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How to Keep From Overselling or Underestimating the United Nations

Mark P. Lagon and David Shorr
March 2007

Stanley Foundation program officer David Shorr and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Mark Lagon resist both the skeptics and boosters of the United Nations by pointing toward appropriate expectations for the world body, and other intergovernmental forums. They counter the perception of the United Nations as primarily an instrument of international law, but also stress the importance of politics and diplomacy within international organizations for the reinforcement of a rules-based order. The so-called “court of world opinion” is not actually a court. At the same time, though, the international norms that emerge from the political (and sometimes legal) process are critical to the promotion of peace, freedom, and prosperity.

The authors examine the emerging concept of the sovereignty of national governments as a responsibility and the current state of the norm of noninterference in internal affairs of UN member states. National governments are the “owners” of international organizations such as the United Nations, and their political will is the animating force of any collective action. Yet the UN Charter also promise the citizens of the world’s nations that its ideals will be felt in their day-to-day lives, and governments must be accountable for the treatment of their own people, particularly when it comes to the most severe abuses. New mechanisms and norms such as the Human Rights Council and the responsibility to protect were developed with this in mind.

Since the United Nations is a creature of its member states, their expectations for the world body effectively establish its possibilities and limits. The world’s intergovernmental bodies offer mechanisms to set agendas, agree on fundamental approaches, decide on courses of action, and implement programs to deal with the entire range of international problems. The world community needs vehicles for actions on which they can agree, but they have to muster the political will to agree in the first place. The authors pinpoint the political dysfunctions of the United Nations and offer recommendations for how they can be corrected.

This document is part of the Stanley Foundation's "Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide" series.
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