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How United Nations ideas change history


This article considers the United Nations (UN) as a creator and facilitator of innovative ideas in world politics. It thereby breathes new life into the world organisation's overlooked characteristics: the quality and diversity of its intellectual leadership, and its value-based framework for dealing with the global challenges of our times. The nature of UN ideas are examined – the good, the bad, and the ugly – while recognising that most have multiple origins and various carriers, and it continues by assessing impact. Three types of UN ideas – positive, normative, and instrumental – are discussed. Positive ideas are those resting on hard evidence, open to challenge and verifiable. Normative ideas are beliefs about what the world should look like. Instrumental (which some might label ‘causal’) ideas are often about what strategy will have what result or what tactic will achieve a desirable outcome, usually less verifiable and with a normative veneer. The article then examines nine UN ideas that changed the world, before illustrating the significance of this by examining two counterfactuals: a world without the world organisation and its ideas as well as with a more creative institution.

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1 This article draws on Jolly, Richard, Emmerij, Louis, and Weiss, Thomas G., UN Ideas That Changed the World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) .

2 See MacFarlane, S. Neil and Foong-Khong, Yuen, Human Security and the UN: A Critical History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006) and Ramcharan, Bertrand G., Preventive Diplomacy at the UN (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) . The project's volumes cited in this article are published by Indiana University Press with the exception of Weiss, Thomas G. and Daws, Sam (eds), The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) . Full details are available at: {}.

3 Claude, Inis L. Jr., Swords Into Plowshares: The Problems and Prospects of International Organization (New York: Random House, 1956) , and ‘Peace and Security: Prospective Roles for the Two UN’, Global Governance, 2:3 (1996), pp. 289298 .

4 Weiss, Thomas G., Carayannis, Tatiana, and Jolly, Richard, ‘The “Third” UN’, Global Governance, 15:1 (2009), pp. 123142 .

5 Bøás, Morten and McNeill, Desmond, Global Institutions and Development: Framing the World? (London: Routledge, 2004) .

6 Woods, Ngaire, ‘Economic Ideas and International Relations: Beyond Rational Neglect’, International Studies Quarterly, 39 (1995), p. 164 .

7 Goldstein, Judith and Keohane, Robert O. (eds), Ideas and Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993) .

8 Sikkink, Kathryn, Ideas and Institutions: Developmentalism in Argentina and Brazil (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991) .

9 Haas, Peter M., ‘Introduction: Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination’, International Organization, 46:1 (1992), pp. 136 ; and Haas, Peter M., Keohane, Robert O. and Levy, Marc A. (eds), Institutions for the Earth: Sources of Effective International Environmental Protection (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992) .

10 Hall, Peter A. (ed.), The Political Power of Economic Ideas: Keynesianism Across Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989) .

11 Haas, Ernst B., When Knowledge is Power: Three Models of Change in International Organizations (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994) ; and see Haas, Peter M. and Haas, Ernst B., ‘Learning to Learn: Improving International Governance’, Global Governance, 1:3 (1995), pp. 55284 .

12 Keck, Margaret and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998) .

13 Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) .

14 Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) .

15 Ruggie, John G., Constructing the World Polity (New York: Routledge, 1998) .

16 See, for example, Cox, Robert W. (ed.), The New Realism: Perspectives on Multilateralism and World Order (New York: St. Martin's, 1997) ; Cox, Robert W., with Sinclair, Timothy J., Approaches to World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) ; and Hoare, Quentin and Smith, Geoffrey N. (eds) and trans., Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971) .

17 Skinner, Quentin E., ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8 (1969), p. 42 .

18 See Thakur, Ramesh and Weiss, Thomas G., ‘UN “Policy”: An Argument with Three Illustrations’, International Studies Perspectives, 10:2 (2009), pp. 1835 .

19 Woods, ‘Economic Ideas and International Relations’, p. 168.

20 Cooper, Frederick and Packard, Randall (eds), International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 17 .

21 See Thakur, Ramesh (ed.), What Is Equitable Geographic Representation in the Twenty-first Century (Tokyo: UN University, 1999) .

22 Lovejoy, Arthur O., The Great Chain of Being (New York: Torchbook, 1960) .

23 See Yee, Albert, ‘The Causal Effects of Ideas on Policies’, International Organization, 50 (1996), pp. 69108 .

24 Risse-Kappen, Thomas, ‘Ideas Do Not Float Freely: Transnational Coalitions, Domestic Structures, and the End of the Cold War’, International Organization, 48:2 (1994), pp. 185214 .

25 Bermann, Sheri, The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 22 .

26 Cited by Haq, Mahbub ul, Reflections on Human Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 204 .

27 Philpott, Daniel, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) .

28 Ward, Michael, Quantifying the World: UN Contributions to Statistics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 2 .

29 By the year 2000, 138 countries had brought infant mortality to below 120 and 124 countries had raised life expectancy to 60 years or more, two of the goals set in 1980. A full assessment of the achievements in relation to the fifty goals are found in ‘The Record of Performance’, in UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice, by Jolly, Richard, Emmerij, Louis, Ghai, Dharam, and Lapeyre, Frédéric (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004) , chap. 10. Differences among regional thinking can be found in Berthelot, Yves (ed.), Unity and Diversity in Development Ideas: Perspectives from the UN Regional Commissions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004) .

30 See Stokke, Olav, The UN and Development: From Aid to Cooperation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) ; and Jain, Devaki, Women, Development, and the UN: A Sixty-Year Quest for Equality and Justice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006) .

31 Bøas, and McNeill, (eds), Global Institutions and Development .

32 McNeill, Desmond and Clair, Asunción Lera St., Global Poverty, Ethics and Human Rights: The Role of Multilateral Organisations (London: Routledge, 2009) .

33 Weiss, Thomas G., Carayannis, Tatiana, Emmerij, Loius, and Jolly, Richard, UN Voices: The Struggle for Development and Social Justice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 420 .

34 See Toye, John and Toye, Richard, The UN and Global Political Economy: Trade, Finance, and Development (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004) . See also Tagi Sagafi-nejad in collaboration with Dunning, John, The UN and Transnational Corporations: From Code of Conduct to Global Compact (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) .

35 For a trenchant analysis, see Wade, Robert, ‘Japan, the World Bank and the Art of Paradigm Maintenance: The East Asian Miracle in Political Perspective’, New Left Review, I/217 (1996) . For a critique from a former insider, see Stiglitz, Joseph, Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 2003) .

36 Schrijver, Nico, From Destruction to Development: The UN and Global Resource Management (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) .

37 See Weiss, Thomas G. and Thakur, Ramesh, Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) .

38 UN, Measures for Full Employment (New York: UN, 1949) ; Measures for the Economic Development of Under-Developed Countries (New York: UN, 1951) ; and Measures for International Economic Stability (New York: UN, 1951) .

39 See especially Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Geneva: IPCC, 2007) .

40 See Jolly, , Emmerij, , Ghai, , and Lapeyre, , UN Contributions, pp. 169219 .

41 See, for example, Barrett, Scott, Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) , and Kaul, Inge, Grunberg, Isabelle, and Stern, Marc A. (eds), Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) .

42 See Murphy, Craig, International Organization and Industrial Change: Global Governance since 1850 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994) .

43 Normand, Roger and Zaidi, Sarah, Human Rights at the UN: The Political History of Universal Justice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) .

44 The complete transcripts of the oral history interviews are available on CD-ROM: UN Intellectual History Project, The Complete Oral History Transcripts from ‘UN Voices’ (New York: UNIHP, 2007) .

45 See Weiss, Thomas G., Kanninen, Tapio, and Busch, Michael K., Creating Sustainable Global Governance for the 21st Century: The UN Confronts Economic and Environmental Crises Amidst Changing Geopolitics (Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Occasional Paper No. 40, 2009) .

46 This argument is based on Weiss, Thomas G., ‘Reinvigorating the International Civil Service’, Global Governance, 16:1 (2010) .

47 Dag Hammarskjöld, ‘The International Civil Servant in Law and in Fact’, lecture delivered to Congregation at Oxford University (30 May 1961), reprinted by Clarendon Press, Oxford, quotes at p. 329 and p. 349. Available at: {}.

48 Myint-U, Thant and Scott, Amy, The UN Secretariat: A Brief History (1945–2006) (New York: International Peace Academy, 2007), pp. 126128 .

49 Puchala, Donald J., Laatikainen, Katie Verlin, and Coate, Roger A., UN Politics: International Organization in a Divided World (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007), p. x .

50 See Murphy, Craig, The UN Development Programme: A Better Way? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 232262 , and Haq, Khadiha and Ponzio, Richard (eds), Pioneering the Human Development Revolution: An Intellectual Biography of Mahbub ul Haq (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008) .

51 See Commission on International Development, Partners in Development (New York: Praeger, 1969) ; and High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (New York: UN, 2004) .

52 Galbraith, John Kenneth, The Great Crash, 1929 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954) .

53 Emmerij, Louis, Jolly, Richard, and Weiss, Thomas G., Ahead of the Curve? UN Ideas and Global Challenges (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001) .

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
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