United Nations and Social Contracts

United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 after the greatest war in human history. After hundreds or even thousands years of chaos and disputes, mankind finally got together and started to find a way to keep long-term peace and development. The purpose of the United Nations seems to be easy to understand – just like citizens in a country need to have a government, countries need to have “a government of countries” to ensure peace and prevent wars among nations. However, is the role of the UN among countries really the same as that of a government for its citizens? In my opinion, the short answer here is NO. In order to more closely examine this issue, I will use the theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau to compare UN with a common “country” in their different ways to keep “Social Contracts”.

UN General Assembly Hall – The hall that holds the main deliberative assembly of the United Nations (Link)

To start off, let’s first talk about the theory of Hobbes. According to Hobbes and his “Leviathan“, the nature of humans can be described as “fearful”, “self-interested” and “rational”. When there is no “Leviathan” in a society, men would live in constant fears because of others’ self-interests. Even though people naturally want to keep peace, as long as there is a “fool” who starts to break the contracts, other people would follow. Therefore, according to Hobbes, the solution for this is to sacrifice the rights of men and establish a “Leviathan” – a powerful sovereign to punish the violation of social contracts.

The theory of “Leviathan” might be a solution for a country. An almighty sovereign would prevent social contracts from breaking by its citizens. However, is the UN a “Leviathan” among countries? Apparently, there is a huge difference between the UN and a genuine “Leviathan“. First, a “Leviathan” needs to have “power” to ensure the punishment in case of the breaches of “social contracts”. However, since UN is not a military organization, there is no way to ensure that – the “peace-keeping force” of UN is not the same as the military power of the United States, both in terms of their military capacity and intended purposes. Moreover, an important assumption in Hobbes’s “Leviathan” is that all men are equal. Again, this is not the case for countries – where certain superpowers, such as the US, China and Russia, have the absolute influence on world economy and politics.

The “Leviathans” does not seem to be an appropriate representation of the UN. (Cover of Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan”) (link)

The second theory is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “On the Social Contract“. Compared to Hobbes’s theory, what Rousseau discusses is more at the other end of the spectrum. Rousseau says that people are naturally non-reflective. The problem is not because men were “self-interested”, but because of the “civilization” itself. He thinks that people become evil after social interactions. Therefore, the solution is to have “democratic contracts” in the form of laws that are agreed by every individual in the society.

Is this a good representation of the UN? At the first glance, it seems to be a realistic one because the UN seems to be an institution which performs “democratic contracts” through the so-called “International Laws“. However, an important aspect measuring the legitimacy of a law is its enforcement methods. Since the UN, unlike a country, does not have its own “police” or “army”, how can the “International Laws” (democratic contracts – according to Rousseau) be enforced? Interestingly, the three main enforcement methods of the “International Laws“, are “reciprocity”, which simply means “an eye for an eye”, “collective action”, which means several countries act together against the country that breaches the laws, and “shaming”, or simply condemnations. As you can see here, none of these three methods are strong enough to enforce the performance of “International Laws“, or “democratic contracts”, making Rousseau’s theory an unrealistic representation of the UN.

The logo of the “Hague Academy of International Law”  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” – the lack of enforcement methods make the UN International laws with no real-world applications and significance (link)

The third theory is from John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government“. Locke’s assumption for the human nature is somewhat similar to Hobbes’s, which states that men are self-interested and rational. He thinks that people naturally have occasional disputes. Therefore, a solution for a society is to have an “impartial judge”, which favors democracy in resolving disputes.

John Locke’s theory seems to be the closest representation of the UN, given the fact that most of the decisions made within the UN come from democratic approaches such as votes. The UN General Assemblythe UN Security Council and the UN international court of Justice are all good examples of Locke’s theory of an “impartial judge”. However, one possible counter argument of that is still the questionable enforcement power of the UN. There have been quite a few cases about the US or Russia bypass the UN Security Council to take military actions against other countries, such as on Syria and Crimea (Ukraine).

The UN Security Council – “the right to Veto” makes Superpowers, the US and Russia, more often bypass the UNSC in making controversial military actions (link)

UN, as a very special institution of “a government of the countries”, is very different from the system of normal countries in enforcing “social contracts”. None of the three theories from Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau can be a comprehensive representation of the UN. The main reason that UN is so special, in my opinion, is its lack of real enforcement methods, which makes the enforcement of “social contracts” among countries still mainly rely on the so-called “shaming”, or condemnations. This makes the real influence of UN on ensuring world peace, human development and other “social contracts” on the world stage remains questionable.

Nowadays, compared to the UN, are those economic associations, such as WTO and OPEC, have more real influence on ensuring the development and stability on the world stage? (link)


One thought on “United Nations and Social Contracts

  1. Your blog is a very interesting take on an extraordinary institution in world politics. As I was reading, I realized how much each theorists can be related to a political perspective. There is realism which sees the world in terms of power and states as self-interested and power-searching. This is a perspective that Hobbes would agree with. Meanwhile, I think Locke would agree more with the liberalism political perspective, as this perspective explains international politics as hierarchical. Accordingly, the UN is considered to be a success of liberalism and you have keenly pointed out that Locke’s ideology matches the principles of the UN the best. Rousseau would agree with both the liberalism stand in that violent behaviors result from bad institutions and not bad people. He would agree with the third political perspective, as well, called constructivism because Rousseau believes in the individual being the most important figure in politics and would support the idea that international politics are a means to preserve and promote identity.


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