Recognizing the U.N. as a Major Player

by Krissy Chapman:

“You want to be a part of the club,” explained Professor Jean Krasno. At the U.N., few on the outside know what goes on behind closed doors; but according to Krasno, “[Nations] don’t want to be left out.” Despite the generally reclusive nature of the U.N.ited Nations, it has been a key component to international relations for the past 60 years, particularly during the post-Cold War period. Krasno, who has extensive experience studying the history and operations of the U.N., sat down with the Globalist in her office at Yale to discuss its role in world politics.

Yale Professor Jean Krasno (Courtesy City College of New York)

“Today, we have about 100,000 U.N. peacekeepers [stationed] around the world and the general public in the United States does not realize that,” she explained. “They think that the Security Council sits there and debates and imposes sanctions and people don’t always live up to them and so forth. But the U.N. is very, very busy.”

Krasno is currently a professor at Yale and the director of the Multilateralism and International Organization Initiative at the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College in New York. In the past, she worked at the Academic Council on the U.N. (a non-governmental organization) and on several independent projects, including the Yale U.N. Oral History Project. The project has conducted over 200 interviews with officials from countries around the world, compiling a history of the U.N. based on security issues, the U.N.’s role in peacekeeping operations, mediation, and the founding of the U.N. She is also currently collecting the papers of Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary General, into a five-volume publication. Given her background, Krasno speaks with authority and depth of knowledge about the importance of the U.N., importance that persists, she said, despite the common misconceptions that surround it.

So why does the public know so little about the activities of the U.N.? And why does the U.S. seem so disconnected? Krasno asserts that while a big piece of the puzzle relies on the willingness (or lack thereof) of the U.N. to volunteer information to the media, the American media and political establishments are also a large part of the problem. At the root of the disconnect lies a disagreement regarding the Iraq War. From late 2002 to 2003, the relationship between the United States and the U.N. was strained after American government officials openly defied the Security Council and invaded Iraq. The tension and mutual disapproval that flavored this post-9/11 relationship was reflected in the media coverage of the U.N. in the United States. “During the Oil for Food Crisis, what we called ‘The Scandal’ [which was based on false allegations that Kofi Annan was receiving money from oil contracts in Iraq], all the U.S. media was tromping on the U.N. and blaming Kofi Annan,” she said. But according to Krasno, “that wasn’t happening outside of the US. That was the US’s beef with the U.N. underneath all of this. The US did not get Security Council authorization to go to war with Iraq in 2003. So if they denigrated the U.N., the U.S. would look better.”

While most other countries around the world believed that the Security Council was right to reject authorization of the US invasion of Iraq, the United States government disagreed. The political atmosphere, saturated with contempt for the U.N., became magnified in the American media’s portrayal of the order as a powerless organization. This environment harvested a general lack of understanding about the U.N., and was reinforced by assertions about its declining importance in the global sphere. In contrast, most other countries continued to see the U.N. as what Professor Krasno described as “the place to be. The place to negotiate.” The United States, meanwhile, was seen as uncooperative; it had defied the world order, and was deemed significantly less credible.

Krasno believes that the U.N., and particularly the Security Council, has become the primary enabler of international politics through “the changing way it does peacekeeping.” She explained, “after the end of the Cold War, you see a big jump in the number of peacekeeping operations that were sent around the world.” Before the Cold War era, the U.N. was more cautious about infiltrating nations without government consent; examples of this strategy include the actions toward Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. In recent years, however, it has taken full advantage of Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes “any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations.” As an expert on United Nations peacekeeping operations, Krasno sees decisive intervention as a tangible illustration of the United Nations’ continuing power, influence, and value in international relations. The U.N.’s role has also grown, as it “is not just there to oversee a peace agreement. They are in there rebuilding a country—rebuilding a justice system, training lawyers, training judges, training the military to uphold human rights institutions.” Unlike past operations, which quickly extracted forces without much consideration for state building, today’s peacekeeping operations aim to stabilize the country after initial action is taken.

When the U.N. was first created, 51 members signed on. It is currently composed of 193 countries.  Member states understand that “global problems have to be resolved through global enterprises,” and the biggest challenge of global governance is “multilateral cooperation.” Although all countries join the U.N. with the priority of serving their own interests, they understand that they may have to make compromises to ultimately obtain these interests and global peace. “It’s a way of talking through what global problems we all face together, like pollution, disarmament, climate change, terrorism. Resolving peaceful solutions to issues can’t be solved by one country operating alone. We have to have everybody cooperating in order to actually resolve these problems.”

Looking forward, Krasno emphasizes that although tensions between the United States and the United Nations exist, the Obama administration is working to rectify its relationship with the U.N. Old wounds will continue to heal as time passes from the defiant decision to invade Iraq. However, Krasno asserts that this healing process will only continue if the United States respects the United Nations and its member states. The U.N. is only becoming more prominent in the global sphere. If the U.S. wants to persist as a revered power, we must get on board and become part of the “club” once more.

Krissy Chapman ’13 is a Political Science major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at