Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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Some Perspective on the United Nations

by Stewart M. Patrick
September 17, 2012

A photo of the United Nations General Assembly from February 16, 2012 during a vote that approved a non-binding resolution endorsing an Arab League plan urging Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down (Andrew Kelly/Courtesy Reuters).


Last week, I participated in the U.S. State Department’s online interview program, “Conversations with America,” alongside Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at State, and Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network.  Watch the program online at and join the conversation about addressing global challenges at the United Nations (UN). Some highlights below:

  • The United Nations serves the average American citizen in invisible but important ways on a day-to-day basis—through keeping planes aloft to monitoring nuclear facilities worldwide or investigating the death toll in Syria. As with so many things, the fact that citizens only read about problems in the news creates a negative bias.
  • One major benefit to the U.S. taxpayer from the United Nations is peacekeeping. Without a single U.S. troop, the UN peacekeeping forces are deployed in roughly fifteen conflicts around the world to preserve regional security that the United States would likely otherwise have to protect by itself with U.S. military forces. The total UN peacekeeping budget is about the same price as U.S. operations per month in Afghanistan, and the United States only pays about a quarter of the UN budget.
  • The universal membership of the United Nations and the fact that its charter has the force of international law provides legitimacy to many U.S. international initiatives—which ultimately increases their efficacy and cost-effectiveness. But at the same time, U.S. citizens and policymakers alike must have realistic expectations of the organization. Structurally, if the UN Security Council members disagree, the UN will not be able to act forcefully, which is why the Obama administration reserves the right to take action outside the UN if necessary. This is particularly important to bear in mind when analyzing the international approach in Syria. While the United States could always cobble together a coalition outside the United Nations—as done in Kosovo—these decisions can be dicey and have extensive international consequences.
  • One of the unsung successes over the past decades is the incredible increase in female literacy. A generation ago, two-thirds of women could not read. Today, thanks in part to major international efforts to improve education and girl’s access to schools, between 60 and 80 percent of women can read.
  • Without question, Syria is one of the most difficult questions on the security agenda today. Because of Chinese and Russian opposition to international action in Syria, the United States has been very active in other channels—including in the Human Rights Council and in providing substantial humanitarian aid.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Ravi

    The UN injects two billion dollars in the New York City economy every year. The US president gets to meet any head of state he/she? wants every September, right here in NY.

  • Posted by Michael Tyler

    The examples in this excellent factual and informative article should be viewed only as only a sample of the benefits to the United States not just from being a member country of the United Nations (as almost all independent countries are these days); but from being a leading. constructive and actively engaged member. I can testify from direct personal experience that there are many more such benefits to the US.

    One major example from my personal experience:

    Through the UN’s Specialized Agency for telecommunications, ITU, the countries of the world, working with telephone companies, broadcasters and many other kinds of users of radio technology, negotiate and administer international technical and legal agreements concerning how radio frequencies and orbits for communications satellites are shared among millions of users. Without this international co-operation, there would be operational chaos — a buzzing confusion of electronic interference, reducing the quality of service in communications channels, increasing costs, and wasting available frequencies by making many of them unusable.

  • Posted by Dan Robinson

    The problem is that, due to the basic structure of the UN, the US is able to be a dominent member while resisting paying its dues. (I don’t know about recently.)

    I feel the solution is for someone to start small organization(s) with independent goals, using a voting method perhaps such as below, and try to grow it till it competes with other with other systems, so people can decide which they prefer.

    (I hope this system can handle long messages. If not, contact me.

    Ideas for a Better Voting/Government System
    Dan Robinson,, 9/04/12

    A healthy democracy is a big step toward a healthy world, on many levels.

    We (the US) have a bipolar government system. Political parties (a way for the elite to more easily tell us how to vote) divide us into separate factions and keep us switching back and forth, skipping over the real consensus. The Electoral College muddies the waters of the consensus, and favors less populous states. The President and/or two houses of Congress are often on opposite sides, so no action for change is possible. Then there’s also the filibuster, rule by a minority to prevent change.

    Any election can have a tie. (But when has it happened with the popular vote in a national election, or otherwise?) If the vote is within one percent of a tie, at least we should have a means ready for a random choice, assuming that error and corruption will be more of a factor than that. But keep in mind that a robot has been built that can “cheat”, at Rock-Paper-Scissors, always beating a human, by observing and reacting faster. The answer to that might be to have two robots. The same principle would apply moreso to some versions of flipping a coin and maybe other “random” means of deciding.

    A third party no longer seems possible, because the two parties have polarized us on most issues. A third party would be somewhat in the middle and attacked from both sides. We tend to argue from extreme positions so that we can be seen as compromising to a more moderate position. Multiple party systems are also susceptible to corruption.

    A Possible Solution, for all levels of organization:

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

    But often it starts with one individual’s idea.

    Create a small organization (That’s not my department!) with it’s own goals, partly as a model of decision-making that we’d like to see used in larger systems. Assume the group grows, making more and better democratic decisions, including on statements about larger governments. People everywhere compare and question which kind of system they’d prefer. If it’s a good system, it continues to grow until it evenually can’t be put down by the oligarchy. Of course one kind of decision to be made early and often is how to avoid being labeled unAmerican.

    The following is a version of ranked voting system. One part of the goal is to diversify power more in a spectrum than in categories. No one leader would necessarily stand out above others and there would be no clear line between voters, candidates and legislators. Perhaps first of all, we need to assume that the majority want some version of the greatest good for the greatest number.

    Everyone (smart enough to reasonably understand the system, as below) would probably be a voter, candidate and to some degree, legislator. All voters would get, say, 100 “candidate votes” (for a round number, (fewer for simplicity, more for flexibility) to be divided among candidates as they see fit. In the next election cycle, former candidates, now legislators, would have the square root (or similar exponential factor) of the total number of votes they recieved, to vote on issues. Fractional square roots would of course mean some available vote numbers are rounded off.

    To test if a person sufficiently understands the voting system, first, one must cast exactly 100 votes, or their votes aren’t counted. Second, ask “If a candidate gets (a random number, 10 to 100, not the square of an integer) votes, how many issue votes does he or she have?” Maybe ask more questions as needed.

    For a simple example (in the bi-polar mode), suppose we have a group made up of 100 “liberals” and 100 “conservatives”. If conservatives put all their votes (10,000 total) on one candidate, as legislator, he or she would have 100 (the square root of 10,000) “issue votes”. If each liberal spreads his or her votes evenly over the 100 liberals, those legislators would each have 10 issue votes, for a total issue voting power of 1000, if they stay united on issues. (I’d personally hope all voted independently.).

    Any kind of more moderate spreading of candidate votes would increase the voters’ “second hand” voting power over giving all of one’s votes to one person. In reality, after we get away from the two-party polarization factor, voters would more likely give varying numbers of votes to different candidates, in whatever proportions they prefer, unlike consensus voting systems I’ve seen. Everyone who reserves at least one vote for themselves is guarenteed to be at least a “one-vote legislator” and could possibly cast a deciding vote to cause or prevent a disaster or a utopia.

    Those legislators with the most issue votes would stay handy, at least to their secure communication devices. If an emergency issue arises, those legislators are polled first and a decision is made when needed, and if possible, maybe retracted when more votes come in. If one or a few legislators stand out above the others in popularity, that may decide when to call the issue vote final. This may at times become a critical issue, but most votes should be about incrimentally adjusting some factor one way or another, which can be readjusted later. (In any case, please remember to vote for legislators based on their long term common sense, not their good looks, the “book” not the cover.)

    In this system, it does little good to try to coerce other people into voting for me. Votes for other people who agree with me (or who I can then coerce) is always more effective.

    Then there’s the matter of having different legislators for different kinds of issues. I think it would come to having panels of experts on many issues, chosen by pertinent organizations having similar systems.

    This system would be pretty dependent on computers, but these days, what isn’t? I feel computer systems could be made at least as honest, accurate and secure as present systems. A printed “paper trail” of one’s votes would be available, then maybe torn up, so others wouldn’t see it. Beyond that, everyone could get a computer-generated codename on a website showing how their vote was recorded, as well as how it added in to the total, without others knowing whose vote was which, except their own.

    Another idea is that anyone willing to stand up for their principles should be able to get extra voting power in return for making their votes public, perhaps by voting under their real name as well as their codename. To extend that idea further, “candidates” who wanted more voting power could take whatever kind of intelligence or personality tests that were available and allow the results to be made public. A major issue to vote on might be what tests were most valid. Openness should start with the high and mighty, who can do the most good, or damage.

    Further, we each divide our priorities between various “communities” (any group that communicates well). Political power should reflect this. Every person should have a vote in any community that affects them (and should be responsible to any community where they have a vote). This applies to the heirarchy of communities to which one belongs (including household, neighborhood, city, regional divisions, nation and world) as well as their “sibling” communities. For instance if I had family or some other connection to another state, I should be able to apply some of my hundred votes (or maybe all would have thousand if this was allowed) to issues there. This would no doubt require similar political systems in both states.

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