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  • International Organizations & DemocracyThe United Nations and the New World Order
  • Carl Gershman (bio)

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War are still such recent phenomena that the world has not yet fully absorbed their implications for the future shape of international relations. It is especially difficult to make sense of the new order because there are so many developments that appear contradictory. For example, the threat of a U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation has virtually disappeared even as the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of smaller countries has created new dangers. Again, breakthroughs in resolving regional conflicts in Central America, Southern Africa, and South and Southeast Asia have been accompanied by an explosion of national and ethnic conflicts, many of them related to the collapse of old centers of power, as in the cases of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is talk of both a new world order and a new world disorder. They are like two sides of the same coin, one side representing mankind's ideals and aspirations, the other its fears and hatreds.

A defining feature of this complicated new environment is the emergence of the United Nations as the most significant global institution embodying the democratic ideals and aspirations associated with the new world order. This is a startling new development, as surprising as it is gratifying to those that have followed the United Nations through its troubled past. It was only a decade and a half ago, after all, that Daniel Patrick Moynihan described the UN as "a dangerous place," the title given to the memoir recounting his battles there during his brief sojourn as the United States' permanent representative.1 [End Page 5]

Moynihan's polemic was less notable for its negative tone toward the UN than for the fact that he chose to make an issue of the organization in the U.S. public debate. Before that, the UN was regarded as at best a marginal institution, valued by a small community of multilateralists and international legal specialists, but dismissed by most foreign policy practitioners as an occasionally useful instrument for conflict resolution and peacekeeping yoked to an inconsequential international debating society. In the eyes of many, the UN was a good deal worse than that: a propaganda forum controlled by an antidemocratic majority and manipulated by communists and Third World radicals to isolate the United States and its allies, especially Israel—"a dangerous place," indeed.

Today the United Nations is a very different kind of institution, much more constructive and influential than ever before in its history. Its newfound importance was evident during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990 91, when the world turned to the UN first to pressure Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait and later to force its withdrawal through multilateral military action. It can also be seen in the proliferation of peacekeeping operations designed to help implement negotiated settlements of longstanding conflicts in Namibia, Cambodia, Angola, El Salvador, and Mozambique; or to resolve post-Cold War conflicts, as in its efforts to end the savage fighting in the former Yugoslavia; or in its efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance and establish peace in countries where civil order has completely broken down, as in Somalia.

Less noticed, but more far-reaching in terms of the UN's future role in establishing world order, has been the redefinition of the concepts of state sovereignty and legitimacy in the wake of the democratic revolution of the 1980s. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recently wrote that "a major intellectual requirement of our time is to rethink the question of sovereignty." Conceding that state sovereignty is still "central" to the international system, he also held it "undeniable that the centuries-old doctrine of absolute and exclusive sovereignty no longer stands" but is being modified by "a dimension of universal sovereignty" that underlies "the rights of the individual and the rights of peoples."2

If it is true that state sovereignty is now tied to a concept of universal rights, it is no exaggeration to conclude that "the old international order has been swept away," as, indeed, the secretary...


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