A Newly Found Appreciation for the UN?

When I took my 10 year old brother for a tour of the UN the other day, I was not surprised when he insisted that the UN was actually an art museum. Even with my limited experience in the IR subfield (which includes one graduate level seminar and frequent exchanges with colleagues who study IR), I have come to realize that the UN is not considered a "serious" force in domestic politics around the world. Even using the word "force" seems inappropriate, because states can ignore the UN’s rules and very few of them are actually punished for doing so. So my brother’s perception that the UN was merely a place to observe statutes, photographs, and paintings from around the world seemed not far too off for me.

After the tour (in which my brother made fun  of me for whispering the answers to the tour guide’s questions and then asking her to clarify what she meant by country when asking what the smallest country in the world was- she actually meant state), I found a potential new found appreciation for the UN. The tour guide informed us that the five permanent members of the Security Council (US, Soviet Union/ Russia, China, UK, and France) made a pact that they would not go to war with one another as long as each of them had a veto in the Security Council’s decision making process.

In light of the Cold War, this was important information. Could having a veto over decisions made in a seemingly meaningless international organization actually help keep major powers from going to war? Would such an agreement be analogous to agreements made within military regimes, where branches of the military agree to equally share power in exchange for peace? I do not know; like I said, I am not an IR scholar. But I think this pact could have had potential effects on the decisions of these major powers to go to war during the Cold War; it may in fact helped prevent a major world war from breaking out. (Of course, mutually assured destruction could have been the reason too).


Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

7 Replies to “A Newly Found Appreciation for the UN?”

  1. From a realist point of view, the effect of such a “pact” would be zilch. What would stop any one of the five veto-wielding states from simply breaking the pact? Nothing.
    But the real impact of the UN and the “pact” you talk about would lie in what I have long argued is the real functional purpose of the U.N. — to provide a formal coordination mechanism by which major state actors in the world reveal information about their intentions. The making of the pact is a revelation of information in and of itself, even without any way to enforce it. The making of the pact reveals that all of the five veto-wielding states have an interest in maintaining major elements of the global status quo and that they have agreed (at least tentatively) to use the Security Council mechanisms as the method of doing it.
    As for the ability of states to ignore the U.N., I would say that it is often exaggerated or, more accurately, misinterpreted. It begs the question of what can be expected by an organization like the U.N. If the standard of “success” for the organization is to override a major state power’s policy preferences, then that is to set up an impossible standard which no one I am aware of in the history of the U.N. ever aspired to or even thought possible. But if the standard is to force even powerful states to consult and reveal information (and potentially even to submit to moral judgment) by other global actors, then the U.N. is much more “successful”.
    It is worth remembering, for example, that even the early Bush administration that is often characterized as unilateralist and openly hostile to the U.N. was forced to go to the U.N. repeatedly in advance of the Iraq war. If the U.N. had no impact whatsoever, then why would the U.S. even go to it at all, especially given the certainty at the time that the reception would be chilly? Why would President Bush twice address the UNGA in spite of the overwhelming hostility of its membership if not for some perceived need to at least be seen to be making the attempt?
    Thus, it is too simple to say that the U.N. has zero impact. It is more accurate, I would argue, to focus on the different kinds of impacts that may exist beyond simplistic hard-power calculations.

  2. I should add that constructivists would point to the U.N. as a forum for the development of norms and shared identities. While states so seek power and interests as realists highlight, it is also the case that states seek to be seen as the “good guys” while doing so. The reasons for this are not only that such appearances lower costs, but they seem to spring from non-instrumental calculations as well — the simple desire of all human beings to conceive of themselves as good people, however defined. Anyone who attended high school is familiar with the ability of social groups to make non-instrumental demands on their members to be “cool”, right? Well, a similar process influences (not determines, but influences) individuals fulfilling international roles like “ambassador” or even “leader of the free world”. The desire for a good reputation is am important influence even when it may not always be determinate.
    The U.N. exercises some influence over whether actors succeed in obtaining a reputation for legitimacy. We can observe that even actors who are defined by many others as “rogues” or “unilateralists” repeatedly make the effort to try to explain otherwise. Even though they may not always do so or even while they may often fail, the mere observation of their attempts is evidence of substantial normative influence on actors’ behavior that is mediated through the U.N. as an institution.

  3. I completely agree with you, Jason–and apparently I’m more of a constructivist than I realized. I was going to add something about a norms-building function of the UN, which I would categorize as an extension of the information-sharing function.
    Another interesting piece of information I learned when I visited the UN building last summer: Scandinavian countries like to donate large meeting rooms, except for Finland, it seems.

  4. Let’s assume for a moment that the UN does have some influence over politics within and between states. If so, is the benefit of having a veto over how the UN’s influence is wielded (in exchange for not increasing one’s influence over world politics) greater than not having a veto over UN decisions (in exhcange for potentially increasing one’s unilateral influence in world politics)?

  5. I would say that constructivism is not something one IS in the sense of an all-encompassing methodological or ontological commitment, but rather it is an approach that reveals a set of tools that are often neglected in other paradigmatic approaches. In short, everyone can “be a constructivist” without necessarily compromising any other methodological or ontological commitments. Fearon and Wendt in the Handbook of International Relations go through the issue in a much more lengthy way, but to me it is just common sense.
    As for the benefit of a veto, I would say that it promotes the integration of great powers into the institution by granting to them a formal guarantee not only that they MUST be heard. Thus, it allows them (temporarily and incompletely) to block the emergence of normatively influential statements which they find disagreeable. A notable example is China’s continuing use of the veto power to block the progressive undermining of the sovereignty norm when it conflicts with human rights norms.
    But I would say that the dichotomy you offer is based on a false premise, Julie. Giving up the veto would in no way “increase one’s unilateral influence” and may in fact undermine it. The ability to act unilaterally is not compromised by the integration of a state into the U.N. system, rather, the U.N. membership only forces such a state to articulate a justification in support of its use of the veto or other override of the preferences of the international community. Thus, unilateralism in action is compatible with normative multilateralism. The challenge is to figure out when and why these parallel themes tend to predominate.

  6. I was not clear enough in my former comment- when I said increase one’s uniltateral influence, I meant potentially increase it by breaking the pact and going to war with a major power with the intent of destroying or reducing their influence.

  7. I see little likelihood that the processes, institutions, and norms associated with U.N. has had any effect in preventing the outbreak of major war since WWII. Any such influence would be overwhelmed by the effect of more hard material factors, such as the low prospect for any gains sufficient to justify the costs associated with such a war. It may be that there is some normative barrier associated with veto-holding membership in the U.N., but it would be impossible to separate that influence from the other factors. Lack of major power war since WWII is probably “overdetermined” by a wide variety of factors, among which normative constraints would be only one.

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