What kind of power does the UN wield internationally?

Although the roles and regulations of the United Nations are constantly challenged, the U.N. is the only forum where nations from all over the world can gather to discuss important issues involving international peace and security. Its primary mission is the same today as it was when it was formed in 1945—to maintain world peace.

by Stephanie Morrow
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

With the war in Iraq, ongoing terror threats in the air and the on-going battle between Israel and Lebanon, the United Nations (U.N.) and its international efforts are continuously in the news. More recently, the continuous development of a proposed U.N. resolution aimed at stopping the fight between Lebanon and Israel has received attention. But what exactly is the United Nations, and what powers do they have across the globe?

Maintaining peace through cooperation

Established in 1945 by 51 countries, the U.N. was formed to maintain peace through the cooperation of its member countries. Today, 192 countries (called "member states") belong to the U.N. and strive to uphold international peace and security. With nearly all countries large and small, rich and poor being a part of the U.N., the U.N. serves as a forum for different countries to discuss solutions to issues ranging from arms control and terrorism to the international enforcement of human rights.

When a country becomes a U.N. member, the country agrees to settle any disputes peacefully, to not use force or threats against other countries, and to refrain from helping any country that opposes the U.N.'s actions. The members also agree to accept the U.N. Charter, which states that the U.N.'s four main purposes are to:

  • maintain international peace and security
  • develop friendly relations among nations
  • cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights
  • be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations

The U.N. is funded by members' dues, which are based upon each country's individual wealth and ability to pay. The United States is the largest contributor to the U.N., paying 22 percent of the organization's regular assessed budget.

U.N. makeup and power

The U.N. is made up of six bodies that have specific functions: the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, Secretariat and an International Court of Justice. The General Assembly is the main body of the U.N. and is made up of representatives from all member states. Economic and social work is coordinated by the Economic and Social Council, while the Trusteeship Council handles non-self-governing territories as they progress towards independence. An international staff works within the Secretariat to facilitate the day-to-day activities of the U.N.

One of the most important aspects of the U.N.'s international power is its responsibility to maintain peace and security among nations, a power held by the Security Council. Just in the last few months, the Security Council has performed important work in the Middle East, Iran and Darfur, just to name a few, as well as assisting the U.N.'s work in other areas, such as the elimination of HIV/AIDS and its continuous support of human rights.

The International Court of Justices, also known as the "World Court," is the judicial branch of the U.N. and is the main forum for deciding disputes among countries. This court helps resolve international conflicts in accordance with international law, and gives advisory opinions on legal questions from authorized international entities. The court is made up of 15 judges who are elected to nine-year terms.

Both the Security Council and the International Court of Justices play an important role in the U.N.'s development and enforcement of international law, as these decisions are binding. The U.N. also asserts the right of the Security Council to be the only entity with the power to declare international uses of legitimate military force. However, as seen with the war in Iraq, this authority does not always work. In 2003, although the United States sought but did not receive explicit Security Council approval of military action against Iraq, the U.S. nonetheless went ahead with the invasion of Iraq. The U.S. has since invited the U.N. to assist in humanitarian assistance in Iraq and the election of Iraq's new government.

U.N. power and reform

From World War II to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the U.N. has been involved in every major war and international crisis. There has been, however, much talk about the U.N.'s influence on international affairs, and plan of "U.N. reform" has been discussed. Some want the U.N. to play a greater role in world affairs, while others want its role to specifically focus on humanitarian work. Although total reform efforts have not been reached, an Ethics Office was recently established to strengthen financial disclosure and protect "whistleblowers" who report misconduct within the U.N.

Although the roles and regulations of the U.N. are constantly challenged, the U.N. is currently the only forum where nations from all over the world can gather to discuss important issues involving international peace and security. Its primary mission is the same today as it was when it was formed over 60 years ago—to maintain world peace. To do this, the U.N. gives an open forum for countries to discuss their opinions and views, in order to solve international problems such as poverty, disease, and environmental harms, and settle conflicts without turning to violence.

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Stephanie Morrow

About the Author

Stephanie Morrow

Stephanie Morrow has been a contributor to LegalZoom since 2005 and has written about nearly all aspects of law, from ta… Read more

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