Why is the United Nations so toothless?

It seems like the UN is always proclaiming this or that, condemning this or that, and then that’s it. It’s left to the individual nations to duke it out. The US, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, just do whatever they want and unless a superpower intervenes, it’s as if the UN didn’t exist at all. Even their peacekeeping forces seem to pull out at the first signs of significant violence.

Was the UN ever actually relevant or was it always meant to be a bone the superpowers tossed the smaller nations? I guess I just wonder what the intention was, historically, in setting up a massive international organization with no real power.

This isn’t a complete answer, but a large portion of the problem is that the permanent members of the UN Security Council are:

China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

When is the last time heard of where all five of those nations would agree with each other?

Well, you have to understand the circumstances behind the creation of the United Nations.

In 1945, the bloodiest conflict in human history (?) had just ended. One of the main causes of that conflict was that the international organisation that was supposed to prevent such wars - the League of Nations - was a failure. On paper, the League of Nations was a very strong organisation that in some ways could impose its will on its member states. The problem? The United States never joined, and some countries just left it whenever they felt like breaking the law.

Jump to 1945. The winners of World War II decide to create a new international organisation, but want to avoid the problems of the past. The response was to create a somewhat weaker institution, but to make sure that as many countries as possible joined and remained members no matter what. That goal was achieved: nowadays, if you’re not in the UN in some form you’re just not a country.

So what is the UN good for? Talking, basically. Representatives get together every now and then and talk about international issues. They let off steam. The organisation itself has very little power to do anything, but at the very least we get enemies to talk to each other. If meaningful action is to be taken at the UN-level, all 5 great powers - UK, USA, France, Russia, China - have to agree on it. Which greatly limits the powers of the organisation, but it makes sure that 5 of the world’s most powerful nations don’t leave the UN like some did with the League of Nations.

EDIT: I guess the short version would be “the USA/China/Russia will never join an organisation that will limit their powers. The UN is the best alternative option”

Exactly. The point of the security council is that Russia, China, and the US all have to agree to it, or it won’t happen. It the UN could do things that Russia, China, or the US disagreed with, then they’d leave the UN. The UN was designed from the beginning as a talking shop where countries that might otherwise resolve their disagreements by war could come and argue about it and perhaps find some resolution short of war.

And this had to be acceptable to Josef Stalin, otherwise the USSR wouldn’t have joined.

Imagine how the US would function if the five largest states could individually veto any legislation coming from congress. That would include NY and CA, but also TX and maybe FL (I would have to look that up, but you get the idea).

The UN is a club maintained by sovereign nations, it is not any sort of supra-national government.

And, unlike nations, it doesn’t have an army, at best it has troops that some member nation temporarily lends to it.

By the way, when people say that the UN doesn’t do anything, think about this: the Preamble to the UN Charter states that the member states, twice in one generation having gone through horrendous wars, are creating the UN to try to prevent such wars in the future.

Since 1945, there hasn’t been a world war, and only one armed conflict in Europe, which has a very bloody history. The number of armed conflicts in other parts of the world have been much lower as well.

As others have said, the UN wasn’t meant to be a super-national organisation that could impose its will by force, but provide a forum for parties to resolve disputes other than by force.

By those measurements, the UN actually has done quite well.

I see. So the UN was never meant to be a government. It’s basically a SDMB of nations, with America, France, Russia, China, and the UK all junior modding each other in the Pit and everyone else squeaking in MPSIMS.

Yes, it’s sort of like asking why the American Academy of Actuaries or the North West London Gamers Group are so toothless. The UN isn’t really a governmental organization: it’s a club for nations. Part of it is talk-shop, the military part is the Security Council (made up of a small subset of the whole UN) and there are a few useful bits like the World Health Organization bolted on*.

As Northern Piper has noted, it hasn’t done too badly. At least we haven’t had any jackass chain reaction wars based on secret agreements like WWI.
ETA:

  • Other UN agencies include the International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Universal Postal Union (UPU), the World Bank, and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

And thank the heavens the UN is so toothless. Believe me, if it could bite and went by majority vote the ass it would be constantly biting would be that of the US and other liberal nations. Look around the world. Do you really want most of these nations to have any power over us?

Apologies, this may be out of place in GQ.

What I find odd is how such a powerless organization become such a boogyman for the U.S. right wing in the last few years. Want the Republican congress to vote against absolutely anything? Just say that UN is for it. In political rhetoric, the UN is far from powerless – indeed, they’re going to march their jackbooted thugs into our home schools and impose abortions!

Yep, basically what everyone’s said. You’re basically balancing the aims of the UN with states’ national sovereignty concerns. The WTO has similar issues (but at least doesn’t have the equivalent of a Security Council, IIRC).