Donald Sensing thinks it might be time to let the United Nations fade into the dustbin of history and create a successor organization, citing the uselessness of the General Assembly–where all countries get an equal say despite their obvious factual inequality–and the contentiousness of the Security Council–where any of five permanent members has an absolute veto. While I agree with these criticisms, I honestly can’t come up with a more workable model.

The inherent problem–underlying both of the problems Sensing identifies–is state sovereignty. If we acknowledge as a matter of practice that there is a hierarchy of states then, by definition, the lesser states are no longer sovereign. Likewise, any council of the major powers has to operate on consensus because, being sovereign, none of them is going to allow itself to be outvoted by even a supermajority.

The problem, it seems to me, is one of expectations. The UN is sometimes a useful institution; other times, it is not. States have to reserve the ability to act unilaterally (or in concert with allies) in defense of their own interests (as specifically allowed in Articles 51 and 52 of the UN Charter, incidentally) but also to use the imprimature of the UN when it serves the national interest to do so. This is imperfect, of course, but not such a bad thing.

FILED UNDER: World Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Lemon says:

    On a more serious note, while the UN does do “good” things (some of the UNESCO stuff comes to mind), it mostly does its good things inefficiently. The real question here is not whether the UN has good intentions and tries hard to realize those intentions, but rather are there better ways to accomplish those goals than through the UN? Being an advocate of private philanthropy — by individuals and foundations –I would argue yes. Because many philantrhopic (and this includes religious) institutions rely upon donations, their incentives are to “get results” while maintaining low overhead costs. Of course there are always exceptions as the recent mini-scandal with United Way demonstrated. But on average, there are better institutional incentives for private charities to “do the right thing” than the UN, whose institutional mission seems to be to give cushy ambassadorships to political allies of power holders in various national governments. There is nothing more rewarding for someone from Tanzania to have the right to park anywhere in NYC without getting a ticket.

  2. John Lemon says:

    Hmmmm… for some reason, my first comment disappeared making the first sentence of the above comment appear odd. Here is what I originally posted:

    Kofi Annan just announced that the UN will have a meeting on Jan 15 to decide the UN’s role in Iraq. This is somewhat funny for an IGO that just cut and run a few months ago.

    There is one thing good about Annan’s Jan 15 meeting, though — it should be a short one! 🙂

  3. John Lemon says:

    In a spate of boredom, I commented fairly deep down your blog. There are some good comments down there, including a response to the Drezner realist thingy and about Nader.

    James, I still can’t figure out how you can: 1) write such an excellent and comprehensive blog; 2) read lots of other blogs and the news; and 3) get work done. I’m starting to think that you are one of those postal workers I see sitting behind the counter typing on a computer while 149 people wait in line to send fruitcake to Aunt Betty.