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The United Nations is an international organization of which almost every state in the world is a member. An international convention, the UN Charter, in force since 1945, constitutes its basic law. Its paramount purposes comprise the maintenance of international peace and security and the promotion of human welfare through international cooperation. As the UN agenda as well as its organizational design involves deﬁnition and resolution of issues of public policy, its establishment implies limited governance. Its decisional processes exhibit relative power among participants as well as attempts to change it. Shifting coalitions of members aggregate support or opposition for various ends, including allocation of resources. Some conclusions are converted into binding law. The United Nations maintains relationships with a variety of constituencies and other organizations.
1. Conventional And Novel Capacities
The organizational design, largely planned by American oﬃcials during World War II with some British and other contributions, owes much to the League of Nations, especially the concept of collective security that underlies enforcement against violation of the UN Charter. In promoting human welfare, the activist, reforming, government-led approach of the New Deal in the United States and the doctrine of functionalism oﬀered important models.
The organization nevertheless rests on foundations of conventional diplomatic experience with the concept of state sovereignty as a backdrop. This heritage includes bargaining among diplomats to propose binding international law stated in agreements that governments ratify. The UN structure supports routine diplomatic, conciliatory, arbitrary, and judicial methods for the settlement of disputes. Such techniques set most boundaries to UN governing capacities.
The United Nations was endowed with some novel governing attributes. In interstate conﬂicts that breach the prohibition in the UN Charter on using force in international relations, the Security Council, as principal organ for international security, was empowered to coerce violators of the peace. This coercion included the use of a military force as well as diplomatic and economic sanctions. That coercive measures would both deter and arrest aggression was underpinned by the requirement that majority voting in the Security Council must include concurrence of the permanent members, the Great Powers of 1945. Moreover, arms control would bring the Security Council closer to a military monopoly.
Less directly coercive, but savoring of governmental functions, were broad duties in setting international standards. These included the novel, policy-pregnant topic of human rights. Related were supervisory functions pertaining to self-government or, in limited cases under the surveillance of the Trusteeship Council, independence of colonial territories. Less novel were recommendations related to international economic and social issues, put in the purview of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) which was also to oversee other international organizations with technical agendas. The General Assembly, where all members had equal votes, would adopt overall policies.
Governments retained the main responsibility for executing policies adopted in the UN organs. Some central executive capacity, however, was given to the Secretary General, the head of an international secretariat. He carries out instructions of the intergovernmental organs, prepares documentation for meetings, and serves as the public representative. He thus acquires a role in decision-making. The Secretary General has the overtly political right to bring matters aﬀecting peace and security to the attention of the Security Council.
2. Political Processes And Outcomes
The harmony of aims that planners assumed and acceptance of a formal process for deciding on policies, making recommendations, and reacting to crises never materialized. Instead, the organization has only partially functioned as a centralized policy source and provides an arena for competitive as well as cooperative policies among members.
2.1 The Eﬀects Of The Cold War
The lengthy antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies made the United Nations an arena of confrontation and conﬂict. It soon crippled attempts to bring nuclear arsenals under international control. The planned armed force for the Security Council aborted amidst controversy. In a long line of disputes, e.g., the conﬂict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the Security Council operated more as sounding board than a settlement device. In the early years, the opposition of the Soviet Union to many proposed actions led it to much use of the veto. Led by Washington, the General Assembly tried to recompense the Security Council’s lameness, but as the membership increased, the United States abandoned its position and emphasized the Security Council, where its opposition could block action. Later the United States became a leading user of the veto.
Nevertheless, the Cold War neither canceled some use of the United Nations to maintain international security nor blocked organizational development. By reacting immediately to the attack on South Korea in 1950 by the Communist regime in the North, the United States gathered a coalition under UN auspices to check the invasion. But UN recommendations for the reuniﬁcation of Korea remained unfulﬁlled during the next 45 years.
The UN organizational cluster was extended with the establishment of the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN Educational, Scientiﬁc and Cultural Organization, and the General Agreement on Tariﬀs and Trade. The Soviet Union and its allies opposed much of this construction and the programs that emerged.
This wave of organizational construction had its roots in functionalist doctrine (Mitrany 1966). It reﬂected the work of the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization to extend human welfare by international cooperation. Supporters of this organizational principle futilely hoped that technical agencies would have a nonpolitical character.
The use of ECOSOC as a policy leader and coordinator soon was frustrated in part by the Cold War antagonism and in greater part by resistance from the specialized agencies. These technical bodies had separate legal status, their own contact points with governments, and controlled their own budgets. Some of the organizations, especially the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, kept their relations with the council and other organizations at a distance. Yet the obvious need for coordination to prevent duplication and promote synergy led to a network of interorganizational relationships, alliances, and coalitions that became a standing feature of UN politics.
Charting interorganizational relationships was further complicated by the General Assembly’s creation of agencies under its wing and by the notion of regionalism which was incorporated the in the UN Charter. To UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which by 1950 the General Assembly established as short-term agencies to which contributions were voluntary, were added the UN Population Fund; the large UN Development Program; the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); and more. It also created four regional economic and social com- missions.
In matters of peace and security, both the Security Council and the General Assembly made sporadic and usually superﬁcial use of independent regional organizations, such as the Organization of American States. Not until the disintegration of Yugoslavia and subsequent conﬂicts in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s was a link forged between the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. NATO troops served for enforcement of policies given legitimacy by the Security Council.
Despite elaborate coordinating structures, reliance on ad hoc executing coalitions in both welfare and security activities hardly diminished. They reached new high points in the armed response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and in several humanitarian disasters from the 1980s onwards.
2.3 Increasing Membership
Formation of new and shifting coalitions for both policy formation and execution connected directly to the near quadrupling of the original 51 UN members. First held in check by Cold War maneuvers, the membership greatly increased with the rapid collapse of the colonial system. Poor, weak, and small countries could coalesce in the General Assembly to restrict the powerful. Formal coalitions represented the views of the nonaligned states, which hoped to shun the Cold War; the developing countries organized as the UNCTAD group of 77; and several geographically-based groupings. While coalitions had no formal role in the Security Council, they conditioned its deliberations.
When security matters, including arms control, and such issues as human rights and development come before the General Assembly, the powerful governments necessarily seek support from a broad segment of the membership. This leads both to confrontation and broader cooperation. An always cumbersome decisional process, occasioning diplomatic bargaining, requires coalition formation. It oﬀers a platform for nationalistic gestures and even for dissident ethnic minorities. It also impels some governments, especially the wealthy and powerful, to restrain UN involvement on certain security issues as well as on cooperation on development, trade, some arms control arrangements, and ﬁnancial contributions.
2.4 Resource Allocation
Formally, the United Nations can only allocate resources put at its disposal by members who decide together on levies or oﬀer voluntary contributions. Generally, ﬁnancial constraints have pinched hard. They also reﬂect national policies such as when the Soviet Union and France declined to pay for some peacekeeping activities or the United States objected to the budgetary share assigned to it.
From early on, the General Assembly and ECOSOC sought to steer resources to governments seeking economic and social development. This eﬀort included various forms of technical assistance, capital grants which were very limited, and emergency relief. All of these found ﬁnancial support in voluntary contributions, mainly from governments with highly developed economies. Together these eﬀorts produced substantial programs that, however, failed to satisfy either needs or majority demands.
Broad approaches with a more compulsory tone emerged during the years of argument that led to creation of UNCTAD in 1964 as a global bargaining arena on terms of trade. This was followed by the General Assembly’s attempt in the wake of the restriction of oil supplies during the Arab–Israeli war of 1973 to mandate a New International Economic Order. These stabs at resource reallocation fell well short of their high goals and were rejected by developed members. However, they aﬀected various operations of the UN organizational cluster.
3. Global Developments
By its ﬁfth decade, the United Nations had only a diminishing eﬀect on international power relationships and warlike attempts to change them. Nevertheless, it assumed a central role in marking out and partially applying international cooperative agendas that reﬂected profound long-term global developments and in stimulating some popular opinion.
3.1 Power Ranking
The assumption of 1945 that the permanent membership of the Security Council—China, France, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and United States— including the governments most able to muster eﬀective force for UN missions would work harmoniously soon failed to match actuality. After 1948, China was represented by the exile government on Taiwan and stirred controversy and pressure from Beijing, which took over the place following a General Assembly action in 1971. France and the United Kingdom were by the 1980s challenged by the renaissance of Germany and Japan as well from large developing countries, including India, Nigeria, and Brazil. Yet ﬁnding a formula for reform that would be sustained by the existing permanent members, as is necessitated by the UN Charter, remained a paralyzing puzzle.
Even after the end of the Cold War and a newly cooperative spirit in Moscow, ﬁnding requisite majorities for enforcement and paciﬁc settlement actions by the Security Council usually proved diﬃcult. The weaker Russian successor to the Soviet Union and a China jealous of its national prerogatives implied use of the veto. The United States, obviously the most capable member, increasingly treated the Council with skepticism based on domestic developments and emphasized bilateral and alliance security arrangements. Elected members sometimes pursued national policies rather than cooperation.
The permanent members of the Security Council often ignored the General Assembly, dominated by lesser powers, and sometimes even its elected members. The Council accordingly was favored primarily for endorsing policies that had been negotiated independently of public debate and usually had little role in steering the resulting programs despite a UN stamp. This development was illustrated by the Council’s activity in the 1990s in the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo as well as in its hesitant approach to the Rwanda genocide.
3.2 Intrastate Conﬂicts
Conﬂicts that originated in repressive governmental policies that ignored human rights standards, challenges to existing authorities that clung to power, and nationalistic movements that echoed the UN emphasis on independent nation-states increasingly came on the UN agenda, whether in the Security Council or the General Assembly. With rapid communications, the resulting human costs could not be hidden. Relief for victims of humanitarian disasters became a central and novel UN concern. Reconstruction of failed states as in Cambodia and Somalia included creation of democratic regimes. These aims expanded the scope of peacekeeping, even to include forceful intervention in such later cases as Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
3.3 New Global Issues
Topical intergovernmental conferences, stimulated and prepared by the Secretariat and endorsed by ECOSOC, broadened the international agenda or sharpened attention to older items. Familiar agenda topics were population, arms control, food, and narcotic drugs control. Newly identiﬁed as global issues included the status of women; protection of the environment and climate change; refugees in Africa and from Cambodia; exploration of outer space; nuclear energy; development of the least developed countries and debt relief; human habitations; and an international criminal court.
While the form of topical intergovernmental conferences followed conventional diplomatic patterns and ended with communiques that urged governments to act, those on human rights, women, and the environment attracted massive observation and some actual participation by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This added an unprecedented and controversial popular tinge to the otherwise formal conferences. The NGOs, some of which had consultative status with ECOSOC, claimed to voice the views of large groups. They eﬀectively supported actions on human rights and the status of women which many governments rejected as dilution of state authority. Some of the NGOs skillfully lobbied governments to apply the conclusions of the conferences and by using electronic communications acted as pressure groups undeterred by national jurisdictions. After the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, a much larger number of NGOs were oﬀered admission to ECOSOC consultancy. This suggested diminution of the governmental membership principle, but NGO participation remained controversial and ﬂuid.
4. Scholarship And Research
Academic study of the United Nations and allied agencies has varied greatly in intensity and method. Realist and neorealist theorists of international relations generally ignore or give glancing attention to the UN system. Their concentration on national interest and foreign policies, moreover, ﬁts with diplomatic rhetoric heard in UN fora. More specialized research that involves the formation of governmental policies has usually treated the UN system as one of many factors involved in international approaches to global topics, such as human rights, economic development, the environment, and chemical and biological weapons.
A cascade of theories seeking explanations for interstate cooperation have been employed as main tools or incidentally in studying the United Nations as an institution and as a locus of political processes. These include a variety of structural approaches, including Marxism and dependencia. Other intellectual paths that reﬂect nonstate as well as governmental actors comprise functionalism and derivatives; international regimes; organizational learning; neoinstitutionalism; and social networks. A few of these approaches have permitted statistical analysis and mathematical modeling.
On the whole, no single approach dominates research on the United Nations. The most detailed studies, which however aim at normative conclusions or the formal development of UN recommendations, generally come from legal or policy-oriented scholars. Publications of NGOs and interest groups focus on speciﬁc policy issues. Oﬃcial documentation, e.g., topical reports, statistical collections, and records of deliberations, is voluminous and widely used in speciﬁc enquiries.
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