President Donald Trump made his disdain for the United Nations quite clear in his Sept. 24 address to the General Assembly, saying the future “belongs to patriots not globalists.”
Nor did he ask the United Nations to get involved in the aftermath of recent attacks on two oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, but the U.S., Saudi Arabia and several European countries blame Iran for the attacks, which knocked out the facilities responsible for half of all Saudi oil production. Iran, which may have supplied weapons to the Houthis in the past, denies any involvement.
This is precisely the kind of international conflict the United Nations was created in 1945 to address.
But what does the United Nations actually do when there are allegations of misconduct by one country toward another?
More than a talk shop
I’m an international law professor who worked as a policy adviser for 15 years at the U.N. All U.S. presidents since the end of the Cold War, both Republican and Democrat, have sought action through the U.N. to tackle international conflict and crisis.
Established to usher in a new era of global peace, social and economic progress, and to protect international law and human rights after World War II, the U.N. has six principal organs, or units. Two would be particularly relevant to the current situation between the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The United Nations General Assembly, now underway in New York, decides on the U.N.‘s budget, oversees its subsidiary bodies and creates the international norms and standards which guide countries’ behavior and commitments.
When heads of state and premier diplomats from 193 countries meet in New York each September to discuss the international issues of the day, the General Assembly serves as the court of public opinion. It is the place to generate policy positions on global challenges, from nuclear disarmament and terrorism to human rights and poverty eradication.
When there is a threat to international peace, the U.N. Security Council – the most powerful U.N. body – is likely to get involved. Its role is to determine threats to peace and decide measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.
To do that, the Security Council can make legally binding resolutions, like requiring sanctions or weapons inspections, authorizing a peacekeeping mission or calling for negotiations. In some instances, it may even create ad hoc war crimes courts or authorize a coalition of U.N. countries to intervene directly in a conflict.
Fifteen countries sit on the Security Council, but only five – the U.S., U.K., France, China and Russia – are permanent members. Permanent members have veto power, meaning each can stop or obstruct any proposed Security Council action.
US engagement with the UN
The U.S. has frequently engaged the Security Council during times of tension with Middle East countries.
The United Nations first major test after the end of the Cold War came under President George H.W. Bush in 1990, when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. Bush, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., worked with the U.N. extensively to try to avoid and, eventually, to obtain authorization for the first Iraq War.
The Security Council responded immediately to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait with a resolution condemning the incursion and demanding Iraq withdraw. When Iraq refused to comply, the U.N. passed 12 more resolutions, ultimately authorizing member states to use “all necessary means” to compel Iraq to leave Kuwait.
This is the authorization the United States ultimately used as the basis for Operation Desert Storm.
A decade later, Bush’s son, George W. Bush, also sent diplomats to the U.N. to assert the administration’s right to invade Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks based on self-defense – a justification the Security Council recognized.
Things went less well for President Bush the next time he appealed to the the U.N. for help.
In New York in September 2002, Bush made the case that Iraq, amassing weapons, had once again become a threat to international peace. A few months later, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued to the Security Council that Iraq must face military consequences for violating Security Council resolutions prohibiting it from amassing weapons of mass destruction. The Council had repeatedly warned Iraq that it would face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations.
The Security Council did not explicitly endorse that U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, but the Bush administration invaded anyway. Many policymakers argued that its actions were lawful based on the prior U.N. resolutions.
Others disagreed, saying the second Iraq War violated international law.
Who needs the UN?
So the U.S. may not always get the outcome it wants at the U.N. But it has traditionally taken pains to demonstrate that it recognizes the United Nations as an essential institution.
While Trump addressed Iran in his speech to the General Assembly, his lack of a call for a response to recent events breaks with this history. But it is not surprising from this president.
Trump has taken steps to withdraw the United States from certain U.N. programs and decrease funding for its operations. He also withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which was unanimously approved by the U.N. in 2015.
The U.N. secretary-general has called for “maximum restraint” after the attacks on Saudi oil facilities. There seems to be little interest in an escalation of regional tensions.
Still, the U.N. remains the place to go when a head of state wants to build support among the world’s leaders to tackle a major issue of peace and security. Despite President Trump’s posture at the General Assembly, there really is nowhere else to turn.