The United Nations and the United States

29 december 2011

Rebalancing Power and Authority for International Security

Ramesh Thakur is Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Editor-in-Chief of Global Governance.

Resume: What the UN cannot do is to manufacture and fabricate international consensus where none exists. It cannot be the center for harmonizing national interests – and mediating or reconciling them into the international interest – when the divisions are too deep to be papered over by diplomacy, when the disputes are too intractable to be resolved around the negotiating table.

The Cold War was a global struggle centered on and dominated by two superpowers which were able to structure the pattern of international relationships because of a qualitative discrepancy in military capacity and resources between them, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other. One axis of the Cold War consisted of the mutual hostility between the United States and the former Soviet Union as superpowers; the second axis was a transcendental and irreconcilable conflict of ideologies: the existence of a strong Marxist and capitalist state that could not accept permanent relations with each other, believing instead in the eventual destruction of the other.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had three major, long-term consequences for the course of world history. First, it marked the defeat of the Soviet Union as a superpower rival of the United States. The military defeat of Serbia in 1999 and NATO’s enlargement continually closer to post-Soviet Russia’s borders symbolically rubbed Russia’s nose in the dirt of its historic Cold War defeat. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary-General, reportedly said that its goal was to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. After the Cold War, Russians might ruefully wonder if NATO’s purpose is not to keep the Americans in, the United Nations out, and the Russians down.

Second, the end of the Cold War marked the triumph of pluralistic liberal democracy over communism as the central organizing and legitimizing principle of state-based political order. And third, it marked the triumph of the free market over the command economy model.

Not only did history refuse to come to an end; it also began to put the West in its rightful place. Instead of demonstrating unlimited U.S. power, Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the limits to U.S. power with dwindling military muscle, financial frailty and political dysfunctionality. The demonstration of the limits to U.S. and NATO power in Iraq and Afghanistan has left many others less fearful of “superior” Western power. Abusive practices in the “war on terror” have made them less respectful of Western values. The great Western (mistakenly called global) financial collapse have left them less enthusiastic about the Washington Consensus – the free-market, pro-trade and globalization policies promoted by the Washington-based financial holy trinity of the U.S. Treasury, the IMF and the World Bank – on development, growth and prosperity. The notion that endless liberalization, deregulation and relaxation of capital and border controls will assure perpetual self-sustaining growth and prosperity has proven to be delusional: Who wants to be the next Iceland, Ireland or Greece? Instead there has been some interest in the alternative “Beijing Consensus” of a one-party state, government-guided development, strictly controlled capital markets and an authoritarian decision-making process that can think strategically, make tough choices and long-term investments, and not be distracted by daily public polls. As well as China, India and Brazil too have begun to make their heavyweight presence felt in global affairs.

Nevertheless, the United States remains the most influential international and only truly global actor. It has no peer as a military power and no major world problem can be settled against its will. It is still the guarantor of trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and trans-American security orders. Europe is less than the sum of its parts, unprepared to confront the contradiction of a single currency without full fiscal integration and unable to move to a common defense policy or political union. NATO lost an enemy and is yet to find a role, staggering from “nation-building lite” in Afghanistan to fractured military action in Libya. Japan continues its slow decline with prime ministers playing musical chairs while bureaucrats rule. India is starting to recapture world interest but cannot be underestimated in the capacity to snatch defeat from any winning position. Russia is marking time.

U.S. distractions and misadventures over the past decade have been exploited by China to creep ahead in reputation and influence in Asia and Africa. Its growing and anticipated economic weight has given it geopolitical clout out of proportion to its real power. Its second-rate military is inexperienced in modern combat and unable to project power far offshore. It is yet to reconcile a potentially debilitating disconnect between economic pluralism and political centralism. Bridled capitalism, an ageing population, a shrinking working and consuming base, regional imbalances internally, and growing pushback by neighbors against maladroit, belligerent diplomacy will combine to keep China in check.

Thus the two decades since the implosion of the Soviet Union have witnessed significant changes in the strategic, political and economic bases of world order. In 1991, the world was left with the United States as a triumphalist sole superpower vindicated in its sense of exceptionalism alongside a United Nations as the world’s only universal international organization. Whether or not the United States is the indispensable power and the United Nations is the indispensable organization, their relationship is indeed an indispensable partnership.

In this essay, I focus on that relationship where they come together at the crossroads of ideas, ideals, norms and power politics. What happens at that intersection will have a profound influence on our collective destiny. Is it true, as Edward Luck has argued, that “American idealism created the United Nations and American skepticism is killing it”? No other country had as much influence on designing the international organization nor on its operations once established; no other will have as critical a role in determining its agenda and actions, nor as devastating an impact on its fortunes by withholding support. Washington is the biggest financial contributor to the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets, has the most to gain but also the most to lose from UN performance and non-performance. The organization was created as an international expression of liberal political values and its anti-American elements have always been overshadowed by the embedded institutional points of exercising U.S. influence on key collective decisions.


Overall, the United Nations has been responsive and attentive rather than insensitive to U.S. concerns, interests and preferences. The crucial executive decision-making body is the Security Council, which has often bent to U.S. will and is constitutionally unable to act against any U.S. vital interest owing to the veto clause. The plenary body is the General Assembly which occasionally has adopted resolutions contrary to U.S. preferences and values, the most notorious being the 1975 resolution, rescinded in 1991, equating Zionism with racism. But the Assembly has no power to bind; its resolutions may have the force of moral authority in supposedly expressing world opinion in a way that the Council cannot claim; but the anti-Zionist resolution was so egregious an abuse of the unique UN legitimacy that its net effect was to erode UN moral authority rather than legitimize anti-Semitism.

The Secretariat is an international civil service and, at least in theory, neutral in providing options and implementing the decisions of member states. At its head stands the Secretary-General, whose choice has once again been most strongly influenced by Washington. In 1991 most Council members wanted Tanzania’s Salim A. Salim; Washington thought he was too radical and vetoed him repeatedly until the Council eventually settled on Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali. However, Boutros-Ghali upset Washington once too often with both his imperious style and his policy disagreements. In 1996 his renewal was vetoed by Washington and Ghana’s Kofi Annan was chosen instead. Washington was responsible for his re-election several months earlier than necessary in 2001 before the Administration was upset by his criticisms of the Iraq war. In 2006, the key difference between South Korea’s successful Ban Ki-moon and India’s second-placed Shashi Tharoor was U.S. support for Ban, who accordingly assumed office in 2007.

In other words, the Charter embeds mainly Western liberal values as guiding UN principles and U.S. structural dominance in the organization is embedded in its primary organs and voting procedures. The United Nations originated as a wartime military alliance among Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. The Big Three were never going to subordinate their concrete individual interests to any abstract conception of the international interest. Global normative solidarity has coexisted uneasily alongside institutionalized global hierarchy and the shared acceptance of legal and diplomatic norms of the interstate system. The major powers agreed among themselves on the core elements of the UN system at Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta before convening a global conference in San Francisco in 1945. No less than the others, the United States was determined to ensure that the five permanent members of the new UN Security Council (P5: China, France, the UK, the U.S. and the USSR) would not be obligated to take action on security threats not of interest to them. But when the P5 were agreed, there would be virtually no limit on what the Security Council could do. The Council’s structure and procedures reflect their determination to bend the UN performance to their will and interests uncontaminated by considerations of equity.

The U.S.-led West controlled the numbers in the United Nations and used its dominance ruthlessly against the Soviet bloc in the early years of the Cold War. Thus China’s seat at the United Nations – as a permanent member of the Security Council, no less! – was occupied until 1971 by Taiwan because China was under the rule of the Communist Party and therefore a Cold War enemy. Other issues on which the West used its numbers to ride roughshod over Soviet preferences and objections included the Korean War and the admission of new members in the early 1950s. The United Nations proved very helpful to Washington’s cause also in the 1956 Suez crisis when the first peacekeeping force allowed Britain, France and Israel to save face and withdraw by claiming that they were handing over the necessary security responsibility to the UN operation. Yet the manner in which UNEF withdrew at the request of Egypt as the curtain raiser to the June 1967 Middle East war did much to damage UN credibility in American opinion.

The expanding number of Member States from developing countries in the 1950s–60s and the rise of Third World solidarity on issues like lingering traces of colonialism in Africa, apartheid in South Africa, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and demands for new international economic and information orders, put Washington on a collision course with UN majorities in the General Assembly, even though its interests were still well protected in the Security Council. The use of oil as a political weapon after the 1973 Middle East war added to the growing mutual hostility and distrust and, in response, the Reagan Administration fought back by withholding assessed contributions to the UN budget. The United States also withdrew from UNESCO.

The tactic may have been crude and illegal but it was politically effective. Washington gradually clawed back its position of influence in the UN system. The phrase “new world order” was first used by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in his address to the General Assembly on December 7, 1988 and popularized by U.S. President George Bush after the UN authorized the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait following Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990. The steady improvement in U.S.-Soviet/Russian relations produced a dramatic spike in P5 collaboration in the Security Council including, for example, on ending the eight-year old Iran-Iraq war. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a great power meant that the Third World lost a strategic and diplomatic counterweight to the United States, and also a competing political and economic model as an alternative to political liberalism and market capitalism.

Multilateral rhetoric notwithstanding, the Clinton Administration scapegoated the United Nations for the Somalia debacle, never put its full weight behind the Chemical Weapons Convention, launched a tardy campaign for the ratification of the CWC and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and presented the statute of the International Criminal Court to the Senate for signature only in the dying days of the Administration.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 provoked an anger that bred in-your-face U.S. international policies in disregard of world opinion and in defiance of UN Charter restrictions on the use of force. With the Soviet threat having imploded, a friendly United Nations for the global anti-Soviet cause was surplus to U.S. requirements. Attacking the organization reaped domestic political rewards with little international cost. The attitude of the Bush Administration was only too obvious with the appointment of John Bolton, an unapologetic UN-basher, as Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He did not disappoint, coming close to wrecking the 2005 UN World Summit completely and in other respects not hiding his distaste for the organization. Lost in the anger was the reality of how quickly and effectively the United Nations had backed and continues to support Washington in its fight against international terrorism.

With the departure of President George W. Bush from the White House, to regain its former status as a good international citizen, the United States was required to reinvest diplomatic assets in the United Nations, regain its former role as the champion-in-chief of the global human rights norm, “re-sign” and ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC that was “unsigned” by Bush in 2002, reaffirm adherence to the Geneva and UN torture conventions, ratify the CTBT, and assume leadership in negotiating a post-Kyoto climate deal. Within the urgent and important issues, the new Administration had to pay early attention to repairing and revitalizing the relationship with the United Nations that was badly strained and frayed. The change of tone in President Barack Obama’s first address to the General Assembly in September 2009 marked a welcome return to international civility. Whether this would lead to any serious modifications to substantive policy is another question.



The United Nations may be a flawed institution, yet it has many faithful devotees. Its ageing yet iconic headquarters is located at the intersection of Interdependence Avenue and Multilateral Cooperation Street in Manhattan. But its destiny lies at the crossroads of Indifference Avenue and Hostility Street in Washington.

Gradually over the course of the last century the idea of an international community bound together by shared values, benefits and responsibilities, and common rules and procedures, took hold of peoples’ imagination. The United Nations is the institutional embodiment of that development. In this sense it is first and foremost the repository of international idealism, the belief that human beings belong to one family, inhabit the same planet and have joint custodial responsibility to husband resources and protect the environment for future generations. Its greatest strength is that it is the only universal forum for international cooperation and management. From its symbolism, universality and authenticated structures and procedures flow its qualities of a unique font of authority and legitimacy for international action.

Reflecting this, the core UN mandates are primarily normative: to preserve peace, promote development, protect human rights and conserve the environment. Operational plans are implementation strategies of these quintessentially normative mandates.

War has been as ubiquitous in human history as the wish for peace is universal. The 20th century captured the paradox only too well. We emplaced increasing normative, legislative and operational fetters on the right of states to go to war, yet the last century turned out to be the most murderous in history. Until World War I, war was an accepted and normal part of the states system, with distinctive rules, norms and etiquette. In that Hobbesian world, the only protection against aggression was countervailing power, which increased both the cost of victory and the risk of failure. Since 1945, the United Nations has spawned a corpus of law to stigmatize aggression and create a robust norm against it.

In the theater of world politics, the United Nations has been center stage in preventing and managing conflicts, regulating armaments, championing human rights and international humanitarian law, liberating the colonized, providing economic and technical aid in the newly-liberated countries, organizing elections, empowering women, educating children, feeding the hungry, sheltering the dispossessed and displaced, housing the refugees, tending to the sick, and coordinating disaster relief and assistance: all on a 24/7 basis. Backstage, the United Nations helps to coordinate and manage a myriad of mundane activities whose pervasive influence on daily lives would startle most people if they paused to think about it.

The global public goods of peace, prosperity, sustainable development, and good governance cannot be achieved by any one country acting on its own. “9/11” was a decisive repudiation of the belief that the most powerful country ever in human history could shelter behind supposedly impregnable lines of continental defense. Yet while the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, caused some damage to the Pentagon and shook American self-confidence momentarily, they did not destroy the idea and symbolism of the United States: in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men [and women] are created equal.”

But if power and wealth corrupt, might supreme power and wealth corrupt supremely? The reality of international inequality structures the relationship between the de facto imperial center and all others. Because of the sustaining belief in being a virtuous power, the United States is averse to domesticating international values and norms on greenhouse gas emissions, the death penalty, landmines, the pursuit of universal justice, etc. But this self-image of exceptionalism is neither congruent with how others see it, nor conducive to securing their cooperation.

While power is the capacity to implement policy and enforce rules, authority is the right to make the policy and set the rules. The United States has global power and reach but lacks international authority. The United Nations has authority but no power and, as such, practices only part of its Charter. Headquartered in the United States, universal in membership, it symbolizes global governance but is not a world government.

Washington finds it difficult to comprehend why the United Nations does not accept the history of the exercise of American power being virtuous in intent and beneficent in results. But authority is weakened if it is a mere handmaiden to power. The Bush Administration’s assaults on UN-centered law undermined the norm of a world of laws, the efficacy of international law and the legitimacy of the United Nations as the authoritative validator of international behavior.

The distance from hubris to delusion is short; the Bush Administration covered that short distance in a sprint. It rejected President Harry Truman’s counsel that America must deny itself the license to do always as it pleases, ignored President John F. Kennedy’s wisdom that America is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, and rode roughshod over four decades of tradition of enlightened self-interest and liberal internationalism as the guiding normative template of U.S. foreign policy.

Progress towards the good international society requires that force be harnessed to authority rather than lawful authority being hijacked to pursue the agenda of power politics. The United Nations seeks to replace the balance of power with a community of power and represents the dream of a world ruled by reason. It is the means of outlawing war and mobilizing the collective will of the world community to deter, apprehend and punish international law-breakers. Just as America is a nation of laws, so the United Nations is dedicated to establishing the rule of international law. The UN Charter was a triumph of hope and idealism over the experience of two world wars. The flame of idealism flickered in the chill winds of the Cold War but it is not easily extinguished. The United Nations is still the symbol of our dreams for a better world, where weakness can be compensated by justice and fairness, and the law of the jungle replaced by the rule of law.

Iraq was not the first and will not be the last U.S.-led military mission outside the UN framework. The Rand Corporation’s study of U.S. combat and UN peace operations concluded that non-UN operations tend to be more costly, as with U.S. or EU missions in Europe, or less competent, as with regional organizations other than European. The United Nations is better at low profile, small footprint operations where soft power assets of international legitimacy and political impartiality compensate for hard power deficit. Military reversals are less damaging to the United Nations because military force is not the source of its credibility, whereas they strike at the very basis of U.S. influence.

A “community” exists to the extent that its members share certain core values and agree on what is legitimate behavior. The serious disagreements among the states of the world on many key issues may be evidence of a growing loss of the sense of international community on which the United Nations is predicated. The sense of shared values and solidarity that makes up an international community may have frayed a thread too far. There are many more state actors, whose interests and perspectives diverge markedly compared to the simpler world of 1945. Many of them are buffeted by cross-pressures from several non-state actors. The issues they have to confront are more numerous, complex and challenging, for example hot button items like global warming, HIV/AIDS and nuclear terrorism that were not on the international agenda in June 1945.

History’s learning curve shows that the UN ideal can neither be attained nor abandoned. The UN record shows a surprising capacity for institutional innovation, conceptual advances, policy adaptation, and organizational learning with respect to peacekeeping, human security, human rights, atrocity crimes, international criminal justice, sanctions, pandemics, terrorism, and so on.

The United Nations has been receptive rather than resistant to reforms. Yet the responses to calls for UN action are not as prompt, effective or uniform as they should be. The gap between promise and performance remains unacceptably large. The world becoming more peaceful overall is no consolation to the suffering people of Burma, Darfur, Libya, or North Korea. To the extent that civilians now comprise the overwhelming conflict-related casualties, their protection will determine the credibility of the UN peace and security mandate.

The United Nations will remain relevant for setting international standards and norms to regulate interstate behavior. Norms, laws and treaties for governing the global commons – from global warming and nuclear proliferation to terrorism and trade – will either be negotiated in UN forums, or ratified by the UN-centered intergovernmental machinery. Its humanitarian service delivery functions are widely appreciated. Its peace operations offer the best crossover between cost efficiency and effectiveness.

There is no foreseeable substitute for the institutional and political legitimacy of the international organization. It remains our one and best hope for unity of purpose and action in a world of almost infinite diversity – a world in which problems without passports require solutions without passports. Unbridled nationalism and the raw interplay of power must be mediated and moderated in its international framework.

If international consensus exists, the United Nations can provide the most authoritative forum for translating that into new norms, treaties, policies and operations. No other forum could leverage that process more efficiently or as effectively. What the United Nations cannot do is to manufacture and fabricate international consensus where none exists. It cannot be the center for harmonizing national interests – and mediating or reconciling them into the international interest – when the divisions are too deep to be papered over by diplomacy, when the disputes are too intractable to be resolved around the negotiating table.

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