New challenges to international peace and security and human survival have arisen. New nonstate actors have appeared on the world stage, and older ones have occasionally been transformed. New conventions and norms have proliferated. New intergovernmental initiatives and institutions have been established. Yet, despite these challenges, decision‐making in world politics and international organizations remains dominated by states.
The world thus still reflects what Hedley Bull and virtually all political scientists call ‘anarchy,’3 or the absence of a central global authority. In spite of the construction of a seemingly ever‐denser web of international institutions, there is nothing like a world government in the offing. Although it would be inaccurate to ignore the extremes—ranging from fractious political authority in failed states to the supranational integration of the European Union—it still is accurate to point to a fundamental continuity: state sovereignty remains the core of international relations.
The first category of change consists in the proliferation of new threats and challenges to the well‐being of states and their citizens that surpass the ability of individual states
In short, war, human rights abuse, and poverty have persisted throughout the last six decades
Judgments about the relative success or failure of the UN in addressing such perennial blights on the human condition can only be made with the recognition that many of these ‘old’ threats have themselves changed in nature over time, and that praise for success or criticism for failure cannot simply be placed at the door of the organization
However, the UN as an arena has also traditionally provided space for what is increasingly called ‘global civil society’ to interact with states, articulate demands and solutions, and pursue their own interests.
Paradoxically, the UN has been responsible for both the triumph and the erosion of state sovereignty.
The first is that technology and communications have remolded the nature of the global economy and economic aspirations.16 There is great controversy over the oft‐used and confused term ‘globalization.’17 Some observers argue that it has been occurring since the earliest trade expeditions (e.g., the Silk Road); and despite the current obsession, the process itself is not fundamentally new. Others suggest that the current era of globalization is unique in the rapidity of its spread and the intensity of the interactions that result. It is difficult to deny the processes of increased interconnectivity across the planet and the worldwide dimensions of human, financial, commercial, and cultural flows that require no passport. For the latter, the UN's normative efforts have been combined with technology to produce what one analyst called ‘the end of geography.’18 Wherever one stands in the debate about globalization's reach, pace, and impact on state sovereignty, it is clear that definitions of vital national interests—often called raisons d'état—are expanding and being continually redefined. Their pursuit is not exclusive because sometimes state actors are playing in a non‐zero‐sum game; the European Union is often cited as an example of sovereignty being recast if not transcended, a process long‐ago described by Ernst Haas as moving ‘beyond the nation‐state.’19 Globalization creates losers as well as winners, and it entails risks as well as opportunities. The rapid growth of global markets has not seen the parallel development of social and economic institutions to ensure their smooth and efficient functioning, and the global rules on trade and finance produce asymmetric effects on rich and poor countries, very often to the detriment of the latter. This too means that some states are more or less ‘sovereign’ than others.
The third part of an explanation for the paradox of the UN's contribution to both strengthening and weakening sovereignty is that experience, beginning in the 1990s, suggests that states can be born and die—sovereign entities can, in the popular language of the day, ‘fail.’24 A number of other euphemisms have arisen—for instance, ‘weak’ and ‘fragile’—while the ‘on‐the‐ground’ reality varies from the situation in Somalia,25 where there has been no effective central authority since 1992, to the former Yugoslavia, which no longer exists as a unitary state. Charter Article 2 (1) is clear: ‘The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.’ This essentially means that all states have equal sovereignty, but not that they are equal in nature. Fictions abound in world politics, including the pretence within the UN of treating member states that are not de facto sovereign as equal to functioning members, and treating China and Chad or Venezuela and Vanuatu on a par in the General Assembly despite their vast inequalities in size and power.
But what made the UN's design and establishment so remarkable was its broader ambitions—for human rights on a global scale, for sovereign independence and freedom and democracy in all parts of the world, for improvements in standards of living worldwide
While such lofty idealism is often derided, more of that original vision has been achieved than is often recognized. No period in human history has seen so many people benefiting from advances in life expectancy, health, education, and living standards as in the UN's lifetime. The organization cannot claim credit for all the progress that has been made, any more than it can be blamed for the lack thereof.