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International Relations The United Nations
by
William Keylor

Introduction

The United Nations (UN) organization that was created at the end of World War II was the product of a firm commitment by the victorious powers in that conflict to establish an international mechanism for the prevention of another deadly and destructive world war. The founders of the UN were intent on learning from the flaws and missteps of its predecessor, the League of Nations, which had been established at the end of World War I but failed to prevent the outbreak of another global conflict. Since the UN’s inception, scholars have subjected the charter, procedures, and policies of the international organization to a searching examination. All agree that the UN has failed to live up to the lavishly optimistic expectations of its founders. But there is substantial scholarly disagreement about the effectiveness of the organization as well as the policies that it has pursued and programs it has initiated in response to a succession of global crises. The literature addressing the subject of the UN is vast: it comprises general works aimed at the educated public that assess the organization’s record of achievement, highly technical analyses of the operation and outcome of specific UN programs and initiatives, and scholarly studies that analyze functional aspects such as voting patterns in the Security Council and the General Assembly. The UN itself issues a wide range of reports on its activities in order to disseminate information about the work that it does across the globe. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations Association in the United States, actively promote the UN cause by calling attention to its successes. Critics of the organization have published exposés of its flaws and failures. Undergraduates and graduate students should be aware of the controversial nature of some of the scholarship on this subject.

General Overviews

As noted here, some of the general studies of the United Nations (UN) are tendentious—either praising or damning the UN—but most are evenhanded attempts to describe and evaluate its global mission. Claude 1984 is a classic introduction to the history of international organizations, full of perceptive observations about the UN, although it has been superseded by other works in more recent years. Kennedy 2007 deftly compares the original hopes of the UN’s founders with its successes and failures since 1945. Lowe, et al. 2008 and Bosco 2009 provide incisive historical accounts of the evolving procedures and policies of the organization’s decision-making body. Roberts and Zaum 2008 demonstrates how the Security Council carefully picks and chooses which security threats are worthy of its intervention. Two general studies stand out among the highly critical evaluations of the UN: Muravchik 2005 and Mazower 2009.

  • Bosco, David L. Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    An exhaustively researched study that emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the international organization as exemplified by the absolute power wielded by the permanent five members of the Security Council. Focuses on the rivalries and conflicts among those five powers and the challenges confronted by the rest of the members as they have sought to have their voices heard.

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  • Claude, Inis. Swords into Ploughshares: The Problems and Progress of International Organization. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

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    An elegantly written treatise on the origins and evolution of international organizations by one of the first political scientists to accord that topic the attention it deserves. An excellent place to start for undergraduates and graduate students interested in the UN.

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  • Kennedy, Paul. The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations. New York: Vintage, 2007.

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    Based on a searching review of secondary and primary sources, this comprehensive study presents a balanced assessment of the organization’s mission since its founding. While stopping far short of declaring the UN the “Parliament of Man” as foreshadowed Tennyson’s famous poem, this eminent international historian credits the organization with some notable achievements in the promotion of world peace and security.

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  • Lowe, Vaughn, Adam Roberts, Jennifer Welsh, and Dominik Zaum, eds. The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    A collection of essays by scholars, international lawyers, and practitioners that address the evolution of the concept of collective security and the role of the Security Council in promoting it. Includes a very useful appendix with data about the Security Council’s resolutions, sanctions, and operations since the founding of the UN.

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  • Mazower, Mark. No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

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    In a bold revisionist work, Mazower insists that the world organization was founded not to promote the kind of liberal internationalism hailed by the disciples of Woodrow Wilson in 1945 but rather to preserve white colonial rule in the non-Western world.

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  • Muravchik, Joshua. The Future of the UN: Understanding the Past to Chart a Way Forward. Washington, DC: AEI, 2005.

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    A harsh indictment of the world organization focusing on its internal difficulties—allegations of waste, corruption, and vote trading among members—by a leading neoconservative critic. Muravchik calls for the abolition of the Security Council, the reliance on regional security organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to preserve international security, and the reduction of the United Nations to a forum for discussion and debate with no decision-making authority.

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  • Roberts, Adam, and Dominik Zaum. Selective Security: War and the United Nations Security Council since 1945. International Institute for Strategic Studies Adelphi Paper 395. Oxford: Routledge, 2008.

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    A thoughtful analysis by two respected scholars of the UN that calls attention to many instances when the Security Council declined to become involved in conflicts and the few cases in which it was able to mount effective interventions.

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  • Weiss, Thomas G. What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009.

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    A sensitive treatment of the organization’s institutional flaws that proposes a series of reforms designed to streamline its operations and improve its effectiveness in coping with conflict and instability in the world.

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Impact of World War II and Drafting of the Charter

On 1 January 1942, a few weeks after the United States entered World War II, the nations at war with Nazi Germany issued the Declaration by United Nations affirming their determination to defeat the enemy. For the remainder of the war, the term “United Nations” referred to this wartime alliance against Adolf Hitler and was appropriated by officials in the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union to designate a projected international organization to replace the moribund League of Nations. Hilderbrand 1990 traces the origins, deliberations, and outcome of the conference held at the Dumbarton Oaks mansion in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., in the late summer and fall of 1944 to compose a draft charter for the proposed (UN) organization. Russell 1958 is a still useful narrative of the role of Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt administration officials in the drafting of the UN charter. Kunz 1947 is an early attempt to assess the implications of the famous—or infamous—Article 51 for the future of the collective security enterprise.

  • Avalon Project, Yale Law School. Declaration by United Nations.

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    Reprint of the original declaration dated 1 January 1942. Documents the first use of the phrase “United Nations.”

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  • Hilderbrand, Robert C. Dumbarton Oaks: The Origins of the United Nations and the Search for Postwar Security. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

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    Discusses the deliberations in the autumn of 1944, when representatives of the powers at war with Nazi Germany assembled in Washington, D.C., to draft a charter for the proposed successor to the League of Nations.

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  • Kunz, Joseph L. “Individual and Cooperative Self-Defense in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.” American Journal of International Law 41.4 (October 1947): 872–888.

    DOI: 10.2307/2193095Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes the debates surrounding the inclusion of Article 51 in the UN Charter, which reserved for member states the right of self-defense.

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  • Russell, Ruth B. A History of the United Nations Charter: The Role of the United States. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1958.

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    A classic study of the origin of the various components of the UN Charter, with special attention to the Roosevelt and Truman administrations’ energetic efforts to shape a founding document that would be compatible with the national interests of the United States.

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Responses to the Breakdown of the Security Council Consensus

With the breakdown of consensus in the Security Council as a result of the Cold War, the threat of a Soviet veto led to the establishment of regional security systems outside the United Nations (UN)—such as the Rio Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—under the authority of Article 51 of the UN Charter. The North Korean attack against South Korea in the summer of 1950 resulted in the only action taken by the Security Council to implement the principle of collective security during the Cold War. The resolution authorizing the deployment of a UN military force under US command succeeded because the Soviet delegate was boycotting sessions of the Security Council to protest the organization’s refusal to turn over the Chinese seat to the new Communist government in Beijing. When the Soviet delegate returned to the Security Council prepared to veto subsequent resolutions authorizing the use of force in the Korean War, the United States pushed through the General Assembly a so-called Uniting for Peace resolution authorizing that body to act when the Security Council was unable to do so. Keylor 2003 traces the underlying conflict between the UN’s founding principle of collective security and the succession of regional alliances that emerged during the Cold War in response to the Soviet Union’s use of the veto. Kaplan 2010 underscores the overlapping jurisdiction and global role of the UN and the world’s preeminent and longest-lasting regional security system. Yost 1999 demonstrates how the US-dominated alliance system during the Cold War expanded into a global security system that often cooperated with the UN in promoting peace and security in volatile parts of the world. Petersen 1959 summarizes the function of the Uniting for Peace resolution in circumventing a deadlocked Security Council in the decade after it was invented during the Korean War. Zaum 2008 extends the treatment of the Uniting for Peace process from the 1960s to the early 21st century.

  • Kaplan, Lawrence F. NATO and the U.N.: A Peculiar Relationship. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010.

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    The evaluation by America’s preeminent historian of the Atlantic Alliance of the evolution of the relationship between NATO and the UN. It focuses on the many areas of conflict between the regional security organization and the international security organization as well as the few instances of cooperation between them.

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  • Keylor, William R. “Le rôle des organisations internationales de sécurité pendant et après la guerre froide: Sécurité collective ou sécurité régionale?” In Des conflits en mutation? De la guerre froide aux nouveaux conflits; Essai de typologie de 1947 à nos jours. Edited by Danielle Domergue and Antoine Coppolani, 343–348. Paris: Editions Complexe, 2003.

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    Discusses the conflict between the universalist commitment of collective security in the UN Charter and the emergence of regional security arrangements among particular groups of states during the Cold War.

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  • Petersen, K. S. “The Uses of the Uniting for Peace Resolution since 1950.” International Organization 13 (1959): 219–232.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300000059Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Lists all operations undertaken under the Uniting for Peace during the 1950s and evaluates their effectiveness.

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  • Yost, David. NATO Transformed: The Alliance’s New Role in International Security. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1999.

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    Probes the implications of the expansion of NATO to include former Communist states in Eastern Europe and its transformation from a regional alliance during the Cold War into a global security system closely linked to the UN, as with the assignment of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghanistan in December 2001 in support of UN Security Council resolutions.

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  • Zaum, Dominik. “The Security Council, the General Assembly, and War: The Uniting for Peace Resolution.” In The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. Edited by Lowe, Vaughn, Adam Roberts, Jennifer Welsh, and Dominik Zaum, 154–174. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Examines the eleven “emergency special sessions” in the General Assembly convened under the Uniting for Peace resolution.

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Use of Force in Support of Collective Security

The founders of the United Nations (UN) were convinced that one of the major causes of the League of Nations’ failure to preserve peace and security in the interwar period was the absence of a military arm to enforce its dictates. During the debates concerning the creation of the UN, the major powers decided to establish a permanent general staff called the Military Staff Committee (MSC) and on-call military forces that could be summoned by the Security Council in the event of a threat to peace. The efforts by the MSC to draw up plans for army, navy, and air forces that would be available to the Security Council in case of need were doomed by the onset of the Cold War. In 1990–1991, at the end of the Cold War, the US administration of George H. W. Bush assembled an international coalition that, with the explicit authorization of the UN Security Council, expelled the military forces of Iraq that had invaded and occupied Kuwait. In the afterglow of this first successful military operation under Security Council auspices since the Korean War, Bush heralded the advent of a “new world order.” He and others expressed the hope that the UN would finally be able to fulfill its mission to enforce global security that had been stymied by the superpowers’ rivalry during the Cold War. But the proposal by the new secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, for the creation of a permanent UN military force came to naught. Soffer 1997 summarizes the serious efforts from 1945 to 1948 to bring this abortive project to a successful conclusion. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union prompted a flurry of articles considering the possible resurrection of the MSC to support a more robust UN mission to deal with threats to global security. Grove 1993, Boulden 1993, and Wheeler 1994 all dwell on the potential value of such an instrument of global security. Hill 2001 is the most optimistic assessment of the committee’s chances of receiving a lease on life. Boutros-Ghali 1999 is the plaintive reminiscence of the secretary-general who tried and failed to give the UN the military force required to back up its resolutions.

Peacekeeping and Nation Building After the Cold War

In spite of the failure to establish a United Nations (UN) military force to enforce Security Council resolutions after the Cold War, the council was able to mount a number of robust military operations under the heading of “peacekeeping” to restore order after civil wars or domestic unrest. The record of these peacekeeping operations has been mixed. The abject failures of the UN missions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda during the 1990s must be measured against the relatively successful interventions in Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, and Namibia in the same period as well as more recent successes in Sierra Leone and Timor Leste. A category of UN activities related to peacekeeping is the phenomenon of “nation building,” which has been conducted in extreme cases where the state apparatus completely broke down and the UN was called in to restore state functions. The 2009 report of the United Nations Information Service, Looking Backward/Moving Forward, traces the origin of the term “peacekeeping” and explains how the operation differs from other UN missions. The 2009 report by the United Nations Department of Public Information, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, furnishes an up-to-date record of all such operations, with valuable statistics on each. Palin 1995 and Berdal 1996, written amid the flurry of peacekeeping operations after the end of the Cold War, subject those undertakings to a searching analysis. Berdal 2009 extends the assessment of peacekeeping to the early 21st century. Caplan 2002 summarizes the UN’s peacekeeping operations in the decade after the end of the Cold War and offers cautious optimism about future peacekeeping missions in areas wracked by civil conflict. Dallaire 2004 and Barrett 2003 treat the UN’s failure to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the former by the commander of UN forces in the country, the latter by an official in the UN Secretariat.

Consequences of Operation Iraqi Freedom

The decision by U.S. President George W. Bush to mount an invasion of Iraq after failing to obtain Security Council authorization in 2002 caused a serious crisis of confidence in the United Nations (UN). Supporters of the invasion denounced the UN as irrelevant (and France for threatening to veto the authorization resolution). Opponents decried Washington’s rejection of multilateralism in favor of American unilateralism. The discovery that the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program, the ostensible reason for the invasion, had been totally suspended validated the assessments of the UN inspector team before the United States opted for unilateral preemptive action. The standing of the world body was also enhanced when the occupying power had to turn to the UN to restore a measure of legitimacy to an operation that became bogged down in a bloody insurgency. Glennon 2003 addresses the acrimonious debate in the Security Council that prevented a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Touchard 2003 presents the French case for opposing Security Council action. Berdal 2003 is a measured defense of the Security Council’s role in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, which is updated with the advantage of hindsight in Berdal 2005. Blix 2004 records the inability of the UN inspection team to locate weapons of mass destruction before the US-led invasion. Chesterman 2004 and Boulden and Weiss 2005 survey the rapprochement between the United States and the UN after the crisis of 2002–2003.

The Debate over Preventive War, Humanitarian Intervention, and “the Responsibility to Protect”

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, in part, justified by the George W. Bush administration’s assertion in its 2002 National Security Strategy that to prevent hostile acts from its adversaries “a state has the right to preemptively attack another state if the latter poses a future threat to the former.” The principle of preventive war seemed to conflict with the United Nations (UN) Charter, which prohibits states from attacking one another except in a case of self-defense. But some scholars have defended the doctrine of preventive war as a necessary evil in an era when weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons) can be used against targets on very short notice. On a related issue, scholars of international law and political science began to envision UN intervention in defense of people whose rights have been egregiously violated by their own government. Such interventions seemed to conflict with Article 2, Part 7, of the UN Charter, which expressly denies the international organization the right “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Cooper and Kohler 2009 addresses the controversial topic of the use of force to forestall humanitarian catastrophes. Feinstein and Slaughter 2004 defends the preventive use of force as a necessary extension of the right of self-defense recognized in the UN Charter. Nichols 2008 foresees the proliferation of preventive wars in the future as a natural response to the threat of global terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Murswiek 2003 is an evenhanded evaluation of the justifications for an objection to the waging of preventive war. Thakur 2007 highlights the evolution of the UN’s mission from deterring or repelling state-to-state aggression to responding to oppression within states. Patison 2010 offers an incisive analysis of the legal, political, and ethical dimensions of humanitarian intervention and the role of the UN in such acts.

The Behind-the-Scenes Role of United Nations Specialized Agencies

The principle of collective security—the prevention of or response to aggression by one state against another—that was at the heart of the United Nations’ (UN) mission at the time of its founding has receded in importance. The organization’s expanding peacekeeping missions since the end of the Cold War have had mixed success. In order to give the UN the credit due, it is important to note that some of the UN’s most notable achievements have occurred in operations far removed from the prevention of war or peacekeeping after civil wars. These are the unheralded activities of the many UN specialized agencies that, while not mentioned in the UN Charter, have been incorporated into the world organization under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council. These agencies address long-term, nonmilitary threats to human development in such fields as global public health, sustainable development, climate change, the maltreatment of children, gender inequality, the plight of refugees, and narcotics trafficking. Some of the most active and successful of these entities include the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN Refugees Agency (UNHCR), and the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP). Luers 2000 calls these specialized agencies the “unsung heroes of the U.N. system” and reviews the wide range of services they provide to the people throughout the world who are afflicted by scourges beyond the traditional threats of war and civil war. DiGiovine 2009 examines the process whereby the UN agency designates world heritage sites to be protected from human and environmental degradation. Staples 2006 and Siddiqi 1995 recount the efforts of the World Health Organization to eradicate infectious diseases amid interference and foot-dragging by various national governments. Helton 2002 and Loescher 2001 trace the campaign of the UN Refugees Agency and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist persons who are forced to leave their area of residence and the obstacles to these humanitarian missions raised by states pursuing their own interests.

  • DiGiovine, Michael J. The Heritage-Scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009.

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    A social scientist’s exploration of UNESCO’s designation of world heritage sites and its effect on tourism and historic preservation.

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  • Helton, Arthur C. The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    A critical assessment of the attempts by the UN Refugee Agency and other institutions to ease the plight of refugees from wars, civil wars, and domestic unrest.

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  • Loescher, Gil. The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    A sweeping historical analysis of the evolving policies of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Refugees Agency. Loescher demonstrates how the UN efforts on behalf of refugees have been adversely affected by the policies of the world’s great powers as they jockey for position.

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  • Luers, William H. “Choosing Engagement: Uniting the U.N. with U.S. Interests.” Foreign Affairs 79.5 (September–October 2000): 9–14.

    DOI: 10.2307/20049884Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An incisive discussion of what the author calls the “unsung heroes of the U.N. system,” its specialized agencies that carry on humanitarian activities out of the glare of the international media.

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  • Siddiqi, Javed. World Health and World Politics: The World Health Organization and the UN System. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

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    A critical study of the World Health Organization’s efforts to eradicate infectious diseases, with proposals for reform.

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  • Staples, Amy. The Birth of Development: How the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Health Organization Have Changed the World 1945–1965. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006.

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    Records the early achievements of UN specialized agencies while the Cold War prevented the effective implementation of the principle of collective security.

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LAST MODIFIED: 03/02/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199743292-0035

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