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

The United Nations 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 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," The United Nations.)

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. That gives the UN teeth to enforce its decisions on all members.

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. The United States recognizes 195 countries. The two that aren't UN 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.

The UN granted Palestine "permanent observer" 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 UN charter can join the UN. All members of the Security Council must approve.

Then, two-thirds of the General Assembly must also approve the membership. Here is the list of member countries, their flags, and when they joined.


On October 24, 1945, the first 50 nations who were members of the UN ratified its charter. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lobbied for the UN'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, Russia and China. The other Allies included 22 other countries. 

FDR's administration worked with Congress to create a UN charter that had its support and administration teeth. President Harry Truman continued the effort after FDR's death. On June 26, 1945, the members created the UN 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. It had 58 members but the United States was not one of them. Congress refused to ratify membership, fearing that would pull the United States into countless war. Many felt the League failed because it could not prevent the outbreak of World War II. (Source: "The United States and the Founding of the United Nations," U.S. Department of State Archive.)

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.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization addresses world hunger.

The 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.​

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance of 26 countries created to promote peace in Europe.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime supports countries' efforts to stop human trafficking. It provides data and research on the global problem. 

Four Ways the UN Affects the U.S. Economy

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.