The United Nations as a Political System: A Practicing Political Scientist's Insights into U.N. Politics

By Kirkpatrick, Jeane J. | World Affairs, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The United Nations as a Political System: A Practicing Political Scientist's Insights into U.N. Politics


Kirkpatrick, Jeane J., World Affairs


I have no doubt that the fact that I am a political scientist, and have developed a political scientist's approach to thinking about institutions, has profoundly shaped my perceptions and conception of the United Nations. I think that when one studies the discipline for years, one develops categories that guide perception of reality, illuminating some aspects of it and perhaps de-emphasizing some others. I now see the United Nations as a political system. I spent the first six months of my tenure there rubbing my eyes and asking myself what was going on. I was sure that what was going on was not what was described in most of the books that I had read on the United Nations, which feature what political scientists call a formal, legalistic approach to the organization, including organization charts, lists of subordinate and superordinate bodies, and formal functions. In the United Nations, as in most other political institutions, such books don't help much except as guides to locating offices.

It soon became clear to me that I was watching what political scientists call power processes--the processes that Harold Lasswell characterized as who gets what, when, and how. I observed that some countries exercise a very large share of control, other countries have some influence and some have none at all. I regret to tell you that the United States is--or long has been--in the last category. So I had two reasons for analyzing and diagnosing U.S. problems at the United Nations. The first reason centered on the political scientist's interest in understanding this important political system and its political processes. The other was the very practical obligation I felt as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations to try to move us from where we were--a nation virtually without influence over what happened to us there--to where we should be--a nation exerting the kind of influence that the United States had exercised in the first decade or so of the United Nations' existence. The effort to understand the processes and to learn to operate effectively through them on behalf of the United States has consumed most of my time for the past two years.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE UNITED NATIONS

My analysis has led me to conclude that the United Nations is an important body worthy of our best attention. What happens there matters in some ways that are not often understood. What happens in the United Nations shapes matters in the long run rather than in the short run. What happens in the United Nations shapes attitudes in cumulative ways. The specifics are less important than the cumulative impact. The United Nations shapes agendas and focuses world attention and assumptions about what is and is not possible in what is euphemistically called the community of nations. So I think it matters.

To the proposition that the United Nations is an important body, I would add that I believe that in long-range ways the patterns of alliance that develop inside the United Nations and the rhetoric that is used there are influential all over the world. They help to shape interactions and agendas in bodies as remote as the Organization of African Unity, the Organization of American States, and ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations). They help to shape questions on the foreign policy agendas of nations as remote as Burundi and as major as the Soviet Union.

The second conclusion I have reached is that the United Nations is not at all the institution that we and our allies thought we were building right after World War Two. Third, I have concluded that it is a representative institution, but that it is not one that represents the world in the way that representative bodies usually do.

THE AMERICAN DREAM

The United Nations has certainly not evolved into what we Americans were seeking when we played our role in its construction. I have thought quite a bit about what we were looking for, and I think that we sought to realize our age-old dream of an international body, a world assembly that would be devoid of politics, an organization in which everyone would be united in a kind of dispassionate, disinterested search for world peace and the good of mankind.

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