Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 18 Notes: International Organization and the United Nations

  • What is international organization?
  • Why are international organizations created?
  • What have been the implications of the growth in international organization?
  • How effective has the UN been in maintaining peace and security?
  • What impact has the UN had on economic and social issues?
  • What challenges confront the UN, and how should it respond to them?

The growth in the number and importance of international organizations has been one of the most prominent features of world politics, particularly since 1945. Some of these are high profile bodies such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, while others are lesser known but still play key roles in particular fields. By providing a framework for cooperative problem-solving amongst states, international organizations have modified traditional power politics without, at the same time, threatening the emergence of a global or regional superstate. However, the phenomenon of international organization also raises a number of important questions. For example, what factors and forces help to explain the emergence of international organizations? Do such bodies genuinely reflect the collective interests of their members, or are they created by and for powerful states? To what extent can international organizations affect global outcomes? Many of these questions, however, are best addressed by considering the case of the world's leading international organization, the United Nations. The UN (unlike its predecessor, the League of Nations) has established itself as a truly global body, and is regarded by most as an indispensable part of the international political scene. Its core concern with promoting international peace and security has been supplemented, over time, by an ever-expanding economic and social agenda. Has the UN lived up to the expectations of its founders, and could it ever? What factors determine the effectiveness of the UN, and how could it be made more effective?

  • An international organization is an institution with formal procedures and a membership comprising three or more states. These bodies can be thought of as instruments through which states pursue their own interests, as arenas that facilitate debate, and as actors that can affect global outcomes.
  • International organizations are created out of a composite of factors. These include the existence of interdependencies among states which encourage policy-makers to believe that international cooperation can serve common interests, and the presence of a hegemonic power willing and able to bear the costs of creating, and sustaining, an international organization.
  • The United Nations is the only truly global organization ever constructed. The UN is nevertheless a hybrid body, configured around the competing need to accept the realities of great power politics and to acknowledge the sovereign equality of member states. This, in effect, has created the 'two UNs'.
  • The principal aim of the UN is to maintain international peace and security, with responsibility for this being vested in the Security Council. However, the UN has been restricted in carrying out this role particularly by the veto powers of the P-5 and the lack of an independent military capacity. The UN's mixed performance in the area of peacekeeping has led to an increasing emphasis instead on the process of peace-building.
  • The UN's economic and social responsibilities are discharged by a sprawling and, seemingly, ever-enlarging array of programmes, funds and specialized agencies. Its main areas are human rights, development and poverty reduction, and the environment. Such widening concerns have ensured strong support for the UN, particularly across the developing world.
  • The UN faces a range of important challenges and pressures for reform. These include those generated by the changing location of global power in an increasingly multipolar world, those associated with criticisms of the composition and powers of the Security Council, and those related to the UN's finances and organization.