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International Organizations 101: UN, NATO, EU


With growing interdependence and globalization, the international arena started to evolve and international organizations (IOs) have became significant actors in world politics. In this sense, understanding the functioning of International Organizations reveals the privileges and limits they create while providing insight into a part of contemporary world politics. This 101 series is dedicated to discussing the evolution and basics of intergovernmental organizations.

International Organizations 101 series is divided into 6 sections:

International Organizations 101: UN, NATO, EU

The United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are the three essential international organizations. In addition to their historical importance, these organizations are currently under the spotlight due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This article provides a short introduction to each of these organizations and discusses their evolution in a changing world.

The UN was established to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and one of its main purposes is to maintain international peace and security” (United Nations, n.d.). The organization’s existence is based on its commitment to preventing war and protecting human rights. To fulfill this responsibility, the UN carries out various missions authorized by the Security Council or General Assembly. Although there are many instruments such as negotiation and judicial settlement, recourse to peacekeeping operations became a prevalent measure of the UN, which is not explicitly mentioned in the Charter. The number, size, and scope of peacekeeping missions deployed in the aftermath of civil wars exploded at the end of the Cold War (Fortna, 2010). Before that, the UN was unable to take action due to the ongoing conflict between its two members with veto power: the US and the USSR.

Figure 1: North Atlantic Council Meeting in 1957

Peacekeeping during the Cold War was mostly used in inter-state conflicts with the aim of containing the conflict and preventing direct superpower intervention, rather than preventing the resumption of war (Fortna, 2010). Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the UN Security Council finally appeared to be able to deploy its peacekeepers actively, taking up its primary mandate. While intra-state civil conflicts have escalated, the approach of peacekeeping operations has evolved. The post-Cold War moment witnessed a tremendous flourishing in multilateral cooperation and nations employed multilateral architectures with unprecedented success to manage and reduce real shared global problems (Moreland, 2022). However, UN peacekeeping operations of the 1990s failed to maintain this optimistic atmosphere. Especially Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda became examples of peacekeeping operations that left unfavorable memories. Moreover, the passive response to Rwanda being explained by reluctance of the members due to the difficulties in Somalia (Semb, 2000), demonstrates how multilateralism was undermined gradually. This does not mean that peacekeeping operations were a complete failure, but they remain insufficient. The weakening of multilateralism was escalated with differences over Iraq in 2002 in the U.N. Security Council, when the United States failed to persuade France and Russia—both permanent members—to authorize the invasion of Iraq and created an ad hoc coalition of the willing for the purpose (Dossani, 2022). The United States again failed to gain Security Council approval for military intervention in Syria in 2013, and again created an ad hoc coalition for the purpose (Dossani, 2022). These events signalled the return of rivalry and power contests. While the United States becoming the most noticeable disruptor, authoritarian countries like China and Russia are actively contesting the underpinnings of the multilateral order (Moreland, 2022). Thus, the failure of UN to act on the Russian invasion of Ukraine should not surprise anyone since this appears to be merely the latest demonstration of a two-decade-long trend of the growing ineffectiveness of global multilateral institutions in addressing the world's diplomatic, security, and socioeconomic challenges (Dossani, 2022).

Figure 2: The reality is cruel, Putin held back his anger this time!

As an alternative to failure of multilateralism in universal organizations, regional institutions came to the spotlight. The establishment of the European Union is accepted as the symbol of regionalism. Founded after the WW II as a result of European cooperation to secure peace, prosperity, and stability, EU turned into a network of monetary arrangements, political institutions and law. It has evolved from the European Coal and Steel Community of 1951 and new competencies were added through further negotiations and supplementary treaties.The drive toward wider and deeper integration succeeded in breaking down formidable trade barriers, easing the movement of goods, services, labour, and capital across borders, and heightening competition for investment (Downs, 2002). The development of multilateralism in EU followed a roughly parallel pattern as a series of treaties, particularly from the Single European Act in 1985 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1991, brought an increasing number of arrangements between member states into the multilateral realm (Taylor, 2014). The organization is designed as a common space that unifies the member states, eliminating the internal borders and reinforcing separation from rest of the world. It sought to create a unified defense structure and foreign policy as well. This has largely failed due to the unwillingness of Europe's major powers to pool their foreign policy decisions (Hurd, 2014). The members having placed defense matters under an unanimity decision rule to protect their national interests (Hurd, 2014), demonstrates the setbacks in integration and multilateralism. These two concepts were also negatively affected by the economic crisis of the last decade and Brexit. Providing leadership and expertise to EU policy at the UN, the United Kingdom has been a valuable member of EU policy. In this regard, Brexit negatively affected liberal institutionalism which EU was trying to spread in UN since this was an act against multilateralism. Brexit had negative impacts on UK as well, its economy deteriorated after Brexit due to the lack of a EU single market and free trade agreements. However, the country put political interests over the economy, emphasizing its preference for unilateralism.

Figure 3: Multilateralism in 2019

The existence of NATO was another factor that contributed to the weakening of the European Union's defense integration. Much of what a united EU defense policy might achieve could be said to be done already by NATO, and the US has long stated that it does not want a joint EU military that replaces NATO (Hurd, 2014, p. 320). With the EU’s gradual emergence as a security actor, NATO’s adjustment to the post-Cold War security landscape and the Eastern enlargement processes of both organizations are increasingly facing overlaps in challenges, resources and tasks, making them partners as well as rivals (Græger & Haugevik, 2012, p. 259). EU-NATO cooperation regarding the Ukrainian war serves as a current example. The war in Ukraine has precipitated significant changes that will most likely serve as foundations for the EU's future defense role, and may even gradually increase the EU's ability to intervene as a military player in complementarity with NATO, a long-held ambition that has largely remained a mere aspiration (Famà & Musiol, 2022).

Figure 4: EU-NATO

As a defensive military alliance, NATO was formed against Russian expansion after WW II based on the concept of collective defense with the aim of protecting the freedom and security of its' members through military and political measures . The groundwork for the organization was the North Atlantic Treaty, also known as the Washington Treaty, which was signed in 1949. With the collapse of the USSR, NATO became irrelevant and it was expected to be demolished. Instead, in a declaration agreed upon at NATO's London summit in July 1990, the alliance offered the Central and Eastern European transition countries a formal end to confrontation, permanent diplomatic relations with NATO, and a future relationship based on the principle of common security (Schimmelfennig, 2001). Finally, and paradoxically at first glance, it was only after the end of the Soviet threat, for which it was established, that NATO became involved in actual warfare, invoked the North Atlantic Treaty (NAT), and sent member state troops outside the North Atlantic region – each for the first time in its history (Schimmelfennig, 2001). Unlike other organizaitons including UN and EU, NATO earned a reputation as a peacekeeper due to its successful operations in the Balkans. For instance, the Alliance took on these missions first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo, bringing an end to the horrors taking placing there (La Porta, 2003), despite being late. While the EU focused on expanding its membership by initially incorporating wealthy, previously neutral European countries, NATO opened its doors to the east, inviting the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join while stating that membership would remain open to all qualified European countries (Daalder, 2016). In addition to military security, NATO involves environmental security as well, taking measures to reduce the impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, it remained as a different organization in terms of leadership and multilateralism.

Figure 5: North Atlantic Council Meeting at the level of Foreign Ministers

As a formal institution, it has through most of its history been distinctly non-multilateral, with the United States commanding most decision-making power, and at the same time, it provided security to its member states in a way that strongly reflected multilateral principles (Weber, 1992, p. 633). Russia's invasion of Ukraine brought the NATO to the forefront of the news once again. With the decision of Sweden and Finland to join NATO by leaving their neutral policy, and the organization’s plan to increase the number of forces at its disposal, NATO is turning back to its primary mandate as a deterrent instrument. The organization's collective military power has been growing since 1949. NATO's 29 member countries produce more than half of the world's GDP, have more than 3 million troops on active duty, operate massive combined naval and air forces, and spend more than $1 trillion on defense (Stavridis, 2019), with varying contribution of member states according to their leverage and influence.

These organizations have been both successful, and unsuccessful in fulfilling their mandates. Even though the UN has successfully conducted a number of peacekeeping missions, it failed in Rwanda and Bosnia. This was due to institutional shortcomings as well as the dominance of national interests. Overcoming various obstacles, EU has been accepted as a success until now. Despite its' bureaucratic deficiencies, the organization managed to maintain peace and prosperity in the continent. However, it started to crack as well due to the reasons explained above. Despite its' general success, NATO has failures as well. Although it achieved its larger goal of stopping Milosevic, the air bombing caused more than 500 civilian deaths, raising questions about whether NATO’s actions were humane (Harikumar, 2022). NATO's operational challenges are further complicated by the administrative issues that exist among member countries. For instance, the ongoing conflict between Turkey and Greece, challenges the influence of the organization (Harikumar, 2022),

Currently, these essential international organizations are tested by the situation surrounding the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the divide over how to handle it. A great deal of pressure is placed on international organizations to fulfill the expectations; however, what they are capable of is restricted in reality. This is mostly because of institutional deficiencies and dominance of national interests over collective action. They still have a profound impact, but the obligation to fit in the changing world by improving multilateral support remains.

Bibliographical References

Daalder, I. H. (2016, July 28). NATO in the 21st Century: What purpose? what missions? Brookings. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from

Dossani, R. (2022, April 4). Is there a future for multilateralism? RAND Corporation. Retrieved July 8, 2022, from

Downs, W. M. (2002). Regionalism in the European Union: Key Concepts and project overview. Journal of European Integration, 24(3), 171–177.

Famà, G., & Musiol, L. (2022, April 5). The war in Ukraine raises new questions for EU foreign policy - world. ReliefWeb. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from

Fortna, V. P. (2010). Does peacekeeping work?: Shaping belligerents' choices after Civil War. Princeton University Press.

Græger, N., & Haugevik, K. (2012). EU–NATO relations. Routledge Handbook on the European Union and International Institutions.

Harikumar, A. (2022). NATO: Operational failures and challenges in the 21st Century. Diplomatist. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from

Hurd, I. (2014). International organizations: Politics, Law, practice. Cambridge University Press.

La Porta, A. F. (2003). Rationalization of NATO Forces in the Balkans. The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, 27(2), 271–278.

Moreland, W. (2022, March 9). The purpose of multilateralism. Brookings. Retrieved July 8, 2022, from

Schimmelfennig, F. (2001). Functional form, identity-driven cooperation: Institutional Designs and effects in post-Cold War NATO. Crafting Cooperation, 145–179.

Semb, A. J. (2000). The new practice of un-authorized interventions: A slippery slope of forcible interference? Journal of Peace Research, 37(4), 469–488.

Stavridis, J. (2019, April 4). Why NATO is essential for world peace: Former commander. Time. Retrieved July 9, 2022, from

Taylor, P. (2014). Multilateralism, the UN and the EU. ERIS – European Review of International Studies, 1(2), 16–30.

United Nations. (n.d.). Mandates and the legal basis for peacekeeping peacekeeping. United Nations. Retrieved July 8, 2022, from

Weber, S. (1992). Shaping the postwar balance of power: Multilateralism in NATO. International Organization, 46(3), 633–680.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: NATO. 1957. North Atlantic Council Meeting. [Photograph]. NATO.

Figure 2: Xiangyouzixun. 2022. The reality is cruel, Putin held back his anger this time! [Cartoon]. Xiangyouzixun.

Figure 3: Jamshidifar, A. 2019. Multilateralism in 2019. [Cartoon]. Cartoon Movement.

Figure 4: Kurtu. 2008. EU-NATO. [Cartoon]. toonpool.

Figure 5: NATO. 1969. North Atlantic Council Meeting at the level of Foreign Ministers. [Photograph]. NATO.


Author Photo

Deniz Aktunç

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