The UN’s influence in world affairs has fluctuated over the years, but the organization has gained new prominence in the 1990s. Still, the UN faces many challenges. It must overcome the worst financial crisis in its history. In addition, the UN must continually secure the cooperation of its member nations because the organization has little independent power or authority. But getting that support is not always easy. Many nations are reluctant to defer their own authority and follow the dictates of the UN.
II PURPOSES OF THE UNITED NATIONS The UN today has the same basic purpose and structure as it did when it was founded in 1945. Its primary purpose—and greatest benefit to its members—is to maintain world peace. That, in turn, helps encourage business and international trade. In addition to that primary mission, the UN serves its member countries in a variety of other ways. The UN provides a forum for countries to promote their views and settle conflicts without violence. It allows countries to cooperate to solve world problems, such as poverty, disease, and environmental degradation. It serves as a symbol of international order and global identity. It promotes and coordinates economic and social progress in developing countries, with the idea that such problems create sources of conflict that can lead to war. The UN helps coordinate the work of hundreds of agencies and programs, both within its own organization and outside it. It also collects and publishes international data.
III CREATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS The UN is the result of a long history of efforts to promote international cooperation. In the late 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed a federation or "league" of the world’s nations. Kant believed that such a federation would allow countries to unite and punish any nation that committed an act of aggression. This type of union by nations to protect each other against an aggressor is sometimes referred to as collective security. Kant also felt that the federation would protect the rights of small nations that often become pawns in power struggles between larger countries.
Kant’s idea came to life after World War I (1914-1918). Horrified by the devastation of the war, countries were inspired to come together and work toward peace. They formed a new organization, the League of Nations, to achieve that goal. The League would last from 1920 to 1946 and have a total of 63 member nations through its history, including some of the world’s greatest powers: France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Germany, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But the League had two major flaws. First, several of the world’s most powerful countries were not members, most notably, the United States. Second, League members proved unwilling to oppose aggression by Japan, Italy, and Germany in the 1930s. This aggression ultimately led to World War II (1939-1945). In the end, the League failed in its most basic mission, to prevent another world war.
Despite this failure, the idea of a league did not die. The first commitment to create a new organization came in 1941, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, in which they pledged to work towards a more effective system to keep world peace and promote cooperation. In 1942 representatives of the Allies—the World War II coalition of 26 nations fighting against Germany and Japan—signed a Declaration of United Nations accepting the principles of the Atlantic Charter. The declaration included the first formal use of the term United Nations, a name coined by President Roosevelt. A year later, four of the Allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China—agreed to establish a general international organization. The four countries met in 1944 at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C. and drafted a charter for the new organization. They called the new league the United Nations. But they still could not agree to certain details, such as membership and voting rights.
The four countries met again in early 1945 at a summit in Yalta. There, they settled their differences and called for a conference of nations to complete their work. On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organization convened in San Francisco, with delegates from 50 countries attending. The delegates worked for two months to complete a charter for the UN that included its purpose, principles, and organizational structure. The charter contained a formal agreement committing all the world’s nations to a common set of basic rules governing their relations. The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945.
Like the League of Nations, the UN was founded to promote peace and prevent another world war. The UN recognized it would not be successful unless it had the ongoing support of the world’s most powerful countries. The organization took several steps to ensure that support. To encourage continued U.S. involvement, the UN placed its headquarters in New York City. To reassure the world’s most powerful countries that it would not threaten their sovereignty, the UN gave them veto authority over its most important actions. Five countries received this veto power: the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China. (Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s veto after the breakup of that country in 1991.)
Another major strength of the UN, unlike the earlier League of Nations, is that virtually every territory in the world is a member, or a province, or a colony of a member. Switzerland is an exception, maintaining only an observer mission status, meaning it can participate in UN deliberations but cannot vote. Switzerland has considered becoming a full UN member. Over the years that nation’s voters have rejected two referendums suggesting Switzerland join. The Swiss apparently prefer to maintain their neutral observer status. Some nonmember political entities, such as the Vatican City and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), also have permanent observer mission status at the UN.
IV STRUCTURE OF THE UNITED NATIONS The UN’s charter established six distinct bodies that serve different functions: (1) the General Assembly, (2) the Security Council, (3) the Secretariat, (4) the Economic and Social Council, (5) the International Court of Justice, and (6) the Trusteeship Council.
V GENERAL ASSEMBLY The General Assembly is made up of all 185 member countries, each with one vote. It undertakes all major discussions and decisions about UN actions. It is like a global town hall, providing a powerful medium for countries to put forward their ideas and debate issues. The Assembly can discuss and make recommendations on any issue covered by the UN’s charter. However, the recommendations are not binding because the Assembly has no authority to enforce them. Members decide routine matters with a simple majority vote. Important decisions require a two-thirds majority.
The General Assembly meets annually in regular sessions that generally run from mid-September to mid-December. Recently the General Assembly has been meeting year round. It also convenes for special sessions every few years on specific topics, such as economic cooperation or disarmament. In addition, the Assembly can meet in emergency session to deal with an immediate threat to international peace. At the beginning of each regular session, Assembly members elect a president to preside over the assembly. The Assembly sessions, like most UN deliberations, are simultaneously translated into many languages so that delegates from around the world can understand any speaker.
The General Assembly has the power to admit new members to the UN. It approves the budget for UN programs and operations. The Assembly can establish agencies and programs to carry out its recommendations. It elects members to serve on certain agencies and programs, and it coordinates those programs through various committees.
VI SECURITY COUNCIL The Security Council is the most powerful body in the UN. It is responsible for maintaining international peace, and for restoring peace when conflicts arise.