Problems with the UN

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6662.htm)

Countries vary in the strength of their adherence to the UN goals.  Some see it as a Western attempt to rule the world rather than as the implementation of an agreement which they had freely signed.  They vary in the degree to which they are prepared to submit to its rulings, so progress towards its goals has been patchy.

There have been several fundamental problems with the UN’s legitimacy and its operation:

  • The UN Security Council has too much power, and too few checks and balances on its operation, to be seen as a legitimate legal authority (
  • The ‘permanent five’ members of the Security Council are countries which were the victors of the Second World War (America, Britain, China, France and Russia).  The entire structure of the UN was predicated on the assumption that the members of the Security Council would be able to reach agreement on important matters.  They often don’t agree – pursuing their own agendas.  Their disagreements and their power of veto often prevent decisions from being reached, in what the Economist described as Mission Impossible on 4 January 2007.
  • The structure of the Security Council is unrepresentative and there is popular support for an expanded membership: “A BBC World Service poll that surveyed 23 countries finds nearly universal support for dramatic reforms in the United Nations in parallel with a desire for increased UN power in the world”. Single seats for the EU, and for other emerging groups like the Southern African Development Community (SADC), could have a role in streamlining representation at the UN in a similar style to the EU’s use of the Commission to represent it at the World Trade Organisation.
  • The UN Security Council is deeply divided. Western countries are pushing for active intervention in the affairs of countries which are seen to be violating human rights, but China and Russia want to minimise what they see as UN interference in domestic affairs.  For example, on 12 July 2008 Aljazeera published a report entitled Russia defends UN veto on Zimbabwe:

“UN sanctions ‘would have created a dangerous precedent, opening the way for Security Council interference in the internal affairs of states in connection with one or another political event…  which is a gross violation of the UN charter,’ Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.”

Russia’s action should not have come as a surprise to Britain and America.  It has acted similarly on many previous occasions.

  • American support for the UN is at best partial and there is a lot of opposition:
    • Some Americans believe that they can do a better job of peace-keeping than the UN. Robert Kagan for example, in a Prospect article in August 2002 entitled The power divide, argued that American willingness to use its power was the best guarantor of world peace:

“Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually as well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of “moral consciousness,” it has become dependent on America’s willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics.”

  • Some see the UN as an international conspiracy to undermine freedom.[1]
  • Some see it as corrupt, inefficient and wasteful.[2]
  • Israel’s repeated flouting of UN resolutions and America’s use of its position on the UN Security Council to support Israel, for example in the building of settlements in the West Bank, have undermined the UN’s authority and legitimacy.[3]

The lack of support for the UN further reduces its effectiveness, in a vicious circle, particularly in its legal role – so countries tend to resort to Self-Protection instead (7.2.7).

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014


[1] In his book The New World Order, Pat Robertson described a plot to place a “satanic dictator” in charge; this was quoted by Madeleine Albright in her book The Mighty and the Almighty (p.  80), and she quoted other similar views.

[2] John Bolton, America’s ambassador to the UN, was among many who were critical of what the Economist described as its “appalling waste, mismanagement, and costly ineffectiveness” – in an article entitled An ambassador’s fight for life, which was published on 16 November 2006 and was available in April 2018 at http://www.economist.com/node/8173295.

[3] Israel’s flouting of UN Resolutions included Resolution 242 for example, the text of which was available in April 2018 at http://www.un.org/french/documents/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/242%20(1967)&Lang=E.

America vetoed a UN Resolution which condemned the building of settlements on the West Bank, as reported by the BBC on 19 February 2011; this report was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12512732.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that some people see the UN as being hostile to Israel and failing to protect its interests.  An example written by Claudia Rosett, entitled Who’s Dissin’ Whom, was published on the NRO website on 26 July 2006; it was available in April 2018 at https://www.nationalreview.com/2006/07/whos-dissin-whom-jrinternet/.