The United Nations at 70: A uniquely American project


The people of the United States of America are fond of quoting and referring to the first generation of political leaders of their nation. Political pundits, historians, and citizens alike love to play the anachronistic parlor game of what would George Washington do? What would Thomas Jefferson say? Most often the answer is America is going to hell in a hand basket and the Founding Fathers are all rolling in their graves. The truth is contemporaries are projecting their current view of the world onto people who died two hundred years or so ago, cherry picking quotes for effect.

When issues of global governance seem to be turning for the worse, commentators often point to George Washington’s farewell address that the US should “steer clear of permanent alliance.” He is often misquoted as saying that the country should have “entangling alliances with none.” That was Thomas Jefferson a few years later. American foreign policy followed this advice throughout the 19th century and a good while into the 20th century. However, the truth is that for the first century of American history, simply keeping the states that made up the union within the alliance was a struggle.

The mythology of the US is one of brave pioneers, rugged individuals carving out a place for themselves and their families. The reality is that the US as a political institution is built on an alliance system of limited sovereignty among equal states after the abject failure of a confederacy of absolute sovereign states. Under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) there were tariffs on commerce between states. Each state could produce its own currency. Each had its own militias. Without some level of limitations put on the sovereignty of the individual states that comprised the US, the original 13 states were unable to coordinate on security or economic policy. There was an obvious need for greater cooperation between the sovereign states and only through a system of limited sovereignty could cooperation be achieved. The result was the Constitution of the United States and the foundation and essential elements of the US political system as it exists today.

The idea that both Washington and Jefferson expressed was that no alliance should exist between the US and other foreign governments. But they both supported the expansion of the US itself, meaning more alliances with more states with limited sovereignty under the umbrella of the US constitution.

The crisis of coordination among a few sovereign governments on the East Coast of North America at the end of the 18th century pales in comparison to the crisis of coordination among the sovereign governments around the world in the early to mid 20th century. The two world wars and the Great Depression in between laid bare the fact that technology was making the world smaller. Without greater coordination between sovereign governments chaos would reign. Sovereign nations would have to enter into even more permanent agreements that would limit each nation’s sovereignty for the benefit of coordinating security, economic and humanitarian policy.

The creation of the United Nations (UN) was spearheaded by the US in the atomic era of mechanized transportation and agriculture, where more and more of the world was within reach to a growing urban population. The world was getting smaller and the generally isolationist policies of the US prior to 1941 had been revealed as a failure. The inauguration of the UN signaled not only a permanent institution for collaboration and discussion between all sovereign nations, but foreshadowed the creation of permanent military and economic alliances that limited the sovereignty of nations, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which later became the World Trade Organization.

Limited sovereignty is as much a part of the US political system as representative democracy is. The idea that sovereign states can form a permanent alliance and agree to some limited measures that allow for coordination and some degree of legalized compliance is central to the American political system. Certainly a member of the UN retains more sovereignty than does a single state in the US. Members still produce national currencies, raise their own militaries, and conduct foreign policy. However, over time the UN has come to represent an era of increasing coordination among sovereign nations even if it often falls short of its goals.

Critics of the UN, and there are many, focus on its inability to find consensus, to enforce the resolutions where it does find consensus, and the fact that its measures to eliminate conflict and poverty remain unfulfilled. Like the US Constitution there are critics on both sides, arguing for more or less national sovereignty. However, they ignore the fact that the UN has functioned continuously for 70 years and has been an important part of an international security system that has prevented major conflagrations between the great powers. It remains an important nexus for international diplomacy on both multilateral and bilateral levels, for countries of all sizes and military capabilities.

Much of the commentary on the 70th anniversary of the UN focuses on a cost benefit analysis of how effective or ineffective the UN has been. The general mood is that the UN has been underwhelming in its performance and is a bloated bureaucracy. This view is justified and all organizations’ budgets deserve severe scrutiny. However, in a larger view, these are the kind of criticisms citizens direct to their national governments and are a testament to the strength of the UN. The fact that there exists an organization that aims to coordinate the security, economic and humanitarian policy of the entire globe is unprecedented in history, but it is mirrored in the history of the nation that created it.