Skip to main content

The United States and the

in World Affairs:

Room Enough for Two?

By Jerrold I. Berke


erhaps no other international organization is as well known in the United States as the United Nations.

Nevertheless, though its name is instantly recognized, its functions and relationship to the United States are minimally understood. This wasn’t always the case.

At its founding in 1945, the UN was universally known in this country and reflected the hopes of all Americans for their future. As the years passed, however, both the international power equation and the American political scene changed dramatically; the UN came to be seen as less important to America’s global security even as the organization fell into considerable disrepute in this country.

Today, the United States is the world’s only superpower, able to achieve unilaterally many of its objectives and to defend its interests in any part of the world. As the most powerful and influential member of the UN, it uniquely has the ability to shape its future. In certain respects, a pax americana has settled on the world. The role of the UN, originally established as an instrument of the world community to maintain or achieve ambitious goals relating to international peace, security, and cooperation, has become less clear.

  • Is the UN still relevant?
  • Or has it become redundant?

Perhaps ironically, the United States holds the key to the answer.

   What Americans Know About the UN 
Most American recognize the UN as an international organization whose main role is “peacekeeping.” According to an opinion poll conducted by the Wirthlin Group in December 1995, a majority of Americans support the organization, believe it is doing a good job, and express a higher opinion of it than both Congress and the Executive Branch of the U. S. government.

  • They prefer to rely on “United Nations forces” to deal with international conflicts “in a way that tries to accommodate all sides,” rather than having American forces intervene to “advance American interests.”
  • They feel that the organization is crucial to global stability and should be strengthened.

Based on news coverage, Americans likely also are aware that the UN assists refugees and provides food aid. They will also likely know that the United States at this writing owes the UN a great deal of money and would urge that the arrears be cleared up for the reason that the nation should not be an international “deadbeat.”

Americans also hold strongly negative views about the UN.

  • They are skeptical of its effectiveness, believe it is inefficient and wasteful, and that it has a lazy, corrupt bureaucracy of bloated size.
  • A small but vocal segment of Americans even believes the UN poses a threat to the United States’ sovereignty and independence.
   What Americans Don’t Know About the UN 
There is a great deal Americans don’t know about the organization. For example,

  • They probably are unaware of its economic and social development work in assisting developing countries to become economically stronger, thus providing for their people better living standards.
  • Many are unfamiliar with the role of the UN’s affiliates, the Specialized Agencies. in setting standards that enable the United States to interact with other countries in an orderly manner. These include setting communications standards to ensure that television and radio broadcasts from one country don’t interfere with those of another, to ensure flight safety, and to ensure that international mail flows quickly between countries.
  • Many Americans also are unaware of the key role played by the World Health Organization in eradicating smallpox worldwide, virtually eradicating polio in Latin America, and devising a way to defeat tuberculosis, previously one of the world’s biggest killers.
  • And they likely don’t know that fully eighty percent of the UN’s resources are devoted to the non-political, non-peacekeeping activities — tasks that don’t get headline attention but assist ordinary people everywhere (including in America) to live healthier, happier, and more productive lives.
  • Most Americans don’t know that the UN is not an independent entity; that it is a voluntary association of 185 sovereign nations, of which the United States is the dominant member; that it is a forum for the world’s governments to consider common problems, express their views and take collective, unified action.
  • Moreover, most Americans confuse the UN’s political bodies — notably the General Assembly and the Security Council — with its secretariat headed by the Secretary General. They do not understand that the latter, the UN component they hear most about, is only an administrative arm that implements the decisions of the political fora.
  • The majority of Americans likely do not know that the UN has no armed forces of its own. Thus, they will not understand that the UN does not have the capability to impose upon the United States anything their government does not wish to do.
  • They do not realize that the UN does not, and cannot, pose a threat to the United States. Thus the suspicions and fears loudly and repeatedly expressed by a small but vocal segment of the American political spectrum are groundless.
  • Perhaps most important, they likely do not see the relevance of the UN to themselves. Therefore, the image of the UN among the American public is confused, contradictory, and generally uninformed.
   How Congress Sees the UN 
The views in Congress about the UN are clearer, but more partisan and not in keeping with those of their constituents, as reported in the opinion polls.Some congressmen support the organization and believe it is in America’s interest to belong, and to be its leading force. But they are a minority. The majority mistrusts the UN’s multilateral decision-making processes which lessen U.S. control. They focus on its administrative shortcomings and worry that the United States pays a disproportionate share of its costs. They also voice concern that the UN will drag American boys, under the command of foreigners, into unwanted foreign wars. A small minority of congressmen even see the organization as a threat to American sovereignty. Some call for the United States to leave the UN and to banish it from American shores.

The public hears most about the UN from its Congressional opponents. Congressional rhetoric, along with negative and sensational media reporting, has probably established the poor and incorrect image that exists in the public mind.

   How the Administration Views the UN 
The position of President Clinton and his foreign policy advisors represents yet another “take” on the UN. Officially, it is positive and supportive.In his annual addresses to the General Assembly and in other policy statements, the President has invariably reiterated U. S. support for the organization and assured the nations of the world of his belief that the UN has a major role to play in the international arena.

For example, in his annual UN Day proclamation last October 2, President Clinton stated, “In a world of increasing interdependence, the United States’ engagement and leadership in the United Nations is as important now as it has ever been.”

Elaborating on the U. S. vision for the UN, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher outlined to the General Assembly areas in which the United States believes the UN has a major role to play. They include global drug control, disarmament, and international crime prevention, among others (but perhaps significantly, not peacekeeping). Moreover, the administration has been strongly pressing Congress to appropriate the funds necessary to pay U. S. arrears to the UN.

On the other hand, the pronouncements of senior foreign policy officials focus mostly on the need for UN “reform,” and seem primarily to emphasize its managerial shortcomings. Even as they assert its continuing importance to the world and its relevance to American foreign policy objectives, senior officials seem to envision a more limited role for the UN than previously, especially in relation to those matters in which the United States is vitally interested. Thus, after initially announcing a policy of “assertive multilateralism” and support of the UN’s peacekeeping role, the administration reversed its position and downplayed the UN responsibility in this field (the basic raison d’etre for its founding). In its place administration officials declared a policy of “assertive unilateralism.” Where American vital interests are involved, the United States would intervene either alone or together with a small group of like-minded allies.

The recent move toward NATO expansion perhaps best illustrates the present U. S. view of where its security interests lie, but there are other examples.

  • For instance, although the UN is tasked to deal with international arms control and nuclear inspection, the United States is leading efforts outside the organization to eliminate nuclear arms potential.
  • Similarly, although the UN was formally the intervenor in 1950 to turn back North Korea’s aggression against the South, the United States is leading the effort outside the organization to bring about a formal end to the conflict and to arrange rapprochement between the two Koreas.
  • Likewise, in Bosnia the UN peacekeeping mission collapsed when the United States switched its support to NATO intervention and took the leading role in devising, mediating, and enforcing the uneasy peace that now exists.
  • In the Middle East, the UN has been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian controversy from its beginning, and UN Resolution 242 forms the political basis for negotiations to settle it. Nevertheless, the United States has long acted unilaterally in trying to resolve this seemingly intractable problem. Recently, the United States twice vetoed resolutions in the Security Council concerning the latest controversy over Jerusalem, saying, in the words of President Clinton, “we’ve had a consistent position that we can never achieve through UN Security Council resolutions.”Such situations might otherwise have been expected to be handled in the Security Council, which is charged in the United Nations Charter with taking steps to “maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Reflecting the present U. S. view of the organization, new American Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson has stated:

We have always been ambivalent about [the UN]. We support its goals and the principles upon which it is based, but we’re jealous of our own prerogatives. This administration has sought to meld those attitudes, working hard to reform and strengthen the UN while making it clear that we would continue to rely on our own resources and alliances for the protection of our vital economic and security interests.

His predecessor in New York, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, explained the U. S. view this way:

It’s important for the President to have a variety of tools to do the job. The UN is clearly a useful tool for some of the jobs, and not so useful for others. Sometimes you need a hammer, sometimes you need a screwdriver and sometimes you need a chisel, but you don’t throw away one tool just because you don’t use it all the time.

   Earlier UN-U. S. Relations 
Current U. S. attitudes toward the UN represent a significant change from the initial American relationship to the world body.At the conclusion of World War II, Americans at all levels, official and unofficial, greeted the UN as the great hope for their country’s future security. President Harry S. Truman, presiding over the UN’s birth, stated that the United States would “support the UN with all the resources we possess . . . not as a temporary expedient but as a permanent partnership.”

In fact, the United Nations is essentially the product of American foreign policy, conceived (and even named) by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and principally designed by American diplomats. In the words of a charter that was basically drafted by the United States and philosophically modeled on the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence, UN objectives were to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

In line with Truman’s commitment, the United States used the organization during its early years as a major vehicle for advancing America’s foreign policy. For example, President Truman took great pains to obtain the UN’s “blessing” and participation in the U. S.-led intervention in Korea. More recently, President Bush did the same thing in the Gulf War.

As time passed, however, the United States and the UN grew apart as the United States lost is “automatic majority” in the General Assembly, the global agenda changed due to the emergence of the newly independent developing countries, and the United States came under increasing political attack in the organization. Nonetheless, the UN remained an important instrument for the conduct of American foreign policy. Even during the most difficult days of the Reagan Administration, the United States used the organization as a key forum in which to present its world view and to advance its policies in its historic battle with the Soviet Union. The forum provided by the UN for the peaceful airing of U. S.-Soviet differences is credited by most historians as being a critical element in enabling the two superpowers to avoid confrontation on the battlefield, and hence in sparing the world from a third global conflict.

This is not to say that U. S. foreign policy was merged completely with the UN. There were significant limitations placed upon cooperation between the two, especially when U. S. vital interests were involved. For example, both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson rejected the efforts of then Secretary General U Thant to help settle the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis. These reservations, however, were more the exception than the rule.

   The Situation Today 
Now a very different global situation exists. The horrors of the two world wars have faded into history for present-day Americans, most of whom were born after the conclusion of World War II. Americans no longer seen to share the urgent need felt by the UN’s founders for a global body that would enable the nations of the world to collectively solve their problems peacefully, or failing that, to collectively punish aggressors. To them, a third world war seems highly unlikely, if not inconceivable.

Moreover, there are no longer two superpowers; the United States stands alone, preeminent militarily and economically. In the words of President Clinton, the United States is “the indispensable nation,” with interests on a global scale, a military that is technologically superior and able to project itself anywhere U. S. policy makers want to send it, and an economy that is the strongest in the world. The nation is uniquely able to advance its interests and ensure that global events go to its liking.

Thus, the United States no longer needs to depend on global cooperation to assure its security and prosperity. The one-for-all principle that formed the basis for American security policy at the founding of the UN no longer applies with the same force, and the UN is no longer needed as a neutral ground on which verbally to fight out battles that, in pre-UN days, would probably have been pursued militarily. Additionally, acting unilaterally or with a small number of like-minded allies presents fewer complications than trying to marshal the support of the 185 diverse member states of the United Nations, each with its own perspective and agenda.

On the other hand, when it feels that its vital interests aren’t involved, the United States is apparently willing to agree to a peacekeeping role for the UN in line with the organization’s charter, though highly chary of committing American forces to such endeavors — and for financial reasons, not eager to sanction any such missions.

Similarly, in the areas of refugee relief and economic development, neither of which are perceived to engage America’s vital interests, the United States is willing to collaborate with the organization.

The United States seems to have established a two-tier system in the world, and herein lies the dilemma.

In a world where the United States uniquely has the capability to assert its interests, and is not unwilling to exercise it,

  • Is the Charter mandate of the UN a viable one?
  • Or should the United Nations be redefined and redesigned to reflect the new global power reality?
   Is the UN Still Relevant? 
The world’s view, with which the United States seems to agree, notwithstanding its policy of “assertive unilateralism,” is that the UN is still relevant and should continue to exist.The factors underlying this view, in broadest outline, are:

  • The “power bloc” system of international alliances that led to two world wars is no more a guarantor of peace today than it was in the past. The fears expressed by Russia stemming from the expansion of NATO, and the disquiet over disarmament many in the West express over this move, seem ample indication of this problem.
  • The world is a vastly more complicated place now than it was at the end of World War II. There are about 165 more countries in existence today than in 1945 when the UN was founded. Of these, 135 are UN members out of a total of 185 countries in the world. All of the new nations are poor and relatively weak. In a world that has become inextricably interdependent, nations require access to a common forum where there views can be heard and through which their interests can be protected. The existence of so many nations, each with its own culture, ideas, and aspirations, can lead not only to inter-country conflict, but also to internal divisions. The chances of war breaking out somewhere are extremely high. Thus, there is still a need for international peacekeeping interventions.
  • There are common issues such as disarmament, drug trafficking, and international crime which, due to their transnational character, individual governments cannot adequately cope alone. Moreover, there are problems such as refugee populations which, while impacting individual countries differently, require concerted international action for their resolution.
  • The UN, despite the controversy surrounding it (primarily in the United States), has a proven “track record.”
  • In the area of peacekeeping, for example, it has undertaken forty-three missions (including seventeen still active today), negotiated 172 peaceful settlements that have ended regional conflicts, and enabled people in more than forty-five countries to participate in free and fair elections.
    In the area of humanitarian and relief operations, its work in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, caring for refugees and providing food, is well known.
    In the unsung area of development assistance, it provides aid to more than 170 developing and “emerging” countries and territories that contain the bulk of the world’s population. In collaboration with its affiliated Specialized Agencies, it has helped to make safe drinking water available to 1.3 billion people, halved child mortality rates, improved agricultural productivity, education, and health standards, and undertaken a myriad of other activities designed to help improve the lives of people.

       The Final Solution? 
    The issue is not whether there is room enough for two — the United States and the United Nations — on the world stage. There must be.Rather, the question is how to reconcile the global interests of the world’s only superpower and the mandate of the world’s only global body so that all member nations can live together comfortably, and the Organization — their Organization — can most effectively serve their needs in a new era. Perhaps the formula for productive coexistence lies in the testimony of Princeton Lyman to the House International Relations Committee, in which he noted,

    UN peacekeeping fits in a spectrum of [American] options for dealing with conflict and instability. . . .What UN peacekeeping provides us is a middle ground . . . and an agreed structure for sharing the [peacekeeping] responsibility with others. It is an instrument that, correctly used, has proved its value many times over.

    The above stated principle applies not only to the UN’s peacekeeping work, but to the rest of its mandate as well. The key to its successful application lies in the way the United States interprets the formula. Based on current evidence, it could be argued that U. S. policy lies too far on the side of unilateralism.

    The United States needs to optimize its investment in the organization of which it was the leading founder and is still today the most influential member and major financial supporter. And it needs to maximize the burden-sharing and cooperative opportunities the organization offers.

    To accomplish these important objectives, the United States might do well to reassess where the threshold should lie between unilateral action and multilateral collaboration.

    In this manner, the United States can “correctly use” the organization it admits has proved so valuable in the past, and can assure that not only U. S. interests, but also those of the world community, are best served by the Charter the United States authored.

    Jerry Berke was a career officer for twenty-five years with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), serving abroad in Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. He retired to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina in 1995.

    Comments are closed.