The United Nations (UN) organization that was created at the end of World War II was the product of a firm commitment by the victorious powers in that conflict to establish an international mechanism for the prevention of another deadly and destructive world war. The founders of the UN were intent on learning from the flaws and missteps of its predecessor, the League of Nations, which had been established at the end of World War I but failed to prevent the outbreak of another global conflict. Since the UN’s inception, scholars have subjected the charter, procedures, and policies of the international organization to a searching examination. All agree that the UN has failed to live up to the lavishly optimistic expectations of its founders. But there is substantial scholarly disagreement about the effectiveness of the organization as well as the policies that it has pursued and programs it has initiated in response to a succession of global crises. The literature addressing the subject of the UN is vast: it comprises general works aimed at the educated public that assess the organization’s record of achievement, highly technical analyses of the operation and outcome of specific UN programs and initiatives, and scholarly studies that analyze functional aspects such as voting patterns in the Security Council and the General Assembly. The UN itself issues a wide range of reports on its activities in order to disseminate information about the work that it does across the globe. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations Association in the United States, actively promote the UN cause by calling attention to its successes. Critics of the organization have published exposés of its flaws and failures. Undergraduates and graduate students should be aware of the controversial nature of some of the scholarship on this subject.
As noted here, some of the general studies of the United Nations (UN) are tendentious—either praising or damning the UN—but most are evenhanded attempts to describe and evaluate its global mission. Claude 1984 is a classic introduction to the history of international organizations, full of perceptive observations about the UN, although it has been superseded by other works in more recent years. Kennedy 2007 deftly compares the original hopes of the UN’s founders with its successes and failures since 1945. Lowe, et al. 2008 and Bosco 2009 provide incisive historical accounts of the evolving procedures and policies of the organization’s decision-making body. Roberts and Zaum 2008 demonstrates how the Security Council carefully picks and chooses which security threats are worthy of its intervention. Keylor 2014 compares the record of the UN since 1945 to the record of the League of Nations after World War I. Two general studies stand out among the highly critical evaluations of the UN: Muravchik 2005 and Mazower 2009.
Bosco, David L. Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
An exhaustively researched study that emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the international organization as exemplified by the absolute power wielded by the permanent five members of the Security Council. Focuses on the rivalries and conflicts among those five powers and the challenges confronted by the rest of the members as they have sought to have their voices heard.
Claude, Inis. Swords into Ploughshares: The Problems and Progress of International Organization. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.
An elegantly written treatise on the origins and evolution of international organizations by one of the first political scientists to accord that topic the attention it deserves. An excellent place to start for undergraduates and graduate students interested in the UN.
Kennedy, Paul. The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations. New York: Vintage, 2007.
Based on a searching review of secondary and primary sources, this comprehensive study presents a balanced assessment of the organization’s mission since its founding. While stopping far short of declaring the UN the “Parliament of Man” as foreshadowed Tennyson’s famous poem, this eminent international historian credits the organization with some notable achievements in the promotion of world peace and security.
Keylor, William R. “The United Nations: Its Record as the Guardian of Global Cooperative Security.” In The Security Challenge: From Alliances Systems to Cooperative Security. Edited by Vojtech Mastny and Zhu Liqun. Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2014.
A review of the failures of the UN to prevent state-to-state conflict since World War II and its peacekeeping successes in civil wars. It also highlights the obstacles to the UN founders’ dream of establishing an international organization dedicated to war prevention.
Lowe, Vaughn, Adam Roberts, Jennifer Welsh, and Dominik Zaum, eds. The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
A collection of essays by scholars, international lawyers, and practitioners that address the evolution of the concept of collective security and the role of the Security Council in promoting it. Includes a very useful appendix with data about the Security Council’s resolutions, sanctions, and operations since the founding of the UN.
Mazower, Mark. No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
In a bold revisionist work, Mazower insists that the world organization was founded not to promote the kind of liberal internationalism hailed by the disciples of Woodrow Wilson in 1945 but rather to preserve white colonial rule in the non-Western world.
Muravchik, Joshua. The Future of the UN: Understanding the Past to Chart a Way Forward. Washington, DC: AEI, 2005.
A harsh indictment of the world organization focusing on its internal difficulties—allegations of waste, corruption, and vote trading among members—by a leading neoconservative critic. Muravchik calls for the abolition of the Security Council, the reliance on regional security organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to preserve international security, and the reduction of the United Nations to a forum for discussion and debate with no decision-making authority.
Roberts, Adam, and Dominik Zaum. Selective Security: War and the United Nations Security Council since 1945. International Institute for Strategic Studies Adelphi Paper 395. Oxford: Routledge, 2008.
A thoughtful analysis by two respected scholars of the UN that calls attention to many instances when the Security Council declined to become involved in conflicts and the few cases in which it was able to mount effective interventions.
Weiss, Thomas G. What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009.
A sensitive treatment of the organization’s institutional flaws that proposes a series of reforms designed to streamline its operations and improve its effectiveness in coping with conflict and instability in the world.
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