The soft power of the United Nations

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

Joseph Stalin once dismissed the relevance of “soft power by asking, “How many troops does the Pope have? Today, many self-styled realists dismiss the United Nations as powerless, and argue that it can be ignored. They are mistaken.

Power is the ability to affect others to produce the outcomes one wants. Hard power works through payments and coercion (carrots and sticks); soft power works through attraction and co-option. With no forces of its own and a relatively tiny budget, the UN has only as much hard power as it can borrow from its member states. It was created in 1945 to be the servant of its member states, and Article 2.7 of its charter protects the sovereign jurisdiction of its members.

After the failure of the League of Nations in the 1930’s, the UN was designed to have the Security Council’s permanent members act as policemen to enforce collective security. When the great powers agreed, the UN had impressive hard power, as demonstrated in the Korean War and the first Gulf War. But such cases were exceptional. During the Cold War, the Council was divided. As one expert put it, its permanent members’ veto was designed to be like a fuse box in an electrical system: better that the lights go out than that the house burn down.

Despite those limits, the UN has considerable soft power that arises from its ability to legitimize the actions of states, particularly regarding the use of force. People do not live wholly by the word, but neither do they live solely by the sword. For example, the UN could not prevent the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the absence of its imprimatur greatly raised the costs to the American and British governments.

Some American leaders then tried to de-legitimize the UN and called for an alternative alliance of democracies. But they missed the point: Iraq policy had divided allied democracies, and, with its universal membership, the UN remained an important source of legitimacy in the eyes of most of the world.

The greatest damage to the UN’s legitimacy has been self-inflicted. For example, in recent years the internal bloc politics among its member states produced a Human Rights Council with little interest in fair procedures or the advance of human rights. Likewise, administrative inefficiency has led to poor performance of high-profile efforts like the oil-for-food program.

The job of UN Secretary General involves very little hard power, but some people have filled the post with great effect, using their soft power resources to leverage the hard power of governments. For example, Dag Hammarskjold seized the opportunity of the Suez Crisis created by Britain and France’s invasion of Egypt in 1956 to persuade governments to create peacekeeping forces – an institution that is not mentioned in the UN original charter. In the wake of the UN’s failures to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Kosovo in the 1990’s, Kofi Annan worked with others to persuade governments to recognize a new responsibility to protect endangered peoples.

But such innovations have their limits. In the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, states turned once again to UN peacekeepers, as they have in dealing with the problems in the Congo and Darfur. But, while there are currently more than 100,000 troops from various nations serving in UN peacekeeping missions around the world, member states are not providing adequate resources, training, and equipment. Moreover, governments have found ways to delay effective international action, as has been the case in Sudan. It remains to be see whether China, concerned that its oil trade with Sudan might jeopardize the 2008 Olympics, will decide to exert more pressure.

Similarly, while the General Assembly may have agreed that states have a “responsibility to protect, many members agreed only in a very limited sense. Many developing countries, in particular, remain jealous of their sovereignty and fear that the new principle could infringe it. For example, in the aftermath of the recent government crackdown in Myanmar (Burma), the Secretary General was able to send a representative to the country, but with powers limited to reporting and attempted mediation. That may be enough to influence some governments, but the Burmese junta recently expelled the UN’s representative after he warned of “a deteriorating humanitarian situation. The UN has impressive power – both hard and soft – when states agree on policies under Chapter 7 of the Charter. It has modest but useful soft power when great powers disagree but are willing to acquiesce in a course of action. And it has very little power when the great powers oppose an action, or repressive member governments ignore the claims of the new “responsibility to protect. In such cases, it makes no sense to blame the UN. Soft power is real, but it has its limits. The fault lies not with the UN, but with the lack of consensus among member states.

Joseph S. Nye is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. This article is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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