The “Third” United Nations: How a Knowledge Ecology Helps the UN Think

| March 10, 2022
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The “Third” United Nations: How a Knowledge Ecology Helps the UN Think, Tatiana Carayannis and Thomas G. Weiss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 224 pp., cloth $85, eBook $84.99.

The United Nations is unique in its capacity to convene global discourse, particularly conversations to address global problems that humanity must face together. If the United Nations is to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, pandemics, and climate change” (p. 13), as Tatiana Carayannis and Thomas G. Weiss put it in The “Third” United Nations, those conversations must succeed at identifying viable global solutions, and solutions that reflect reasonable consideration of perspectives of people all over the earth. Of course, by design, the United Nations represents the governments but not necessarily the people of its 190-odd member states. As such, any discourse organized by this “First United Nations,” in Carayannis and Weiss’s vocabulary, privileges the perspectives of governments and potentially excludes transnational interest groups. The “Second United Nations” consists of the employees of the United Nations itself, the international civil service, who must generally answer to the national governments. The “Third United Nations,” in the book’s conceptual framework, consists of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), experts, individuals, and academics who operate outside of any official government capacity—in other words, civil society. Those in civil society are uniquely positioned to articulate the political interests of communities with shared values who do not necessarily share a defined territory, including environmentalists and human rights advocates; indigenous groups; racial, ethnic, and religious communities outside of formal governmental power; labor groups; and businesses, to name just a few. Such value-based communities of political interest, which transcend national boundaries, must be heard for the United Nations to successfully generate the conversations we need to address global problems with global solutions.  

The “Third” United Nations offers an analytical framework to understand and perhaps ultimately improve the ways that civil society discourse contributes to UN-led discourses and policymaking processes. The book gives numerous examples of historical contributions from civil society and helps develop a vocabulary for discussing them. A close examination of the book suggests why the Third United Nations is such an important part of the decisionmaking ecosystem of the United Nations. The book sums up the Third UN’s role using a metaphor: civil society helps the United Nations system to think. This is correct, but from the perspective of a discursive approach to democratic theory, the role of the Third UN is even deeper. The Third UN, as part of the global public sphere, helps to develop and identify policy options for states and other actors in the global system. The nature of their deliberations helps to ensure that both the ends and the means are rationally justifiable. This impact is deepened as a wider range of diverse perspectives are included in the conversations surrounding UN policymaking. The book highlights a number of examples of ways that ideas and research developed in civil society have gradually transformed norms advanced by states and others about what is politically desirable and practical. Examples include human rights discourses leading to the adoption of global accountability for war crimes, changes in how economic development is situated relative to environmental concerns, and changes in sovereignty norms to permit international action to deal with serious humanitarian atrocities. Every case of norm change led by civil society is unique, but practitioners in civil society organizations should read this book to get insights into how to make their contributions to UN and other intergovernmental policymaking more deliberate. 

Some might ask: Why should unelected NGO members, interest groups, and even universities be taken seriously as designers of the global rules and norms under which we all live? After all, these actors are not necessarily representative of official governments, which have the primary responsibility for maintaining security, justice, and opportunity for their societies. But this is precisely their value, as The “Third” United Nations shows. International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) have contributed to policy changes on a variety of UN issues, including the role of women in security, the global ban on the deployment of land mines, the establishment and operation of the International Criminal Court, and the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (pp. 41–62). Another objection, this one specific to the role of INGOs in policymaking, points out that such activists are often from the advanced industrial world, and thus may amplify privileged voices at the expense of more marginalized communities. Yet in my own research, I have seen the opposite occur, where war crimes victims from some of the poorest parts of the world find that their voices reach larger audiences as part of civil society alliances with INGOs based in the Global North, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on privileged actors within this Third UN to be deliberately inclusive of voices and perspectives of more marginalized peoples. Civil society has at least as much hope of doing that as some of the elite-run governments that are formal members of the United Nations. The final chapters of TheThird” United Nations provide a high-level view of how some previously excluded voices at the UN have gradually become more influential in policy conversations centered around the United Nations in recent decades, including those of Brazilian civil society, China, and transnational business interests (pp. 120–50). 

In addition to analyzing the role of civil society, Carayannis and Weiss discuss the role of great leaders in advancing new ideas about global problems and potential solutions as part of civil society (pp. 63–67). They note that such prominent individuals often serve on high-level panels and commissions after they have left formal employment, either as representatives or ministers of states, or as officials in the UN Secretariat. They write that “liberated from official positions and accompanying constraints, prominent individuals who represent a spectrum of opinion and nationalities can aim to raise the visibility of a particular global challenge and alternative solutions by hammering out a new consensus” (p. 64). 

It is true that prominent individuals can speak more freely, and even advance innovations that are likely to provide workable solutions to global problems, once they are repositioned in the “Third UN,” outside of official governmental or intergovernmental positions. This book starts to unpack why that is the case. For a number of structural reasons, the active leaders of states, their foreign ministries, and other civil servants tend to have a strong status quo bias, and they are pressured to pursue their nation’s interests. This focus on national interests can encourage a zero-sum perspective on global issues and resources. A focus on a state’s relative power can also lead its representatives to focus on the distributional consequences of particular policy choices, rather than the overall return on investment in those policies at a global level. Moreover, while they are in power, leaders often perceive taking new dramatic action as being riskier than staying with the status quo, even though status quo approaches may have higher costs in the long run. 

The situation for international civil servants who make up “the Second UN” is little better. The secretary-general is appointed only with the consensus of the five permanent members of the Security Council, and so only candidates who are deferential to the national interests of those five states are ever considered or reappointed. Moreover, the United Nations relies on member states to provide resources and authorization for its activities, so it can never stray very far from the consensus views of its most powerful members. For these reasons, it is not surprising that office holders of the First and Second United Nations can only make particularly innovative contributions to the discourse of ideas once they are out of office. At this point, they are likely to understand what is really needed to advance shared global interests because they have served in the United Nations. Additionally, they are likely to have a clear understanding of what might be politically possible because they are familiar with member states’ vital interests and bottom lines. 

The “Third” United Nations demonstrates that global civil society can indeed help the United Nations to think. The world needs global civil society to better conceptualize global problems and help advance solutions that take into account a wider set of interests and perspectives. In the end, the ideas that endure will be the ones that best help the world confront its global challenges. 


Michael J. Struett

Michael J. Struett is associate professor of political science and department chair in the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University. He is the author of  The Politics of Constructing the International Criminal Court: NGOs, Discourse, and Agency (2008), and is broadly interested in institutions and norms of global governance.

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 36.1

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