Analysis | The United States and United Nations: A difficult relationship

Vincent Auger

The United Nations headquarters in New York City (Image: the blowup on Unsplash)

The United Nations has been front and center in American — and international — minds in recent weeks, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin picked the moment of the U.N. Security Council’s emergency meeting on a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine…to actually launch his invasion. At that meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a plea to Putin: “In the name of humanity bring your troops back to Russia. In the name of humanity to not start what may be the most devastating war since the start of the century.”

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield expressed similar sentiments, stating that, “This is a perilous moment and we’re here for one reason, and one reason only: to ask Russia to stop. Return to your borders.” In this crisis, the United States and the U.N. Secretary-General are working together towards the same goal.

In more normal times, however, the United States and the United Nations have a love-hate relationship. Especially since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sometimes supported a larger role for the United Nations in world politics; as one U.S. official put it in a 1993 speech, “a strong United Nations is critical to U.S. security.” But the U.S. government also expects the U.N. leadership to support U.S. policy, and U.S. officials can be sharply critical or dismissive of the United Nations when that support is not forthcoming.

Meanwhile, as the largest contributor to the U.N. budget, U.S. officials often demand reforms of the organization, even when there is little support for such reforms among the other member states. The perception that these demands are sometimes driven by American domestic politics only increases suspicions within the United Nations about U.S. reform proposals.

Officials of the United Nations, especially the Secretary-General, perceive themselves as international civil servants, with a charge to act in the best interests of the organization and its entire membership, even if that angers individual member states. However, U.N. leadership must balance that role with the awareness that the organization can only be effective if it has the political and financial support of its largest members. It is often a difficult balance for the Secretary-General to maintain.

My forthcoming ISD case study, Ousting Boutros-Ghali: The Clinton Administration and the Politics of the United Nations, examines a particularly dramatic episode in the U.S.-U.N. relationship. In 1996, the Clinton administration used its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to deny the incumbent Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a second five-year term in office. It was an unprecedented move by the United States, and almost every other member of the United Nations opposed it. While the administration successfully replaced Boutros-Ghali with their favored candidate, Kofi Annan, U.S. policy disrupted the United Nations for months.

The case study explores the origins of this decision and the politics surrounding its implementation. An administration that entered office planning to work closely with the United Nations clashed repeatedly with Secretary-General Boutros Ghali over policy issues, U.N. reform and the independence of the Secretary-General’s office. As those disagreements became more heated (and as domestic critics took aim at the administration’s foreign policy failures), U.S. officials decided that the best solution was a change of leadership at the United Nations. The result was a monumental clash between a superpower trying to bend the United Nations to do its bidding and a U.N. leadership trying to preserve an independent role and voice in global affairs.

Today, the United Nations is a focal point of international reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as seen by dramatic debates in the Security Council and the lopsided vote in the General Assembly condemning the Russian assault. The themes addressed in this case — the process of making U.S foreign policy, the nature of the relationship between the United States and the United Nations, and the appropriate role for the U.N. in world politics — are as relevant as ever. While the tenor of the relationship between the United States and the United Nations may change depending on the individual personalities involved or the issues at stake, these themes have enduring importance for analyzing U.S. foreign policy and for understanding the possibilities and the limits of the United Nations in world politics.

Dr. Auger is professor of political science at Western Illinois University. His research and teaching interests include U.S. foreign policy, international organizations and conflict resolution.

Read more from the Diplomatic Pouch on the current crisis in Ukraine:

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