The US-UN Partnership: Greater Engagement Will Bring a Greater Institution

By Wirth, Timothy E. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The US-UN Partnership: Greater Engagement Will Bring a Greater Institution


Wirth, Timothy E., Harvard International Review


Over the last 65 years of its existence, the United Nations has served as an indispensable platform for international cooperation in addressing the greatest global challenges of our time--from helping to prevent wars and keep the peace, to curbing the proliferation of nuclear and conventional weapons and promoting human rights, to responding to poverty, disease, and humanitarian crises. The United Nations is a vital partner in US efforts to create a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world.

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As a result, every US presidential administration, whether Republican or Democrat, has decided to engage with, fund, and participate in the world body since the organization's founding. When weighing the financial and diplomatic costs of US participation in the United Nations with the benefits of cooperation and sharing the burden, each and every administration has determined that supporting and engaging the United Nations is ultimately in US national security interests.

However, there has often been a disconnect between the United States' decision to support the United Nations and the rhetoric coming from the US Capitol, the broader public, and at times from the executive branch. US political leaders frequently not only fail to publicly explain this complicated institution to their constituents, but also engage in unfair and unconstructive criticism of it. While the United Nations is an imperfect institution in need of additional and meaningful improvements, attempts to demonize it and label it as irrelevant have negative consequences for US interests. Our rhetoric and unwillingness to defend the United Nations against its harshest critics cause our allies to distance themselves from some of our positions and make others question our motives.

Ultimately, this makes it harder for the United States to push for our interests and those of our allies; in particular, it makes pursuing meaningful long-term changes to strengthen the United Nations much more difficult. If the United States wants to continue to rely on the United Nations to be an effective international partner, our leaders must be more constructive in their critiques, and more consistent in their focus on strengthening and streamlining the institution.

A Critical Global Partner

The greatest challenges to US national security today are problems that also threaten many of our global allies and neighbors. These challenges are global in nature and require robust global instruments and solutions--and fortunately, the United Nations is on the frontlines to address them. The organization is a critical partner in global efforts to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea; sanction terrorist networks and leaders; safeguard nuclear weapons from getting into the hands of terrorists and rogue regimes; translate democratic aspirations of people in South Sudan, Iraq, and elsewhere into new and more transparent governments; secure and coordinate humanitarian assistance in crises like those in Haiti and Pakistan; manage climate change and its social and economic implications; and keep the peace in conflict areas such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cote d'Ivoire. The list could go on. The United Nations is effectively operating in many places, so that the United States and our allies do not have to.

For US diplomatic and foreign policy interests, engaging the United Nations is one of the best ways that the United States can influence the behavior of other countries, particularly those that do not already share our values or that are outside the scope of US influence. For instance, terrorism is a transnational threat that can only be addressed thoroughly and effectively through the combined efforts of the international community. As we learned after September 11, 2001, terror networks can thrive in countries that lack diplomatic relations with the United States, or in which the United States lacks sufficient credibility among the populations to operate. …

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