—Sir Humphrey, Yes, Prime Minister
Those dudes in New York City who try to solve the world's problems. They were set up to prevent World War III; heck, it's worked so far! At the very least, the UN has been more successful than their predecessor, the League of Nations, who were created to prevent World War II - and we all know how successful they were at that. The organization was founded on October 24, 1945, as the official replacement for the League of Nations; it was known as UNO (United Nations Organization) in its early years, partly because the term "United Nations" had previously been used for the Allies in World War II. They've always been based in New York City, but didn't start moving into their permanent headquarters at Turtle Bay until 1950.
Actually, they're ambassadors from all the UN member states, plus the many, many interpreters. Since every nation can join (and almost all have, although Switzerland didn't join until 2002!) that means every nation can stand up in front of the world and air their grievances.
The UN is funded based on the idea that the richer you are, the more you pay.
The UN consists of many parts. The General Assembly and the Security Council are the most well known. The General Assembly is much like the U.S. Congress, specifically the Senate: every nation gets one vote (unless you were the Soviet Union, then you got three note due to the agreements made when joining the U.N. (And yes, they always voted the same way.)) The Security Council is where the real power is. Since 1966, the Security Council has had 15 members made up of five permanent members (commonly called the Permanent Five or P5 for short) and ten rotating countries elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly. Only the Security Council can take military action. Much of the "weakness" of the UN is due to the fact that any permanent member (US, UK, Russia, China, France) can veto any Security Council resolution simply by voting against it. The theory was that because Security Council resolutions are (theoretically) binding, it would not be reasonable for one of the Big Five to be forced, by law, to act against its interests. Permanent members which wish to express displeasure with a resolution but don't see much use in pissing everyone off by vetoing it tend to abstain; that way, they don't vote for the resolution, but they also didn't vote against it (which would be a veto). This wasn't written into the Charter, but became generally accepted as a solution to a common problem (a P5 not wanting to destroy a resolution because it didn't care about it that much, but also reticent to be seen to support it).
Thus you can see some of the problems. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union (and later China, when the vote was switched from the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China) would use the veto against the Western nations. Today, it is the United States which most often uses the veto, typically striking down resolutions it sees to be taking the Arab/Palestinian side in the ArabIsraeli Conflict. The veto power sometimes gets wielded by China (and less regularly, Russia) to strike down resolutions regarding human rights, even if it doesn't affect human rights in that country.
Other criticisms of the UN are that it hasn't agreed on a definition on terrorism over a decade since 9/11, and how one of its programs, "Oil for Food," proved to be a big scam where they failed to investigate or punish the people responsible. The Human Rights Council had Libya on it at the same time the General Assembly and Security Council enforced a no-fly zone on the country. Some people give the UN the derisive nickname of "the clubhouse of dictators, thugs, and tyrants."
Another criticism is the focus on the ArabIsraeli Conflict as measured by the number of (proposed) UN Security Council Resolutions - other conflicts that have lasted longer, caused more harm in terms of lives lost or affect far more people (India-Pakistan to give one example) have gotten far less attention than this one conflict. What the reasons for that are and whose side the bias is on is best not discussed here, though.
The General Assembly developed the Loophole Abuse in the form of Resolution 377(A), better known as "Uniting for Peace", which empowered it to send in peacekeepers if the Security Council was in a deadlock, but it's only been used from time to time.
Often overlooked is the many successes of the UN; The World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, UNICEF, and many more. Bickering and corruption is there, but so is cooperation and, at least, a place nations can try to settle things without shooting each other. Between the UN and Nuclear Weapons, the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century have been remarkably low on bloodletting.
The administrative head of the UN, as mentioned, is the Secretary-General. As such, he (or theoretically she, but this hasn't happened yet) is responsible for handling the day-to-day work of overseeing the UN's agencies and generally heading up the International Civil Service (as it is known). He also acts as a sort of Chief Diplomat of the World, responsible for advocating level-headed, reasoned solutions to problems between countries. These calls generally get ignored, but there you go.
The Secretary-General is elected by the General Assembly for a term of five years, and can theoretically be re-elected indefinitely and be from any country. In practice, nobody has had more than two terms, and all Secretaries-General have been from middle powers (neither unstable tin-pot countries nor the Great Powers). This is because the Security Council must make a recommendation to the General Assembly, and it usually just recommends one person on whom they all agree thanks to the Security Council veto. There is also an informal practice of rotating the post among the continents of the world; this came about largely by accident (see below), but it's worked well.
Interesting historical note: The Secretary-General of the original conference to draw up the UN Charter was none other than Alger Hiss.
There have been nine Secretaries-General:
- Trygve Lie (1946-1952): Formerly Norwegian foreign minister, he pissed off the Soviets shortly before the end of his first term; it didn't help that Norway joined NATO when it was founded in 1949. He got his second term partly out of confusion about the rules, and resigned under Soviet pressure.
- Dag Hammarskjöld which translates as "Day Hammershield" (1952-1961): A minor Swedish diplomat and public intellectual before his election, he earned universal acclaim for his diplomatic skills and calls for calm in some of the scariest years of the Cold War. He drew flak from the USSR in his second term for his deep involvement in trying to solve a major political crisis in the Belgian Congo; the Soviets were later forced to eat crow, however, as he died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) while on a peacekeeping mission in Congo. John F. Kennedy called him "the greatest statesman of the century."
- U Thant (1961-1971): A noted Burmese diplomat, U Thant fascinated everyone who isn't Burmese by having a name like "U". (It's not his name; it's an honorific title. "Thant" is his only name.) He was originally elected to fill out the remaining few months of Hammarskjöld's term, but as it turns out, everyone liked him; he had a hand in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis (often overlooked), and in handling the end of the aforementioned civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and made a good (if behind-closed-doors) run at trying to get North Vietnam and the US to the table (although eventually the Johnson Administration decided not to go through with it). Also, being from a non-aligned and (at the time) democratic and relatively prosperous Asian country helped his popularity. The only real blight on his record was his agreement to withdraw the UN peacekeeping forces from the Sinai in the leadup to the Six-Day War; however, that wasn't entirely his fault, and in any case that entire war was an embarrassing farce for nearly everyone involved. He got two full terms, and could have had a third but declined.
- Kurt Waldheim (1971-1981): An Austrian diplomat, he campaigned for the position and got it despite initial Chinese and British reservations. Sought a third term, but the Chinese put the kibosh on that. Largely unremarked, but later accused of having committed war crimes while in the Wehrmacht. Went on to become the (ceremonial) President of Austria all the same.
- Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1981-1991): A Peruvian diplomat. Competent, but again, not very much to say.
- Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1991-1996): Formerly Egyptian Foreign Minister. Noted for his funny name, love of French culture (he was later Secretary-General of La Francophonie) and ignoring the Rwandan Genocide. Oops. A failure to do fix dysfunction in the UN anything even after the Genocide was over and everyone had taken their lumps earned him the ire of the United States, which led an effort to "do him in," in the unfortunate wording of one of the American diplomats responsible. Others claim that he was too critical of the US tendancy of wanting the UN to always agree with them because they donate the most money, who subsequently got rid of him. So far the only one-term Secretary-General. Noted in the UK for being suckered into a fake interview with Sacha Baron Cohen on Da Ali G Show, where Ali kept referring to him as Boutros Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
- Kofi Annan (1997-2006): A Ghanaian UN civil servant before his election. Probably the highest-profile Secretary-General since Hammarskjöld, elected in the wake of the removal of the disgraced Boutros-Ghali. Annan was at first expected to complete the "African" term (to 2001) started by Boutros-Ghali, but despite some snafus (like the aforementioned Oil-for-Food thing), Annan was well-liked and effective enough to win a second term. He made wide use of the Secretary-General's power of the "bully pulpit", drawing attention to neglected issues.
- Ban Ki-moon (2007-2017): Foreign Minister of South Korea prior to his election. More or less hand-picked by Annan, he is otherwise quite unlike his predecessor, being much less forceful and more of a mediator. However, he has such a sterling reputation for integrity and competence that nobody cares...except for the Japanese, who were "vehemently opposed" to his electionnote and abstainednote in the Security Council votenote on his first candidacy.
- António Guterres (2017-present): Former Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995-2002, and in between that and his election to Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. While little can be definitively said about his time in office, since he's just getting started, he seems poised to continue his prior work of advocating for refugees and encouraging peace.
The UN in fiction
Many, many examples, as well as those with a Fictional Counterpart (which now has its own trope, Fictional United Nations). The United Nations name and logo is subject to legal restrictions. Some works upgrade the UN to a virtual world power with actual might to back its authority, while others go further and claim that it is or will become an actual One World Order. Usually this is accompanied by boatloads of artistic license.
- Plays a rather important role in The Second Renaissance as world leaders, and emblematic of mankind's evil and stupidity. First they vote to comit genocide on machines, then reject their ambassadors when they offer to find a peaceful solution (by physical force on the part of the human ambassadors themselves, no less), then applaud a plan to block out the sun. With the Machine War unfolding as it did, they finally can do nothing except accept a robotic ambassador for the second time, to sign all citizens as slavery batteries to the Machines, before being finally blown up.
- Controls all the armed forces seen in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Obvious from the first scene, where the line of tanks seen along the waterfront all have UN painted in large white letters on the turrets.
- Likewise, in Macross, Earth is defended by the UN "Spacy", or in later sequels, the New UN Spacy. The Robotech adaptation of Super Dimension Fortress Macross has a similar organization, usually called the "United Earth Government" or the "United World Government" in spinoff fiction even though they write "UN Spacy" on all their mecha.
- The main characters of Humanity Has Declined are all employed by the UN. Presumably the UN has taken over as the government thanks to the whole "humanity dying out" thing.
- The World Conference in Hetalia: Axis Powers seems to be based on the General Assembly of the UN: A lot of countries meeting to discuss the worlds problems with the results being not so impressive. In World Series, we also get to see a Mister UN.
- Appeared in the (in)famous Batman story arc "A Death in the Family", where The Joker, hired by Iran as its ambassador, plots to kill all the delegates with Laughing Gas... and almost succeeds! He also managed to plant bombs inside the General Assembly Chamber and sneak Iranian gunmen inside.
- Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew! sees Captain Carrot (just after discovering his powers) and Superman visit Earth-C's version of the UN (the "United Nature"), which is holding an emergency meeting to discuss who or what is causing Earth's citizens to mysteriously de-evolve into non-sentient animals.
- 1974's Limited Collector's Edition #C-31 shows the United Nations honored Superman by granting him honorary citizenship in all member nations.
- There are mentions of U Thant in Mafalda. Justified, considering the time the strips were published in and how political the title character could be.
- The Interpreter- the only thing ever filmed in the real UN building. Someone dies.
- The Alfred Hitchcock film North By Northwest. Someone dies.
- The James Bond film Live and Let Die. Someone dies.
- Batman: The Movie has the "United World Council" which consists of a handful of delegates constantly shouting over each other.
- Left Behind.
- The documentary "U.N. Me" shows some of the more negative aspects of the U.N., especially in comparison to its founding ideals.
- The Art of War: Wesley Snipes as a U.N. spy.
- Thirteen Days: The showdown between U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson and Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin at the UN Security Council over the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba is a large of part of what helps rally world opinion on the side of the U.S. in the crisis.
- In a plot-swinging United Security debate on North Korea's invasion of South Korea in Red Phoenix, the US Ambassador provides evidence of Soviet pilots flying against the US on North Korea's side, with Soviet backing. In the vote that follows, the US and USSR can't vote (they're parties to the dispute) and the Chinese, who were expected to veto a resolution on the matter as they're also arming North Korea, abstain. China eventually engineers a coup in the DPRK and a cease-fire.
- In Left Behind, the United Nations (now headed by the Antichrist) is portrayed as an organization that pretty much rules the world already.
- And they enjoy really boring speeches.
- UNIT in Doctor Who. Originally stood for "United Nations Intelligence Taskforce", but when it was reintroduced in the new series the UN complained; as a result the acronym now means "Unified Intelligence Taskforce". It is said that they still receive some money from the UN though.
- The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was called this in significant part to avoid legal problems with the United Nations. However, both Canon and Fanon have it that UNCLE is the go-to organization for problems that the United Nations itself isn't able to handle, or can't handle because of the restrictions imposed by its charter. One Fan Fic (published in, of all places, the UN Secretariat's internal newsletter) even had a UN employee meeting Napoleon Solo in the tunnels beneath Manhattan!
- In The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "To Serve Man", the spokesman for the Kanamit aliens addresses the UN. He also leaves behind a book titled ''To Serve Man'', which the story's famous Twist Ending reveals as a cookbook.
- In The Champions, the eponymous heroes are agents of Nemesis, a Fictional Counterpart of Interpol run by the UN.
- M*A*S*H: Frank says he has nothing against the U.N. except that it's full of foreigners.
- In Space: Above and Beyond, the United Nations serve as the government of a unified Earth, with the armed forces of the member nations serving as it's military arm. This setup serves nicely to explain why the crew of a starship and embarked fighter squadron fighting an interstellar war on behalf of Earth are all American, though we do see forces from other nations from time to time.
- "Preamble for a Solemn Occasion" by Aaron Copland commemorates and includes optional spoken excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.
- NationStates had a global organization called the United Nations, using the logo. The UN sent a cease-and-desist letter to Max Barry in 2008. Barry complied, changing the name to the World Assembly. He announced the change on 1 April 2008, in the process subverting the April Fools' Joke.
- In GURPS, at least two alternate Earths are led (in all but name) by their United Nations: The main one from Infinite Worlds and the one from GURPS Supers. In both there are still sovereign states that must be dealt with diplomatically, but the UN still has actual military power (but both are still mainly benevolent.)
- The United Nations in the Guilty Gear games, who host the original fighting tournament and place the bounty on Dizzy.
- The Liberty City-based Civilization Committee (CC) in Grand Theft Auto IV, a Fictional Counterpart of the UN, exists to indirectly make fun of the UN's shortcomings, being lambasted for its inefficiency in influencing international affairs, its organization of lavish banquets while parts of the world suffer from food shortages, and the failure of its members to pay parking tickets in the city. For that, the CC is "wisely" ignored by the American government, and the tourist-drawing view of the CC's Liberty City headquarters is described as more important than the organization based inside.
- In Civilization IV the UN is a buildable World Wonder that opens up a Diplomatic Victory, and more: all civs get to vote for the Secretary-General, who periodically can propose resolutions for ceasefires, adopting a global currency, open borders, mandatory civic choices, or a freeze on nuclear weapons manufacturing. In contrast with Real Life, these resolutions are totally binding even if you voted against them.
- The Beyond The Sword expansion revised this - players can now choose to defy resolutions at the cost of suffering relationship damage to other civilizations. The expansion also introduces the Apostolic Palace, which appears much earlier in the game (buildable with Theology, a tech that can usher in the Medieval Era - the UN is available with Mass Media, in the middle of the Modern Age) but only applies to those with a certain state religion (and the builder if they change or abandon the state religion).
- In the main Command & Conquer: Tiberium timeline, the United Nations founded the Global Defense Initiative, an international army, to protect the free world from international terrorism. After the arrival of Tiberium and the rise of the Brotherhood of Nod destroyed much of the planet, the GDI has pretty much become a One World Order.
- Prior to GDI's establishment, the UN had a black-ops unit to solve problems. Part of the impetus for GDI's formation was said black-ops unit being revealed to the public due to a bungled operation (it apparently wasn't dissolved, however — a black-ops unit by the same name shows up operating under GDI aegis in Renegade).
- Deus Ex: The player works for UNATCO, a anti-terrorism organization and standing army for a future United Nations. It, and the rest of the UN are later revealed to be a front for MJ12 forcing the player to fight his former allies halfway through the game.
- In the Halo series, the United Nations has expanded into the United Nations Space Command when humanity invented the Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine.
- In Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri, the Peacekeepers are a combination of the remnants of the United Nations personnel and others devoted to democratic and humanitarian ideals on the starship Unity, united under one group when the population of the ship broke up into different ideological factions. They effectively form a new UN on Planet after landing, though they are effectively just one of the seven factions with no official control over the others. The Peacekeepers do, however, have serious political capital, giving them an edge in elections when an international council is eventually established (i.e. each other faction gets one vote per unit of population, while the Peacekeepers get two per unit of population).
- The United Nations was also briefly mentioned in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots as being partially responsible for the development of the War Economy. mostly due to the Patriots' machinations from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. They were also revealed to have basically garnered world control after the destruction of the Patriots and SOP, namely because the world ended up broke with a debt so huge that, like Germany after World War I, not even PMC regulatory laws could come close to paying off the debt. It's also implied that this came with a negative: That the UN would basically become the Patriots' successor for world domination and control, and the process will happen all over again.
- Alternate History scenarios often include an alternate version of the UN. For example Monarchy World has the Assembly of Nations in Rosario, Argentina, while Gurkani Alam has the Oikoumene Council in Oranjeburg in the country that in our world is South Africa.
Juvenile Diplomats- Model UN
Since the creation of the United Nations (before that in fact- there were Model League of Nations simulations — which started, ironically, at Harvard, in the United States, which never joined the League), high school and university organisations have been running simulations of parts of the United Nations, generally called Model United Nations. These are designed to improve understanding of international affairs, build up public speaking skills and look good on a CV/resume.
Theoretically, at least. Most participants regard it as something fun to do: LARP in suits that you can put on your resume.
- Greendale had a Model United United Nations in one episode of Community the (il)logical result of a competition between two Model UNs. A few weeks later, Parks and Recreation (part of the same NBC block) followed suit with a Model UN that (among the few participating adults) dissolved into in-fighting, absurd treaties and personal vendettas, and South Africa/The Moon withholding gravity exportation.
- Springfield Elementary had a Model UN in one episode of The Simpsons. When the meeting dissolves into in-fighting and The Ditz singing "O Canada", Skinner tries to bring everyone to order:
- The Rescue Aid Society in The Rescuers is an international organisation of heroic mice that meets somewhere in the basement of the human United Nations and seems to model itself on the UN.