UN Impotence

UN impotence is clearly visible in that wars have continued to occur; it is caused by political disagreements in the Security Council.

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.

●  President Zelensky has called for fundamental UN reform: “Addressing the UN security council in New York, the Ukrainian president said the fact that Russia – the aggressor state in Ukraine – also has a veto to prevent the security council doing anything to stop the war, made a nonsense of the UN.”

●  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.

●  UN impotence is caused by disagreements in the Security Council.  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.  This was exemplified in an Aljazeera report, Russia defends UN veto on Zimbabwe, relating to proposed UN sanctions in July 2008:

“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’s Prospect article in August 2002, 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.  Pat Robertson described a plot to place a “satanic dictator” in charge, in his book The New World Order – as quoted by Madeleine Albright in her book, The Mighty and the Almighty (p. 80); she also quoted other similar views.

●  John Bolton, America’s ambassador to the UN, was among many who were critical of its bureaucracy.  An Economist article, An ambassador’s fight for life, observed that: “Many observers of the UN share his criticism of its appalling waste, mismanagement, and costly ineffectiveness.”

●  The UN’s authority and legitimacy have been undermined by its inability to prevent Israel from building new settlements on the West Bank – as illustrated by two BBC reports.  Firstly, in February 2011, America used its veto to support Israel: Israeli settlements: US vetoes UNSC resolution.  In December 2016, though, America abstained – Israeli settlements: UN Security Council calls for an end – but “Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not abide by the vote”.  America and Israel were able to defy the whole of the rest of the world, clearly illustrating UN impotence.

As described later, 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).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6662.htm.