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Stanley Foundation: How to Keep From Overselling or Underestimating the United Nations

Authors: Mark P. Lagon, and David Shorr
March 1, 2007


The policy choices that the United States
makes regarding the United Nations and
other intergovernmental organizations
rest on a set of assumptions on whether our
aims in the world can be achieved through sheer
power, set international structures, or a combination
thereof. The bedrock for policy, therefore,
is an assessment of the capacities and
limitations of these structures. In other words,
our appraisal of the United Nations' potential
impact helps determine what we seek there.
These questions raise others about the very
nature of the international system and whether
it is a brutal Hobbesian struggle or subject to
some sort of regulation.
International organizations are premised on
their ability to make the realm of nations
more, rather than less, orderly. In US domestic
politics, this is often portrayed as an allor-
nothing proposition. The United Nations'
treaties are worthless, goes the argument,
because they cannot stop those who are bent
on ruthless destruction. So what's the use of
such bodies?
US policymakers will always face controversial
and difficult decisions for the US stance
at the United Nations. But if some of the rancor
can be drained from the surrounding
political debate, it would be easier for officials
to focus on the merits of the proposed
courses of action. The place to start is with a
set of realistic expectations that neither oversells
nor underestimates the value of international

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