The Expectations Game at the United Nations (and the Relevance of the UN General Assembly)

The General Assembly is meeting once again in New York, so it is prime season for critics to list all the ways that the United Nations is not fulfilling its mission. In the United States, UN bashing can take bizarre forms, such as the Texas judge who has been preparing residents for an invasion by the world body. In more reasonable quarters, the UN is a perennial target for scorn.

As we are seeing with the recent protests in the Muslim world, much of the criticism of the UN is based on mis-information. Here are a few key points of fact that should guide our assessment of the New York-based body:

  1. The United Nations is not a world government. Member states (i.e. those seated in the General Assembly) retain their sovereignty.
  2. The UN has a very small annual budget. In fact, the cost of all UN operations – including peacekeeping – amount to only about one-third of Virginia’s public expenditures.
  3. Apart from recognition of new member states, the General Assembly has very little authority. The UN Security Council – which includes the veto-wielding states of Russia, China, France, the UK, and the USA – is the one UN body with significant authority.
  4. As long as the authoritarian states of China and Russia sit as permanent members on the Security Council, that body will never be a great champion of human rights and democracy.

So, residents of Texas and elsewhere, you should have no fear of a looming UN invasion. That is not to say this world forum is irrelevant to our lives. Here I want to hone in on one often-overlooked dimension of the UN General Assembly.

As noted above, the General Assembly is mostly a talking shop. It is a body that mostly debates and passes resolutions without binding provisions. The qualifier, though, is key. No other body in the world lays legitimate claim to recognizing state sovereignty. Unless the GA gives its blessing of “club membership,” sovereign statehood is only an aspiration. This is why Taiwan is only a de facto state, and Somaliland is just an autonomous region of the failed state of Somalia. Thus, it is supremely ironic that right-wing UN bashers would accuse the UN of plots to strip states of their sovereignty. In fact, it is the UN that reinforces and recognizes the sovereignty of states.

That is not to say that the UN system of recognizing state sovereignty is without flaws. As my forthcoming book will discuss, the current system actually facilitates state failure by expecting very little of sovereign states. In short, the current system emphasizes the rights of states, while demanding little in the way of responsibilities. Some innovative thinkers go so far as to demand that the UN consider withdrawing statehood recognition as a way of incentivizing effective governance.

As the entire UN membership reconvenes in New York, what are your thoughts on the successes and failures of the United Nations?

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.


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