Stemming from the weakness of the League of Nations, the idea of a United Nations was born during WWII when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Atlantic Charter and discussed the need for an international organization that would promote security, peace, and freedom. In 1944, the Allies convened at Dumbarton Oaks to lay the foundation for a new, functional international order consisting of a General Assembly of member states, a Secretariat and a Court. Moreover, the major powers in the world (United States, China, the USSR, the UK and France) would be guaranteed permanent membership in a Security Council, and would oversee issues such as war and national sovereignty. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill discussed more details about the United Nations such as a veto power for permanent members of the Security Council. On April 25, 1945, fifty states met in San Francisco to officially draft the UN Charter. The United Nations was officially established following the ratification of the UN Charter in October 1945 (the United States Senate also ratified the Charter with a vote of 89-2).
Opinions of the UN
Many in the United States house suspicions and concerns about the United Nations. Some view the UN has a potential usurper of U.S. sovereignty despite the fact that the U.N. was structured with built-in limitations protecting the sovereignty of its most powerful member states–not to mention the fact that the United States played a prominent role in the organization’s creation. Others view the UN as a financial obligation not worth meeting. In an article titled “Understanding the United Nations: An American Appreciation,” Dr. Michael Stathis described how the United States Congress has “refused to authorize payments for delinquent annual dues” ever since President Reagan “turned a cold shoulder to the UN.” Dr. Stathis has also noted suspicion about the UN in Southern Utah, describing how a display of the United Nations flag at Snow Canyon Middle School caused community members to cry foul.
The UN : An International Relations Perspective
According to G. John Ikenberry, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, “The United States has been the world’s greatest champion of multilateral rules and institutions [such as the United Nations], but it has also consistently resisted entangling itself in institutional commitments and obligations.” In describing patterns of United States policy makers to frame international laws for others, but unilaterally opt out to avoid domestic, political blowback, John Ruggie employed the term “exemptionalism.” The history behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides one of the most prominent examples of exemptionalism. In order for the UN Charter to be ratified by Southern Democrats, the Charter added Article 2.7, which reads: “nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” The purpose of the article was to insulate Jim Crow laws, “separate but equal” facilities, and state lynch laws in the South from binding international legal obligations. Modern examples of exemptionalism include Congressional opposition to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Germ Weapons Convention, and the Programme of Action on Illicit Trade in Small and Light Arms. These examples differ from post-World War II efforts by the United States to form the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, GATT, NATO, and other institutions, thereby providing what Ikenberry has called “the most rule-based structure for political and economic relations in world history.”
Some scholars feel that the United States is justified in opting out of obligations to multilateral institutions like the United Nations. Peter J. Spiro describes a group of scholars and policy makers using the term “New Sovereigntists.” According to Spiro, this group argues that legitimacy is rooted solely in the sovereignty of the United States Constitution. The Sovereigntist argument warns against submission to international organizations whose members are “unelected…unaccountable bureaucrats,” and whose goals include “eroding our constitutionalism,” and “the primacy of international institutions over nation states.” Peter J. Spiro described the purpose of this group by writing, “sovereignty, in this conception, calls for America to resist the incorporation of international norms and drapes the power to do so in the mantle of constitutional legitimacy.” Professor of Law at George Mason University, Jeremy Rabkin argues, “because the United States is fully sovereign, it can determine for itself what its Constitution will require. And the Constitution necessarily requires that sovereignty be safeguarded so that the Constitution itself can be secure.” The sovereigntists do not oppose practicing a form of “a la carte” multilateralism, abiding by international laws and treaties when they coincide with US interests, and abandoning them when they do not, but insist that the United States is under no obligation or loyalty to any treaty. Bolton summarized the primary argument of the Sovereigntists by writing, “The question of legitimacy is frequently raised as a veiled attempt to restrain American discretion in undertaking unilateral action . . . Our actions, taken consistently with Constitutional principles, require no separate, external validation to make them legitimate.” Bolton asserts further that “new international norms make it harder and harder for the United States to act independently in its own legitimate national interest.”
Other scholars, such as Robert Keohane, contend that international law and national interests of the United States are not always mutually exclusive. Keohane distinguishes between “myopic” and “enlightened” self-interest by writing, “although states can benefit in the short term from unilateral defection, enlightened self-interest dictates that a preponderant state invest in, and credibly commit to, the creation of a stable, predictable, rule-based order.” Ikenberry builds upon this argument by framing what he calls an “institutional bargain” in which multilateral institutions provide the United States with “a more predictable environment and more willing partners.” As a result “the untoward implications of sharp power asymmetries are reduced, cooperation and reciprocity are regularized, and the overall hegemonic order is rendered more legitimate and stable.”
Regardless of one’s opinion of the United Nations and international law for better or worse, one thing is certain: Since its establishment, the United Nations has provided a forum in which countries around the world can gather and discuss security, economic, social, and health issues. The New York Times’ Topics web search , contains a variety of articles relating to the UN such as the denunciation of human rights abuses in Syria, condemnation of North Korea’s rocket tests, and Israel’s absence during a United Nations Human Rights Council review. While you read about the UN on The New York Times’ website, consider the following questions:
5 Things To Consider
1. Does membership in the UN promote or hinder the interests of the United States?
2. Is funding the UN a worthwhile investment for the United States?
3. To what extent should the United States seek the approval of the United Nations when militarily intervening abroad? Does a UN sanction of military intervention add legitimacy to such a policy? Why or why not?
4. What, if anything, has changed since the United States supported and created multilateral organizations such as the UN after World War II?
5. Given the inherent “weaknesses” of the UN, is the organization still relevant today?
Neal Mason is a member of the Executive Council. Neal graduated from Southern Utah University with a BS in Political Science and also works as the Research Director for the SUU branch for the Institute of Policy Analysis.