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Power at the United Nations

By Bruce Knotts

This post was originally sent out on November 20 via a monthly email message from Director Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations. Subscribe to the UU@UN email list.

UN Security Council Chamber

The 75th anniversary of the United Nations presents an opportunity to examine how power is exercised within this global body.

The UN began at a time when the big powers had unfettered sway in the world, while most countries remained under colonial rule.

The number of powerful nations has expanded since 1945. Most of the world’s countries are independent, and the number of UN Member States has expanded from 51 in 1945 to 193 in 2020.

During this same period, the influence of non-governmental organizations such as UU@UN also grew. The input and expertise of organizations like ours make the UN more effective.

In the early days, the UN Security Council had the power to control much of the rest of the UN. However, in recent years, the UN General Assembly has worked to counterbalance the Security Council’s power.

The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force this month, is a clear challenge to the Security Council’s control over global security. The inaction of the Security Council and nuclear states has provoked other Member States to declare much of the Earth’s surface nuclear-free zones and to push for abolishing nuclear weapons altogether.

A movement of about 40 Member States aims to impose a code of conduct on the Security Council, requiring any vetoes to be explained and prohibiting the veto for humanitarian issues such as food and medical assistance.

These efforts take time, but there is a slow rebalancing of power at the UN. While groups of Member States work to hold the UN and the great powers accountable, an even more potent force has been the influence of civil society, which includes the UU@UN.

The UU@UN is part of powerful coalitions and plays a leadership role in most civil-society-led social justice causes at the United Nations.

For years, many relied on the United States for leadership at the UN. Four years without U.S. leadership have encouraged other Member States to be more assertive. Support from the U.S. has certainly been missed in the areas of human rights, climate change, and global security.

I believe with the election of the Biden-Harris administration, and its return to the UN system of multilateral diplomacy, that the world will again look to the United States for leadership.

But more states’ taking on prominent roles will hopefully lead to increased sharing of power and responsibility and a reduction in neocolonialism. Diffusion of power puts us on track for a more pluralistic and democratic world.

Civil society such as your office at the UN (UU@UN) play an increasingly important role in monitoring the behavior of Member States and the UN. This monitoring turns into advocacy and holding those in power accountable to ensure the UN keeps its commitments to form a better world.


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About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...

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