The United States Positioning as a World Superpower

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The United States Positioning as a World Superpower:

Its Subsequent Influence in the United Nations and Views Regarding Human Rights

Nina Sarin

Student ID Number: 5104478

Professor Bruce Lusignan

EDGE Spring 2005

“America stands at this moment at the summit of the world.”

-Winston Churchill, 1945
As World War II came to a close, a new need for an international peacekeeping organization became apparent in order to maintain peaceful relations among nations in the post-World War II era. The United Nations (UN) came into effect on October 24, 1945 for this very purpose and also “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”.1 One of the leading organs of the UN, the Security Council (UNSC), was given “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” and held its first session on January 17, 1946. 2 The United States was overwhelming supportive and instrumental in the construction of the UNSC as compared to their post-WWI refusal to support the League of Nations, an organization similar in structure to that of the UNSC. The United States decision to reject the League of Nations after WWI was seen as a controversial move to the rest of the world. It reinstated the U.S.’s isolationist foreign policy when the world was seeking for their cooperation in the maintenance of post-WWI peace. However by rejecting the League in 1919, the United States conversely benefited as it led them to be more influential in the creation and administration of the United Nations Security Council. The United Nations and its Security Council worked cooperatively with the U.S. post-WWII. However, in the last few decades, it can be seen that the values of the United States have grown apart from those of the UN. Nowadays, the United States seeks to encourage the protection of human rights and reducing human prejudices by advancing the notion of democracy and not necessarily by advocating global peace as it once had. Ironically, even though the UN aided the U.S. into its position as a world leader post-WWII, the U.S. tends to believe that the UN is holding them back from further developing as a prevailing Nation. This conflict between the U.S. and the UN can be seen specifically in the events leading up to America’s war on Iraq, where the U.S. demonstrated the use of force to promote democracy as their method of improving human rights.

The conclusion of World War II not only ended four years of bitter global warfare, but also marked the creation of a new era for the United States. The United States emerged out of World War II not only victorious but newly strengthened. The other Ally powers had proven victorious as well, but were faced with much greater losses than the United States. The United States exited the war relatively physically unharmed, economically revived, and diplomatically reinforced. The period of the Great Depression that had lingered over the American people for twelve years was over. The country was stimulated by economic growth and rising prosperity. The policies of American isolationism that had governed foreign policy for a century and a half were coming to a close. The American people were feeling invigorated and possessed much national self-confidence. The United States came out of WWII a leading nation, which enabled them to join the United Nations and be an influential member.

The United Nations was not the first global organization founded with the goals of preventing war and keeping peace among nations. The original organization assembled with these purposes was the League of Nations in 1919. As this organization proved to be less-successful in its task, especially in its inability to prevent WWII, it was eventually voted out of existence. The League of Nations stemmed mainly from the ideas of President Woodrow Wilson after WWI. In his address to Congress in January 1918, Wilson proposed the Fourteen Points mainly concerning the war aims of the United States and the creation of the League of Nations. Wilson explained that: “a general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”3 Foreign participants who supported Wilson’s idea urged the United States to take the foremost role in creating the new institution as they felt that U.S. participation was crucial for its success.

The League of Nations had two main objectives as quoted from the Preamble of its Covenant: “to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security.”4 Its two main organs through which it could act were an Assembly and a Council, which much resembled the later developed United Nations Security Council. According to the Covenant, the League’s Council was to consist of “Representatives of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers”, which included France, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, the United States, and four other members of the League whom were to be elected by the Assembly.5 It was intended that the great Allied powers have a majority of one over the elected members. But without the membership of the United States, the Council began with four members in each category. Thus the League showed signs of weaknesses from its very beginnings as a result of the United States unwillingness to join.

When WWI began in 1914, the United States foreign policy of isolationism strongly came into effect. President Wilson’s during the early years of the war kept U.S.’s neutrality, which contributed to his popular re-election in 1916. However, with increased pressure, the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917. During WWI, Wilson realized the importance of collective security in the world. His position as an idealist came into full effect after WWI as Wilson’s views on foreign policy changed drastically. Instead of isolationism, Wilson believed that the next step in American foreign policy was to participate in a system of collective security, which therefore stemmed his idea of the League of Nations.

Despite Wilson's efforts to establish and promote the League, the United States was unable to see the benefits of membership largely in part due to the opposition from isolationists in the U.S. Senate, especially the influential Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge believed that membership in the world peacekeeping organization would threaten the sovereignty of the United States by requiring the nation to participate in international commitments that it would not or could not keep. In 1919, Senator Lodge argued against the League by saying:

The United States is the world's best hope, but if you fetter her in the interests and quarrels of other nations, if you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her powerful good, and endanger her very existence. Leave her to march freely through the centuries to come, as in the years that have gone.6
As seen from the words of Senator Lodge, the strongholds of isolationist foreign policy were still present post-WWI, despite the United States dismissal of this policy during the war. Entering an organization to promote peacekeeping interests was not on the United States agenda at the time. The United States was ready to reinvest itself in its isolationist tendencies post-WWI, as they felt that America would be better off by ending its brief participation in European affairs in order to focus on its own potentials as a nation.

The United Nations was the follow-up organization to the League of Nations, taking on a reevaluated form of many of the same principles and structuring. In the words of F.P. Walters, a historian of the League and a senior member of its Secretariat, the League had been “’in success or failure alike, the embodiment in constitutional form of mankind’s aspirations towards peace and towards a rationally organized world’”.7 The League was an important and good-intentioned starting point to the realization that a governing body in order to maintain peace was necessary in the post-WWI era. In the end, it was helpful that the world’s first attempt for a peacekeeping organization failed as its faults stimulated fresh thinking which ultimately led to some of the most notable accomplishments of the United Nations while also influencing the United States decision to play a newly active role in the organization.

The need for a second installation of a peacekeeping organization was first articulated during a meeting between President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August 1941. These two statesmen consequently issued a joint charter, known as the Atlantic Charter, where they expressed the need for the establishment of a “’wider and permanent system of general security’” in order to disarm the potentially aggressive nations of the time. The name “United Nations” was first used in January 1942 at a meeting in Washington, where the Allied nations approved the principles of the Atlantic Charter. During the Moscow Conference in 1943, the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China met and expressed their desire for the creation of such an organization to commence. The United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were given primary responsibility in drawing up a more comprehensive plan for the association. These nations negotiated early on that the United Nations was intended to be a new organization, not a reproduction of the League of Nations. However it was agreed upon that it would follow some of the Leagues more successful principles, mainly the notion of being an institution based upon the “sovereign equality of all its Members”.8

The United States was instrumental in the construction of the United Nations governing Charter as it was the strongest nation coming out of the WWII and therefore looked upon to lead the world in sustaining peace among nations. The extent of the United States influence can be firstly noted in the Preamble of the Charter which begins: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . .”9 The United States was clearly significant in the wording choice of the Preamble as it is very similar to the beginnings of the United States Constitution. From the onset, the United States was able to push the notion of democracy within the United Nations, which is seen here in the Preamble, by stressing the role and rights of the peoples as well as the governments in the organization.

The pursuit of human rights is an ideal that has been ingrained within the UN Charter from its very beginnings. But the events of World War II, especially the profound mistreatment of people, led the UN to place an even greater importance on the human rights issue so to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Accordingly, the UN formed a legal framework composed of human rights organizations to review and if necessary to act upon violations seen towards the inherent rights of people. The complete structuring of these organizations is as follows:
Human Rights Machinery at the UN10

General Assembly

The 3rd Committee with competence in social, humanitarian and cultural affairs

Economic and Social Council (54 members): and human rights

Its subsidiary bodies:

Working Group of Governmental Experts on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (15 members)

Human Rights Commission (1946) (54 members)

Working groups on:

Punishment of the crime of apartheid

Gross violations of human rights disappearances

Analysis of the promotion of human rights

Preparation of various conventions
Sub-Commission on the prevention of discrimination and the protection of minorities

(1947) (27 experts)

With working groups on:

Communications made to the Sub-Commission


Indigenous populations

And working groups for each session

Commission on the Status of Women (1946) (32 members)

The UN Charter addresses the necessity of human rights by requiring all member nations to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights" and to take "joint and separate action" to that end.11 In addition, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though not legally binding, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 as the precedent to follow when detailing the inherent rights of human beings. This Declaration continues to be upheld by the main UN body in charge of promoting human rights: the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). The UNCHR’s primary responsibility is to investigate and to propose technical assistance in situations dealing with the mistreatment of human rights. Such technical assistance includes providing free and fair elections, improving judicial structures, drafting constitutions, training human rights officials, and transforming armed movements into political parties. These actions can evidently be seen as better supporting countries in transition towards democratic societies more so than other types of governments, as well as advancing the U.S.’s hope for a democratized world.

In addition to the dealings of human rights, the written improvements made to the UN Charter from concepts first seen in the League of Nations Covenant, further promote and sustain the United States presence in the United Nations. The United Nations Charter saw the need for a system of general security within the organization and therefore took the idea of the League Council and reshaped it to form the United Nations Security Council. A detailed outline of the issues and actions the Security Council covers as deemed by the UN Charter is charted below:

Security Council: Types of issue and action under the Charter12

Types of issue and action

Article of the Charter



11, 34, 35, 36


12, 27, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 52

Threat to the peace

39, 99

Breach of the peace


Act of aggression




33, 38, 39, 94

Provisional measures

40, 94

Preventative or enforcement action

2, 5, 11, 39, 41, 42, 45, 49, 50, 53, 94

The Security Council was to consist of the five permanent members: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France, and China. These five countries were chosen to represent the Council as they were the five victorious powers after WWII. The UN Security Council is the only UN body that has permanent members (Article 23). All other UN bodies have general or rotating memberships. As stated in Article 23 of the Charter, the Council would also consist of six (later on increased to ten) other Members of the United Nations as elected by the Assembly for two-year terms. Overall, the Council was given exceptional responsibility and power by allowing the use of armed forces to uphold and restore peace and by permitting it to act on behalf of the whole membership of the United Nations, according to Article 24 of the Charter. Article 25 goes on to state that Members “agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council . . .” This contrasted greatly from the League Council as issues regarding security were delegated throughout many of its organs and decisions were not binding. The unmatched power of the United Nations Security Council in many ways contradicts with the United Nations overriding principle of maintaining “sovereign equality of states” as it places a limitation of sovereignty on all the members other than the permanent members of the Security Council.

Another difference in the structuring of the United Nations Security Council, as opposed to the League Council, that allowed unprecedented amounts of power to the permanent member states was in its voting procedures. In Article 27 of the Charter, it states that decisions made by the Security Council are to abide by a majority vote. However, it is also necessary to have “the concurring votes of the [five] permanent members”. This rule consequentially implies veto power to each of the permanent members and not only makes their decisions binding but also enables them to never be bound to a decision in which they did not agree. Conversely the League Council used the unanimity rule in voting, which proved difficult in the decisions-making process, but implied equal representation to all its Members. The Security Council’s method of voting was seen as extending the sovereignty of the permanent members while limiting that of the other Members, and even the non-Members.

The difference between the UN and the League of Nations in the Security Council’s ability to call for armed forces further shows the unequal power distribution among Member states. The League did not have an army to enforce its decisions. The UN Charter changed this and in Article 39 gave the Council even wider powers when dealing with "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression."13 In such situations, the Council may take action, including the use of armed forces "to maintain or restore international peace and security."14 This change greatly benefited the United States as they had the strongest and most prominent military. The U.S. now had the power to enhance the UNSC’s armed forces and carry out decisions to only which they agreed.

The difference in global stance between WWI and WWII found the United States in a position to embark upon a new direction in foreign policy; one that could benefit from supporting a peacekeeping organization. The United States Senate overwhelmingly voted to join the United Nations by a vote of 89 to 2. A seat as a permanent member in the United Nations Security Council was seen as a source of power and prestige, whereas the League of Nations was a fragile idea not heavily supported or believed in. Members of the Security Council, especially the five permanent members, were able to exercise more political and economic power than any other body within the United Nations. The United States importance in the involvement and construction of the UNSC was realized from the hindering consequences the League of Nations faced from its rejection by the U.S.

By the United States refusing to join the League of Nations after WWI, the League was weakened from its very beginnings as it was missing the presence of a world leader. The United States, as well as the rest of the world, began to realize the great extent of U.S. power and therefore began to portray the U.S. as a world superpower. Thus, this led to its placement in the United Nations Security Council and to the creation of many structural rules that maintained the United States’ influence. However, since the creation of the UN, the United States aspirations have grown apart from those of the organization and thus creating conflict. The U.S. now has its own agenda based on promoting democracy as a way of protecting human rights and keeping peaceful relations between nations.

As the United States has been the world's dominant military, economic, social, and political power for some time now, its upper-handedness in the international scene has brought about much conflict with other UN members, mostly in regards to the U.S.’s tendency towards unilateralism. Disagreements between the U.S. and the UN are not new. The United Nations was not intended to represent a world with a single superpower. The first major action that went against the U.S. wishes at the UN was Resolution 2758 in 1971, which allowed the admission of the People's Republic of China into the UN and the removal of the Republic of China. However, this did not do lasting damage as the U.S. changed its own China policy shortly after and ended up accepting the Resolution. Another UN-U.S. conflict came about under the Reagan administration when the U.S. deliberately withheld its dues to the UN so to pressure them to support their views. The U.S. is the state levied most heavily by the UN. So, U.S. policymakers considered this tactic an effective tool for asserting U.S. influence in the UN. The U.S. eventually repealed its policy of withholding funds in an effort to amend the U.S.-UN relationship, but not before the U.S. had accumulated a significant debt to the UN. The graph below illustrates the U.S.’s debt to the UN as well as those of the other permanent members:

Arrears in contributions, permanent members of the Security Council, 1993 (in $ millions)15

Regular budget











Russia Federation/USSR




United Kingdom




United States




Another cause of UN-U.S. friction is the U.S.’s persistent use of its veto power in the Security Council since 1970, especially in regards to resolutions that condemn the state of Israel. The General Assembly has condemned Israeli actions on many occasions, but the U.S.’s use of its veto on this subject continues to dismiss any proposed resolutions. This seemingly partisan way of voting by the U.S. has led UN members to believe that the U.S. is no longer dedicated to upholding the principles of the organization in a cooperative manner. Since 1970, the U.S. has cast the most number of vetoes in the open meetings of the Security Council, as seen in the chart below:16

UNSC Permanent Member State

Number of Vetoes Cast from 1970-1994





Soviet Union/ Russian Federation


United Kingdom


United States


The U.S.’s propensity to make sole decisions regarding the international world is highly discouraged by the UN as they favor collective decision making. However, the U.S.’s post-WWII unparallel power allows them to pursue their own beliefs and course of actions. This continues to augment the conflict between the U.S. and UN on how decisions regarding world issues should be made.

One of the most significant disputes between the U.S. and the UN arose in 2002 and 2003 over the issue of Iraq. The U.S. under President George W. Bush believed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had not upheld the obligations he had made at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, primarily to do away with all weapons of mass destruction and to renounce their further use. However after a series of inspections by UN weapons inspectors, there was neither evidence that proved or disproved this allegation that Iraq was continuing to develop such weapons. The U.S. stayed firm on their views by saying that the responsibility of proof of disarmament was upon Iraq, not on the UN or the U.S. However, as this was proving unsuccessful, in November 2002 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1441. This resolution gave Iraq an ultimatum to co-operate in disarmament. But in March 2003, the U.S., supported by the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia and Poland, initiated a war against Iraq. By April 9, Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown and Iraq was placed under occupation.

The United States course of actions regarding Iraq was seen as a blow towards the United Nations. The U.S. argued that their lead in declaring war on Iraq was allowed by Resolution 1441, since Iraq had not co-operated fully by identifying and destroying its weapon programs. The U.S. further believed that their actions were valid since Resolution 1441 stated 'serious consequences' were to follow without full compliance to the resolution. However, other prominent countries in the UN and members of the UNSC, such as France, maintained that Resolution 1441 did not authorize the use of force without a further Resolution. They made it clear that the U.S. had gone ahead with their plan without the support of the international community, and further severed their ties with the UN.

The United States foreign policies and dealings on international issues continue to deviate from those of the UN. President Bush, in his 2005 inaugural address, is quoted below as describing some main objectives of U.S. foreign policy regarding human rights: “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world . . . We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”17 The UN also believes in promoting human rights and democracy but mainly through investigations and offers of technical assistance. The UN stresses that it is an organization that promotes peace in its actions and not one that uses its power to dominate other nations. The United States, on the other hand, believes that the use force of arms when necessary to carry out its foreign policies is allowed. These objectives of U.S. foreign policy can be seen in the action the United States took by declaring war on Iraq. At that time, the U.S. saw the need to promote democracy and enhance human rights in Iraq as more important than engaging in peacekeeping efforts with the UN.

The importance of the UN in the modern world has been questioned by its critics. There is even a small but growing movement in the U.S. to withdraw from the UN. One reason for this movement is the U.S. belief that sovereignty should stay within national bodies, and should not be given up to outer organizations. Another probable reason for this dissent is its use as a negotiation tactic; by threatening to walk out, the U.S. is expressing its discontent and putting pressure on the UN to address U.S. concerns. However, the "get U.S. out of UN" movement is unlikely to result in the U.S. actually leaving. Legislation has been proposed to the U.S. Congress expressing the view of the U.S. withdrawal from the U.N, but it was given minimal support.

There are many contrasting views regarding the future relationship between the United States and the United Nations. On the one hand, there is the argument that the United States is self-sufficient and does not need the support of the UN. The U.S. is economically stable and engages in defense and trade agreements with many countries. Therefore, the U.S. has the resources and confidence to pursue its own national interests as it sees fit. A second view is that the United States should provide leadership to the UN, in return for its recognition as a world superpower that the UN aided the U.S. in attaining. By choice, the United States should lend its global leadership skills to support the UN. Lastly, the third view deals with the notion of globalization and the U.S.’s need to engage in responsibility, leadership, and forward thinking. It is true that the United States is the superpower, and that it has the resources to provide for its own. However the borders of the United States are porous. For example, an outbreak of SARS in China has the potential to enter the United States before it can be detected. A threat to one is a threat to all in this time of globalization. This interconnectedness should manage the United States' attitude and behavior toward the United Nations.

The United Nations greatly influenced the positioning of the United States as a world superpower. The views and goals may have changed between these two powerhouses. But as the United Nations recognizes that the United States is a necessary ally, the United States must realize that the United Nations has been successful in conflict prevention, disease prevention, and in bringing state and non-state actors together to work for the common good. The United States and the UN should work cooperatively to enhance human rights, spread peace and freedom, and promote democracy in all regions of the world.

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