The United Nations is nothing more than an arena for inter-state power politics.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations reflected the hope for a just and peaceful global community. It is the only global institution with the legitimacy that derives from universal membership. However, in the last decades there is still the debate about the role of this organization in International Relations; this essay will discuss: The United Nations is nothing more than an arena for inter-state power politics.

In order to answer this question correctly is believed two concepts most arise beforehand.

First, The United Nations: which is an international organization founded in 1945 after the Second World War by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. The work of the United Nations reaches every corner of the globe. Although best known for peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance the organization works on a broad range of fundamental issues, from sustainable development, environment and refugees protection, disaster relief, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, governance, economic and social development and international health, clearing landmines, expanding food production, and more, in order to achieve its goals and coordinate efforts for a safer world for this and future generations.[1]

Second, Power politics: is essentially a way of understanding the world of international Relations: nations compete for the world’s resources and it is to a nation’s advantage to be manifestly able to harm others. It prioritizes national self-interest over the interest of other nations or the international community.[2]

It can be argued that during the Cold war The UN was considered an arena for inter-state powers. This war between the United States and the Soviet Union hampered the functioning of the UN Security Council, since the veto could be used whenever the major interests of the United States or Soviet Union were threatened. Moreover, these two states insisted on the veto. In the end, these two great powers, along with France, China and Great Britain, became permanent members, each with a veto order decisions. The remaining ten members are elected to two-year terms by the General Assembly.[3]Therefore, this fact can be seen as an example of inter-state power politics. In addition, the “big four” all supported the inclusion of the right of veto for permanent members of the Security Council and that without the veto it was unlikely that great powers would have joined the UN. Certainly, all permanent members have used the veto but in the first 25 years the Soviet Union resorted to it the most. Between 1946 and 1955 there were 77 Soviet vetoes. The other three vetoes came from France (twice) and China. The Soviet vetoes were used to protect not just the interests of the USSR itself, but also to support states in its sphere of influence and to win the gratitude of certain governments.  [4] So, once again how is it possible to deny the UN as an arena for inter-state power politics during the Cold war?

Sovereignty is also a factor that seems to influence inter state power politics in the UN.   This concept was regarded as central to the system of states. States were equal members of international society, and were equal with regard to international law. Sovereignty also implied that states recognized no higher authority than themselves and that there was no superior authority.[5] Since 1945 states have used their sovereignty to create international human rights obligations that in turn have restricted their operational sovereignty. The international law of human rights, developed on a global scale at the United Nations, clearly regulates what legal policies states can adopt even within their own territorial jurisdictions.[6] To some extend it can be argued that sovereignty issues prised the superpowers apart. A theoretical definition of sovereignty is the recognition by all states of a particular state’s independence. Nevertheless, in the case of United States its sovereignty has always been fiercely protected. In addition, despite the increasing activities and successes of the UN System, the forces of nationalism still dominate international affairs. Critics have asserted the United Nations is so weak that the United States should rely on power politics to protect its interests. They tend to view the UN as a nuisance dominated by smaller countries. Other critics are impatient because the United Nations has not been given enough military and political power to be a super government. Besides, many powerful governments have been wracked by civil wars, and many governments are still faced with conflicts.[7]

As an example of the dominance by some superpowers is the Rwandan civil war:  In February 1993 the Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels of the ethnic Tutsi tribe reached a cease-fire agreement. They requested UN observers to monitor de agreement, which provided fir not infiltrating rebel forces across the border from Uganda. The UN established the Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR) in June 1993.[8] Despite Rwadans pleas for an increased UN presence, the UN secretary general faced with opposition from the United States and others, indicated that they were planning to withdraw. It is argued that the US participation in ending the Rwandan holocaust indicated the United States can make a valuable contribution to stabilizing a situation at a relatively small cost even in a very messy civil conflict. Because of the United States unique air transport and logistics capability to support is critical in assisting the UN to settle conflicts.  The point to show here is that superpowers as United States certainly can exert pressure in the United Nations because of their economic and logistic input. Nevertheless, Critics often assert the UN has been dominated by third-world countries. They also assert that although the United States contributes 25 percent of the UN budget, the United States has only one vote in the General Assembly.  In the other side, another argument about the UN arises out of pure ignorance about its many activities. Many assume that the United States is paying more than its share, whereas the opposite is true. Economically speaking, most domestic taxes for services are a reflection of an ability to pay. In the United Nations the United States pays much less than its share of members ‘total gross national product’.  In terms of affording to pay its share of collective security at the end of the Cold War for addressing world economic and social problems the United Nations has made remarkable accomplishments at a negligible cost.

In this scenario: ‘other groups have also had conflicts with the United Nations, The UN bodies at times have appeared in the news media with a proposal for a new world information order that would be an alternative to the Western domination of the world’s media.’[9] In some cases, most conflict was aroused over ideological standpoints and because of incompatible interpretations of certain Chapter principles such as sovereignty, domestic jurisdiction and the right of regional association. Also, the debate and controversy at the UN has centered on three main areas of activity, all to do with state sovereignty: the superpower contest, the problems of decolonization, and the influential role of non-aligned states. Traces of all these may be detected still today.  Therefore is to believe that factors such as vetoes and sovereignty portrayed the UN as an arena for inter state- politics and taking the example of the United States as a major player in this topic. Indeed, most UN studies tend to treat the world body as a given and reflect a rationalist treatment of international institutions. However, as the UN’s underlying purpose is increasingly questioned, a growing body of reflectivist research on multilateral organizations and global governance institutions is emerging.

In theory ‘Reflectivist approaches begin from a different epistemological stance. They tend to be sociological in orientation and emphasize the position that internal institutions are created and changed through a “less deliberative process” than the conscious efforts of individuals’.[10] In this view, the UN must be considered more than simply a complex intergovernmental bureaucracy organized in a hierarchical manner; it must be pictured as the concrete expression of a particular power configuration at a specific historical juncture. On this basis, the possible evolutionary trajectories which the UN might take can be constrained or channeled by forces and structures.[11] The UN’s efficacy in the peace and security realm and hinted that the concept of multilateralism itself had become unfashionable. Such comments were bases mainly on the belief that the UN had become the depository of lost causes and a place of last resort. The empirical record suggests that there was more measure of truth in those assumptions. That record included: the inability of the UN Security Council to manage successfully conflicts around the world; the trend towards decentralization and in-coordination in the overall system on the one hand, and over-centralization within specific agencies and programmes, on the other. Along with weaknesses in the office of the secretary-General. [12]

The Reformist approach to organizational change in the UN is suspect to the charge that it places the western states and organizational technocrats at a distinct advantage. For that reason, it has been increasingly challenged by emerging counter-hegemonic positions which place the focus of organizational change on delivery systems, equitableness, fairness and justice, and on adapting the UN to changing requirements of the globe.

Additionally, in Rational theories; the rationalistic study of international institutions focuses almost exclusively on specific organizational bodies and features. Its research programme is generally rooted in exchange theory and deterministic models of neoclassical economic theory, underpinned by the basic assumptions that: there will be continuous competition within international organizations over scarce resources and that states find normal multilateral bodies useful only if these bodies can lower transaction cost or offer other incentives to use them.[13]  Therefore it could be argued that under that rationalist approach, institutional development is seen as being affected by particular leaders and by exogenous shocks, and it is deemed possible, using the rationalist model, for certain types of organizational change to occur.

Paradoxically, while the Realist approach of the UN is the dominant one, the realists do not themselves consider international organizations to be of much significance. Morgenthau has asserted; ‘ the peoples of the world are not willing to accept world government and their over-riding loyalty to the nation erects an insurmountable obstacle to its establishment’[14]. Moreover, the idea of collective security was that all governments should commit themselves in advance to oppose another state that commits aggression whatever the circumstances of the conflict.  Also, the League of Nations Covenant in Article 16 went a long towards this concept, but it did not become effective in practice. In other words, the UN is not a collective security organization either in theory or practice.[15] Thus, the Realist interpretation does not give the UN any power in its own right. It is only an instrument of the sovereign states that are its members. It enables them to co-operate, when they wish to do so, or it enables them to communicate with allies and denounce enemies, when they are engaged in conflict. It is an arena for playing out the balance of power, the basic configuration of which is determined by the factors external to the UN. Most realists would agree on: ‘the UN is not a distinct entity, it is an aggregate, being no more than the sum of its members. The world system implies more than this. The UN is a holistic entity, which provides a new level of analysis, with processes that are not deducible from those of the constituent elements’. In fact, there is no single institution that epitomizes the global system, along with Amnesty International, the Roman Catholic Church, international financial networks etc, that together make up the global political system.[16]

Lately, the debate at the UN about how to appropriately deal with Iraq reflects the nature of power and its reflection in the UN and world politics more generally. In a world where the sole superpower was attacked by a non state actor, the struggling over resolutions in the Security Council and the publication of a new doctrine of a very broad anticipatory self-defense, or preemption, is relevant to assessing the role of international law and the UN[17]. Also relevant is the United States and Great Britain taking forceful action without UN authorization and the US declaration of a goal of ‘regime change’ in Iraq. The interplay of law and politics is part and parcel of understanding how the UN matters in world affairs.

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the 2005 world summit for the security arena was the decision to create a new peace building Commission, as recommended by the HLP and the Secretary-General. It has been argued that this commission is a result of learning about Somalia, Sierra Lione, Rwanda, Haiti, Liberia and Congo. As they imploded during the 1990’s the term ‘failed states’ came into vogue. In overall, the UN’s record on the maintenance of international peace and security has been mixed. On one hand, there has been a stronger assertion of the responsibility of international society, represented by the United Nations, for gross offences against populations. Nonetheless, the practice has been patchy in the sense that intimations of a new world order after the Gulf War quickly gave way to despondency with what were seen as failures in Somalia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and the increasingly disagreement about the proper role of the UN in Kosovo and Iraq. Compared to the enthusiasm about the potential for the UN in the early 1990s, the debates and disagreements at the time of the war in Iraq in 2003 were striking.[18]

Now, coming back to the question: the United Nations, like the League of Nations before it, emerged as a result of a victorious wartime coalition, which hoped to utilize (to secure the peace) the same great power cooperation that had made the prosecution of the war so devastatingly effective. It was not the shared belief that the great powers would be able to continue their close collaboration, but it was believed that unless they were able to continue it the prospects for peace would indeed be small. When the hopes of great-power cooperation fade soon after the End of WWII, what was left was an arena for interstate cooperation or competition according to agreed guidelines and rules of procedures. Since 1989, the world has been witnessing a threshold juncture in international politics characterized by dramatic and momentous changes and convulsions in the post-1945 world order.

In sum, during the Cold War the UN give to some extend the idea on being an arena for inter-state power politics.  Other important factors that reattributed the argument of the UN as an inter-state power politics are the veto and the sovereignty. In the other hand, different approaches support more the concept of the UN as an organization able to solve conflicts more than being an arena for politics. Additionally; the UN has always blended ideals and reality. Its Charter represents the idealistic goals of international society, a world of peace and justice. Its operations represent the reality of state foreign policies mediated by the views of non state parties such as NGOs and independent international civil servants. The UN thus represents both the striving for a better world and the failure to achieve those goals. It is tempting to conclude that The United Nations however, does more than engage in world politics in a glass house. Its unique feature (and what makes it of interest to the students of International Relations) is the component that is contributed to the overall pattern of action by its own political system. In other words, the UN is one instrument of international politics by which states choose to carry out their foreign policies; it is also an arena within which the interplay of national powers take place; but both as an instrument and as an arena it contributes something of its own to the action that is taking place. In this respect we may do well conclude with words attributed to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold:[19] ‘the purpose of the UN is not to get us to heaven but to save us from hell”

Bibliography:

– A.Yoder; The Evolution of the United Nations System, third edition, Taylor& Francis publishers (1997).

-Baylis & Smith; The Globalization of World Politics, 4th edition, Oxford university press, (2008).

-Buzan & Jones; Change and the study of international Relations, Francis Pinter (publishers) LTD, London, (1981).

-D.Kay; The United Nations Political System; John&Sons, Inc. (1967).

-D. Whittaker; The United Nations in the Contemporary World, Routledge New York, (1997).

– I. Claude, Jr. Power and International Relations, Random House, Inc. (1962).

– S. Ryan; The United Nations and International Politics, Macmillan Press LTD, (2000).

– T.H. Weiss; The United Nations and Changing World Politics, Westview Press, (2007).

– United Nations; Everyone’s United Nations, Department of Public Information, United Nations (1986).

– W. Knight; A Changing United Nations (multilateral evolution and the quest for Global Governance); Palgrave, (2000).


[1] Taken from the website: http://www.un.org/en/aboutun/index.shtml. 1st march 2010. Available online.

[2] Baylis & Smith; The Globalization of World Politics, 4th edition P.327

[3] T.H. Weiss; The United Nations and Changing World Politics p.7

[4] S. Ryan; The United Nations and International Politics p.44

[5]  Baylis & Smith; The Globalization of World Politics, 4th edition p.322

[6]T.H. Weiss; The United Nations and Changing World Politics p.138

[7] A.Yoder; The Evolution of the United Nations System, third edition P.216

[8] Idem p.91

[9]. A.Yoder; The Evolution of the United Nations System, third edition P.217

[10]. W. Knight; A Changing United Nations (multilateral evolution and the quest for Global Governance) P.13

[11] Idem p.14

[12] Idem p.15

[13] W. Knight; A Changing United Nations (multilateral evolution and the quest for Global Governance) p.13

[14]Buzan & Jones; Change and the study of international Relations P.103

[15] Idem P.104

[16] Idem P.106

[17] T.H. Weiss; The United Nations and Changing World Politics P.100

[18] Baylis & Smith; The Globalization of World Politics, 4th edition p.324

[19] The United Nations political system p.406

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