History of the Iraq War, Part IV: American Diplomatic Decline (1955-present)

The United Nations and Global Power

The shifting balance of global power away from the United States may explain the perception of an American pivot to a more unilateral and bellicose foreign policy, particularly in Iraq.  The UN was formed in 1945 ostensibly to prevent future disastrous wars, but it has not functioned this way (Kagan, 2004). Rather, one could argue that the UN was meant to ensure the continuance of the status quo, with America at peak geopolitical power (Wallerstein, 2000, p. 259). Therefore, the UN is foremost a political body (Arrighi, 2005), in whose actions one can ascertain the relative influence of nations. A brief history of power distribution in the United Nations is necessary to demonstrate this point.

After the rush of post-1945 decolonization, most of the world’s people and countries were part of the Third World. Reflecting changing membership, the UN General Assembly became staunchly anti-colonial. Third World leaders used it as a forum to petition against colonialism and in 1960, the UN passed a resolution that called for “the end of colonialism in all its manifestations” (Emerson, 1965, pp. 495-496). The undemocratic structure of the UN Security Council also came under attack (Senghor, 1961, p. 325; Nkrumah, 1960, pp. 316-317). Partly because of Third World activism, in 1965 the Security Council was expanded from ten to fifteen countries, even as the five most powerful retained their vetoes. Despite ultimately impotent resolutions, the resulting change in UN power weakened American diplomatic leverage.

Quantifying Declines in American Diplomatic Power

The record of Security Council vetoes reflects changing global power dynamics and waning American influence.  There have been striking variations in Security Council vetoes during different time periods. Chomsky (2004, pp. 29-30) observes “since the 1960s the US has been far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions on a wide range of issues, even those calling on states to observe international law.” Declining American diplomatic power may provide some explanation as to why the United States government is perceived to have engaged in historically severe imperialism in its occupation of Iraq.

In the General Assembly, two recent UN votes depict the lack of American diplomatic control over a seemingly uncontroversial vote. Israel and the Federated States of Micronesia joined the US in abstaining from voting for a resolution on the Prevention of Outer Space Arms Race (globalissues.org, 2007). The Unclassified National Space Policy (2006, p. 1) explains that America is “committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity. Consistent with this principle, ‘peaceful purposes’ allow U.S. defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests.” In 2008, America joined Zimbabwe in voting against creating a new UN Arms Trade Treaty, perhaps because America controls almost forty percent of the world’s arms trade (Baum, 2008).

At the least, diplomacy is necessary as a façade to placate those who might object to American unilateralism (Rosen, 2003). For countries with a powerful military, decreasing diplomatic power often leads to increasing violence.


Arrighi, Giovanni. May/June, 2005. “Hegemony Unraveling – II.” New Left Review 33.

Baum, Geraldine. November 1, 2008. “US Opposes Arms Trade Treaty.” The Los Angeles Times.

Chomsky, Noam. 2004. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. Holt Books.

Emerson, Rupert. 1965. “Colonialism, Political Development, and the UN.” International Organization 19(3), pp. 484-503.

GlobalIssues.org. January 21, 2007. “Militarization and Weaponization of Outer Space.” http://www.globalissues.org/article/69/militarization-and-weaponization-of-outer-space.

Kagan, Robert. March, 2004. “America’s Crisis of Legitimacy.” Foreign Affairs 83(2):65-87.

Nkrumah, Kwame. 1960. Speech to the United Nations. In M. Cook. 1964. On African Socialism. Praeger Press.

Rosen, Stephen. Spring, 2003. “An Empire, If You Can Keep It.” National Interest.

Senghor, Léopold. 1961. Nation et voies africaines du socilisme. Trans. M. Cook. 1964. On African Socialism. Praeger Press.

Unclassified National Space Policy. August 31, 2006. http://www.ostp.gov/galleries/default-file/Unclassified%20National%20Space%20Policy%20--%20FINAL.pdf.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2000. “The Three Instances of Hegemony in the History of the Capitalist World-Economy,” pp. 253-262 in The Essential Wallerstein. New Press.

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