Ethics & International Affairs


The United Nations and Global Security: The Norm is Mightier than the Sword*

Michael N. Barnett


Barnett argues that the United Nations, by operating on the principle of the consent of the parties, can encourage the development of a more stable and cooperative security architecture. The articulation and transmission of norms and the establishment of mechanisms can encourage transparency in interstate and internal matters. After the Cold War some entertained the possibility of increasing United Nations involvement in security affairs and making it a muscular security organization. Such visions, however, outstripped either what the United Nations was immediately capable of accomplishing or what the member states were willing to support. These developments demand a more pragmatic assessment of the United Nations to learn what it can do well, what it cannot do well, and how it can become more effective.

Michael N. Barnett is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin. Among his publications are Confronting the Costs of War: Military Power, State, and Society in Egypt and Israel (Princeton University Press, 1992), “Institutions, Roles, and Disorder: The Case of the Arab States System,” and “The New UN Politics of Peace: From Juridical to Empirical Sovereignty.” This past year he was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He is currently a MacArthur International Peace and Security Fellow, and is researching a book tentatively titled Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order.


* The author gratefully acknowledges support from the United States Institute of Peace, which funded the research for this article, as well as Martha Finnemore for her comments on an earlier draft.