International Law Expert Defines Ideal United States-United Nations Relationship Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order

Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order
Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order

Hoover Institution Press today released Living with the UN: American Responsibilities and International Order by Ken Anderson.  In this book, Anderson examines the relationship between the United States and the United Nations and analyzes their interaction on issues including security, human rights, and development.  Anderson scrutinizes key functions of the UN and, importantly, lays out principles that address the crucial question of whether, when, and to what degree the US should work with the UN.

In Living with the UN, Anderson argues that tension between the US and the UN is primarily due to their conflicting roles in global politics.  He contends that the world does not share a vision of what global governance looks like or what role the UN and the US should play on a global scale. He also points out that, since the first days of the Obama administration, the president has attempted to define the US-UN relationship by using generic catchphrases such as “engagement” and “multilateralism.”  Yet, Anderson argues, after four years in office, both Americans and non-Americans are still unclear on how these terms translate into policy. 

Living with the UN gives workable, pragmatic meaning to the term “multilateral engagement” and breaks down US-UN interaction into four categories: (1) always engage; (2) sometimes engage; (3) Parallel engagement; and (4) disengage and actively oppose.  Anderson maintains that certain institutions within the UN, most notably the Security Council, are those with which the US should always engage. Other institutions within the UN—including the General Assembly and agencies that specialize in international development, the environment, and global health—are those with which the US should selectively engage.  Selectively engaging includes, for example, providing monetary support to effective parts of an institution and starving funds of defective parts of that same institution.  Anderson has also found that some occasions call for using “parallel engagement,” such as when the US and the UN are working toward the same goal.  For instance, with issues such as global human welfare, climate change, and natural disaster relief, Anderson argues that the US should act alongside UN efforts but not cede to UN operational control or resources for activity. Regarding the Human Rights Council and other UN institutions and processes that address values-centered issues, Anderson asserts that the US should disengage and actively oppose them.  He concludes that, despite its flaws, we cannot ignore the UN.  Failing to engage with the UN means giving up ground to people who do not have America’s best interests in mind. 

Kenneth Anderson is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret-Taube Task Force on National Security and Law.  He is also a professor of international law at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, DC. 

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