Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, AMERICAN HISTORY (americanhistory.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 20 November 2018

The United States and the United Nations

Summary and Keywords

The United States was heavily involved in creating the United Nations in 1945 and drafting its charter. The United States continued to exert substantial clout in the organization after its founding, though there have been periods during which U.S. officials have met with significant opposition inside the United Nations, in Congress, and in American electoral politics, all of which produced struggles to gain support for America’s international policy goals. U.S. influence in the international organization has thus waxed and waned. The early postwar years witnessed the zenith of American prestige on the global stage. Starting in the mid- to late 1950s, as decolonization and the establishment of newly independent nations quickened, the United States began to lose influence in the United Nations owing to the spreading perception that its alliances with the European colonial powers placed it on the wrong side of history. As U.N. membership skyrocketed, the organization became more responsive to the needs and interests of the decolonizing states. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the American public responded to declining U.S. influence in the United Nations with calls to defund the organization and to pursue a unilateral approach to international challenges. The role of the United States in the United Nations was shaped by the politics of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. Throughout the nearly five decades of the Cold War, the United Nations served as a forum for the political and ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, which frequently inhibited the organization from fulfilling what most considered to be its primary mission: the maintenance of global security and stability. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the peaceful end of the Cold War, the United States enjoyed a brief period of unrivaled global hegemony. During this period, U.S. officials pursued a closer relationship with the United Nations and sought to use the organization to build support for its international policy agenda and military interventionism.

Keywords: United States, United Nations, Cold War, post–Cold War, peacekeeping, international security, U.S. foreign policy, multilateral interventionism

Creating a World Government

The United Nations was founded in the wake of World War II, the most destructive conflict the world has ever witnessed. Its founders sought to create an international order based on the rule of law, respect for the sovereignty, self-determination, and territorial integrity of nations, and the rejection of the use or threat of force to pursue political ends. The degree to which the United Nations has achieved these goals is hotly debated by scholars, politicians, and public intellectuals. Although many observers are justifiably critical of the organization, most acknowledge that the world would likely be a more chaotic and violent place without it.

The fundamental tension between national sovereignty and collective security exemplifies the difficulties that are at the heart of the international system the United Nations exemplifies. To be effective, the United Nations must be able to enforce its decisions, but this necessarily circumscribes the sovereignty and independence of the member-states that are bound by those decisions. U.S. domestic critics of the United Nations have emphasized the ways in which international governance has restricted the power and prerogatives of the United States. This tension points up the difficulties that the organization has encountered in its attempts to moderate the aggressive actions of the great powers. While effective in restraining smaller, less powerful countries, the United Nations is less able to prevent or affect the outcome of a major war involving the great powers themselves. Thus, the United Nations’ central dilemma is how to reconcile the realities of great power politics with the ideals of equality and justice for all.

Initially, the United Nations consisted of the Security Council, which was composed of five permanent members and six nonpermanent members; a General Assembly, which included representatives from all member-states; a Secretariat that functioned as the administrative arm of the organization; the Economic and Social Council; and the International Court of Justice. The General Assembly is the main deliberative body of the United Nations and convenes annually to discuss and vote on key issues of world peace and security. The decisions of the General Assembly are nonbinding and unenforceable, which is why many believe that the United Nations’ real power lies in the Security Council as the only body within the organization with enforceable and binding resolutions. The Economic and Social Council promotes economic and social cooperation and progress, particularly in the underdeveloped world. The International Court of Justice constitutes the judicial organ of the United Nations; it resolves legal disputes between member-states and is headquartered at The Hague, Netherlands. Finally, a Military Staff Committee was created, composed of officers from the five permanent members of the Security Council. It is tasked with commanding the combined U.N. forces donated by member-states in cases of collective military action. Many subagencies and committees devoted to the health, welfare, and development of newly independent nations were created in later years.

The United States and the Founding of the United Nations

From April 25 to June 26, 1945, a total of 282 delegates from 46 nations convened in San Francisco, California, to determine the contours of the international organization they hoped would keep the peace in the post–World War II era. On June 25, the delegates unanimously approved the United Nations Charter, and the U.S. Senate ratified it on July 28. The founding of the United Nations and the drafting of its charter were momentous occasions, equaled only by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the League of Nations in 1919, and the several different international orders they created. The officials present at the founding of the United Nations sought to avoid the mistakes and design flaws that had rendered the League of Nations ineffective in preventing the outbreak of a second world war. Despite President Woodrow Wilson’s unyielding support for the League, isolationists in the Senate had blocked U.S. entry into the organization. The failure of the United States to join the League is often cited as among the most significant reasons for its impotence in the face of rising totalitarianism and its inability to provide collective security.

Thus, during the Second World War, Allied leaders were determined to create a more effective international organization to keep the peace after the defeat of the Axis powers. In March 1943, a U.S. State Department subcommittee completed the first draft of a U.S. proposal for the new organization. This draft was ultimately approved by Congress, as well as the governments of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China. In December of the same year, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Teheran, where the three leaders committed their respective nations to what was already being called the United Nations. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met again at Dumbarton Oaks in the fall of 1944 and in Yalta in 1945 to hash out the structural details of the anticipated postwar peacekeeping body.

The United States exercised significant influence in shaping the design, purpose, and charter of the United Nations. President Roosevelt, who died mere days before the San Francisco conference opened, had envisioned an international system in which the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and China would serve as the “Big Four” powers, or the “Four Policemen” that kept the peace in their respective spheres of influence. This logic was encoded in the design of the United Nations Security Council, composed of these four powers plus France, occupying permanent positions, as well as six nonpermanent two-year seats that rotated among the less powerful nations on a regional basis (later increased to 10 rotating seats). Each of the five permanent members of the Security Council was granted veto power—a provision that proved highly controversial at the founding. The veto issue was the clearest manifestation of the dilemma of great power politics in the United Nations—what could the Security Council do if resolutions had to be adopted unanimously but any of the permanent members could issue a veto on matters pertaining to their own actions in the international arena? Although Security Council resolutions were, in theory, binding, in reality, little could be done if one of the great powers was defiant. Indeed, the permanent members would subsequently prove unwilling to submit matters in which their own vital interests were at stake to resolution in the Security Council.

The Security Council was not the only means by which the new international organization embodied Roosevelt’s vision for the postwar world. In 1941, the U.S. president, together with Prime Minister Churchill, had issued the Atlantic Charter, a declaration of “certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.” These principles, which included the disavowal of territorial aggrandizement and the use of force, and respect for national sovereignty, self-determination, and freedom of navigation, would be codified through “the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.”1 The charter of the United Nations would ultimately embrace these principles. Roosevelt also delineated what he believed to be the “four essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.2 These freedoms became what has been described as “the moral cornerstone of the United Nations.”3 And while FDR’s vision was of a geographically untethered organization with roving annual conferences, the fact that the headquarters of the United Nations was permanently located in New York City reflected the desire of other member-states for strong U.S. leadership.

President Harry Truman, who took the oath of office after Roosevelt’s untimely death in April 1945, was just as committed to the United Nations as his predecessor. He submitted the U.N. Charter to the U.S. Senate for ratification after signing it on June 26, 1945, and appointed distinguished delegations to the annual sessions of the U.N. General Assembly. Of the delegates that Truman appointed, Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the late president, proved highly influential. The 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights owed a good deal to her persistence and determination. At the time of its drafting, the Declaration was the most comprehensive statement of rights ever issued. The first 11 articles are in the same vein as the U.S. Constitution, proclaiming what the founders characterized as the “natural” or God-given rights to life, liberty, equality, and security. Articles 12 through 17 consist of what one scholar has described as “rights in civil society”—the right to marry, own property, travel freely, and so on.4 Articles 18 through 21 delineate democratic political rights to free assembly, speech, and participation in government. Finally, articles 22 through 28 are the most expansive in the Declaration, proclaiming rights to employment, social security, leisure time, health care, free elementary education, and a decent standard of living.

In practice, it is this last category of rights that has been the most contested. U.S. officials have typically focused on political rights, as opposed to social and economic rights. This is because the ideology animating the U.S. Constitution is centered on individual freedoms and protections from the state. Social and economic rights tend to consist of protections that are provided by the state. Political rights tend to circumscribe the power of the state, while social and economic rights tend to bolster the power of the state. As a country founded on an intense suspicion of state power, the United States has generally rejected more expansive definitions of human rights. Moreover, economic and social rights are, in practice, more difficult to enforce.5 This points to a broader challenge that the United Nations faces in its capacity as protector of human rights. Because it was the General Assembly and not the Security Council that passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there exists no enforcement mechanism, and states are thus relatively free to ignore it. In later decades, as declarations of rights proliferated, the United States often declined to ratify them. For instance, the United States refused to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child and signed but did not ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This reluctance on the part of U.S. officials to ratify agreements on economic, social, and cultural rights reflected not only an ideological preference for individual freedoms and political rights, but also an abiding sense—particularly among U.S. conservatives—that the U.N. agenda should remain squarely focused on security issues.

The Cold War in the United Nations

The early years of the United Nations witnessed the emergence of a political, economic, ideological, and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, both permanent members of the Security Council. As a result, the United Nations became a forum for competition. The U.N. charter, based on principles of self-determination, sovereignty, and noninterference in the internal affairs of states, became the gold standard of international legitimacy. Both Soviet and U.S. policymakers sought to operate within the constraints of the international system while simultaneously manipulating the principles on which the system was based. They both were attempting to legitimize their own international policy agendas and military interventionism, while condemning and discrediting those of rival powers. As a result, great power disunity often prevented the organization from fulfilling its basic mission. At the heart of the dilemma was the United Nations’ dual nature as both an instrument for negotiating disputes among states and a forum to influence international opinion. Like no other organization that had come before, the United Nations provided a venue for national leaders to appeal to the court of world opinion. Yet, the use of the United Nations as a Cold War propaganda platform impeded its utility as a mechanism for resolving conflicts.6 In the early years of the Cold War, the United States sought to build up the influence of the General Assembly, which was stocked with U.S. allies in Europe and Latin America, in order to bypass the Security Council, where any U.S. resolution could be vetoed by the Soviets. U.S. officials looked to the General Assembly to cultivate international support for its policies and to denounce the policies of the Soviet Union.7

An early test case of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission came in 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea with the blessing of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Truman sought to bolster the legitimacy of the United Nations through a tough, yet reasoned, response to the aggression, fearing the precedent set by the League of Nations in the 1930s when it passively accepted the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Japanese assault on Manchuria. Although 16 nations contributed troops to the U.N. Command, the bulk of the forces were American and South Korean. The United States supplied 50% of the ground troops, 86% of the naval forces, and a whopping 94% of the air support.8 While U.N. General Assembly resolutions were sufficiently ambiguous to permit the commander of the combined forces, General Douglas MacArthur, considerable operational leeway, the existence of the United Nations effectively eliminated other courses of action, particularly a unilateral U.S. military intervention. This is because U.S. President Harry Truman was so sincerely committed to the United Nations that his administration never seriously debated any other alternative to acting through the international organization.9 This demonstrates the importance of the U.S. domestic leadership role in the United Nations. Although Truman and others were devoted to the principles of the United Nations, later U.S. presidents would not hold the organization in such high esteem, seeking instead unilateral solutions to regional and global crises. After the Korean War, the United States remained firmly opposed to seating the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations. Although the Republic of China (ROC) was one of the founding members of the United Nations in 1945 and one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) complicated the issue of U.N. membership. The ROC leadership fled to Taiwan, where it installed its own government and maintained its seat at the United Nations. Meanwhile, the PRC, though having extended its control over mainland China, was excluded from U.N. membership until 1971, when U.S. President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic overtures facilitated a Sino-American rapprochement, and the United States now recognized the PRC instead of the ROC.

The “red scare” of the early Cold War and the anticommunist hysteria that was both reflected and inflamed by the reactionary rhetoric of Senator Joseph McCarthy and others did not leave the United Nations unscathed. As a result of accusations that the U.S. permanent delegation to the United Nations was riddled with communists, in October 1952 the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee launched an investigation into the political loyalties of American officials in the Secretariat, the United Nations’ administrative organ. After a federal grand jury found no evidence to indict a single U.S. official, anticommunist firebrands issued further accusations of the suspect loyalties of the Secretariat, and U.N. Secretary General Trygve Lie was forced to publicly defend the organization’s personnel policies.10

Although the politics of the Cold War frequently crippled the United Nations, the organization still managed to play a key role in deescalating and facilitating the peaceful resolution of crisis situations. The Suez and Cuban missile crises stand out as examples of U.N. efficacy. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, provoking a combined French-British-Israeli military incursion into the Sinai Peninsula. Under the auspices of the United Nations, U.S. diplomats sought to resolve the crisis through negotiations, working mostly behind the scenes. The United Nations Emergency Force for Palestine also played a significant role in securing an armistice. In April 1961, under the sponsorship of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, exiles who had fled revolutionary Cuba under Fidel Castro launched an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, or Playa Girón. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, unaware of U.S. support for the invasion, was given the unenviable task of misleading the international organization about the role of the United States in sponsoring the Cuban paramilitary group. Although U.S. standing in the United Nations was temporarily lowered, the debacle had little long-term effect on the reputation of the United States, particularly after the following year, when the Soviet stationing of nuclear weaponry on Cuban territory provoked the most dangerous crisis of the entire Cold War.11

In October 1962, U.S. officials discovered that the Soviets were secretly constructing sites for offensive nuclear missiles on Cuban soil, within range of targets in the United States and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. The United States called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council and sought to use that body, as well as the Organization of American States, to build international support for its approach to defusing the crisis. Although the role of the United Nations in the peaceful resolution of the crisis has largely escaped scholarly notice, U.N. Secretary General U Thant was in fact actively involved in negotiating measures that formed the basis of the final agreement, particularly the “noninvasion for missiles” formula and the arrangement for verifying that the missiles had been removed.12

The United Nations, Decolonization, and the Developing World

Although the Charter of the United Nations changed very little in the decades following the San Francisco Conference, an influx of new member-states in the late 1950s and 1960s irrevocably altered the international organization. Soviet and U.S. views of the United Nations’ utility evolved in response to dramatic changes in the international arena. In the early postwar period, when the creation of the organization and the drafting of its charter seemed to many to be dominated by the United States and its Western European allies, the Soviets considered the United Nations to be a mere tool of American foreign policy. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin even went so far as to consider sabotaging the United Nations and replacing it with an organization that would be subordinate to Moscow. The stark bipolarity of the early Cold War period, however, softened in the face of international developments, particularly decolonization, which dramatically changed the way the Cold War was waged. Membership of the newly independent nations of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East not only transformed the composition of the international body but also changed the its agenda. These countries, many of which would later become members of the Non-Aligned Movement, were understandably dissatisfied with the way the Cold War competition had dominated U.N. proceedings and sought to redirect the energies of the organization toward easing the transition to independence. The Cold War struggle between East and West competed with the concerns of Third World nations for economic and social development in the priorities of the U.N. agenda.13

In order to assess the results of U.N. development efforts, scholars at the Brookings Institution, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C., produced a 1957 study on economic and social cooperation. They identified several tensions that complicated the work of U.N. organizations in the social and economic spheres. One was that many of the technical agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the U.N. International Children’s Economic Fund, faced considerable uncertainty about their primary mission: was it to achieve global progress on issues such as poverty and malnutrition, or was it to assist targeted vulnerable groups such as children and refugees? These technical agencies also grappled with the challenges of insufficient financial resources and the politicization of their development agendas. A related problem—and one that would bedevil the work of many U.N. agencies throughout the Cold War—was that the competing economic ideologies of the United States and Soviet Union clashed with the universalist pretensions of the U.N. Charter. U.S. officials were perennially suspicious of state-led modernization efforts, and while the Soviets rhetorically supported the development goals of Third World nations, they often remained reluctant to extend significant material resources.14

Stalin’s death in 1953 transformed the Soviet view of the United Nations. Nikita Khrushchev, who effectively inaugurated the globalization of the Kremlin’s strategic vision, believed that the Third World represented the next battleground of the Cold War. Moreover, he quickly grasped the utility of the United Nations as a tool to pursue the interests of the Soviet Union. Indeed, one scholar has suggested that Khrushchev’s “ultimate vision of the U.N. was a vast ‘front organization’ manipulated by the Soviet Union and its allies.”15 Almost immediately following the first summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade in 1961, Khrushchev attempted to turn the movement toward a closer association with the socialist bloc. Through the employment of anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Soviets sought to cultivate the goodwill of the emerging Third World and to tar the United States with the brush of “neo-imperialism.” This rhetoric resonated with the deeply held convictions of many Latin Americans regarding the exploitative nature of U.S. economic policies, and it also rang true to many in Asia and Africa who saw the United States as an apologist for, and ally of, the European colonial powers.

In 1965, the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in the first overt military intervention in the Western Hemisphere since FDR’s implementation of the Good Neighbor Policy. Although the invasion was initially unilateral, the Johnson administration sought to multilateralize the occupation forces and resolve the crisis through the Organization of American States (OAS). The Soviet Union responded by attempting to draw the United Nations Security Council into peacekeeping efforts. U.S. officials argued that according to Article 52 of the U.N. Charter, the OAS had taken regional action for the maintenance of international peace and security, and that this did not require prior Security Council authorization. Although the United Nations did send an investigatory commission, the crisis was largely resolved through the offices of the OAS. The U.S. action, supported at the time by Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, established a precedent that the Soviet Union would point to in 1968, when it claimed that its invasion of Czechoslovakia was justified on the grounds that socialist states had the right to prevent counterrevolution in fellow socialist states. These incidents demonstrated that when the Cold War superpowers perceived that their national interests were at stake, the United Nations was essentially powerless to intervene in the superpowers’ spheres of influence.

As the Third World and the socialist bloc grew closer, the ability of U.S. officials to use the United Nations as a foreign policy tool was diminished. Although the Soviets wielded their veto with a heavy hand in the early years of the Cold War, it was not until 1970 that the United States used its veto power, suggesting that until that time, the Security Council typically resolved in favor of or at least not in contradiction to U.S. interests. In an almost total role reversal, the United States lodged 27 vetoes in the years from 1985 to 1990, while the Soviet Union lodged none. This was a clear demonstration of waning U.S. influence in the organization. Part of the reason for this declining influence was the efficacy of the nonaligned approach within the United Nations. The Non-Aligned Movement convened its summits right before the start of each U.N. General Assembly in September, so that the delegates could work out common positions and present a united front within the international body. Such unity enhanced the effectiveness of the movement within the United Nations. As one scholar has suggested, the 1973 Algiers summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) “marked the beginning of the NAM as a voting bloc within the United Nations and international agencies, subject to growing pressure on its members to conform to non-aligned positions in their voting patterns.”16 During the 1970s and early 1980s, U.S. officials and the American public decried this loss of influence, and the uproar culminated in the decision to withhold dues payments to the United Nations in 1982.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by President Gerald Ford in 1975, adopted an openly confrontational stance toward Third World delegations that allied with the socialist bloc. During the thirtieth session of the U.N. General Assembly in 1975–1976, the Arab delegations, with the support of the Soviet bloc, introduced a resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism and racial discrimination. Many Third World delegations, including most of the Latin American countries and some African countries, opposed the amendment, considering it anti-Semitic. Moynihan delivered an impassioned plea on behalf of Israel and against the equation of Zionism and racism. Nevertheless, the amendment passed by a vote of 72 to 35, with 32 abstentions. Although the incident made Moynihan a hero of the American Jewish community, it angered many Arab and African states, including some U.S. allies.17

Some of the lengthiest and most violent conflicts in the post–World War II period were largely kept out of the United Nations owing to the involvement of one or more of the permanent members of the Security Council. The war in Vietnam, for instance, one of the bloodiest and longest running wars of the 20th century, was waged and resolved largely outside of the United Nations. Although the international body repeatedly offered its diplomatic and mediation services, U.S. officials refused, and there was not much that other actors in the United Nations could do about it. Some U.N. successes were achieved in the face of outright U.S. opposition. The wars in Central America in the 1980s, for example, were mediated in part by the United Nations despite the intense opposition of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. U.N. Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Costa Rican President Óscar Arias worked assiduously to bring an end to the conflicts ravaging the region. Their efforts culminated in the 1986 Esquipulas Peace Accords, which garnered Arias a Nobel Peace Prize.

The Reagan administration adopted a stance of open confrontation with the Soviet bloc and the Third World in the United Nations. Reagan appointed Jeane J. Kirkpatrick as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where she employed a “get-tough” approach to countries that opposed the U.S. international policy agenda. Decrying U.S. impotence in the organization, Kirkpatrick was overtly critical of the political debates in the U.N. General Assembly and publicly castigated delegations from the socialist world and the African, Arab, and Asian voting blocs. While such rhetoric played well to a U.S. domestic public that craved assertions of strength in the face of declining global influence, it was not calculated to win friends for the United States. Although Kirkpatrick won the respect of some, her adversarial rhetoric and combative approach alienated many of the nonaligned delegations, even among those previously friendly to the United States.18 For instance, Singapore was appalled by the “tough tactics” U.S. officials pursued at the U.N. Law of the Sea Conference in 1982, and Nigeria, usually a moderate voice in the nonaligned chorus, assented to including anti-U.S. rhetoric in the 1983 summit declarations of the Non-Aligned Movement.19

The United States and the United Nations in the Post–Cold War Era

The United States enjoyed a brief period of uncontested global hegemony after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the peaceful termination of the Cold War. During the 1990s, U.S. presidents used the United Nations to gather international support and legitimacy for military interventions, many of which responded to humanitarian concerns. At the same time, the disappointing results of peacekeeping missions created a good deal of reluctance on the part of U.S. officials to make further commitments to humanitarian interventions. Part of the problem was that many of the major nations, including the United States, were in arrears on their dues payments to the organization, leaving it cash-strapped during a period when the number of U.N. peacekeeping operations nearly tripled.20

During this period, intrastate conflicts that threatened regional stability and provoked widespread human rights violations dominated the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the breakup of Yugoslavia, which in turn unleashed a civil war between the constituent republics of Serbia and Slovenia, Serbia and the autonomous region of Kosovo, Croatia and its minority population of Serbs, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. U.S. President Bill Clinton appointed former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as a special envoy to the U.N. Secretary General. Vance was instrumental in securing a peace plan that established four U.N. protected zones for Serbs and contributed to termination of the conflict in Croatia.21

Then, in 1995, relations between the United States and the United Nations plummeted to a new low when U.S. forces under U.N. command sustained 18 casualties in the Battle of Mogadishu during the military intervention in Somalia. The domestic political fallout of this battle forestalled making a meaningful U.S. troop contribution to help stabilize the situation in Rwanda, where the ethnic strife between the Tutsi minority and Hutu majority had reached genocidal levels. The scale of the slaughter was shocking, but the United Nations Assistance Mission substantially augmented its presence only after the majority of the massacres had ceased. The American reluctance to make a significant commitment to Rwandan peacekeeping efforts contributed to the massive death toll that haunts Rwanda to this day.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary means” to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty.22 U.S. President George H.W. Bush, having served as ambassador to the United Nations under President Richard Nixon, understood the importance of international legitimacy and worked to obtain a consensus in favor of a military response to Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked aggression against Kuwait. In an address to Congress in January 1991, Bush hailed a “new world order” in which the bipolar Cold War confrontation would be replaced by U.S. and Soviet cooperation to keep the peace and repel aggression. Multilateral action under the auspices of the United Nations was the key to upholding this new world order. Unlike previous U.N. peacekeeping missions, which sought to maintain neutrality and restrain the use of firepower, the intervention against Iraq was led by the U.S. Central Command and employed a massive amount of force. Operation Desert Storm commenced in January 1991 and quickly became associated in the public view as a U.S., not a U.N., war. Despite an asymmetry of power that heavily favored the United States, regime change was not among the political objectives of the Kuwait war, and Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq. This outcome ultimately led to another U.S. war with Iraq, in 2003, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Saddam Hussein had repeatedly defied a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the administration of George W. Bush worried that his regime’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction could lead to the acquisition of nuclear weaponry by terrorists hostile to the United States.

Since September 11, 2001, the military interventionism of the United States has largely occurred outside of the context of the United Nations. George W. Bush infamously rejected the necessity of international legitimacy as a precondition for military operations and asserted a unilateral and preemptive approach to protecting U.S. national interests. A set of foreign policy principles that became known as the “Bush Doctrine” emphasized the necessity of preemptive action to forestall emerging threats and promoted democratic regime change abroad. Bush explicitly denied that the United States had an obligation to secure U.N. authorization for military actions in pursuit of U.S. national security interests. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq reflected the central tenets of the Bush Doctrine: preemptive strikes at countries suspected of harboring terrorists, with the ultimate political objective of democratic regime change in each country. U.S. forces are still embroiled in these conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter of which has surpassed Vietnam as the longest-running war in American history. Although Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, sought to restore multilateralism and international legitimacy as key requisites for U.S. interventions abroad, the outbreak of violence and the perpetration of gross human rights violations in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan raise critical questions about the future role of the United Nations in maintaining global security and stability.

The United Nations faces another pressing challenge in the 21st century: what to do about the human impact on the environment? Although most agree on the necessity of a global approach to minimizing the negative effects of human activity on the ecology and climate, this approach has proven difficult owing to the demands of developing countries for protections for their domestic industries and the abiding suspicion, shared by many conservatives in the United States, about global governance and federal regulation. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), founded in 1972 with its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, is tasked with ecosystem management and assistance to developing countries, with the implementation of environmentally sustainable development policies. The proceedings of the second major U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, reflected a number of challenges that the UNEP continues to face today. The perennial opposition of U.S. conservatives to internationally binding protocols was demonstrated by President George H.W. Bush’s refusal to attend the conference. The developing countries in attendance expressed frustration at the global wealth gap, arguing that only the rich, industrialized countries could afford to implement the convention’s proposed environmental measures. The resulting resolutions and declarations were watered down and nonbinding. Despite having achieved some notable successes, such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol to restrict emissions and a 2012 treaty limiting the use of toxic mercury, the United Nations Environmental Programme remains hobbled by divisions between developed and developing countries, lack of enforcement mechanisms, the existence of several competing U.N. bureaucracies, and the continued influence of U.S. conservatives who reject the imposition of environmental regulations.23

The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency in 2016 can be viewed as a triumph for both climate change skeptics and critics of multilateralism. Trump came to power on an “America First” platform that pledged the muscular defense of U.S. interests, on a unilateral basis if necessary. He personally expressed disdain for many of the international organizations that form the framework of the global order, including the United Nations. Far from remaining confined to mere rhetoric, Trump’s “America First” doctrine has guided his administration’s approach to the issue of climate change. On June 1, 2017, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accords, an agreement signed by Barack Obama in 2015 aimed at mitigating the harmful effects of global warming. Trump justified his decision by claiming that adherence to the Paris agreement was bad for the U.S. economy and unfair to American workers. Ironically, the “America First” doctrine repudiates the international order that the United States did so much to create and defend after the Second World War, reflecting the ambivalence many Americans feel about U.S. international obligations and global leadership.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship on the United Nations tends to fall into one or more of these categories: studies that focus on a particular country’s or region’s relationship with the organization; examinations of the nature, structure, and functions of the organization;24 and evaluations of the efficacy of peacekeeping operations and multilateral development policies and projects.25 Much of this scholarship has been inspired by the failures of the United Nations and therefore pointedly seeks to examine the root causes of these failures and to inquire as to whether the organization is still capable of performing what was at the time of its founding considered its primary function: the maintenance of global stability and security. Although many of these scholars are justifiably critical of the United Nations, they tend to agree that the world would be a more chaotic, violent place without it. A small but distinct historiographical trend examines the intellectual history of the United Nations. Historian Mark Mazower has penned two seminal works on the ideological underpinnings of the United Nations specifically and of the idea of global governance more generally.26 Paul Kennedy, a distinguished scholar of international history, has written a magisterial volume on the past, present, and future of the United Nations, the title of which was drawn from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.27

The literature on the role of the United States in the United Nations cannot accurately be described as robust; there are many more works on the early period covering the organization’s founding than there are on the later periods of waning U.S. influence in it.28 Many of these works are narrative and not argumentative. Thus, distinct historiographical schools have yet to emerge. Although most historians have acknowledged that the United States played a key role in the creation and organization of the United Nations, others have drawn attention to the contributions of other nations.29 To date, no single comprehensive volume spans the length of the organization’s existence. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a “unipolar” moment in the early 1990s, during which the United States seemed to enjoy unrivaled global dominance, U.S. officials, politicians, and scholars reexamined the relationship between the so-called indispensable nation and the world organization it had done so much to create.30 This reexamination was partly driven by the conservative turn of the 1980s, which reasserted U.S. national strength, reaffirmed the economic principles of the free market, and viewed international institutions with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Primary Sources

Many primary sources are available to scholars and students of the United States and the United Nations. The United Nations itself publishes on a wide variety of international challenges and the difficulties facing the organization today and in the past. Additionally, many of its subagencies and committees release studies of the organization’s history and contributions to international peacekeeping and economic and social development. The United Nations Archives and Records Management Section website is search-enabled and contains records pertaining to the history of the United Nations. Many of these records are available electronically (see the link in the next section). The website also provides finding aids for researchers wishing to visit the headquarters of the U.N. Archives and Records Management Section in New York City. The Public Papers of the Secretaries General of the United Nations is a series of edited volumes, with primary source documents augmented by background information in the form of narrative history. The Public Papers are widely available at academic libraries in the United States and around the world. The Foreign Relations of the United States series, compiled and published by the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian, contains a number of sections on U.S. policies in the United Nations. Many of the volumes are available on the State Department’s website (see the link in the following section). Researchers able to travel to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, will be interested in the General Records of the Department of State (Record Group 59) and may also find useful documents in Record Group 43: International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions.

Further Reading

Bloomfield, Lincoln P. The United Nations and U.S. Foreign Policy: A New Look at the National Interest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.Find this resource:

    Coate, Roger A., ed. U.S. Policy and the Future of the United Nations. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1994.Find this resource:

      Finger, Seymour Maxwell. American Ambassadors at the UN: People, Politics, and Bureaucracy in Making Foreign Policy. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988.Find this resource:

        Gaiduk, Ilya V. Divided Together: The United States and the Soviet Union in the United Nations, 1945–1965. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012.Find this resource:

          Gregg, Robert W. About Face? The United States and the United Nations. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1993.Find this resource:

            Hoopes, Townsend, and Douglas Brinkley. FDR and the Creation of the U.N. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

              Jackson, Richard L. The Non-Aligned, the UN, and the Superpowers. New York: Praeger, 1983.Find this resource:

                Kennedy, Paul. The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations. New York: Random House, 2006.Find this resource:

                  Lowe, Vaughan, Adam Roberts, Jennifer Welsh, and Dominik Zaum, eds. The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                    Mazower, Mark. Governing the World: The History of an Idea, 1815 to the Present. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.Find this resource:

                      Moore, John Allphin. To Create a New World? American Presidents and the United Nations. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.Find this resource:

                        Pruden, Caroline. Conditional Partners: Eisenhower, the United Nations, and the Search for a Permanent Peace. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                          Russell, R. B. A History of the United Nations Charter: The Role of the United States, 1940–1945. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1958.Find this resource:

                            Schlesinger, Stephen C. Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations: A Story of Superpowers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies and Enemies, and Their Quest for a Peaceful World. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                              Smith, Adam C. “The United States of America.” In Providing Peacekeepers: The Politics, Challenges, and Future of United Nations Peacekeeping Contributions. Edited by Alex J. Bellamyand Paul D. Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                                Troy, Gil. Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                                  Notes:

                                  (1.) The Atlantic Charter,” Declaration of Principles issued by the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, August 14, 1941.

                                  (2.) Quoted in Townsend Hoopesand Douglas Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 27.

                                  (3.) Hoopes and Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N.

                                  (4.) Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations (New York: Random House, 2006), p. 180.

                                  (5.) For more on the changing definitions of human rights, see Roland Burke, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

                                  (6.) For more, see Ilya V. Gaiduk, Divided Together: The United States and the Soviet Union in the United Nations, 1945–1965 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012).

                                  (7.) Seymour Maxwell Finger, American Ambassadors at the UN: People, Politics, and Bureaucracy in Making Foreign Policy (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988), p. 49.

                                  (8.) Finger, American Ambassadors at the UN, p. 58.

                                  (9.) Finger, American Ambassadors at the UN, pp. 60–61.

                                  (10.) Andrew W. Cordierand Wilder Foote, eds., Public Papers of the Secretaries General of the United Nations, Volume 1: Trygve Lie, 1946–1953 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 487–509.

                                  (11.) Finger, American Ambassadors at the UN, pp. 119–20.

                                  (12.) For more on U Thant’s role in defusing the crisis, see A. Walter Dornand Robert Pauk, “Unsung Mediator: U Thant and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Diplomatic History 22.2 (April 2009): 261–92.

                                  (13.) For more, see Caroline Pruden, Unconditional Partners: Eisenhower, the United Nations, and the Search for a Permanent Peace (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998).

                                  (14.) Kennedy, The Parliament of Man, pp. 151–53.

                                  (15.) Alexander Dallin, The Soviet Union at the United Nations: An Inquiry into Soviet Motives and Objectives (New York: Praeger, 1962), p. 124.

                                  (16.) Richard L. Jackson, The Non-Aligned, the UN, and the Superpowers (New York: Praeger, 1983), p. 28.

                                  (17.) For more, see Gil Troy, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

                                  (18.) Finger, American Ambassadors at the UN, pp. 289–96.

                                  (19.) Finger, American Ambassadors at the UN, pp. 295–96.

                                  (20.) Kennedy, The Parliament of Man, p. 105.

                                  (21.) For more, see Carrie Booth Walling, All Necessary Measures: The United Nations and Humanitarian Intervention (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

                                  (22.) Kennedy, The Parliament of Man, p. 92.

                                  (23.) Kennedy, The Parliament of Man, pp. 156–65.

                                  (24.) For example, Andrew Boyd, Fifteen Men on a Powder Keg: A History of the U.N. Security Council (New York: Stein and Day, 1971); and Vaughan Lowe, Adam Roberts, Jennifer Welsh, and Dominik Zaum, eds., The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

                                  (25.) See, for instance, Arthur Lee Burns, Peacekeeping by U.N. Forces (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975); Rajeshwar Dayal, Mission for Hammarskjöld: The Congo Crisis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976); Louis Emmerij, Richard Jolly, and Thomas George Weiss, Ahead of the Curve? U.N. Ideas and Global Challenges (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), and the series of which it is a part, the United Nations Intellectual History Project; Richard Jolly, U.N. Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); and George Martelli, Experiment in World Government: An Account of the United Nations Operation in the Congo, 1960–1964 (London: Johnson Publications, 1966).

                                  (26.) Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009) and Governing the World: The History of an Idea, 1815 to the Present (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).

                                  (27.) Kennedy, The Parliament of Man.

                                  (28.) Studies on the founding and early years of the United Nations include Andrew Baker, Constructing a Post-War Order: The Rise of US Hegemony and the Origins of the Cold War (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011); Thomas M. Campbell, Masquerade Peace: America’s UN Policy, 1944–1945 (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1973); Robert A. Divine, Second Chance: The Triumph of Internationalism in America During World War II (New York: Atheneum, 1967); Townsend Hoopesand Douglas Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997); Dorothy B. Robins, Experiment in Democracy: The Story of U.S. Citizen Organizations in Forging the Charter of the United Nations (New York: Parkside Press, 1971); R. B. Russell, A History of the United Nations Charter: The Role of the United States, 1940–1945 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1958); Georg Schild, Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks: American Economic and Political Postwar Planning in the Summer of 1944 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995); and Stephen Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations: A Story of Superpowers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies and Enemies, and Their Quest for a Peaceful World (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003).

                                  (29.) See, for instance, Mazower, No Enchanted Palace, which emphasizes the contributions of South Africa’s Jan Smuts, British imperialists, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India.

                                  (30.) On the “unipolar moment,” see Hal Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).