Book Review: The United Nations and Changing World Politics, Seventh Edition, by Thomas G. Weiss, David P. Forsythe, Roger A. Coate and Kelly-Kate Pease.

By Mabel González Bustelo - 01 April 2014

The United Nations and Changing World Politics, Seventh Edition, by Thomas G. Weiss, David P. Forsythe, Roger A. Coate and Kelly-Kate Pease. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 2014. 422 pp, £31.99 - €33.99, 978 0 8133 4847 6 (paperback)

The revised 7th edition of The United Nations and Changing World Politics is a comprehensive and contemporary examination of the UN and of the strengths and weaknesses of this most important multilateral organization. Rooted in history and taking into account contemporary developments, the book provides an insightful picture of the actors, institutions, and processes that shape the UN’s role in world politics.

Headed by Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at The CUNY Graduate Centre and Director of the Ralf Bunche Institute for International Studies, a team of four distinguished scholars in international relations, public policy and political science is behind this work. The authors bring to the analysis their scholarly depth and practical experience to explain what the UN is – and what it is not – and how it operates. They also elucidate the systems of incentives and disincentives that facilitate (or hamper) processes and advances, and they describe the relations with external actors ranging from states to NGOs and international organizations. It is in this realm of competition and cooperation among actors that world politics is shaped, created and re-created, and the UN is literally and symbolically placed at the centre of these endeavours.

International media headlines regularly cover issues such as international negotiations on climate change; conflict and stabilization missions in Mali, DRC Congo, Afghanistan and Lebanon; nuclear negotiations with Iran or the collective failure to protect Syrian civilians. What all of these events have in common is the complex and sometimes overlooked matrix of actors and relationships evolving behind the scenes to set policies, and the processes through which those policies and responses eventually become norms.

In order to provide clarity and insights, the authors of this volume make extensive use of a three-fold distinction. The UN is understood as the interaction and overlapping of three different conceptions: 1) the organization of states: an institutional framework through which states channel and pursue foreign policy objectives through negotiations, agreement and decisions, and are affected by the normative power of collective political action; 2) the leading actor of international politics, composed by an international civil service that works under the restrictions of state power, but whose work shapes processes and norms, and sometimes influences states and other actors; 3) and the convening centre of the global civil society, which attempts to articulate non-official public interests and to be heard in the shaping of global policy.

This book centres on the first and second conceptions, while not denying the power and influence of the third: “The UN in a changing world politics is where all three of these systems come together. The UN of states, the Secretariat and NGOs affects peace and security, human rights and development, and it does so by engaging in operational activities, diplomatic bargaining, and new norm setting” (p. XIX).

The volume has three parts covering International Peace and Security; Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs; and Building Peace through Sustainable Development. Part I addresses the theory of collective security, the efforts and security operations during and after the Cold War, the evolving face of those operations and the challenges lying ahead. Part II deals with the origins and developments of international action in human rights and the UN contributions to both the normative realm and the implementation of principles. And Part III analyses the UN’s initiatives and the historical context surrounding concepts and policies of sustainable human development.

In each section, a historical perspective is provided about the UN approach to the matter at stake, followed by a look at current initiatives and a forecast about how they may evolve in the future. The multi-layered nature of the organization is underlined by the fact that, for any of them, the UN takes responsibility for operational tasks, serves as a negotiating forum for international norms and regimes, and as a normative forum receives - and sometimes incorporates - the evolving values of global civil society.

The authors regard the future of the UN as rooted in its ability to create and pursue new norms and institutional mechanisms to deal effectively with the changing nature of conflict. Appendices include a map of the UN system, a list of relevant internet sites, the Charter of the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Two recent cases here explained illustrate the continuous tensions between state sovereignty and the collective security procedures that characterize the work of the UN, as well as the shifting balances among state interests, normative perspectives and realities on the ground that mark the evolution of global politics.

Heavy repression in Libya over civilian and opposition protests in the context of the Arab Spring prompted action by the UN under Chapter VII of the Charter. The Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized the creation of a no-fly zone and all the necessary measures to ensure compliance and stop attacks on civilians. This strong precedent for the emerging norm of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was accompanied by the first reference to it in a Human Rights Council resolution and by the General Assembly’s suspension of Libya on the same grounds.

But the operation, conducted by NATO, led to strong criticisms for an overall lack of political oversight by the UN and particularly for going beyond the authorization provided. Suspicions arose regarding the use of R2P for regime change. Those controversies and criticisms later spilled over deliberations on the Syrian crisis, and led China and Russia to use their veto power over what they called attempts to transform the R2P into an authorization for regime change. Added to the complexity of the Syrian situation and the vested and competing interests at stake, the result was a setback in the application of the principle and a failure to protect Syrian civilians. It is an important example of the actors, interests and processes that influence the development of rules and their actual implementation in real events.

The tension between sovereignty and supranational cooperation is not static, but rather fluent, and reflects changing concepts of raison d’Etat. As mentioned before, collective political approval implies a normative dimension that at times influences state perceptions about their interests and means. This is clear in the case of human rights, where collective pressure by numerous, diverse and shifting actors within and outside the UN has managed to advance progressive change. According to Weiss et al., “This theory about the importance of human rights norms and discourse over time is linked to transnational pressure, which eventually traps states in their own stated commitments to human rights” (p. 252).

Historically informed and analytically rich, this book introduces the reader to the opportunities and limits of the United Nations. It should be a key reference for professors and students of international relations, peace and conflict, human rights and development, as it contains comprehensive accounts not just of their collective regimes, but also of practical developments and their significance in international affairs. As with previous editions, this one is updated to take into account recent events including the global financial crisis, responses to climate change and diplomatic initiatives around nuclear proliferation.

A contradiction seems to permanently affect the role and power of the UN in world politics. Demand for action in the fields of peace and security, human rights and human development is on the rise, while the resources, means and political will to let the organization address them are shifting and less than constant. Old norms are being challenged (like sovereignty and non intervention) while the new ones (such as R2P) have a long way ahead for clarification and consolidation. This configures what the authors call the UN’s “perpetual political transition” (p. 365).

But when evaluating past performance as a basis for predicting what the future might be, let me follow the authors in concluding this review with some words attributed to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (p.381): “The purpose of the UN is not to get us to heaven but to save us from hell”.

Mabel González Bustelo is a journalist, researcher and international consultant specializing in international peace and security, with a focus on non-State actors in world politics, organized violence, conflict and peacebuilding.

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