The beauty of the American Constitution, as originally conceived, was that its authors recognized the inherent dangers of concentrated power at the highest levels of governance, and created a structure that both constrained the federal government’s powers while at the same time enumerating that the balance of those powers would be retained by state governments (and, by extension, local governments, since most local governments are creations of state governments), and the people.
The American Founders did this because they recognized that the bulk of public policy decision making was best left to levels of government that were closer to the people—those levels of government better understood problems in individual communities and local governments, and governance, were more easily controlled by citizens within those jurisdictions.
But in the wake of World War I, also known as “The Great War” or the “War to End All Wars, there came a call for greater international cooperation by governments, if not some kind of outright “global government” and out of those calls came, first, the League of Nations, and then, after the League of Nations failed to prevent World War II, the United Nations.
The First World War was commonly referred to as “The Great War” because of the war’s truly devastating scale—in terms of both lives lost, and people injured, as well as the impact it had on infrastructure. In fact, across the globe, you can still see the impact the war had on the surrounding environment. As a result, there was a call by leading nations to create some kind of instrument of global cooperation, and disarmament, to prevent just that kind of war from happening again: a “League of Nations.”
And the League of Nations met with limited success, in spite of the fact that the United States didn’t join even with President Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy for just such a league. But because the league failed to grasp geopolitical realities, such as what the sanctions on a post-World War I Germany might have on that nation’s ongoing politics, that body failed to prevent the Second World War from occurring.
It was during World War II that the concept of the United Nations was born—with the cooperation of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. In 1945, as the war was drawing to a close, the leaders of the Allied powers agreed that following the war’s end, that such a body would be developed. In June of 1945, just after Germany surrendered, the UN Charter was created. In October of 1945, two months after Japan surrendered, the Charter was made real.
To be clear, the United Nations is not a “world government” though there are some who would like it to be. Clark Eichelberger, a 20th century peace activist and advocate for both the League of Nations and the UN, wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political Science in 1949 that:
“World government has evolved and will evolve through the United Nations… the United Nations is the beginning of the process we need.”
But in the last seven decades, despite great efforts on the part of some to make a global government manifest, this has not occurred. The UN has no power to tax, no power to directly regulate. Any interference in inter-governmental disputes or in civil conflict can only come with either the agreement of local governments, or, in rare occasions, with the decision of voting members of the United Nations.
When it comes to involvement of the United States, the U.S. relationship with the UN is similar in most respects to how the deals are made with most foreign agreements, i.e., through the Constitution’s treaty powers. Essentially, from a constitutional perspective, the involvement of the U.S. in the UN is not dissimilar from other bilateral, between the U.S. and one nation, or multilateral, between the U.S. and more than one other nation, international agreements.
In fact, the only way for the United States to be “legally obligated” to cooperative policy decision making by the UN is for Congress to ratify whatever policy United States diplomats are considering signing or have signed. While those obligations are to our partners at the UN, the “legal” portion of it has to do with the agreement the U.S. government has with its people i.e., to only be bound, internationally, through ratified treaties.
This is because those international agreements, once ratified, become U.S. law, and enormously difficult to disentangle once put into place. Take the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example. Though not an agreement through the UN, it bound U.S. trade policy for decades, and became enormously difficult to reform, despite the negative impacts many in the United States were seeing.
In contrast, the Kyoto Protocols on climate, a climate policy agreement negotiated via the UN, was never ratified by the U.S. Senate. Many in the U.S. had deep and abiding concerns about the impact the policy obligations of Kyoto could potentially have on the U.S. economy. So, while the United States, under President Bill Clinton, signed the Kyoto Protocols, and there were many things that the Clinton administration could do to advance the goals of Kyoto (because of the size of the administrative/regulatory state and the powers that the Executive Branch has in terms of interpreting or re-interpreting existing federal environmental laws), the United States was not bound by the Kyoto protocols, as they would be within a treaty.
Central in all of this is the issue of “sovereignty.” By definition, when the United States, or any nation for that matter, enters into a treaty, they are giving up some measure of that nation’s sovereignty in favor of international cooperation usually as a result of the combination of negotiation and compromise.
As was demonstrated by the withdrawal of Great Britain from the European Union, multinational cooperative governance can have huge implications for individual member nations and their citizens—something British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had warned about when the EU was created. The further removed from the local population that government control becomes, the more onerous the burdens those governments can impose. With that comes a real difficulty in forming policies that reflect what local populations need and takes steps to protect those populations from harm.
It could be said that Prime Minister Thatcher was echoing the concerns raised by her predecessor in office, Winston Churchill, who, despite being instrumental in the creation of the UN, had concerns of his own. As reported by the New Republic in 1949:
“Churchill, as he confessed at The Hague in May, 1948, never accepted the concept of the United Nations. He feared the consequences of ‘a system where there was nothing between the supreme headquarters and the commanders of the different divisions and battalions.’ He wanted a world organization made up of representatives of regional associates.”
Thankfully, given protections that the U.S. Constitution affords, the people of the United States can rest assured that their sovereignty will be protected from a United Nations becoming the kind of multinational governmental behemoth that the EU became.
This is due, in no small measure, to the United States Constitution’s mandates about the Senate’s advise and consent role in terms of treaty ratification—if the foreign relations team of a U.S. president were to fail at their job or to be seriously compromised in some measure in terms of international negotiation, and as a result the U.S. were to give up a great deal of its independence, its sovereignty, it is left to the Senate to ensure that the interests of the people of the United States are protected, and that the agreement should not be ratified.
It is important to also note that Congress has a vital role to play in terms of internationally cooperative military activities. The UN has no standing army, another aspect of its existence that makes it fall short of a “world government.” It relies on its member nations in order for it to engage in any military action, usually under the auspices of “peacekeeping.”
The President is obligated to inform Congress of any military action that falls short of a “war”—and the President has 90 days before Congress must take action on whether to continue such operations.
In terms of ongoing “peacekeeping” operations, such as those that occurred in the Balkans during the 1990s after the collapse of the Yugoslavian government, Congress also has the power to give or deny funds to such efforts. If Congress doesn’t want U.S. military personnel involved in a specific peacekeeping mission, then Congress can specifically block the Executive Branch from spending funds on that mission.
In terms of the relationship between the United States and the United Nations, the obligations of the U.S. are not entirely different than any other treaty-governed relationship that the U.S. may be obligated to. The issues of sovereignty and compromise remain the same—and the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch in terms of the power to negotiate and the power to ratify are maintained. But, as always, it remains left to the people to ensure that both branches protect the interests of the American people in the long term.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.
A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.
Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.