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The Soft Power of the United Nations

Joseph Stalin once dismissed the relevance of “soft power” by asking, “How many troops does the Pope have?” Today, many self-styled realists dismiss the United Nations as powerless, and argue that it can be ignored. They are mistaken.

Power is the ability to affect others to produce the outcomes one wants. Hard power works through payments and coercion (carrots and sticks); soft power works through attraction and co-option. With no forces of its own and a relatively tiny budget, the UN has only as much hard power as it can borrow from its member states. It was created in 1945 to be the servant of its member states, and Article 2.7 of its charter protects the sovereign jurisdiction of its members.

After the failure of the League of Nations in the 1930’s, the UN was designed to have the Security Council’s permanent members act as policemen to enforce collective security. When the great powers agreed, the UN had impressive hard power, as demonstrated in the Korean War and the first Gulf War. But such cases were exceptional. During the Cold War, the Council was divided. As one expert put it, its permanent members’ veto was designed to be like a fuse box in an electrical system: better that the lights go out than that the house burn down.

Despite those limits, the UN has considerable soft power that arises from its ability to legitimize the actions of states, particularly regarding the use of force. People do not live wholly by the word, but neither do they live solely by the sword. For example, the UN could not prevent the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the absence of its imprimatur greatly raised the costs to the American and British governments.