Download, Magazine, Vol. 2: Nationalism

Nationalism and the United Nations

“The United Nations provide an established, structured, and institutionalised forum which emanates from the basic assumption of state egalitarianism”

Interview with Prof Dr Heike Krieger, Faculty of Jurisprudence, Public Law, and Law of Nations, Freie Universität Berlin.


The United Nations was founded in 1949 amidst the aftermath of the catastrophes of the World War II. The organisation’s pronounced goal: the safeguarding of world peace. The revitalisation of nationalism is now testing the solidarity of the most important intergovernmental entity for international cooperation. 42 Magazine speaks to international law expert Prof. Dr. Heike Krieger from the Free University of Berlin about the developments within the organisation from cooperation to confrontation.


Prof Dr Krieger – At the United Nations, the most diverse states gather. However, in academia, nation states and nations are not congruent. Are nations therefore underrepresented at the UN?

That depends on one’s concept of what a nation is. The UN uses the term interchangeably with that of the state. The discourse in the field of Law of Nations is concerned with the question whether or not there are nations beyond the category ‘state’, focussing rather on the notion of peoples and their rights of self-determination. In some cases, national borders contradict those of peoples, or nations, since there are populations that are spread out in several states. One example would be the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

How does that play into cases such as Canada, where Québec is recognised as its own nation within the state – or Spain with its autonomous regions?

The right of self-determination has various aspects. A major component is the internal self-determination: Peoples or ethnic groups within a state can be awarded certain autonomous rights. They may include regulations concerning multilingualism or competences in areas such as education. To this effect, national constitutions and laws implement the necessary arrangements, such as the Spanish or Canadian legal systems. Additionally, there are international limitations set by treaties meant to protect the rights of minorities.

Why are some nations or nation states not represented at the UN?

By now, all nation states that are recognised by international law, which amounts to 193 nation states, are represented in the UN. The remaining nations are so-called de facto regimes: units which have the characteristics of a state but remain unacknowledged by the global community, for instance Somaliland or Taiwan. These few exceptions are excluded from membership mostly for political reasons. In the case of Taiwan, for example, both Taiwan and China adhere to the continued existence of a unified state which results in Taiwan not claiming statehood. 

The United Nations have existed for almost 70 years. Why is there no global government yet; or any efforts to that end?

You are asking why there is no global government? Such a governmental system would have to meet very strict requirements, especially if it were supposed to have democratic legitimacy. It cannot be permitted to develop into an autocratic structure. We have to ensure that all parts of the world are represented appropriately and equally within such an enormous organisation. It is a utopian fantasy. There are probably too many barriers to make this fantasy a reality. One issue would be whether or not it is possible to find enough common ground between the diverse nations to have the needful sense of community sprout between them. I believe the current developments suggest that the very attempt would be met with hostility. At the moment, it is unrealisable. However, the question remains: Should the idea be developed further? Could the means to participate on a global level be expanded, for instance? One important step into that direction, although on a lower level, is the election to the European parliament. It is meant to encourage the citizens’ participation in the European idea, and the European Union. The significance of social media and new possibilities of communication should be considered when thinking about ways to increase participatory elements.

As you have just indicated there is a similar development at the EU-level. The project of the United States of Europe is a highly controversial issue.

Exactly. Even though the EU is characterised by its smaller size as an international organisation with historically and culturally interlinked member states, dispute and movements to contest persist. The goal to preserve the European peace used to create meaning; a common purpose that the member states and their citizens shared. However, even in Europe people feel that the interests of individual parts of the population are not sufficiently represented. Culture, religion, and language are perhaps factors of greater significance than it was assumed in the 1990s. The crisis of the process of European integration is also part of what we can observe right now: the return to the ‘national’. Maybe a unified identity should be created on a higher level, an identity policy that creates a greater unity between the peoples instead of focussing on the nation states.

In how far is nationalism a challenge for the international framework of Global Governance?

Global Governance is an international framework of institutions and regulations that are implemented to solve transboundary problems. Right now we observe a wave of populism that is often interlinked with nationalist tendencies. In some nation states populism, sometimes paired with other ideologies, even challenges international law. Certain structural elements from the ideology of a nationalist-oriented populism oppose solid international cooperation. They object to the idea of controlling nation states through international committees, for instance in areas such as human rights, supranational organisations or multilateralism. Populism manifests differently in each country, though. When US president Donald Trump promotes his “America First” agenda, it has a different significance for the international community than if Poland or Hungary pursue nationalist politics. The US are still regarded as the guarantor of international order, an outcome of the Cold War. The pursuit of the rule of law, democracy and human rights remain guiding principles associated with the United States.

According to your observations, do you think nationalism is evolving into a global trend?

Personally, I treat the term “trend” with care. However, many observers do see a trend, since nationalist and populist processes clearly influenced the US presidential election. The development in the UK – the withdrawal from the EU – can be interpreted as a decision informed by nationalism. Hungary, Poland, Russia – even the Indian government is perceived as nationalist. This is especially alarming when legal actions are taken, such as the refusal to accept international court rulings, withdrawing from international organisations or the termination of human rights treaties. Decisions like these can evolve into major challenges for the international order. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate each case individually. For example, the announcement that the US plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was met with criticism from around the globe. However, this decision may strengthen the agreement in the long run, since the US will not be able to hamper the process from within.

What role does the UN play in the coordination of national interests?

The founding principle of the United Nations is to facilitate the cooperation between states. The actions of the UN should expand beyond the interests of the nation states and enable international law to realise the so-called ‘common interests’ or ‘global goods’. The most representative examples of the attempts to realise these goals originate from environmental politics. The ramifications of pollution and climate change are global. The rich industrial nations in the Global North are responsible for their causes; however, the impacts are especially visible in the Pacific Islands. In order to find a global solution to the problem, the nation states have to look beyond bilateral national interests and work towards a global goal.

“Part of the difficulties that the EU and other international organisations have to face emerges when uncomfortable problems are passed on from national politics to the international level.”


International law aims to reach this goal since 1990. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 as well as the Paris Agreement in 2015 shows that progress. However, there are also states that doubt the common interest and try to scale back the power of international law. These nation states envision a return to a legal system that coordinates bilateral relations instead of realising global interests. The Trump administration stands symbolically for that movement.

The structure of the United Nations is a subject of recurring criticism.

Indeed, there exists a lot of criticism concerning its structure. There certainly is a constant need for reform. Some of the current impulses of the US administration seem sensible to many, such as the call to reform the United Nations Human Rights Council. How can we justify that there are members in the council that violate human rights to a considerable degree? Besides: Doesn’t the right of veto of the five veto-holding powers undermine the legitimacy of the Security Council? These structures remain to be explained. Additionally, there are questions concerning efficiency: are the structures overly complicated? Is the administrative apparatus cluttered? Apart from these questions, however, the United Nations provide an established, structured, and institutionalised forum which emanates from the basic assumption of state egalitarianism. It enables all states worldwide, and therefore also the world population, to determine and pursue common interests.

Can Global Governance only be achieved with the help of the United Nations?

Without having a formally institutionalised organisation, the only way to undertake tasks of global scope would be through a coalition of the willing. There was a tendency to establish such loosely connected coalitions in the early 2000s which resulted in the founding of groups such as G8, G7 or G20. These groups make decisions of far-reaching political importance. The problem of these informal structures is that the most powerful of the states can exercise their power with few limitations. There is no legal and institutional framework. The sovereign equality of the states is not guaranteed to the same extent as within the United Nations. That is because there is no way to fairly determine who belongs and who does not. There is no clear legal basis that informs this decision. This way, the imbalance of power consolidates. Participation and representation of the global population are even less available than in the UN. Compared to that, a well-structured, legally established system should always be favoured, in my opinion.

You talked about the fact that nationalism gains a new significance in many states. Some examples are the recent US presidential election, Poland or India. Critics argue that this development could be especially problematic for the UN Security Council.

Without a doubt, the right of veto privileges the five veto-holding powers: The US, Russia, the UK, France and China. For a long time, this privilege was regarded as an illegitimate means to safeguard the interests of the veto-holding powers, especially in cases such as with Syria, in which the UN Security Council becomes unable to act. However, in my opinion, the right of veto plays a significant part in the current shift in power relations. A conflict between these five powers bears a high potential for escalation. The risk of a limited, bilateral conflict finally escalating into a world war is real.

“But what we can see now is a shift towards a multipolar world. This shift challenges the unipolar world order with the USA as the global leading power.”


Since the end of the Cold War, many have not taken that risk seriously as long as most military interventions were deployed in states with ‘weak statehood’ such as Syria or various African countries. But what we can see now is a shift towards a multipolar world. This shift challenges the unipolar world order with the USA as the global leading power. Russia as well as China assert themselves more intensely within the international system again, sometimes with military measures. The danger of a military escalation between these powers has become a real possibility again. This helps explain why a right of veto is important to prevent a global escalation of conflicts.

Do you think that the UN has a fundamental need for reform?

I am afraid that a large reform of the UN’s system is currently unrealistic. It is unlikely that the underlying set of agreements will be changed. At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, there were great efforts undertaken in this area. Some states made very specific suggestions to change the composition of the UN Security Council. But these efforts remained unsuccessful. Today the will to work together has become even weaker than it was at the time. National interests regained importance. I can hardly imagine that one of the five veto-holding powers would waive their right to veto at present. Furthermore, the question remains which system should replace the current arrangement of the UN Security Council. 

Is the UN condemned to stagnation?

The UN Charta is a treaty of international law. It evolves through legal interpretation. In international law, the interpretation of a treaty can change, namely by a change in convictions of the states which transforms the exercise of the legal practice. This constant flux prevents stagnation. This way, many rules set by the Charta have been interpreted differently than they were intended: One example would be the deployment of peacekeeping forces. The method to deploy these troops has evolved over a long period of time. It is still possible to further develop the Charta this way. There are many suggestions concerning this issue. For instance, the veto-holding powers could waive their right to veto in cases that involve the violation of human rights to a considerable extend, as France suggested. Another possible solution could be that the veto-holding powers would have to justify their veto in cases such as mentioned above. These suggestions are transformations that could be brought about by a change in practice without having to undergo an extensive contractual reform. Such slow steps are much more realistic and feasible than a complete reform. The structure of the UN administration could be changed in a similar manner. However, we will have to live with this fundamental structure and distribution of power for quite some time to come.

Would you say that plans to reform the UN fail over and over again?

Not necessarily. Some things have been changed, after all. There used to be the Commission of Human Rights; the structure and methods were changed later on, which then gave way to the Human Rights Council. The US has recently requested a reform of the committee. I can imagine that further development is made possible by this. However, to change the actual contractual text, the treaty would have to be changed in a formal act – part of that procedure is the ratification by all member states. Questions arise from this: Do we really want to subject the UN Charta to ratification proceedings in the US, even though its failure is to be expected? I think rather not. Not touching the actual treaty is, in my opinion, a wise decision.

A lot of criticism comes from western countries that are less dependent on the UN or that rather regard it as a committee of coordination and collaboration. Does the UN have an image problem?

Perhaps we can assume that developing and emerging countries of the Global South have set their hopes of a fairer world in the UN, for example by means of distributive justice, during the diverse phases in their history. In the 1970s, there has been a big debate about the new economic world order which was supposed to implement higher distributive justice. The general assembly was an important platform which was supposed to help achieve this political goal. The Global North, however, never relied on these global norms of justice as the Global South did. The states of the Global North regarded the UN as a forum for security politics and a forum for development aids, but always from the perspective of the donor. Additionally, you can see in Germany that, for a long time, foreign policy was primarily oriented towards the EU. There is a European department in every ministry, but only few list a United Nations department. Germany’s neglect to participate sufficiently and prominently in the UN is, in my opinion, a failure of German foreign policy. The significance of the United Nations should be presented to the German public not only as a keeper of world peace, but also as a means to create a good and fair world order.

What kind of participation would you like to see from Germany?

Participation could take place on many levels. As I mentioned, one possibility is the intensified involvement of the UN in the work of the ministries with the help of their own UN departments. An updated security policy is an important point as well, for instance the participation of German troops in UN peacekeeping operations. This has not happened in a long time. The German government considered the military structures of the UN not efficient enough and therefore deemed the operations unsafe for German soldiers. Within the NATO and EU structures, this was different. The involvement of the German armed forces in Mali has changed the situation in a striking way. I would like to see more of this type of participation in the future. For too long, states from the Global South were the main providers of troops for peacekeeping operations. That was an unfortunate imbalance since peacekeeping operations are supposed to be a joint initiative. Besides, the military effectiveness of the states from the Global North is often greater and therefore decisive for the success of the operation.

Currently, the German armed forces are especially promoting the operation in Mali on social media.

Yes, that is really interesting. The legitimacy of such an operation is perhaps higher than with others. Especially when comparing it to anti-terrorist operations, upon which the legal basis is disputed. But when the German military proceeds within the framework of the UN, it should be possible to emphasize that the troops are pursuing the global community’s interests.

Let us go back to the critical voices: Followers of the nationalist tendencies in Europe criticise globalisation in particular. The United Nations are not exempt from that criticism. Is this the reason for the unpopularity of the organisation?

The nationalist and populist tendencies which we observe right now often arise in relation to globalisation. In my opinion, these two issues are interwoven. On the one hand, globalisation has been increasing noticeably since 1990. Consequently, this leads to a higher degree of interconnectivity, global freedom of movement, global communication, to some extent a global public opinion and many positive developments in the economic sector, such as a strong middle class in China and other states from the Global South. On the other hand, globalisation has a wide range of negative consequences: flows of refugees, economic crises, financial crises and evident anxieties stemming from these developments in some parts of the population.

“The nationalist and populist tendencies which we observe right now often arise in relation to globalisation.”


Furthermore, globalisation led to a shift of many political decisions from the national to the global sphere since the ramifications are global, and thus no longer a national issue. However, these processes are often not addressed by the United Nations, but in networks such as G20. These global committees are, as previously discussed, often unstructured and non-transparent. Also, a lot of far-reaching decisions reside with the international financial institutions. With this aspect in particular, the question arises in how far the decisions made by these institutions can be democratised again and thereby gain legitimacy. This issue specifically applies to the Global North and its democratic constitutional states. To me, this is part of the problem.


Although the Global South has profited in part from globalisation, it is still forced to accept major disparities concerning the distribution of global wealth. In comparison, the Global North is pervaded by anti-globalisation tendencies. Some of these include vague concerns over globalisation or well articulated, informed criticism about the lack of legitimacy and transparency in the decision-making processes. Not much is happening in this context. At the same time, international institutions have not always fulfilled their role the way one could have hoped; an example would be the poor performance of the financial institutions during the financial crisis. The reactions to the crisis and the resources deployed, such as the Euro rescue fund, were highly controversial. This is another instance where questions of democratic legitimation have to be asked. Thus, this is the perfect environment for populist and nationalist parties to grow. They take up legitimate points of criticism to connect them to their anti-elite, anti-pluralist, nationalist and racist discourses and thoughts. Their ideology falls on fertile ground.

Nationalist and right-wing tendencies currently thrive within neo-liberalism while simultaneously turning against it. How do they relate to one another?

My guess is that the conservative political branch has diversified. On the one side there is a liberal conservatism of values that counts on a liberal economic system. But this liberal world view refers to a liberal constitutional system, a liberal world order that acknowledges human rights. The right to property is the fundamental prerequisite of a market economy. The idea that human rights and economy are directly connected originates from the 1990s. The conservative-nationalist and populist tendencies are in opposition to the liberal constitutional system and liberality in particular. Victor Orbán makes is abundantly clear in his speeches that he wants to abolish liberal constitutionalism and that he turns against minority rights and certain fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Many followers of these tendencies see their national identity and the sovereignty of their national borders threatened by global processes. Where does this feeling of insecurity come from?

There are many empirical studies on this issue. However, I am a legal expert, not a political scientist. My impression is that the refugee crisis has led to this subjective perception. The fact that this perception often does not correspond with reality probably stems from the political exploitation of these events from several parties. Part of the difficulties that the EU and other international organisations have to face emerges when uncomfortable problems are passed on from national politics to the international level. This is especially true for the responsibility of political decisions. A common excuse is “We could not do anything about it, it was Brussels’ fault!” although the member states participate in the decision-making in Brussels and further pursue their policies. They have a vote in the resolutions. Still, this idea of shifting power has led to a negative image of the global and European institutions. 

How could one address this development from an international perspective? What efforts could the United Nations undertake?

An expansion of the knowledge of the people by a strong PR campaign would certainly be an important step. However, I believe that the responsibility lies with the member states of the UN since they are the connecting link between citizen and organisation. They work within the organisation or together with it on an international level, which is something they have to communicate to their population. The goal is to pursue appropriate policies on an international level and campaign for said policies among the national population, ideally with opportunities for participation. 

One last question: Would you say that despite the justified criticism, the UN is without alternative?

‘Without alternative’ is an awful term. I do believe, however, that the world would be in a much worse state without the United Nations.


Interview: Anna Hörter

Translation: Eva Fürst


Prof. Dr. Heike Krieger, Freie Universität Berlin