What Is the United Nations and How Does It Work?

Freed UN Peacekeepers Captured In Syria Arrive In Jordan
Twenty-one Filipino UN peacekeepers who were held hostage at the free Syrian army in Golan arrive in Amman after crossing into Jordan from Syria on March 9, 2013 in Amman, Jordan. Photo by Jordan Pix/ Getty Images

What Is the United Nations?

Definition: The United Nations, or UN, is an international organization of 193 member-states. It was founded in 1945 to prevent another world war. Its headquarter is in New York.

The UN's founding Charter mandates four ambitious purposes. It maintains international peace, which is a full-time job in itself. The UN'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. It harmonizes its members' actions. 

The UN has a host of other initiatives. It works to help countries reduce hunger, disease, and illiteracy.  It promotes sustainable development and the environment. It protects refugees, provides disaster relief, and economic development. It counters terrorism, promotes democratic, nuclear non-proliferation and clears landmines. It also focuses on protecting indigenous cultures.

How Does the UN Work?

Th UN is not a government and has no right to make binding laws. Instead, it uses the power of persuasion. All nations contribute to the UN budget, so they each have "skin in the game." That funds UN specific initiatives, such as $200 billion for clean energy. Small countries benefit if these efforts are spent in their areas. (Source: Here's What the 2014 UN Is Doing, Kicker, September 24, 2015)

Every member votes in the General Assembly meeting. That gives UN decisions moral clout. UN 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. 

The UN committees negotiate multilateral agreements that give more teeth to its policies.

Combined, they form a body of international law. (Source: The UN in Brief)

How Is the UN Organized?

The UN 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 meeting lasts for several weeks in September of each year. That gives world leaders a chance to come together and form working relationships. 

The Secretariat carries out the day-to-day work of the Organization. The Security Council nominates its leader, the Secretary-General. 

The UN Security Council is the most powerful UN 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 elects ten non-permanent members that hold two-year terms.

All UN members must comply with Security Council decisions. 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. It authorizes its members to take military action if needed. 

The Economic and Social Council coordinates the UN's economic and social work. 

The International Court of Justice is located at the Hague in the Netherlands.

It settles legal disputes between countries. 


There are 193 members of the UN. That means three countries are not members. China replaced Taiwan as a member. Vatican City has not applied for membership, although it has "permanent observer" status.

Several countries are not fully recognized as distinct countries, and so haven't become members. Kosovo is not yet recognized as an independent nation separate from Serbia. Similarly, Palestine is considered by many to be part of Israel. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Sahrawi Arab Republic are also not considered separate countries.  (Source: Non-Members of the UN, About Geography. What Countries are Not Part of the UN, Quora.com)

All peace-loving countries that are willing and able to carry out their obligations under the UN charter can join the UN.

They must apply, and be approved by the Security Council. Then, it must be approved by two-thirds of the General Assembly.

Here is the entire list of member countries, their flags, and when they joined.

Other UN Organizations

Within the UN, 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 world-wide nuclear war. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) addresses world hunger. UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund ) focuses on the protection and care of the world's children.

The World Bank provides financial and technical assistance to emerging market countries. The World Health Organization Monitors disease outbreaks and assesses the performance of health systems. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is an alliance of 26 countries created to promote peace in Europe.

How Does the UN Affect the U.S. Economy?

At the very least, the UN buys U.S. goods and services, employs Americans, and benefits local New York City businesses. A UN study shows that, for every $1 invested by the United States into the UN, it receives $1.50 in return. Peacekeeping operations, UN agencies, and the renovation of the UN headquarters alone added approximately $3.5 billion to the U.S. economy. The UN hired U.S. companies to support U.S. troops in peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Lebanon, Sudan, and Liberia. In 2009, this totaled $319 million. The UN Development Programme does business with more than 1,800 U.S. vendors. Article updated September 17, 2015.