The United Nations and How It Works

How the UN influences the world

A illustrated depiction of the United Nations chamber, representing a headline that reads: Significance of the United Nations, and text that includes: An international body formed after World War II to maintain global peace Members comprise 193 peace-loving countries Other initiatives include providing disaster relief, countering terrorism, and promoting nuclear non-proliferation All nations contribute to the U.N. budget, so they each have a part in funding U.N.-specific initiatives While the U.N. has no right to make binding laws, its decisions reflect the prevailing values and goals of its members to arrive at a global consensus

The Balance / Alex Dos Diaz

The United Nations (U.N.), headquartered in New York, is an international organization of 193 member-states. It was founded in 1945 to prevent another world war.

What Is the United Nations?

The U.N.'s founding charter mandates four ambitious purposes:

  1. Maintain international peace by saving future generations from the horrors of war, which has caused untold sorrow to human civilization
  2. Reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, including human dignity and the equal rights of men and women and of all nations
  3. Establish conditions under which respect and justice for treaty obligations and international law can be upheld
  4. Promote social progress and improved standards of life

The charter's mandates are established for these ends:

  • Practice tolerance and live in peace with one another as good neighbors
  • Unite our strength to maintain international peace and security
  • Armed force shall not be used except for the common interest
  • Promote economic and social advancement of everyone 

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals

The U.N. has 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). These goals center around a shared vision, principles, values, and goals that help people and the planet through strong global cooperation and inclusive partnerships.

Poverty: End poverty in all forms, especially by protecting children and vulnerable population groups

Zero Hunger: Boosting agricultural productivity and sustainable food production to fight hunger

Health: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for those of all ages, which includes providing access to doctors, eradicating disease, improving sanitation, and hygiene

Education: Increasing access at all levels to education and school enrollment

Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Water and Sanitation: Ensure access to sanitation and water for everyone

Energy: Enable access to affordable, sustainable, and reliable modern energy

Economic Growth: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth as well as decent employment

Infrastructure and Industrialization: Promote sustainable industrialization, infrastructure, and foster innovation

Inequality: Decrease inequality within all countries

Cities: Ensure that cities are safe, resilient, sustainable, and inclusive

Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production to reduce the destructive impact on the planet, particularly from harvesting natural resources

Climate: Take urgent action to fight climate change and its impact on the world

Oceans: Conserve and sustainably use the seas, oceans, and marine resources by reducing overfishing, acidification of the oceans, and marine pollution

Biodiversity, Forests, and Desertification: Stop biodiversity loss, manage forests, fight desertification and land degradation

Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful, just, and inclusive societies

Partnerships: Revitalize the international collaboration for sustainable development

How the UN Is Organized

The main parts of the U.N. are the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat.

The General Assembly is composed of representatives of all member states. It creates the mandates that guide the day-to-day work of the boards and councils under it. The General Assembly meeting lasts for several weeks in September of each year, and it gives world leaders a chance to come together and form working relationships. 

The Security Council is the most powerful U.N. unit. Its mandate is to keep the peace. The five permanent members are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The General Assembly also elects ten non-permanent members that hold two-year terms.

All U.N. members must comply with Security Council decisions, and the Council sends peace-keeping forces to restore order when needed. The Council can impose economic sanctions or an arms embargo to pressure countries that don't comply, and it authorizes the U.N.'s members to take military action if needed.

The Economic and Social Council conducts analysis, agrees on global norms, and advocates for progress in the areas of sustainable development, humanitarian work, and financial development. It forms partnerships as needed and oversees joint U.N. action to address related issues.

The International Court of Justice is located at the Hague in the Netherlands. It settles legal disputes between countries.

The Secretariat carries out the day-to-day work of the organization. It has several departments and offices that carry out distinct responsibilities. The Security Council nominates its leader, the Secretary-General.


The Trusteeship Council, which used to supervise the Trust Territories, suspended its operations in 1994 after the last remaining U.N. trust territory of Palau became independent.

How the UN Works

The U.N. is not a government and has no right to make binding laws. Instead, it uses the power of persuasion. The U.N. committees negotiate multilateral agreements that give more teeth to its policies. Combined, they form a body of international law.

All nations contribute to the U.N. budget, so they each have a part in funding U.N.-specific initiatives.

Every member votes in the General Assembly meeting, so the U.N.'s decisions reflect the prevailing values and goals of the majority of its members. Thus, countries that don't comply know they are in the minority.


There are 193 members of the U.N. The United States recognizes 195 countries. The two that aren't U.N. members are Kosovo and the Holy See. Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia, does not have support from enough member countries since it's still not recognized by some as an independent nation.

The Holy See has not applied for membership, although it has "permanent observer" status. Notably, the U.N. made Palestine a "non-member observer state" status, even though the United States considers it to be part of Israel. China replaced Taiwan, which it now considers a province.

All peace-loving countries that are willing and able to carry out their obligations under the U.N. charter can join the U.N. Nine of the fifteen members of the Security Council must approve without any of the five permanent members voting against membership. Then, two-thirds of the General Assembly must also approve the membership.


On October 24, 1945, the first 50 nations who were members of the U.N. ratified its charter. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) lobbied for the U.N.'s creation even during World War II. In the Declaration of the United Nations, the Allies pledged to work together to stop the Axis. The four major Allies were the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China.

FDR's administration worked with Congress to create a U.N. charter that had its support. President Harry Truman continued the effort after FDR's death. On June 26, 1945, the members created the U.N. Charter at the San Francisco Conference. Truman made sure that Congress ratified it right away.

The United Nations is the second attempt at a global peace initiative. In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the League of Nations after World War I. The United States was not a member. Congress refused to ratify membership, fearing that it would pull the United States into countless wars. Many felt the League failed because it could not prevent the outbreak of World War II.

Other UN Organizations and How They Influence the World

Within the U.N., there are some well-known agencies that carry on its work. The International Atomic Energy Agency helps to prevent nuclear proliferation and possible annihilation by a worldwide nuclear war. Below are several other U.N. system organizations and their functions:

Key Takeaways

  • The United Nations (U.N.), headquartered in New York, is an international organization of 193 member-states and was founded in 1945 to prevent another world war.
  • The U.N. is not a government, nor can it pass binding laws, but through persuasion, negotiates multilateral agreements to help form international law.
  • Every member votes in the General Assembly meeting, while all nations contribute to the U.N. budget to fund U.N.-specific initiatives.
  • The U.N. promotes human rights, social progress, and equal rights for all people and nations while improving living standards.
  • The U.N. maintains international peace and establishes conditions to ensure treaty obligations and international law can be upheld.

What Are the Main Parts of the U.N.?

The U.N. is composed of five main parts; the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat.

How Can Nations Join the U.N.?

Any country able to carry out their U.N. duties and promote international peace can join the organization. However, there is an extensive approval process. A total of nine out of the 15 Security Council members must vote in favor of a new country to join, which includes all five permanent members of the council. The final step is gaining approval from the General Assembly.

How Has the U.N.'s Mission Changed since it Began?

The U.N. was founded in 1945 to prevent another world war. While the organization still works to promote international peace, its mission has expanded to include goals such as sustainable development, economic growth, human rights, fostering an inclusive global society, and other initiatives designed to make a positive impact throughout the world.

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