The United Nations and How It Works

How the UN influences the world

The significance of the United Nations: An international body formed after World War II to maintain global peace Members comprise 193 peace-loving countries Other initiatives include providing disaster relief, countering terrorism, and promoting nuclear non-proliferation All nations contribute to the U.N. budget, so they each have a part in funding U.N.-specific initiatives While the U.N. has no right to make binding laws, its decisions reflect the prevailing values and goals of its members to arrive at a global consensus

Image by Alex Dos Diaz © The Balance 2020

The United Nations (U.N.), headquartered in New York, is an international organization of 193 member-states. It was founded in 1945 to prevent another world war.

The U.N.'s founding charter mandates four ambitious purposes. It maintains international peace, which is a full-time job in itself. The U.N.'s other three missions help to achieve that overarching goal. It fosters friendly relations between its members, it solves international problems and promotes human rights, and it harmonizes its members' actions. 

The U.N. also has a host of other initiatives:

  • Helps countries reduce hunger, disease, and illiteracy
  • Promotes economic development and sustainable development
  • Protects refugees
  • Provides disaster relief
  • Counters terrorism
  • Promotes nuclear non-proliferation
  • Clears landmines
  • Protects indigenous cultures
  • Upholds international law

How the UN Is Organized

The main parts of the U.N. are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat.

The General Assembly is composed of representatives of all member states. It creates the mandates that guide the day-to-day work of the boards and councils under it. The General Assembly meeting lasts for several weeks in September of each year, and it gives world leaders a chance to come together and form working relationships. 

The Security Council is the most powerful U.N. unit. Its mandate is to keep the peace. The five permanent members are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The General Assembly also elects 10 non-permanent members that hold two-year terms.

All U.N. members must comply with Security Council decisions, and the Council sends peace-keeping forces to restore order when needed. The Council can impose economic sanctions or an arms embargo to pressure countries that don't comply, and it authorizes the U.N.'s members to take military action if needed.

The Economic and Social Council conducts analysis, agrees on global norms, and advocates for progress in the areas of sustainable development, humanitarian work, and financial development. It forms partnerships as needed and oversees joint U.N. action to address related issues.

The International Court of Justice is located at the Hague in the Netherlands. It settles legal disputes between countries.

The Secretariat carries out the day-to-day work of the organization. It has several departments and offices that carry out distinct responsibilities. The Security Council nominates its leader, the Secretary-General.

The Trusteeship Council, which used to supervise the Trust Territories, suspended its operations in 1994 after the last remaining U.N. trust territory of Palau became independent.

How the UN Works

The U.N. is not a government and has no right to make binding laws. Instead, it uses the power of persuasion. The U.N. committees negotiate multilateral agreements that give more teeth to its policies. Combined, they form a body of international law.

All nations contribute to the U.N. budget, so they each have a part in funding U.N.-specific initiatives.

Every member votes in the General Assembly meeting, so the U.N.'s decisions reflect the prevailing values and goals of the majority of its members. Thus, countries that don't comply know they are in the minority.


There are 193 members of the U.N. The United States recognizes 195 countries. The two that aren't U.N. members are Kosovo and the Holy See. Russia won't allow Kosovo to become a member because it still considers it a province of Serbia. The Holy See has not applied for membership, although it has "permanent observer" status.

Notably, the U.N. made Palestine a "non-member observer state" status, even though the United States considers it to be part of Israel.  China replaced Taiwan, which it now considers a province.

All peace-loving countries that are willing and able to carry out their obligations under the U.N. charter can join the UN. Nine of the fifteen members of Security Council must approve without any of the five permanent members voting against membership. Then, two-thirds of the General Assembly must also approve the membership.


On October 24, 1945, the first 50 nations who were members of the U.N. ratified its charter. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) lobbied for the U.N.'s creation even during World War II. In the Declaration of the United Nations, the Allies pledged to work together to stop the Axis. The four major Allies were the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China.

FDR's administration worked with Congress to create a U.N. charter that had its support. President Harry Truman continued the effort after FDR's death. On June 26, 1945, the members created the U.N. Charter at the San Francisco Conference. Truman made sure that Congress ratified it right away.

The United Nations is the second attempt at a global peace initiative. In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the League of Nations after World War I. The United States was not a member. Congress refused to ratify membership, fearing that would pull the United States into countless wars. Many felt the League failed because it could not prevent the outbreak of World War II.

Other UN Organizations and How They Influence the World

Within the U.N., there are some well-known agencies that carry on its work. The International Atomic Energy Agency helps to prevent nuclear proliferation and possible annihilation by a worldwide nuclear war. Below are several other U.N. system organizations and their functions: