United Nations



Join Active Minds for a look at the United Nations.  We will examine the origins and history of the U.N. as well as its current and future role in the world.

Key Lecture Points

  • The United Nations arose from the devastation of WWII and was created to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”  The UN has 193 member nations. The General Assembly provides a global forum for debate on issues of international concern, but the real power lies in the Security Council, dominated by the veto wielding Permanent Five members: the US, the UK, France, Russia and China.
  • The origins of the UN can be traced back to the Concert of Europe, the League of Nations and high level WWII Allied conferences such as the talks in Tehran, Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta.  In 1945 representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco and adopted the United Nations Charter which laid out the structure for a new world body.   The first meeting of the United Nations was held in London January 1946 with 51 countries participating.  In 1952 the UN moved into its present headquarters in New York City.
  • The first Secretary General was Trygve Lie.  He was a compromise nomination reached by the Security Council—a pattern that continued with succeeding Secretaries General.  It was during Lie’s term that Israel became a state and the UN approved sending forces to Korea.
  • Dag Hammarskjold became Secretary General in 1953.  A key event of his tenure was the Suez Crisis in 1957.  As tensions mounted between Egypt, backed by the USSR, and the UK, France and Israel, the UN sent in a peacekeeping force as a buffer between the two sides—this was the first of many UN peacekeeping missions.
  • U Thant took over as Secretary General in 1961.  His time was marked by Cold War flare-ups like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 6 Day War, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
  • In 1971 Kurt Waldheim became Secretary General.  He dealt with disputes in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.  While he was Secretary General China entered the UN, replacing the government in exile in Taiwan.
  • In 1981 Javier Perez de Cuellar became Secretary General.  A few events from his tenure include the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of the USSR.
  • Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali took on the Secretary General position in 1991.  He was criticized for the UN’s failure to act during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre.
  • In 1996 Kofi Annan became Secretary General.  This was the time of divisions within the UN over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the UN Oil for Food scandal in 2004.
  • Ban Ki Moon entered the Secretary General position in 2007 and will end his term in 2016.  His tenure has included sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program, the Iranian nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the ebola and zika epidemics.
  • Supporters of the UN call it a success because there has not been another world war despite the tensions of the Cold War and other serious conflicts.  It gives small nations a voice on the global stage, saves the lives of millions through its humanitarian programs, restores stability through its peacekeeping missions and brings attention to important issues like climate change.  Critics call it a bloated, unwieldly, ineffective bureaucracy that costs the US too much money.  The US provides 22% of the UN’s operating budget, a contribution that some say is more than our fair share.
  • Antonio Guterres will become the 9th Secretary General January 2017.  Issues he faces are the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis, North Korea’s aggressive nuclear program, the fight against terrorism and more.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe how the UN developed from the League of Nations to the organization it is today.
  • Describe the structure of the UN and how the different parts of the system operate.
  • Describe three major crises before the UN today and how each one impacts the US.

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think the UN is a success or failure?  Why?
  • Do you think more seats should be added to the Security Council?  Why or why not?

More to Explore

  • Info on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals Click here
  • Info on current UN peacekeeping missions Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Fasulo, Linda.  An Insider’s Guide to the UN.  Third Edition. Yale University Press, 2015. 320 pages..  Written by a longtime reporter on UN affairs, this book is a guide to the complex working of the UN and its ever-expanding missions.  According to Fasulo, this guide is "for those who want to know more, who ask how the proceedings are conceived, prepared, and paid for, and about their chances for a lasting impact."
    Click here to order
  • Bowles, Newton.  The Diplomacy of Hope: The United Nations Since the Cold War.  I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2004. 205 pages.  This book addresses the new terrain of the UN since the fall of the USSR.  The book is accessible and it is biased: the author praises the UN organization and its role in the world.  William J. Vanden Heuvel, former U.S. Ambassador with the UN, notes: “In eloquent and effective language Newton Bowles has written a people's history of the United Nations, totally aware of its weaknesses, but a witness also to its extraordinary success in a turbulent world."
    Click here to order
  • Unesco, World Heritage Sites: A Complete Guide to 1,031 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Firefly Books, 2016. 928 pages.  This book provides a photographic guide to UNESCO world heritage sites.
    Click here to order