The United Nations
The United Nations is the preeminent example of an international governmental organization (IGO). It was founded in 1945 with 51 members, a number that has increased to 180 today — including 27 added since 1990 alone, mainly new nations created out of the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe. Its members reflect numerous different cultures and societies, speak a bewildering array of different languages, and present an enormous range of interests and concerns. Yet this global organization manages to function effectively in a number of vital areas and has assumed increasing importance in recent years
The United Nations is a formal bureaucratic organization that relies on a large number of specialized agencies to conduct its daily business, reflecting the range of problems and issues that exist in an increasingly interdependent world. Some agencies are concerned with fostering improved global communications in the areas of mail and telecommunications, aviation, weather, and ocean navigation. Others seek to enhance social welfare and promote peace. The latter include agencies concerned with global labor, food and agriculture, refugees, health, education, culture, banking and finance, trade, and economic development.
Although the United Nations has engaged in a small number of peacekeeping and military operations, its major importance has been in other areas. For example, it has enacted a number of arms control treaties that restrict or prohibit the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. It has also adopted a “planetary management” perspective calling for action in areas deemed especially important to the future of the planet. These include the global population explosion and the growth of enormous, impoverished cities; the status of women and human rights; global poverty and hunger; the growth of deserts, and balancing economic development with protection of the planetary environment.
The United Nations, like all IGOs, is ultimately dependent on the goodwill of its member nations. In this it differs from formal organizations that exist within a single country, which (unlike the UN) often possess the means to enforce compliance with their decisions. When the decisions of IGOs such as the UN run counter to the interests of their most powerful member nations, they are usually powerless to act in an effective manner. Indeed, until the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the UN was often unable to make decisions at all, particularly when the United States and the Soviet Union were in disagreement. During the 1980s, the United States even refused to pay its full share of membership fees, because it opposed UN policies.
As the nations of the world come to increasingly appreciate the global nature of the problems they confront, the United Nations may become more important as a global organization. While competing interests among powerful member nations make it unlikely that it will become the sort of “world government” some of its founders envisioned, the United Nations may continue to acquire increased authority for making and enforcing decisions in the years to come.
IGOs can wield considerable power, provided that their member nations can agree to take action. Yet since nations ultimately control the use of military force, there are limits to the authority of even the most powerful IGOs, whose strength derives from the voluntary compliance of their member nations. The United Nations, for example, is entirely dependent on its members for finances and military power. Even though the UN has 180 member nations and a large number of important economic, cultural, and social programs, its political power is limited.