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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.

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