The United Nations At the End of the 1990s

ISBN: 0312220170
ISBN 13: 9780312220174
By: Peter R. Baehr Leon Gordenker

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About this book

At the approach of the twenty-first century, the United Nations remains the main hope for world peace. This straightforward analysis by longtime observers and recognized scholars sets out the fundamental features of the structure of the UN and traces the political issues in which it is involved.

Reader's Thoughts


This is a good, if uneven, introductory book on the United Nations (UN). Despite the title indicating it focuses on the late 1990s, much of the historical and organizational information is still relevant and therefore the book is still useful.The authors have a good organizational scheme that makes the topic easy to understand. However, within each chapter the amount of information greatly varies from detailed to cursory. Some chapters read more like they contain encyclopedia entries – sections that briefly describe a topic but don’t go into too much detail and have limited links to the sections prior and after. I imagine part of this is a function of making the book approachable and readable at less than 200 pages.Having said that, I did learn a bit, this being my first UN book.The historical precedents that led up to the UN, including earlier international cooperation are summarized in a useful manner. Besides cooperation that addressed security concerns (Concert of Europe, League of Nations) the authors detail the cooperation on cross-border functional issues (waterways, telecommunication, postal issues, etc.) that habituated states to international cooperation. This history shows the continuity with the UN to address both security issues and “lesser” functional or technical issues. The discussion also previews the limits the UN faces, as does international security cooperation generally – the power of states to pursue their interests and gum up the works of international organizations when their interests are threatened, especially great powers. This is a very realist international relations view – that the fundamental nature of the international system was not changed by the UN (i.e., states have sovereignty internally and freedom to act externally only constrained by other sovereign states). Even the new international focus on human rights within states, a potentially revolutionary development, is limited in how it can address violations beyond words without the cooperation of the state involved.As the book goes through the UN organization and functional topics, some interesting items appear. The authors do a good job of making the reader understand the shift in membership from Europe to Africa and Asia as decolonization occurred and some of the effects that has had on the UN agenda. This comes out in the decolonization and the economic and social cooperation chapters.Because the heart of the UN’s purpose is to maintain and secure peace, that chapter is particularly important. The authors adequately describe the UN’s two main tools for seeking and maintaining peace, negotiations and enforcement, but do not stress enough how peacekeeping (which is not a specified tool in the UN Charter) evolved from those to become a significant tool. There are good snapshots of the 1990s peacekeeping operations with sufficient detail to provide information but not enough to assess them. They authors conduct their own overall assessment of peacekeeping and find that it is a modestly successful tool at best. This is due to the limits imposed by the interests of the great powers and the restrictions (authority and material) on any particular UN peacekeeping force contrasted with their broad mandate. In terms of the UN’s peace enforcement tools, the only successes are when the great powers define their interests in ways that don’t take opposing sides in a conflict (Korea, Iraq/Kuwait) and one of the powers takes the lead in organizing the effort. The overall assessment of UN collective security focuses on its limits and is pessimistic about its prospects: modest progress can be made within the UN construct when the great powers want it to be made but real solutions require those great powers to work outside the UN to impose a solution or if the disputants want a resolution. The UN cannot force a resolution on them. The section on human rights is good but needs to be better organized. The text reads like a list of rights and covenant names. Instead, I would appreciate a more explicit discussion of what rights states have a legal obligation to provide and which are merely aspirational goals. This would provide a sense of whether there is a growing body of human rights international law that can possibly be enforced rather than just principles that are violated. It would also provide a sense to the extent that state sovereignty is becoming limited and that there may be a basis for international scrutiny and enforcement of human rights within a state.The sections on decolonization and social and economic efforts do an adequate job of providing information but are not as strong as they should be. While they do a good job of showing the limits of UN power and actions, they again read a little too much like an encyclopedia to provide significant insights.Overall a good introduction to the UN even if the dated title makes you think that this is old news.

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