Does the UN Still Matter?

With 192 members and a mandate that covers everything from security to refugees to public health, the United Nations is the world’s only global organization. But polls in the United States show that two-thirds of Americans think the UN is doing a poor job, and many believe it was tarnished by corruption during the Iraq oil-for-food program under Saddam Hussein. Many also blame the UN for failing to solve the Middle East’s myriad problems.

But such views reflect a misunderstanding of the UN’s nature. The UN is more an instrument of its member states than an independent actor in world politics.

True, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon can make speeches, convene meetings, and propose actions, but his role is more secretary than general. Sometimes likened to a “secular Pope,” the UN Secretary General can wield the soft power of persuasion but little hard economic or military power.

What hard power the UN has must be begged and borrowed from the member states. And when they cannot agree on a course of action, it is difficult for the organization to operate. As one wag has put it, “We have met the UN and it is us!” When blame is assigned, much of it belongs to the members.