Sample: The United Nations in the 21st Century


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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations


List of Acronyms

1  The United Nations in World Politics

The United Nations in World Politics: Vision and Reality

Contending International Relations Theories

Dilemmas the UN Faces in the Twenty-First Century

Structure of the Book

2  The Evolution of the United Nations System

The League of Nations

The Origins of the United Nations

The Organization of the United Nations

Persistent Organizational Problems and the Challenges of Reform

3  Actors in the United Nations System

The Role of States

Coalitions, Blocs, and the Importance of Consensus

The Secretary-General and the UN Secretariat as Key Actors

Nonstate Actors: The Third UN

4  Maintaining International Peace and Security

Linking International Relations Theories

Maintaining Peace and Security: The UN Charter and Its Evolution

Mechanisms for Peaceful Settlement and Preventive Diplomacy

Collective Security, Enforcement, and Sanctions

Peace Operations: Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding

Humanitarian Intervention (R2P and POC): Providing Human

Arms Control and Disarmament

Coping with Terrorism

Future Challenges for the UN’s Role in Peace and Security

5  Economic Development and Sustainability

The Organization of the UN System for Promoting Economic

The UN and Evolving Ideas About Development

The UN and Other Actors

Lessons Learned

The Persistent Dilemmas

6  Human Rights

From the League of Nations to the United Nations

UN Charter Principles and Organizational Structures

The Role of the UN in Human Rights

The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations

Case Studies of the UN System in Action

Evaluating the UN’s Human Rights Record

7  Human Security: The Environment, Health, and Migration

An Expanded View of Security

Protection of the Environment

Health and Human Security

Human Security: The Refugee and Migration Crisis

Dilemmas in Human Security

8  Is There a Future for the United Nations?

Does the UN Make a Difference?

Lessons About What the UN Cannot Do

Factors in UN Success and Failure

Can the UN Be Reformed?

Linking the UN to Global Governance

Appendix: Charter of the United Nations (Selected Sections)





More than twenty years have passed since we first wrote this book. With each successive edition, we have endeavored to keep it fresh while preserving elements that seem to work well. We are reminded this time, once again, how much we live in a world of rapid change, and of the challenge of not allowing the length of the book to grow too much. The twenty-first century is more than a decade and a half old now and the Cold War’s end, which inspired the first edition, seems ever more distant. Even more than when we did the fourth edition, the dynamics of world politics are being reshaped by rising powers, particularly China, and by both Russia’s and China’s greater assertiveness. The threat of transnational terrorism seems to grow rather than diminish, particularly with the emergence of ISIS. The UN continues to take on ever more ambitious peace operations, blurring the boundary between peacekeeping and enforcement, with more peacekeepers in the field than at any other time in its seventy years. Even as it launches a second major development initiative, the Sustainable Development Goals, its role in international economic relations more broadly is further diminished as the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, G-20, and other bodies play more important roles in dealing with financial crises, trade, and development. The effects of climate change are now more apparent than ever, and the agreement reached at the 2015 Paris conference finally promises concrete, if still inadequate, steps to address it. And, despite the seeming consensus on the responsibility to protect civilians at risk in armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, and natural disasters, the reality continues to be a very selective will to act, as the 2015 refugee and migration crisis has shown.

This new edition adds a fourth dilemma—the need for inclusiveness, such as by appointing more women to senior positions within the UN, advocating for other marginalized groups, and providing more access for civil society—which can be in conflict with deep-seated prejudices, cultural practices, and inequalities. In addition to general updates, readers will find new case studies of the 2015 Paris climate change conference, the refugee and migration crisis, WHO and Ebola, failed statebuilding efforts in South Sudan, complex peacekeeping in Mali, and the debate over why the Security Council authorized humanitarian intervention in Libya in 2011 but not in Syria since then. We also examine China’s growing role as a major power within the UN system, the effects of China and Russia’s greater assertiveness in the use of the veto, and recent analyses of targeted sanctions and of the International Criminal Court.

In updating the book, we have welcomed Alynna Lyon as a third coauthor. We wish to thank Charla Burnett, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, for her assistance with the new case study on the refugee and migration crisis. We also thank Lynne Rienner for allowing us to use material on the United Nations from the third edition of our book International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance (2015). We dedicate this fifth edition to our children and grandchildren, Ginger, Brett, Paul, McKayla, Madelyn, Quintin, and Anna, whose generations must sustain the United Nations in the twenty-first century. And we wish to thank our husbands, Robert Stauffer, Ralph Johnston, and Daniel Hartman, whose patience, support, and encouragement have enabled us to bring this work to fruition.

Karen A. Mingst

Margaret P. Karns

Alynna J. Lyon

Chapter 1

The United Nations in World Politics

For more than seventy years, the United Nations has played a key role in shaping the world as we know it. It is consistently called upon to respond to both human and natural disasters, and to coordinate global efforts on the challenges of poverty, health security, women’s empowerment, and climate change. As the UN marked its seventieth anniversary in 2015, it was hard to imagine the world without it despite its many ups and downs over the years. It has embodied humankind’s hopes for a better world through the prevention of conflict. It has promoted a culture of legality and rule of law. It has raised awareness of the plight of the world’s poor, and it has boosted development by providing technical assistance. It has promoted concern for human rights, including the status of women, the rights of the child, and the unique needs of indigenous peoples. It has been the source of numerous concepts and ideas over its history, including peacekeeping, human development, and sustainable development. It contributed immensely to making multilateral diplomacy the primary way in which international norms, public policies, and law are established. It has served as a catalyst for global policy networks and partnerships with other actors. It plays a central role in global governance. Along the way, the UN has earned several Nobel Peace Prizes, including a 2005 award to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); the 2001 prize to the UN and Secretary-General Kofi Annan; the 1988 award to UN peacekeepers; and the 1969 honor to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

In the many areas of UN activity, we can point to the UN’s accomplishments and also to its shortcomings and failures. More than seventy years after its creation, the UN continues to be the only international organization (IO) or, more correctly, international intergovernmental organization (IGO) of global scope and nearly universal membership that has an agenda encompassing the broadest range of governance issues. It is a complex system that serves as the central site for multilateral diplomacy, with the UN’s General Assembly as center stage. Three weeks of general debate at the opening of each fall assembly session draw foreign ministers and heads of state from small and large states to take advantage of the opportunity to address the nations of the world and to engage in intensive diplomacy. Diplomats are joined by activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international corporations, and civil society groups for discussions both within and around the UN to address the growing demands of a complex and globalized world. As one member of the UN staff describes it, “The whole world comes to New York in September, and the UN provides great value in bringing everyone together, even if they are not working through the UN.”[1]

As an IGO, however, the UN is the creation of its member states; it is they who decide what that they will allow this organization to do and what resources—financial and otherwise—they will provide. In this regard, the UN is very much subject to the winds of world politics and the whims of member governments. To understand the UN today, it is useful to look back at some of the major changes in world politics and how they affected the UN.

The United Nations in World Politics: Vision and Reality

The establishment of the United Nations in the closing days of World War II was an affirmation of the desire of war-weary nations for an organization that could help them avoid future conflicts and promote international economic and social cooperation. As we discuss further in Chapter 2, the UN’s Charter built on lessons learned from the failed League of Nations created at the end of World War I and earlier experiments with international unions, conference diplomacy, and dispute settlement mechanisms. It represented an expression of hope for the possibilities of a new global security arrangement and for fostering the social and economic conditions necessary for peace to prevail.

The United Nations and Politics in the Cold War World

The World War II coalition of great powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China), whose unity had been key to the UN’s founding, was nevertheless a victim of rising tensions almost before the first General Assembly session in 1946. Developments in Europe and Asia between 1946 and 1950 soon made it clear that the emerging Cold War would have fundamental effects on the UN. How could a collective security system operate when there was no unity among the great powers on whose cooperation it depended? Even the admission of new members was affected between 1950 and 1955 because each side vetoed applications from states that were allied with the other.

The Cold War made Security Council actions on threats to peace and security extremely problematic, with repeated sharp exchanges and frequent deadlock. Some conflicts, such as the French and American wars in Vietnam and the Soviet interventions in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, were never brought to the UN at all. The UN was able to respond to the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 only because the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council at the time.

In order to deal with a number of regional conflicts, the UN developed something never mentioned in its charter, namely, peacekeeping; this has involved the prevention, containment, and moderation of hostilities between or within states through the use of lightly armed multinational forces of soldiers, police, and civilians. UN peacekeeping forces were used extensively in the Middle East and in conflicts arising out of the decolonization process during the Cold War period. Thirteen operations were deployed from 1948 to 1988. The innovation of peacekeeping illustrates what the Cold War did to the UN: “It had repealed the proposition that the organization should undertake to promote order by bringing the great powers into troubled situations. . . . Henceforward, the task of the United Nations was to be defined as that of keeping the great powers out of such situations.”[2]

The Effects of the Nuclear Revolution. The UN Charter had just been signed when the use of two atomic bombs on Japan on August 6 and 10, 1945, began a scientific and technological revolution in warfare that would have a far-reaching impact on the post–World War II world. The earliest and most obvious effect of nuclear weapons was to restore the issue of disarmament to the UN’s agenda. Disarmament as an approach to peace had been discredited during the interwar era, but the UN almost from its inception in early 1946 became a forum for discussions and negotiations on arms control and disarmament. Hence, the nuclear threat not only transformed world politics but also made the UN the key place where world leaders sought to persuade each other that war had become excessively dangerous, that disarmament and arms control were imperative, and that they were devoted to peace and restraint.

The Role of the United Nations in Decolonization and the Emergence of New States. At the close of World War II, few would have predicted the end of colonial rule in Africa and Asia. Yet twenty-five years after the UN Charter was signed, at the height of the Cold War, most of the former colonies had achieved independence with relatively little threat to international peace and security. Membership in the UN more than doubled from 51 states in 1945 to 118 in 1965 and had tripled by 1980 (see Figure 1.1), the vast majority of these new members being newly independent states. Twenty-six new states were later seated in the UN after the Cold War’s end, mostly as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

FIGURE 1.1. Growth in UN Membership, 1945–2015 Sources: Compiled from Robert E. Riggs and Jack C. Plano, The United Nations: International Organization of World Politics, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994), 45, and updated.

FIGURE 1.1. Growth in UN Membership, 1945–2015

Sources: Compiled from Robert E. Riggs and Jack C. Plano, The United Nations: International Organization of World Politics, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994), 45, and updated.

The UN played a significant role in this remarkably peaceful transformation. The UN Charter endorsed the principle of self-determination. Already independent former colonies, such as India, Egypt, Indonesia, and the Latin American states, used the UN as a forum to advocate an end to colonialism and independence for territories ruled by Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. Success added new votes to the growing anticolonial coalition, so by 1960 a majority of the UN’s members favored decolonization. General Assembly Resolution 1514 that year condemned the continuation of colonial rule and preconditions for granting independence (such as a lack of preparation for self-rule) and called for annual reports on progress toward independence for all remaining colonial territories. In short, the UN was an impor­tant forum for the collective legitimation of a change in international norms (that is, colonialism and imperialism were no longer acceptable patterns of state behavior, and colonial peoples had a right to self-determination).

The consequences of decolonization and the expanded number of independent states were manifold. The less developed states of Africa, Asia, and Latin America formed a strong coalition within the UN known as the Group of 77 (G-77) and commanded a majority of votes on a broad range of issues after 1960. Whereas the Cold War had shaped politics in the UN until 1960, the G-77, and what became known as the North-South conflict between the developed countries of the industrial North and the less developed countries (LDCs) of the South, shaped much of the politics thereafter. The two conflicts became entwined in complex ways. For example, the Soviet Union and many Western European states often sided with the G-77, and the United States frequently found itself in a small minority.

Beginning in the 1960s, new issues, especially issues of economic and social development, proliferated on the UN’s agenda, many at the urging of the G-77. For example, in 1967, Arvid Pardo, the representative from Malta, argued on behalf of newly independent states that the resources found on the deep seabed were the “common heritage of mankind,” not the property of any specific nation. This subsequently had an impact on emerging environmental issues as well as on the law of the sea. Of all the issues pushed by the G-77, however, none received more attention than the drive for economic and social development.

The North-South Conflict. The ideological leaning of the G-77 in the 1960s and 1970s toward a heavy government role in economic development and redistribution of wealth shaped many UN programs and activities. In the 1970s the G-77 pushed for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), marshaling support in the UN General Assembly for “A Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order” and “A Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States.” For most of the decade, the NIEO debates dominated and polarized the UN system, with the deep divide between North and South at times making agreement on both economic and security issues impossible to achieve.

The North-South conflict continues to be a central feature of world politics, and hence of the UN, although the rhetoric and issues of the NIEO sharply diminished in the late 1980s and 1990s. For example, the UN’s treatment of environmental issues, which began with the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, has been permeated by North-South differences. The 1997 Kyoto Conference on Climate Change heard echoes of the North-South conflict when developing countries insisted that industrial countries make the first reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Those echoes still persist in the negotiations on climate change. The G-77, however, is no longer as cohesive a group; its members’ interests increasingly diverged in the 1980s when some states, especially in Southeast Asia, achieved rapid economic growth and as many developing countries shifted from statist-oriented economic policies to neoliberal ones, calling for open markets and privatization. Chapter 5 discusses these shifts further as well as the increased emphasis on poverty alleviation that accompanied the now concluded Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved in 2015.

World Politics Since the Cold War’s End

The Cold War’s end in 1990 meant not only new cooperation among the five permanent members of the Security Council but also a resurgence of nationalism, civil wars, and ethnic conflicts; the new phenomenon of failed states; and a related series of humanitarian crises. The consequence was greater demands than ever before on the United Nations to deal with threats to peace and security as well as environmental and developmental issues, democratization, population growth, humanitarian crises, and other problems. UN peacekeepers were called on to rebuild Cambodia; create peace in Bosnia; organize and monitor postconflict elections in Nicaragua, Namibia, and many other places; monitor human rights violations in El Salvador; and oversee humanitarian relief in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), East Timor, and Afghanistan. Since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the UN’s enforcement powers have been used more in the post–Cold War era than at any previous time.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, democratization spread to all regions of the globe, from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and states created from the former Soviet Union to Africa and Asia. Many authoritarian governments were forced to open their political processes to competing political parties, adopt more stringent human rights standards, and hold free elections. Since 1990 the UN has been in heavy demand to provide observers for elections in countries around the world. UN-sanctioned intervention in Haiti in 1993 marked the first time the UN took action to restore a democratically elected government. In Namibia, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, and, most recently, South Sudan, the UN was called upon to assist with organizing the elements of newly independent states, including the provision of transitional administrations, writing of constitutions, training of police and judges, and organization of elections. The trend toward more democratization has regressed in recent years, however.

By 1995, the early post–Cold War optimism about the United Nations had faded. The peacekeepers in Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda found little peace to be kept, although their presence did alleviate much human suffering. Despite almost continuous meetings of the UN Security Council and numerous resolutions, the UN’s members lacked the political will to provide the military, logistical, and financial resources needed to deal adequately with these and other complex situations. In addition, the UN faced a deep financial crisis in the late 1990s caused by the increased cost of peacekeeping and other activities and the failure of many members, including the United States, to pay their assessed contributions. The organization clearly needed significant reforms to meet the increased demands and address weaknesses in its structures and operations, but member states failed to use either the occasion of the UN’s fiftieth anniversary in 1995 or the sixtieth anniversary in 2005 to approve many of the necessary changes. Some changes could be and were made without member states’ approval, however. And, in its responses to many complex conflicts, humanitarian crises, new threats to peace posed by nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism, and persistent global poverty, the UN demonstrated that it was still central to many aspects of global governance, as discussed in subsequent chapters.

Beginning in the 1970s, well before the Cold War’s end, the UN began to play an important role on a nexus of interdependence issues by convening global conferences and summits on topics ranging from the environment, food, housing, the law of the sea, disarmament, women, and water to human rights, population and development, and social development. These conferences articulated new international norms; expanded international law; set agendas for governments and the UN itself, through programs of action; and promoted linkages among the growing communities of NGOs active on different issues, the UN, and member states’ governments.

The UN has never played a central role in international economic relations, however. Although economic topics appear on the agendas of the General Assembly and the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), much of the decisionmaking has always taken place in institutions that have never really been part of the UN system. The Bretton Woods institutions—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—while technically part of the system, have operated quite independently. The World Trade Organization (WTO, established in 1995 as the successor to GATT), the Group of 7 (G-7), the Group of 20 (G-20), major corporations, and banks are all outside the UN system. The UN has, however, been active from its earliest years in efforts to promote economic and social development, introducing the ideas of development aid in the 1950s, sustainable development in the 1980s, human development in the 1990s, the MDGs in the 2000s, and now the SDGs. Many of the global conferences reinforced understanding of the way development overlaps with the status of women, population, food, and other problems. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan used the occasion of the new millennium to convene a Millennium Summit in 2000, hoping “to harness the symbolic power of the millennium to the real and urgent needs of people everywhere.”[3] His special report, We the Peoples, provided his views of the state of the world, the major global challenges, and the need for structural reform of the UN itself. Annan’s successor, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, convened the Climate Summit in 2014, bringing together more than one hundred heads of state or government and leaders from the private sector and civil society to marshal support for efforts to address the central environmental challenge of the twenty-first century.

Over the last thirty years, what had initially appeared to be simply growing interdependence among states and peoples has become something much more fundamental—a complex multidimensional process of economic, cultural, and social change. Globalization is the process of increasing worldwide integration of politics, economics, social relations, and culture that often appears to undermine state sovereignty. Particularly noticeable is the rapid pace of change, the compression of time and space, and the scale and scope of interconnectedness. In its contemporary form, globalization has linked economic markets, cultures, peoples, and states to an unprecedented degree. This is thanks to improvements in transportation and communications that speed the movement of ideas, goods, news, capital, technology, and people, and to the deregulation and privatization of businesses, finance, and services in many countries.

Many regard globalization as desirable because it has fueled greater prosperity and higher standards of living in many parts of the world. Others, however, point to the growing inequality among and within nations and the ways in which globalization creates both winners and losers, such as those whose jobs in developed countries are lost to workers in developing countries who are paid lower wages. There is also the dark side of globalization, which has facilitated the growth of trafficking in drugs and persons, transnational terrorism, and other criminal enterprises. Finally, as globalization promotes industrialization and consumption, it has increasing ecological and environmental impacts. Many are concerned that the regulations and incentives that could mitigate the damages associated with globalization are still lacking.

The UN itself and various specialized agencies within the UN system have struggled to address globalization issues. Although the International Labour Organization, World Health Organization (WHO), and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are very much involved in globalization-related issues of labor, health, and intellectual property rights, the fact that the targets of antiglobalization protesters have been the World Bank, IMF, G-7, and WTO has underscored the UN’s marginal role in international economic relations. Yet globalization has fueled the growth of NGOs. Subsequent chapters illustrate how the UN and NGOs, which represent what some have called global civil society and still others refer to as part of the “third UN,” are involved in new partnerships that make each more responsive to globalization issues.

The emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower was another aspect of post–Cold War world politics, the era of globalization, and the early twenty-first century. The economic and military capabilities of the United States far exceeded those of any other state, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had no serious rival. Many worried that this development would result in the UN’s marginalization, particularly if, or when, the United States chose to act unilaterally. This view was borne out when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international opposition and vigorous Security Council debate. An alternative view was that the UN could become a puppet of the sole superpower, dependent upon its goodwill for funding and subservient in authorizing US actions. Yet in the late 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century, we saw groups of states and NGOs push ahead with policy initiatives opposed by the United States, examples being the International Criminal Court and the convention banning land mines. Although its support has fluctuated, in fact, the United States has always been important to the United Nations, as discussed further in Chapter 3.

Now, with the rapid rise of China in particular, as well as of India, South Africa, Brazil, and other emerging powers, and the reassertiveness of Russia (a group collectively known as the BRICS), world politics is again shifting, and the years ahead will likely see significant changes in how these shifts play out within the UN. Already in international economic relations, the G-7 has been partially replaced by the Group of 20 (G-20), and the emerging powers have pushed for changes in their voting shares within the World Bank and IMF. China has taken the lead in creating new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), drawing many developed as well as developing countries to become charter members in 2015, despite the opposition of the United States. US power and influence are noticeably declining in what, for lack of a better phrase, one might call the post-post–Cold War era. The reform of UN Security Council membership is likely to gain new attention and urgency with these power shifts.

To understand the links between world politics and the United Nations, it is also important to examine the major international relations theories to see how they explain global changes and the roles of IGOs such as the UN.

Contending International Relations Theories

For much of the post–World War II era, realist theory, or realism, provided the dominant explanation for international politics. Realists see states as the most important actors in the international system and as unitary actors that define their national interests in terms of maximizing power and security. Sovereign states coexist in an anarchic international system and, therefore, must rely primarily on themselves to manage their own insecurity through balance of power, alliances, and deterrence. International rules (law) and norms, as well as international organizations, do not carry much weight with realists because they lack enforcement power. In realists’ view, IGOs and NGOs are marginal actors. IGOs, in particular, do not enjoy autonomy or capability for independent action on the world stage. Rather, they reflect the interests of their members, especially the most powerful ones. In this view, the UN is constrained by its members’ willingness to work through it in dealing with specific problems, to comply with and support its actions, to provide peacekeeping contingents (military or civilian), and to pay for its regular operations and special programs. In realist theory, cooperation among states is not impossible, but states have little incentive to enter into international arrangements, and they are always free to exit from them.[4]

For many international relations scholars, however, realist theory is an inadequate theoretical framework for analyzing world politics, and especially the rapid changes since the Cold War’s end as well as the expanded practice of multi­lateralism, the activities of the UN and other IGOs among the elements of global governance. One major alternative is liberalism.[5]

Liberals regard states as important actors, but they place importance on a variety of other actors in the international system, including IGOs, NGOs, multinational corporations (MNCs), and even individuals. States, in their view, are pluralistic, not unitary, actors. Moral and ethical principles, power relations, and bargaining among different domestic and transnational groups amid changing international conditions shape states’ interests and actions. There is no single definition of national interest; rather, states vary in their goals, and their interests change. Liberal theorists characterize the international system as an interdependent one in which there is both cooperation and conflict and where actors’ mutual interests tend to increase over time. State power matters, but it is exercised within a framework of international rules and institutions that help to make cooperation possible.

Neoliberal institutionalists have provided a somewhat different explanation for why cooperation occurs. For classical liberals, cooperation emerges from establishing and reforming institutions that permit cooperative interactions and prohibit coercive actions. For neoliberal institutionalists, cooperation emerges when actors have continuous interactions with each other. Institutions help prevent cheating; they reduce transaction and opportunity costs for those who seek gains from cooperation within them. Institutions are essential; they build upon common interests. They help to shape state interests and state preferences. IGOs such as the United Nations make a difference in world politics by altering state preferences and establishing rules that constrain states. They are not merely pawns of the dominant powers but actually modify state behavior by creating habits of cooperation and serving as arenas for negotiation and policy coordination.

For some liberal theorists, the growth of multilateralism, IGOs, and international law is indicative of a nascent international society in which actors consent to common rules and institutions and recognize common interests as well as a common identity or sense of “we-ness.” Within this emerging society, international institutions change the way states and other actors interact with each other. Many scholars argue that the growing role of nongovernmental actors represents an emerging global civil society.[6]

A third and relatively recent approach to international relations is constructivism, which has become important for studying various aspects of global governance, particularly the role of norms and institutions. Constructivism has several variants, and questions have arisen about whether it is a theory of politics. Yet it offers a valuable way of studying how shared beliefs, rules, organizations, and cultural practices shape the behavior of states and other actors as well as their identities and interests. Among the key norms affecting state behavior in constructivists’ view is multilateralism. Several studies have examined the impact of norms and principled beliefs on international outcomes such as the evolution of the international human rights regime, bans on certain types of weapons, and humanitarian interventions in which the UN and other IGOs have played a role. They have found that international organizations can be not only “teachers” but also “creators” of norms; as such, they can socialize states into accepting certain political goals and values.[7]

Constructivists tend to see IGOs as actors that can have independent effects on international relations and as arenas in which discussions, persuasion, education, and argument take place that influence government leaders’, businesspeople’s, and NGO activists’ understandings of their interests and of the world in which they live. The consequences are not always positive, however, because IGOs can also stimulate conflicts, their actions may not necessarily be in the interests of their member states, and IGO bureaucracies such as the UN Secretariat may develop agendas of their own, be dysfunctional, lack accountability, tolerate inefficient practices, and compete for turf, budgets, and staff.[8]

There are also critical theories that challenge realism’s focus on the primacy of states’ power and liberalism’s optimism about the value of international law and institutions for promoting cooperation. Among the most prominent are Marxist and neo-Marxist theories and their derivative, dependency theory, with their focus on exploitative structures in economic, political, and social systems. Even with the demise of the Soviet Union, Marxism and its variants did not disappear. They had significant influence on many LDCs from the 1950s to the 1980s. Some aspects of these critical theories have resurfaced in the debates over globalization, particularly among opponents of globalization, including those who oppose corporate control over the economy and those who are trying to strengthen protection for workers, small farmers, poor people, and women.

There are several feminist perspectives that build on both the liberal and critical traditions and bring attention to the role of women in and around the UN. Liberal feminists call for an increased focus on the role of women as international leaders, staffers, and lobbyists. Historically women have been poorly represented in the halls of power; only recently have they held senior positions at the United Nations. Liberals also call for increased attention to developing organizational policies that affect women, especially the role of women in economic development, women as victims of crime and discrimination, and women in situations of armed conflict. For too long these issues have been neglected. Critical feminists argue that studying gender involves more than just counting women in elite positions or cataloging programs targeting women. They see women as particularly vulnerable to exploitation when the public sector fails to provide essential services or is adversely affected by globalization. They point, for example, to the fact that the overwhelming majority of trafficked persons are women who experience a double exploitation by virtue of the way the world economy is defined and managed. Critics, including other feminists, have challenged the misandrogynistic tone of some critical feminist writing, arguing that the exploitative structures they describe are not automatically the fault of men, but that both women and men are part of the problem and part of the solution. The UN has become a battleground for these feminist perspectives.

Realism, liberalism, constructivism, critical theories, and feminism, then, are different lenses through which scholars view world politics and the United Nations. No matter which theory one finds most valuable, understanding the role of the UN in the twenty-first century requires the exploration of four dilemmas.

Dilemmas the UN Faces in the Twenty-First Century

Dilemma 1: Expanding Needs for Governance Versus the UN’s Limited Capacity

The United Nations has faced increasing demands that it provide peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, initiate international regulation to halt environmental degradation and alleviate poverty and inequality in the world, promote greater human economic and social well-being, provide humanitarian relief to victims of natural disasters and violence, and protect human rights for various groups. These are demands for global governance, not world government—that is, demands for rules, norms, and organizational structures to manage transboundary and interdependence problems that states acting alone cannot solve, such as terrorism, crime, drugs, environmental degradation, pandemics, and human rights violations.[9]

These governance demands test the capacity and the willingness of states to commit themselves to international cooperation and the capacity of the UN and other IGOs to function effectively. Can they meet these new demands without simply adding more programs? How can the initiatives be funded? Can the UN be more effective in coordinating the related activities of various institutions, states, and NGOs? Can it improve its own management and personnel practices? Can it adapt to deal with the changing nature of conflicts and persistent poverty and inequality? The most important issues concerning the global economy are discussed and decided outside the UN system. The UN Charter’s provisions are designed for interstate conflicts, yet most conflicts since 1990 have been intrastate civil wars. Many have involved nonstate actors such as militias, paramilitary groups, or terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), on the one hand, and regional IGOs collaborating with the UN in mounting various types of peace operations, on the other. The UN’s membership has grown from 50 to 193 states. The Security Council was structured to reflect power realities in 1945, not the twenty-first century, and efforts to update its membership structure have so far failed despite wide agreement on the importance of reform.

Clearly, the UN needs to increase its capacity to meet new demands, to mobilize resources, to reflect the changing distribution of power and authority, and to strengthen its links with nonstate actors and regional IGOs. One of the UN’s strengths to date has been its flexibility in response to new issues and a membership more than three times the size of the original membership. Its weaknesses are the rigidity of its central structures, its slowness to accommodate nonstate actors and the changing realities of geopolitics, and the continuing inability of member states to agree about major reforms. It has also been weakened by states’ failure to meet their commitments for funding and their reluctance to grant too much power to the UN Secretariat. Yet the current demands for global governance require the commitment of states and enhanced institutional capacity in the UN; they therefore also require that states give up more of their sovereignty. This leads to the second dilemma.

Dilemma 2: Sovereignty Versus Challenges to Sovereignty

The UN Charter affirms the long-standing principles of state sovereignty and nonintervention in states’ domestic affairs, yet sovereignty has eroded on many fronts and is continually challenged by issues and problems that cross states’ borders and that states cannot solve alone. Historically, sovereignty empowered each state to govern all matters within its territorial jurisdiction. Nonintervention is the related principle that obliges other states and international organizations not to intervene in matters within the internal or domestic jurisdiction of a sovereign state. Global telecommunications, including the Internet and social media, economic interdependencies such as global financial markets, international human rights norms, international election monitoring, and environmental regulation are among the many developments that infringe on states’ sovereignty and traditional areas of domestic jurisdiction.

The growing activities of IGOs, NGOs, corporations, and private foundations have eroded the centrality of states as the primary actors in world politics. For example, Amnesty International (AI) and the International Commission of Jurists have been key actors in promoting human rights, sometimes exerting more influence than states themselves. The Gates Foundation provides a large proportion of funding for international health programs. NGOs can influence legislators and government officials both from within countries and from outside through transnational networks and access to the media. To be sure, some governments have increasingly worked to maintain control by using firewalls and restrictions on the activities of NGOs. MNCs with operations in several countries and industry groups such as oil, steel, automobiles, insurance, and shipping are important players in trade and climate change negotiations, a number of them having more resources than some states. Partnerships between the UN and the private sector, including MNCs, have become increasingly important for addressing a variety of governance challenges.

International norms and rules, such as those on nuclear nonproliferation, trade, the seas, intellectual property rights, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and women’s rights, have been established through UN-sponsored negotiations. They set standards for states and relevant industries as well as for consumers and citizens. When states themselves accept commitments to uphold these standards (by signing and ratifying international treaties and conventions), they are simultaneously exercising their sovereignty (by making the commitment) and accepting a diminution of that sovereignty (by agreeing to international standards that will then be open to international monitoring). Establishing rules to address climate change poses particularly daunting challenges for both global governance and state sovereignty.

Although multilateral institutions in theory take actions that constitute intervention in states’ domestic affairs only with their consent, there has been a push since 2000 to accept a new norm of responsibility to protect (R2P) to justify humanitarian intervention to alleviate human suffering during violent conflicts when states fail to protect their citizens. It was first invoked to provide food relief and reestablish civil order in Somalia in 1993–1994, and later to call for international action against genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005–2006. The 2005 UN World Summit endorsed the R2P norm, but many states, particularly developing countries, continue to fear its consequences for the norms of nonintervention and sovereignty. The Security Council’s approval of humanitarian intervention in Libya in 2011 is discussed in Chapter 4 along with the Council’s failure to act in the case of Syria’s civil war and humanitarian crisis.

The reality remains that “the capacity to mobilize the resources necessary to tackle global problems also remains vested in states, therefore effectively incapacitating many international institutions.”[10] That includes the United Nations. Thus, the dilemma associated with state sovereignty links also to the third dilemma: the need for leadership.

Dilemma 3: The Need for Leadership

World politics in the twenty-first century was marked initially by the dominance of the United States as the sole superpower and a diffusion of power among many other states, the European Union (EU), and a wide variety of nonstate actors that exercise influence in different ways. As noted earlier, however, even before the end of the first decade, it was apparent that the rise of emerging nations such as Brazil, India, and China as well as constraints on the United States were leading to shifting patterns of power and leadership. This was underscored by both Russia and China’s greater assertiveness since 2014. Yet traditional measures of power in international politics do not necessarily dictate who will provide leadership or be influential within the UN.

Multilateral institutions such as the UN create opportunities for small and middle powers as well as for NGOs, groups of states, and IGOs’ executive heads to exercise initiative and leadership. UN secretaries-general, in fact, have often been important figures in the international arena depending on their personality and willingness to take initiatives such as mediating conflicts or proposing responses to international problems that may or may not prove acceptable to member states. Both Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, for example, were noted for their leadership both within and outside the UN, while Ban Ki-moon has been less assertive. Prominent individuals, such as former Australian prime minister Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun of Algeria, who chaired the independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that in 2001 proposed the new norm of responsibility to protect as an obligation of states, can exercise leadership through technical expertise and diplomatic skill. Middle powers such as Australia, Canada, Brazil, and India have been influential in international trade negotiations on agricultural issues, as they have long been in peacekeeping and development. Canada provided leadership for the effort in the late 1990s to ban antipersonnel land mines, while Norway led a similar effort on cluster munitions that culminated in a treaty in 2008. Brazil, Japan, and India led the effort in 2005 to secure Security Council reform and renewed their push ahead of the UN’s seventieth anniversary in 2015.

NGOs can also provide leadership along with states, UN secretaries-general, and other prominent individuals. The success of both the land mine and cluster munitions efforts owed much to the leadership of coalitions of NGOs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been a lead actor in international efforts since the late 1980s to analyze data on climate and to promote efforts to address the problem. In 2015, two NGO coalitions pushed for change in the process for selecting a new UN secretary-general: the campaign called 1for7Billion sought to build support through social media for transparent selection criteria and a more formal application process; Equality Now, a network of women’s rights groups, pushed for a woman to be selected and posted a list of fourteen potential female candidates.[11]

Still, states matter, and leadership from major powers with resources and influence matters. Hence the dilemma. As we have seen, with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 the United States became the sole remaining superpower—the only state with intervention capabilities and interests in many parts of the globe. The United States remains a clear military superpower, as American military expenditures equal those of its nearest fourteen competitors combined, although both Russia and China have rapidly increased their defense budgets. By most accounts, the United States is still the world’s largest economy, but China’s GDP is predicted to overtake it by 2020.

A dominant power can rely on its sheer weight to play hardball and get its way—up to a point. The prolonged insurgency and failures in Iraq following US military intervention in 2003 demonstrated the limits of hard power. Leadership depends on the inspiration and cultivation of soft power as well as on followers. In the late 1990s, US opposition to the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the convention banning antipersonnel land mines, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change signaled a “go-it-alone” pattern that continued in the early years of the twenty-first century with the Bush administration’s opposition to international treaties and invasion of Iraq.[12] This made many countries less willing to accept US dominance.[13] It also fueled anti-Americanism in many parts of the world. Consequently, the United States lost a good deal of its soft power and ability to lead. President Obama initially reversed some of that loss and has been more inclined to forge international consensus, as in NATO’s intervention in Libya and limited US intervention in Syria, mindful of the constraints of the US budget deficit and lack of good military options. Still, the history of US engagement with the UN is one of mixed messages and considerable variation. As discussed further in Chapter 3, Congress blocked full payment of US dues to the UN from the mid-1980s until 2000; in 2011 it defunded the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and decreased the funding levels of several other UN agencies. The perception of domestic political dysfunction in the United States and its reluctance to use force (especially in the Middle East) have raised questions about the US ability and willingness to lead, build coalitions, and create consensus through multilateralism. The decline in US power also creates uncertainty about the UN’s future and about whether emerging powers such as China will find the UN a valuable venue. China has begun to create alternative organizations, as noted earlier in this chapter. Yet there are also indications that the Chinese see a strong future for the UN. In 2014 one senior UN official remarked, “The Chinese want as many people as possible funneling through the UN to gain the experience, while the Americans in the State Department actually don’t like the New York assignment.”[14] In a world of emerging powers, the likelihood that the United States can lead, even when it chooses to, is inevitably diminished. Yet those rising powers may not be willing or able to assume leadership either. And the nature of the norms and rules they may promote may be very different from those the United States and other Western nations have promoted since the 1940s.

Dilemma 4: The Need for Inclusiveness

The first three words in the UN Charter proclaim “We the People,” and Articles 1, 8, and 101 (3) recognize the dignity and worth of all people. For more than seventy years, the UN has served as a leading advocate against discrimination. Despite progress, inequality and exclusion persist, and in many parts of the world are actually increasing.[15] Recently the UN began recognizing that respecting all people as a moral imperative is not enough. In order for the UN to address many key issues including poverty, climate change, conflict resolution, and global health, it must address inequality and include the marginalized. Reversing social exclusion is now viewed as part of fostering both human security and development. Lack of participation and voice often translate into lack of education, employment, and social services, which contributes to poverty, discrimination, political instability, and even violence.

The need for inclusiveness presents several dilemmas for the UN. First, there is a renewed focus not only on advocating for excluded groups but also on including them. Here the UN faces challenges in combating deep-seated prejudices, cultural practices, and inequalities that may be entrenched in states’ political and economic systems. Can the UN be effective in setting robust standards as well as in establishing accountability for those states and societies where discriminatory practices persist?

Women’s issues, in particular, intersect with poverty, development, education, political equality, migration, and refugees. In this regard, there is increased awareness that women are essential stakeholders in the peacebuilding process and a key part of promoting human rights and sustainable development. In 2006, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote, “It is impossible to realize our goals while discriminating against half the human race.”[16]

The UN has spearheaded many efforts to ensure equal opportunities, beginning with its long history of setting international human rights standards, as discussed in Chapter 6. This emphasis was expanded at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, which proclaimed that “no human being should be condemned to endure a brief or miserable life as a result of his or her class, country, religious affiliation, ethnic background or gender.” The MDGs and the SDGs also promote the need for inclusiveness by striving to achieve universal education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, and improve maternal health. Over many years and with the creation of UN Women in 2011, the UN has made significant strides in gender mainstreaming. As critics of the SDGs point out, however, trying to include too many people and concerns among the goals may create a list that is too broad, unattainable, and unfocused. The UN’s focus on inclusiveness has expanded to include people living in poverty, persons with disabilities, children, older persons, and recent migrants. More recently, the list extended to incorporate persons with diverse gender identities as well as socially excluded groups with distinct ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

The UN also faces challenges of inclusiveness in terms of its own management and personnel. As discussed further in Chapter 2, it is only since the late 1980s that any women have held high-level posts in UN agencies, and their numbers are still quite small. Only 20 percent of the 193 member states are represented by women. This inequity within the UN system triggered the push for a female secretary-general to succeed Ban Ki-moon, as discussed earlier in this chapter and in Chapter 2. For the UN to remain relevant and legitimate, it must widen its own net.

Different groups with different interpretations of feminism, as discussed above, come to the UN with diverse views of inclusiveness and the remedies needed. The demand for inclusion tests the capacity of the UN and the level of member state commitment to address social and economic inequalities, including providing sufficient funding to meet goals for inclusiveness. While the UN itself may promote inclusiveness, there are also member states and groups within those member states that use the UN as a forum to push back and even block such initiatives.

Structure of the Book

Subsequent chapters explore these dilemmas in the context of different areas of UN activity. Chapter 2 outlines the historical foundations of the United Nations and describes the various structures, politics, and processes within it as well as efforts at reform. Chapter 3 considers the major actors in the UN system, including NGOs, coalitions and blocs, small states and middle powers, and the United States and other emerging powers, as well as the UN secretary-general and the Secretariat. Chapter 4 deals with the UN’s role in peace and security issues, including peacekeeping, enforcement, peacebuilding, statebuilding, humanitarian intervention, counterterrorism, and nuclear proliferation, with case studies of Somalia, Bosnia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, Timor-Leste, Mali, and South Sudan. In Chapter 5, which covers the role of the UN system in promoting development, we explore case studies of women and development, the MDGs and SDGs, and poverty alleviation. Chapter 6 analyzes the role of the UN in the evolution of international human rights norms with case studies of the antiapartheid movement, the women’s rights agenda, human trafficking, and genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Chapter 7, on human security, deals with environmental degradation and health issues, including case studies of ozone, climate change, the Ebola epidemic, and the refugee/migration crisis. Chapter 8 explores the questions of what the UN has done best, where it has fallen short, and whether and how it can make a difference in the world of the twenty-first century.


[1] Staff member, United Nations Peacebuilding Commission, personal interview with author, New York, March 30, 2012.

[2] Inis L. Claude Jr., The Changing United Nations (New York: Random House, 1965), 32.

[3] Christopher S. Wren, “Annan Says All Nations Must Cooperate,” New York Times, September 6, 2000.

[4] See, for example, Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), and John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security 13, no. 3 (1994–1995): 5–49.

[5] See, for example, Michael W. Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” American Political Science Review 80, no. 4 (December 1986): 1151–1169; Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977); Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Power and Interdependence, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 2001); and Robert O. Keohane and Lisa L. Martin, “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory,” International Security 20, no. 1 (1995): 39–51.

[6] See, for example, Ronnie Lipschutz, “Reconstructing World Politics: The Emergence of Global Civil Society,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 21, no. 3 (1992): 398–399, and Craig Warkentin, Reshaping World Politics: NGOs, the Internet, and Global Civil Society (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).

[7] See, for example, John Gerard Ruggie, “Multilateralism: The Anatomy of an Institution,” in Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form, ed. John Gerard Ruggie (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 3–47; Martha Finnemore, National Interests in International Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); and Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “Taking Stock: The Constructivist Research Program in International Relations and Comparative Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science 4 (2001): 391–416.

[8] Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore, Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[9] Margaret P. Karns, Karen A. Mingst, and Kendall W. Stiles, International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2015).

[10] Thomas G. Weiss and Ramesh Thakur, Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

[11] Somini Sengupta, “After 70 Years of Men, Some Say It Is ‘High Time’ a Woman Led the U.N.,” New York Times, August 22, 2015.

[12] Stewart Patrick and Shepard Forman, eds., Multilateralism and U.S. Foreign Policy: Ambivalent Engagement (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002).

[13] David M. Malone and Yuen Foong Khong, eds., Unilateralism and U.S. Foreign Policy: International Perspectives (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003).

[14] Staff member, Security Council Report, personal interview with author, New York, April 14, 2014.

[15] See UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Analysing and Measuring Social Inclusion in a Global Context,” ST/ESA/325, 2010,

[16] Kofi Annan, “Message from the Secretary-General of the United Nations,” in The State of the World’s Children 2007: Women and Children (UNICEF, 2006), vi.

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The United Nations in the 21st Century

Fifth Edition

by Karen A. Mingst, Margaret P. Karns, and Alynna J. Lyon

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