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”.
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 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 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 Assembly, the 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).
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.