And Secretary General U Thant earned only contempt from President Lyndon B. Johnson during the late 1960s for trying to mediate an end to the Vietnam War (United Nations). The fact that the government of the United States holds immense power over the United Nations makes other countries wary of the power of the organization to resolve their issues in an equitable manner.

Not all countries agree with the stance of the United States in handling issues of international importance. For this reason, many of the member states of the United nations simply rebuff the advice of the organization. Still, the United Nations is the only entity with the ability to manage complex crises, especially when these crises result from mistakes made by the most powerful nations of the world (Aguirre, 2006). Even if the most powerful nations do not heed the advice of the United Nations, the organization does not fear voicing its concerns around the globe.

This is perhaps the only ability of the United Nations that may be described as democratic. True democratization of the United Nations entails that all of its member nations must be self-determining. Seeing that some of the representative nations of the organization have greater power over world affairs than the others, and not all member countries of the United Nations are satisfied with the policies and decisions made in the international arena; the United Nations is not believed to be democratic at this point.

Aguirre states that the functions of the United Nations reveal that the organization has a high degree of autonomy. These functions include the promotion and creation of public international law; defense of the universality of human rights; generation and dissemination of novel ideas about international peace and security; advocacy of strategies and policies against poverty; and, as suggested previously protection of the global environment with an emphasis on the one planet economy (Aguirre).

Nevertheless, the United Nations is dependent on the decisions and desires of the most powerful states in the world. According to Aguirre, the states that the United Nations depends on for guidance and support are concentrated in its Security Council. The failure of the Security Council is manifested by its inability to adjust to trends that are new albeit crucial to the assistance of the world and growth of the global economy. These trends include the rise of emergent economies, such as those of China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa (Aguirre).

Hence, the United Nations is generally viewed as a key player in the international society with deficient political power to make decisions for the nations around the globe. A former Under Secretary General of the United Nations, Brian Urquhart, had in fact claimed that the organization has great responsibility and expectations, but little power (Aguirre). This is the reason why the developing world despite the good intentions of the United Nations in promoting policies such as No Child Left Behind is not required to implement the policies promoted by the organization at the national level.

In the developing world, therefore, the United Nations must limit itself to the work of a researcher simply gathering data to tell the world about the number of people living below the poverty line, and the number of uneducated females in the poorest nations of the world, etc. Although the governments of the least developed nations generally agree that the United Nations is advising them to adopt policies to truly help their people and their economies the United Nations does not have the power to compel the nations to adopt the suggested policies.

In this sense, the United Nations is comparable with the media with the power to influence change only by words. Nye (2007) writes that the organization has soft power instead of hard power. He defines power as the ability to influence others to achieve the outcomes desired by the powerful and influential entity. Also according to the author, while hard power requires coercion as well as payments, soft power that the United Nations possesses must require only co-option in addition to attraction. The hard power of the organization is limited to its ability to borrow from member nations.

As a servant of the member nations, the organization is required to protect their sovereign jurisdictions. Even so, the United Nations is said to be more of a servant to the most powerful states. This is the reason why the organization was powerless in stopping the United States and United Kingdom from going to war in recent years. After all, the United States is the chief policeman of the United Nations Security Council. If the country decides to go to war, and most of the member states of the United Nations do not agree, there is nothing that the organization can do to stop the chief policeman from doing as it will.

In this way, collective security is at risk, although the United Nations was established to serve the interests of all (Nye). It would not be surprising, therefore, if many member nations decide to stop their payments to the United Nations in the near future. One of the reasons why the United Nations continues to be financially supported by a large number of states is that the organization has, in the past, offered its peacekeeping forces to calm storms. During the Cold War, the United Nations had only played a minor role.

During the Suez Canal Crisis, however, the organization had changed its strategy in a major way. Searching for a tactic that would ease the French, British, and Israeli armies out of Egypt after their failed intervention, a former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold had managed to persuade all sides to accept troops of the United Nations in their place. Thus, a peacekeeping force of six thousand individuals from nine countries was formed in a matter of a week.

The United States provided extra helmets for the cause. The helmets were painted blue, so therefore the United Nations peacekeepers came to be called the Blue Helmets (United Nations). In the year 1960, the organization had dispatched its Blue Helmets to the Belgian Congo presently called the Democratic Republic of the Congo to manage the law and order situation, thereby replacing the troops of Belgium. Moreover, before his death, Hammarskjold had directed the Blue Helmets to put down the secession of Katanga (United Nations).

Because the confrontation was extremely bloody and controversial, the United Nations decided to stop engaging in military offensives for a period of thirty years. Instead of engaging in military offensives, the Blue Helmets or the United Nations peacekeepers started to quietly patrol the storms. The ceasefire lines in Cyprus, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights had the chance to experience the presence of the peaceful Blue Helmets (United Nations). For the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the United Nations had granted its express permission to the United States and its partners in the Coalition.

The war is said to have persuaded the United Nations bureaucrats as well as diplomats that the Security Council could achieve anything with the blessings of the United States. After the war, the United Nations had to deal with a huge number of crises involving human rights violations, the supervision of elections to establish democracy, feeding the poor and needy, in addition to policing peace in places such as Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia and El Salvador. Soon enough, however, the confidence of the organization was shattered with failed missions to Bosnia and Somalia (United Nations).

Although the United Nations was believed to have the ability to do anything with the blessings of the United States, the image of the organization was spoiled in American eyes when eighteen army personnel of the United States lost their lives in October 1993 in Mogadishu. The army rangers had been looking for a warlord of Somalia. After their death, President Bill Clinton of the United States made the decision to withdraw all troops of the United States, thereby weakening the mission.

Even though the dead soldiers had operated under United States command instead of the United Nations command, Clintons aides began to publicly blame Secretary General of the United Nations for the losses (United Nations). The image of the United Nations was worsened in American eyes during the Bosnian crisis, as the organization was unable to halt the aggression of the Serbs and protect the Muslim civilians from massacre in places that the Security Council had designated safe areas (United Nations).

Although the failure of the United Nations is said to have stemmed from the refusal of the United Nations and its European friends to agree on a plan to deal with the aggression of the Serbs, the organization was accused of impotency (United Nations). There are various other controversies that the United Nations has confronted throughout its career. Although the organization is blamed for siding with the most powerful states in the world, it is clear that the most powerful states of the world also do not believe in the power of the United Nations.

During the mid 1990s, the United States even refused to make payment to the United Nations (United Nations). Many of the powerful states are advocators of democracy in our time. Yet, the United Nations does not even have the power to democratize itself. All that the organization is truly capable of is the voicing of suggestions for policymaking to make our world a better place. In this way the organization is quite similar to the world media.

The United Nations has no power to implement its suggested policies throughout the world. It is not even a true servant of all nations, seeing that it is often said to serve the interests of the powerful at the expense of the poor. Still, the organization is a counselor for the world, regardless of whether its advice is heeded or not.


Aguirre, M. (2006, Jul 11). Power and Paradox in the United Nations. Open Democracy. Retrieved Nov 28, 2007, from http://www. jsp.

Newman, E. , Thakur, R. , & Tirman, J. (2006). Multilateralism Under Challenge? Power, International order, and Structural Change. New York: United Nations University Press. Nye, J. S. (2007, Nov 22). Soft Power of the United Nations. The Korea Times. Retrieved Nov 28, 2007, from http://www. koreatimes. co. kr/www/news/opinon/2007/11/160_14199. html. United Nations. (2007). Answers. Retrieved Nov 28, 2007, from http://www. answers. com/united%20nations.

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