Is the United Nations (UN) effective in international affairs anymore? The general perception is: it is effective when major powers allow it to be effective. However, it depends a lot on how one defines effectiveness. If one defines it the way George Bush defines it; effectiveness is following the US lead and endorsing US wars.

Beyond the very high publicity security aspects, though, there’s the question of what the UN does on issues of development, wiping out communicable diseases, childhood education, clean water, economic development; the whole range of issues that one hears very little about. In those ways, the UN is much more consistently effective. Though it is not perfect, but it does a lot better on those issues than it does on issues of peace and security where the heavy hand of the US, through the veto in the Security Council (UNSC) and in other ways, comes to bear on what the UN can and cannot do.

The UN is a multi-purpose agency directed to specific goals including collective security, peace-keeping, health, environmental and human rights concerns. Although the concerns for UN are many, there are two classical viewpoints which divide opinion on the UN’s effectiveness in global politics; the liberal and the realist argument. The realists view international organisations such as the UN ‘of little help in channeling the perpetual power struggle between states, since they cannot change the anarchical structure of the international system. In contrast, the liberal view, strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant, argues that ‘well functioning international organisations contribute to the formation of peace.’ Given that the UN is a multi-purpose agency, it would be inappropriate to evaluate its effectiveness based on a specific goal, i.e., security.

Collective security was a priority of the UN’s agenda post World War II. However, realists may have the slight edge when they argue that the logic of collective security is contrasted with the difficulties of its application. Unsurprisingly, there was a large sense of distrust after the Second World War. The US invasions of Vietnam, Grenada and Panama in addition to the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan are merely a few examples of the constant proxy war operations conducted throughout the second half of the 20th century. This highlighted the ineffectiveness of the UNSC in preventing conflict, and strongly supported realist thinkers that there is no supranational authority capable of wielding overwhelming power. The realist school view international organisations used by powerful states to implement their power politics more effectively and to pursue self-interest. Kant, however, claims that international organisations can constrain decision-makers by positively promoting peace. However, liberals claim that after the Cold War it became more difficult for states and diplomats to accept that what happened within states was of no concern to outsiders. As a result, the UN became more involved in the mediation between nations, which granted it higher respect from member states. By the mid-1990s the UN had become involved in maintaining international security by resisting aggression between states. Liberalists including Kofi Annan argued that the ‘security dilemma’, which is built on the premise that one country improves its security at the expense of other states, had been averted.

With regards to peace-keeping, although realists make the point that the network of international organisations is spread very unevenly across the globe, liberalists have the upper hand when defending UN success rates in areas of civil conflict, Namibia (1989-90), El Salvador (1991-95) and Cambodia (1991-93) are repeatedly cited as success stories. In addition, the presence of peacekeeping forces is involved in the democratisation processes. As Kant claims in his works, one of the objectives of international organisations such as the UN is to democratise single party countries through this process, allowing countries to benefit in areas such as health and human rights and prevents further conflict. Thus, in agreement with Kant’s liberalist theory that international institutions promote positive results in countries in need of aid and mediation; It can be concluded that the UN has been an effective institution in establishing peace and promoting health-care efforts. Similarly, the UN has been equally effective in raising awareness and legislating environmental practices in most of its member states. The Kyoto Protocol was a major step towards the UN framework on climate change.

Establishing a welcome precedent, the 128 out of 193 UN member states voted for a motion on 21 December, 2017, that rejected US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Though US used its veto power at the UNSC to block a similar measure. While the vote has little practical impact, it is not legally binding; it is a considerable embarrassment for the US as it reflects global opinion. Though the UN has failed in assuring the right of self determination to disenfranchise groups, our convoluted world needs the UN. The UNSC must be strengthened to enable the UN as a whole to confront and resolve complex challenges of our world, such as resolution of Kashmir Dispute as per the Resolutions of UN. Lastly, as former US President Obama once said, the UN is imperfect, but it is also indispensable.


The writer works for Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).