Why America Still Needs the United Nations

THE POWER OF LEGITIMACY

In September 2002, a radical new document declared that "no nation can build a safer, better world alone." These words came not from some utopian internationalist or ivory-tower academic, but from the new National Security Strategy of the United States. For all its underpinnings in realpolitik, the strategy committed the United States to multilateralism.

This statement should not have been surprising, for multilateralism, of course, is not only a means but an end. And for good reason: in international affairs, the choice of method can serve to advertise a country's good faith or disinterestedness. Most states act both unilaterally and multilaterally at times: the former in defense of their national security or in their immediate backyard, the latter in pursuit of global causes. The larger a country's backyard, however, the greater the temptation to act unilaterally across it -- a problem most acute in the case of the United States. But the more far-reaching the issue and the greater the number of countries affected, the less sufficient unilateralism proves, and the less viable it becomes. Hence the ongoing need for multilateralism -- which the U.S. National Security Strategy seemed to recognize.

The United Nations is the preeminent institution of multilateralism. It provides a forum where sovereign states can come together to share burdens, address common problems, and seize common opportunities. The UN helps establish the norms that many countries -- including the United States -- would like everyone to live by. Throughout its history, the United States has seen the advantages of living in a world organized according to laws, values, and principles; in fact, the republic was not yet 30 years old when it first went to war in defense of international law (attacking the Barbary pirates in 1804), and it has done so multiple times since, including in the first Gulf War. The UN, for all its imperfections -- real and perceived -- reflects this American preference for an ordered world.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis