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A Realist Case for American Re-Engagement in the UN

Hugh McFarlane

Ever believers in the old dictum ‘there is no such thing as permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests’, realists like myself are often tempted to dismiss the unrealistic aspirations of the United Nations (UN). For many, the organisation’s failure to achieve its lofty ambitions of ending global conflict proves the institution is best ignored. Yet as we will soon discover, once President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is finalised, the world body is not the paper tiger realists so often depict it as being. There are real world consequences that come with forgoing the UN.

As a rising China grows in confidence and power, the next United States (US) President would do well to re-engage with the UN. By using the body as a natural forum for coalition-building, the US can create the critical mass necessary to challenge Beijing’s unilateralism. There is a realist case for American re-engagement in the world’s largest international organisation.

The Cold War

Recent moves by the Trump administration have certainly brought the US-UN partnership to a historic low, but the relationship was not always this frosty. During the Cold War, the UN served as a tangible and impactful complement to US foreign policy. Established on Washington’s initiative at the end of the Second World War, the UN was deliberately designed along old Wilsonian values of equality between states. Big or small, all nations in the UN have been given equal rights and a voice within the organisation, repudiating the notion that might makes right. Amid the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, this mechanism gave Washington a meaningful advantage over its adversary.

Simply put, there were always more non-socialist states in the UN than there were states aligned with the Soviet Union. Obviously certain non-socialist states were ambivalent or outright opposed to the US, but generally speaking, most of the non-socialist world preferred Washington to Moscow. Thus, by emphasising the equality of states, giving each UN member a say no matter their size or geopolitical might, the US had by default outnumbered the Soviets in the world body. This did not necessarily mean the UN followed American dictates, especially given Moscow’s veto powers in the Security Council, but it did mean that a useful tool for coalition-building, established firmly along American values, generally leaned towards Washington throughout the Cold War.

It is worth remembering that American influence within the UN has yielded real world benefits for US foreign policy. While the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council in the 1950s, forfeiting any leverage within the organisation, the Council unanimously backed America’s intervention in the Korean War. This turned a US military mission into a UN mission, not only enhancing its legitimacy, but allowing additional states to commit troops to an American-led coalition. Similarly, one could argue the UN’s sustained emphasis on human rights and democratic freedoms throughout the Cold War took a genuine toll on the legitimacy of Soviet-backed authoritarian states. These episodes should help realists recognise the fact that influence within the UN often translates to real world impacts on the ground.

The Post-1991 Shift

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, however, the US was left the only world superpower. Its position as global hegemon now firmly enshrined, Washington naturally expected greater influence on the world stage. But after decades of promoting the equality of states within the UN, the US had created a perfect counter-narrative to its own hegemony. This was best demonstrated during America’s efforts to gain UN Security Council backing for its 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the lone superpower sought to justify its unilateral invasion of a fellow state, US allies and adversaries alike used the UN to publicly challenge Washington. Forced to go it alone without UN backing, the US entered into arguably the most controversial war in its history.

Considering this, it is no coincidence that UN rejectionism began to gain steam in America’s domestic politics following the end of the Cold War. Conspiracists’ fevered warnings of a UN-led ‘New World Order’ may have been drastically overblown, but remarkably, the tin foil hat wearers were touching on actual truths. A great asset to US foreign policy had become a major inconvenience. Hegemons have no reason to listen to weaker states, let alone treat them as equals.

The New Cold War

With China’s rise, however, many of the old Cold War dynamics are back at play. Although Beijing has made a point of heavily engaging with UN members, painting its rise as a benevolent alternative to Washington’s hegemony, recent developments have severely damaged this narrative. Rather than portraying itself as an equal partner of smaller states, China’s predatory loan-making and belligerent ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy has exposed patterns of Chinese exceptionalism at the heart of Beijing’s foreign policy. Such exceptionalism likely has its roots in the prevalence of Confucian thought among many Chinese strategists, who emphasise the power and authority of larger states over their smaller neighbours.

Fortunately for the US, China’s ‘might makes right’ approach contrasts directly with the ethos of equality between states that Washington once so stringently upheld. With an increasing number of small states such as Australia growing dejected with Beijing’s coercion, the stage is set for another round of American coalition-building in the UN.


It is beyond unreasonable to expect President Trump’s administration to be the one to lead the charge for American re-engagement in the UN. Indeed, President Trump has exhibited many of the same exceptionalist traits as his counterparts in Beijing. Trump’s America has become more coercive with smaller states and has all but abandoned many key UN agencies, having also withdrawn from UNESCO and the UNHCR in addition to the WHO. But should Joe Biden win the White House this November, the path will be clear for a change in strategy and a return to American leadership in the UN.

The Cold War was proof that American influence in the UN contributes directly to US foreign policy. If future US administrations can leverage growing frustration with China’s unilateralism to build coalitions within the UN, Washington will once again find itself at the helm of an influential global organisation. This will unlock greater support from UN agencies and enhanced sway in the Security Council. The sooner American realists come to recognise this opportunity, the better.


Hugh McFarlane is a Bachelor of Security Studies student at Macquarie University, with an interest in multilateralism and coalition-building.



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