The United Nations; 65 Years of Success or Failure?

un fightBy Ian Howarth

The preamble of the founding Charter of the United Nations (1945) sets out its principles, and its norms, and as such is probably the fairest way by which to judge the organisations success or failure.


  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,


(UN Charter, San Francisco, 26th June 1945)

The basic structure of the United Nations (UN) consists of three key components, the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Secretary General’s Office.  The General Assembly is the body where all member states have a seat and a vote on resolutions placed by the various member states before the Assembly. Here resolutions are passed by a simple majority.  In the case of the admittance of new members or matters of great importance such as peace and security a two thirds majority is required.’ However, the decisions of the General Assembly are not legally binding on the member states and their enforcement relies on the moral weight of the UN and world opinion.

The Security Council is made up of fifteen member states, five permanent members, China, United States, United Kingdom, France and the Russian Federation which represent the great power relationships as they stood at the UN’s foundation, and ten member states elected by the General Assembly for two year terms.  Currently the ten elected seats are held by, Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Rwanda and Togo.  The Security Council is the power wielding institution of the UN, the five permanent members each hold the ability to veto any motion placed before the council, (the ten elected members do not have a veto). Resolutions adopted by the Council are legally binding on all the member states, and the Council has the powers to enforce its resolutions through economic sanctions or even military action.  The Security Council is the body within international relations that grants legitimacy or otherwise to the actions of its member states.

The successes and failures of the UN can be measured against the achievements or otherwise of its founding principles and norms, the fundamental one being that “armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest”. In short the UN was established by the victors of the Second World War to prevent another world war, which became a more urgent endeavour in the fresh glow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is apparent that the UN has failed to bring about world peace and end all war.  However, it would be wrong to conclude that due to this the organization is a failure.  There are gradients of success and failure and when one looks at the broad scope of the post-war period up to the present there are clear initiatives taken by the UN that have averted armed conflict and brought the aggressors to the bargaining table.  There are also periods over the last 57 years when the UN has failed miserably in its responsibilities under its founding charter, and in the next few paragraphs I shall highlight and explore these failures and successes and attempt to form a judgment on the performance of this regime.

The failures of the UN are unfortunately more numerous than its achievements, incidents in which the UN failed to intervene include Vietnam (1954-1973), Afghanistan (1979-1989), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), East Timor (1978) Rwanda (1995), the Invasion of Iraq (2003) and the current on-going bloody civil war in Syria to name but a few.  The first incident that I am going to highlight is the Budapest uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring (1968), during which Hungary and Czechoslovakia both nations that had been under Soviet domination since 1945 briefly regained their independence, before the Soviet tanks rolled in and quashed the uprisings.  The failure here of the United Nations highlighted the true measure of its powers within the cold war bipolar system.  The USSR and the USA had both agreed spheres of influence, and Hungary and Czechoslovakia lay well within the Soviet sphere, consequently the UN was handicapped to intervene on the principle of self-determination set out in its charter due to the veto powers of the Security Council.  This incident just went to further highlight the power that the superpowers held over the UN and their manipulation of the UN in their continuing cold war.

The above example also highlights the way in which the decision making processes of the UN can and often do prevent the UN from being a more pro-active force in international relations.  The powers held by the permanent members of the Security Council mean that the interests of these members can never be placed under the scrutiny of the General Assembly or the Secretary General.

Another failure of great significance is Rwanda in 1995; this is significant due to the fact that the Cold War was over.  The failure in this case was entirely down to a lack of leadership and an inability by the UN to galvanize the necessary support from the western member states in order to send in an intervention force, consequently the world looked on as hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were massacred by their Hutu neighbours in a demonstration of ethnic cleansing not seen since Stalin’s purges.  This humanitarian disaster was symptomatic of the failures of the UN throughout the 1990’s.  Srebrenica in the same year as the Rwanda genocide saw ‘7000 Bosnian Muslim’s’ (Calvocoressi; 2001) massacred in the worst genocide in Europe since the end of the Second World War.  In both instances the UN failed to intervene in time, and in the case of Srebrenica the Dutch UN peacekeepers watched on as thousands were taken from the UN enclave and murdered.

These incidents only went to highlight the inability of the UN to operate without the support of its member states and primarily the Security Council.  The weak mandate in Bosnia led to the appalling events of Srebrenica and no mandate at all led to genocide in Rwanda.

In short the failures of the UN since its inception can be placed into two categories; those that were related to the cold war power plays of the Superpowers e.g. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Angola etc. This meant the Security Council was never going to intervene with both the United States and the Soviet Union holding a veto.  And those that were down to poor leadership and a lack of political will, such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and East Timor (1978).

However despite the indications above to the contrary the UN has recorded a number of successes, which include Korea (1950-1952) East Timor (1999-2002), Persian Gulf (1991) Cyprus (1972- Present), Congo (1960-1964) Sierra Leone (1998) Kosovo (1999) and Libya (2011).

The first significant and arguably successful intervention under UN auspices after its foundation was the Korean War.  The UN largely under American pressure landed a massive coalition force on the Korean peninsula in order to preserve South Korean independence in the face of North Korean aggression.  However, despite the failure as the United States considers it to defeat the North Koreans the UN did succeed in re-establishing the pre-war status quo on the peninsula a situation which remains to this day.  However the success in Korea was the first indication of the nature of the relationship between Washington and the UN in New York.  The United States was intent on using the UN to further its fight against communism and exacerbate attempts by the UN to intervene in proxy wars across the world e.g. Angola, El Salvador.

Despite the UN’s failure to intervene when Indonesia invaded East Timor shortly after its independence from the Dutch in 1978 the UN intervention to preserve East Timorese self-determination in the wake of a wave of violence following the referendum on independence in September 2000 was an overwhelming success.  Although the majority of UN forces arrived a month late on the ground it clearly prevented a more serious incident and directly led to the independence of East Timor from Indonesia in 2002.  Sierra Leone also represents an achievement by the UN although a lot less resounding than East Timor, the UN force in Sierra Leone initially faced a lot of pressure due to a weak mandate and an insufficient number of troops.  However, after the UN supported British intervention in 2000/2001 to re-enforce the UN mission and the adoption of a more robust mandate a final resolution to that nation’s decade long conflict between the government and rebel forces was secured.  A UN intervention in Angola has also brought about a settlement after 30 years of war.

The Persian Gulf War was also a significant UN achievement.  The coalition force that was assembled during operation Desert Shield in late 1990 and early 1991 was done so under a Security Council resolution.  The defeat of Saddam Hussein and the liberation of Kuwait was a resounding success, which brought about great hopes for future UN intervention’s which were later dashed by the incidents in Bosnia and elsewhere. The implementation of sanctions against Iraq by the UN was also initially a success, with an estimated 85% of Iraq’s biological weapons stockpiles being destroyed, and the entire nuclear weapon development programme being shut down.  However, later events that led up to the US/UK led invasion of Iraq in 2003 marked one of the UNs lowest points in its sixty years of history.  The divisions that opened up in the Security Council before and during that period were far greater than at any time since the Cold War, and utterly paralysed the UN as an actor in the ensuing conflict.

Other areas of the world that UN intervention has brought about positive results include Ethiopia and Eritrea.  The Congo in the early 1960’s almost bankrupted the UN and led to heavy casualties amongst the UN Force but it did succeed in ending the civil war and re-uniting the Congo.  It was the first UN led intervention within a member state, something the charter forbade.  The lessons of this intervention also partly explain the reluctance within the UN to intervene in conflicts within member states such as Bosnia, and Rwanda, as well as the on-going war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Despite the UNs failure to end war and its significant and numerous failures, the organisation has brought about change for the good, and remains the primary force for conflict resolution and international cooperation.  The existence of rival institutions such as NATO which also aims to promote global security has weakened the ability of the UN.  However, significantly there has so far been no third world war.  It is arguable that the institutional framework of the UN provided the superpowers with a vital non-violent means to confront and discuss issues in a formal environment within which each felt equally legitimate and non-threatened.  It is important to note that up until Gorbachev’s détente of the late 1980’s there was no regular contact between the Soviet Union and the USA, and therefore without the contact that the UN provided, misunderstandings could have grown into something much more serious.

The UN was established primarily to prevent a third world war and provide conflicting parties a means by which to meet and negotiate.  Within the terms of that ambition this regime has so far succeeded.  Furthermore, its norms and principles have been accepted by all the member states and although not yet implemented by all, the fundamental ideal of human rights, and meaningful discussion rather than war has gained ground and greater acceptance throughout the world. +


Calvocoressi, Peter (2001) ‘World Politics 1945-2000’ p346-347 Longman: Harlow England p235, 237

Krasner, Stephen (1983) ‘International Regimes’ p2, Cornell University Press, Ithaca: New York.

Stern, Geoffrey (2000) ‘The Structure of International Society’ 2nd Edition, p237, Pinter: London


Political Cosmopolitanism and the Challenges it Faces

By Ian HowarthHuman Rights Abuse

The building blocks of the cosmopolitan international order can be found in what English school theorists such as Headley Bull and Charles Manning call the ‘four key pillars of international law, diplomacy, international organisations and the balance of power’ (Evans & Newnham 1998: 276). These four key pillars determine relations between nations, and form modern international society, and as such are the basis upon which the cosmopolitan international order stands.  The United Nations (UN), the European Union and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) represent common values and goals.  While the Security Council enforces the balance of power, and the implementation of international law in concert with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which upholds and prosecutes that law.

Cosmopolitanism is often mistaken as little more than a framework for moral judgements rather than as a perspective political framework for world order.  ‘Political cosmopolitanism…refers in general to any position which prescribes types of political practice and institution that operate over, above or across the boundaries of the nation-state and which are at least potentially global in their reach.’ (Hutchings 1999: 153-154)

This definition is clearly very general, and although political cosmopolitanism prescribes its framework above, the moral cosmopolitanism that most people are familiar with fleshes it out.  It is impossible to separate its moral or ethical foundations, from the political ‘frameworks’ it aims to promote as these frameworks are based on certain principles and ethical assertions that western societies have come to represent, defend and seek to export.

It is crucial to highlight political cosmopolitanisms emphasis on ‘frameworks’ in this discussion, as political cosmopolitanism does not necessarily seek to create world government.  In fact ‘most contemporary political cosmopolitans are wary of the idea of a world state formulated according to the familiar principle of state sovereignty.’ (Hutchings 1999: 154)  This is due to the potential for global tyranny within such a system.  ‘In general, contemporary work on political cosmopolitanism is premised on the importance of democratising the covert and undemocratic cosmopolitan decision-making which is already going on in the world.’ (Hutchings 1999: 154)

What political cosmopolitanism seeks to establish is a trans-national system of institutions that promote and protect what moral cosmopolitans see as fundamental human rights, such as democratic governance, freedom of speech, expression, and religion, freedom from unprovoked aggression.  It aims to do this through institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) the World Health Organisation (WHO) and to some extent the United Nations (UN).

The ICC is probably the single best example of a cosmopolitan political structure as it has a global reach that rises above national sovereignty.  It seeks to enforce international standards of behaviour in war, and bring the perpetrators of genocide and tyranny to justice.  In short it aims to uphold the moral certainty’s of western and cosmopolitan thought.

The International Order that cosmopolitans strive for is therefore simply defined as a secular network of global institutions that strive to establish norms of behaviour throughout the international system, based on western concepts of human rights, and representative governance.  It aims to achieve this goal through a number of means the primary and most visible one being the globalisation of international trade.  This has brought the world closer together and made nation states more dependent not only on their own economic and political stability but also on the political and economic stability of their major trading partners, and international financial markets.  This growth in international trade and the emergence of an identifiable global economy has also led to the need for structural controls, and the creation of rules and obligations that apply to the whole of the international economy in order to ensure fair and free trade on a level playing field.   This has been partly achieved through organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the World Bank (WB) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Despite the fact that all three of these organisations are criticised by many cosmopolitan commentators as existing and operating in a moral vacuum the spread of their power and values has had a positive effect on the cosmopolitan agenda.  All three organisations work transnationally and uphold western economic ideals, which promote certain types of government, property right and individualism.  This individualism leads to an awareness of one’s self within a system creating demand and pressure for change.  These developments are seen widely by many sociologists and historians as the keystones that led to European political enlightenment and eventual democratic reform.  This therefore is what the international cosmopolitan order is, and the institutions mentioned above are the vehicles for its spread and its success.   However, this bold idea held aloft by many western intellectuals, and implemented rather cynically by bureaucrats and politicians is not without challenge.

The primary non-western ideology that gains the most media attention and creates the greatest debate is Islamic fundamentalism, and theocracy in general, but this is not the only non-cosmopolitan view of the world.   The Non-Aligned Movement that was first given voice in the ‘1955 Bandung Conference’ (Evans & Newnham 1998: 45), also has a very different view of the world.  The key principles of this movement can be summarised as a belief in the primacy of national sovereignty and consequently of non-intervention of foreign powers or international organisations in their internal affairs.  This later point when taking into account the type of government prevalent within the members of this international grouping is problematic for moral cosmopolitanism.  These governments can be generally defined as autocratic and repressive yet with diverse and rapidly growing capitalist economies.

The remaining communist nations of China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba also have very different opinions on the nature of the world order they wish to see prevail.  These powers are strongly opposed to international institutions that promote or aim to project what they see as uniquely western values.  Believing that the ultimate vision for the international order is a cooperative and self-sufficient society established along socialist principles.

The Non-Aligned Movement along with China argue against cosmopolitan values stating that they have equally legitimate Asian or African Values, which are promoted by state business elites within these nations; ‘turning the ‘liberal idea’ on its head, and arguing that individualism and pluralism actually negated economic success.  Asian values in Malaysia and Singapore meant liberal legislation to control the aspirations and behaviour of youth.’ (Baylis & Smith 2001: 460)  Asian Values are an explanation and justification for their systems of government and their attitudes towards western ideas of governance and human rights, couched in terms of economic benefits as a placation against the excessive aspirations of their young populations.

However many see this simply as a justification for tyranny and repression, that seeks to justify and give legitimacy to human rights violations within Asian states on the back of cultural preservation.  This is the common position of many who argue against the adoption of international norms and values with regard to human rights and the ideal of representative government.  They argue the imposition of western values on Asian or African societies is cultural imperialism, or Americanisation.  I personally believe that these arguments are disingenuous and immoral, as no one enjoys being oppressed, poor and scared, which are the brutal facts that the people who live with the realities of ‘Asian Values’ or ‘African Values’ must face in their day-to-day lives.

There is however an important distinction to be made here as regards to the nature of these non-cosmopolitan perspectives, with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asian Values debate on one side and religious extremism on the other.  While all three represent different non-cosmopolitan perspectives on the nature of international order, the latter two are conducted within the traditional structure of international relations and diplomacy.   They do not actively seek to undermine and ultimately destroy the cosmopolitan agenda, but to maintain themselves as independent, existing outside the cosmopolitan agenda.  Their policies seek to weaken the institutions created as part of the cosmopolitan international order so as to maintain opt-out clauses to meet their specific requirements.

In short the Asian Values debate and the Non Aligned Movement recognise and operate within the international institutions established by the Bretton Woods and United Nations system, and almost all were part of the ‘Geneva consensus on free trade’ (Dunkley 2000: 17), and are members of the WTO.  With all the Non Aligned Movement states recognising the legitimate authority of the United Nations, and using these institutions to promote their interests internationally.

Religious extremism, with a particular emphasis on Islamic fundamentalism, does not operate on the bases of debate within international bodies such as the UN.  The various strands of their argument do not recognise cosmopolitan institutions and more particularly the post war balance of power.  The very aim of this perspective being to destabilise and destroy this balance and it’s supporting structures.   Whereas the previous perspectives aim to persuade and argue using the structures of international society as aides, Islamic fundamentalists preach the destruction of these institutions with the publicised aim of undermining cosmopolitan societies and doing so through terrorism and the fear and distrust it spreads.

It is a common mistake amongst the media and popular debate to portray the terrorist threat as not representing a genuine threat to the current international order.  Furthermore, the individuals behind these terrorist groups are seen as largely simplistic in their approach and possessing no overall global strategic plan for confronting cosmopolitan society.  Whereas it is true to say that the disparate bands of Islamic fundamentalism are not in intimate contact with one another through some James Bond style evil network, they are in common agreement as to their aims and methods.  They are also equally not blind to the clear vulnerabilities of our open pluralistic societies, where freedoms of speech and movement are considered sacrosanct.

September 11th (9/11) was more than just an isolated tragedy; it had a very well thought out objective.  Through the targeting of New York’s financial centre it was a strike against the capitalist bedrock of our western cosmopolitan societies.  Not only did it shake the confidence of the United States, but it also hit the confidence of all the Western Powers, and all those who believe in a cosmopolitan global order.  9/11 placed a global economy gradually climbing out of an economic downturn into a prolonged worldwide recession that hit the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people from Silicon Valley to Mumbai.

The primary goal of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda is to establish Taliban style governments across the Middle East, and eventually the rest of the Islamic world.  With the subsequent threat to oil supply’s this would present this represents a distinct threat to international security, and the security of key nations within the international order, such as Pakistan and Turkey.

The cause of Islamic extremists is one that is utterly opposed to that of cosmopolitans; the two agendas are bipolar opposites that can only clash, as has been argued by realist academics such as Samuel Huntingdon and Benjamin Barber.  Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilisations is in my opinion very much what we are seeing unravelling in the world today, a plural cosmopolitan international order cannot be achieved as long as fundamentalist ideology’s such as that of Al’Queda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and Wahhabism Islam still hold sway in the popular politics of a significant proportion of the populations of Muslim countries.

Osama Bin Laden was hailed as a hero from the West Bank to Jakarta by fundamentalist groups who stir up support amongst the young disaffected and oppressed populations of Islamic countries.  These are the very people that could potentially gain the most from the establishment of an international cosmopolitan political order with its moral and ethical implications for the tyranny’s that oppress them.

Benjamin Barbers Jihad vs. McWorld seeks to highlight the ‘deep crisis of modernization [that] exists in many Muslim countries.  Poor living conditions and few opportunities for improvement have created a young frustrated urban population.’ (Baylis & Smith 2001: 464)  A young population that can see the fruits of western capitalism flaunted in the media and enjoyed by their political elites, yet denied to them by crushing corruption and stagnant economies.  This lack of political and economic reform has led to a democratic deficit in the Arab world that drives these young populations into nationalism fundamentalism, and a hatred for the perceived evils of a corrupt international western regime that is weighted against them.

The answer therefore to the question of whether non-western views undermine the building of a cosmopolitan international order is dependent on the nature of the non-western perspective in question.   As I have previously argued the cultural protectionist arguments of the non-aligned movement and the religious fundamentalists is a smoke screen for unrestrained oppression and violence towards civilian populations.  However in the case of the Non-Aligned Movement it does not threaten the construction of an international cosmopolitan order.  On the contrary taking into account their economic integration with the rest of the international system in the long run it will strengthen calls for democratic and plural societies within these countries.

However with regard to the Middle East and the Islamic world, the democratic deficit a term coined by a recent United Nations Report on the state of political institutions and representation in the Middle East conducted by Arab academics, is resulting in the spread of a misplaced doctrine of hate towards Western Society and cosmopolitanism.   This must be confronted through the active promotion of political and economic reforms within these states, only then can a peaceful cosmopolitan international order be established.

If anything can stop the development of a cosmopolitan international order it is in my opinion the uncontained spread of religious fundamentalism which is spreading instability and violence not only within the Middle East and the wider Muslim world but also within Muslim communities throughout the western world. American and European Muslim communities are having a wedge driven between themselves and the wider cosmopolitan societies they live in.   This is creating a source of tension within previously tolerant societies. The recent brutal terrorist killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, a serving British soldier on the streets of his home town and the reactions of right wing political elements in the UK demonstrate this point vividly.  Events such as this are aimed at causing a breakdown in tolerance and mutual respect between different communities within multi-cultural societies.  They constitute a major threat to a way of life that we have come to consider civilised and in my opinion stand as the greatest force against the spread of cosmopolitan values in the world today.


Baylis, John & Smith, Steve (2001) ‘The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations’ 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford p460, p461-467

Booth, Ken and Smith, Steve (1995) ‘International Relations Theory Today’ Polity Press, Cambridge p110-118

Dunkley, Graham (2000) ‘The Free Trade Adventure: The WTO, the Uruguay Round and Globalism – A Critique’ Zed Books, London p17

Evans, Graham and Newnham, Jeffrey (1998) ‘The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations’ Penguin Books, London p45 & p276

Hutchings, Kimberly, (1999) ‘International Political Theory’ Sage Publications, London p153-154

Ledeen, Michael (2003) ‘The end of the beginning’, The Spectator, 12th April 2003, p14-15

Weaver, Marry Anne (2003) ‘Qatar’s Move Toward Democracy’, National Geographic, March 2003, p89- 105