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Understanding United Nations reform. Ten theoretical clues: (2) Limits to power

Published on 19 January 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

Recognising the irreplaceable role the United Nations (UN) plays globally means explicitly accepting multilateralism as the fundamental matrix of international cooperation, against a background of globalisation and in view of the existence of common interests of all states, beyond their own national projects. Accepting an enhanced role of the UN should not be seen as signing a blank cheque or issuing the birth certificate of a supranational organisation of global competence. There are limits that should be well-defined, as any confusion may generate unproductive suspicions as well inhibit decision-making.

The clarity of the rules of the game is all the more useful when the UNs’ responsibilities in the area of development are at stake. For example, if we deem that economic globalisation has an existence with an objective determination, under the reign of the ‘invisible hand’, then any form of, horribile dictu, UN intervention, would look useless and disturbing. Yet, if we accept that globalisation as a phenomenon is simultaneously an objective manifestation and a deliberate drive, it is quite natural to seek solutions and counterweights in an institutionalised logic. 

From that angle, the role of the UN can be conceived as the prescription of a drug in which the dosage of active elements is essential for effective treatment. Therefore, multilateralism should be intrinsically opposed to aggressive unilateralism and excessive voluntarism. In the same vein, by its very nature, multilateralism will seek to also meet some interests of the most powerful nations, for the simple reason that the latter’s inclusion in cooperation schemes is much more productive than confrontation, albeit a tacit one.

The same prescription should set up an optimal relationship between traditional intergovernmentalism seen as a structure operating strictly among governments, and globalism which presupposes effective participation of non-state actors in cooperation schemes.

Finally, if the supranationalism of the UN is limited for the time being to the low level of some Security Council resolutions, a reform inspired by globalisation may inevitably lead to the broadening of its supranational attributes. This expansion should, however, limit itself, by use of a rigorous precaution, to the areas which recommend themselves as manifestations that are explicitly of a trans-boundary nature.

See: Multilateral diplomacy course


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