The UN and the Arab Uprisings: Reflecting a Confused International Order

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Karim Makdisi, The American University of Beirut

The role of the United Nations during the Arab uprisings shifted swiftly from a triumphalist posture rooted in its self-understanding of its role in the larger global liberal project, to a more confused role as international consensus broke down amid state collapse in venues such as Libya, Yemen and Syria. These dramatic shifts offer insights into how we might productively think about the UN during this period as a site of order maintenance and legitimacy struggles.

Shortly after the start of the Arab uprisings, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, declared that the “old Middle East is dead” and, “without interfering,” the UN had to “support these historic transformations which have come so suddenly and represent such a fundamental break from the past.” The UN Secretary General had decided from the very outset, Pascoe noted, to “be on the side of the people and on the side of modernization.” [1]

Accordingly, during these early days, the UN dispatched high-ranking diplomats to mediate the conflicts in Libya and Yemen; and provided technical assistance in the Tunisian and Egyptian-lead elections processes. Even the explicit use of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle in the Security Council resolution justifying military intervention in Libya—for the protection of civilians—was unanimously passed, and promptly celebrated in UN circles as the dawn of a new era in which violent state clampdowns on their own citizens would no longer be tolerated; and international norms would prevail.

These sorts of interventions, popular locally and supported by consensus among the key UN Member States, were very much in line with the UN’s wider peacebuilding mandate in the post-Cold War paradigm of the liberal peace. The sacrosanct Cold War notion of state sovereignty—which both the Soviet bloc and the post-colonial Global South insisted upon as the bedrock of international politics as a means to limit Western intervention—had, in the post-Cold War period, become more overtly fluid. With Western support, the UN, in its own self-perception, became an indispensable actor in legitimizing and ‘correcting’ the path of illiberal states, now deemed “weak” or “failed.” It did so through peace and state-building exercises such as amending constitutions, arranging and monitoring elections, reforming the security sector, liberalizing the economy, and promoting civil society. As Toby Dodge has argued, this post-Cold War approach to peacebuilding was given “ideational and instrumental coherence” by linking the main drivers of increased humanitarian suffering and conflict to the “sins” of the state itself.[2]

Before long, the Arab uprisings thrust the UN into increasingly uncomfortable positions and spotlight as the violent counter-attack began in the region.[3] Its role in the global liberal peace project depended on international consensus, and this was quickly dissipating—as it had during the 2003 US war on Iraq—as regional actors competed in filling the void and directing this regional transformation. In particular, Libya, Yemen and Syria witnessed humanitarian tragedies, unprecedented displacement crises, and high-profile diplomatic failures. In each of these venues, the UN was increasingly disparaged, at best, or accused of complicity. In Libya, for example, Jeff Bachman represented many anti-NATO interventionists by holding the UN responsible for legitimizing NATO’s likely “crime of aggression” and violations of international humanitarian law through its regime change agenda that, he argues, caused more harm to Libyan civilians than good.[4] Similar accusations were made against the UN Security Council’s apparent legitimization of the disastrous Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen.

Syria was the most trying arena. Criticism of UN complicity went well beyond the Security Council. Reinoud Leenders blasted the UN’s “systemic” failure and the “moral bankruptcy” of its aid programs that, since 2012 he argued, had effectively legitimized the Syrian regime.[5] Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society, went further, telling Al-Jazeera that “The UN is [the] main culprit and they are as responsible as [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”[6] Similar accusations were leveled by a former UN High Commission for Refugees staff member against UN directors with “well-nourished careers” who “put out cutesy heart-warming videos” rather than taking a firmer stand on the unprecedented Syrian refugee crisis. He accused the then-chief (and now Secretary General) Antonio Guterres of being weak, and cowing to states that told him to “suck your thumb” while they negotiate a diplomatic solution.[7] This view was not uncommon among supporters of the Syrian rebellion.

The harsh criticism of the UN’s response in the Syrian war, and its failures in Libya and Yemen (not to mention its silence in places such as Bahrain), are certainly valid. But the UN has all too often been used a convenient punching bag, one masking the moral and political failures by key regional and international players.[8] Clearly, at its most basic level, the UN is a reflection of great power politics. As an international relations theory, realism is thus indispensable in placing power at the center of any analysis. A Russian-US agreement in 2013 enabled the UN to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons, and NATO to intervene in Libya in 2011 ostensibly to protect civilians. The veto power at the Security Council, on the other hand, explains why Russia could repeatedly block meaningful action in Syria, while the US could do the same in Yemen and Palestine.

It is insufficient, however, to understand the UN solely on a case by case basis as a static reflection of inter-state power. This realist account tells only a limited story of its role during the Arab uprisings. As such, besides despairing at how little the UN is doing, or can do when consensus breaks down—and avoiding superficial, banal analyses that cast “the UN” as a unitary actor that is good or bad—how can we more productively think about its position in the Arab uprisings period? Borrowing from concepts developed by Robert Cox and Richard Falk respectively, I suggest that thinking in historical dialectical and legitimacy struggles are particularly useful.

For Cox, the historical dialectic allows us to move beyond realism to explore the social processes that “create and transform forms of state and the state system itself,” and the “alterations in perceptions and meanings that constitute and reconstitute the objective world order.”[9] This more malleable reading of history, according to Cox, is bound up with competing notions of order maintenance (“the institutionalization and regulation of established order”) and transformation (“the locus of interactions for the transformation of existing order”).[10] In this respect, we need to situate the UN within the broader context of an evolving, contested world (and regional) order and changing form of multilateralism. Briefly, it seems clear that the US has failed in its attempts to re-shape the Middle East regional order first during the post-2003 period, and then again during the Arab uprisings period.[11] I posit that the former sparked the challenge of (state) order transformation by non-state players in the region; while the latter enabled Russia to regain its international stature in an attempt to end this challenge.

During such transformation, it is helpful to read the UN as a key actor of (inter-state) order maintenance. One of its most important mechanisms in this regard is simply retaining the space needed to negotiate international politics. As Bali and Rana have asserted, in contrast to military intervention by NATO states or Russia, only UN involvement retains the ability to make space for local and external parties to negotiate a political settlement.[12] Notwithstanding criticism of its Syria operations, Arafat Jamal has similarly argued that in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war, the UNHCR created space for international humanitarianism to take root in the region for the first time.[13]

For his part, Richard Falk sees the UN not as automatically conveying legitimacy but rather as a site of a legitimacy struggle. He uses a critical constructivist approach to legitimacy that balances two understandings: the first is a “hegemonic legitimacy” that coincides with great power action in a multilateral context; and the second is related to the “politics of resistance” which the militarily weaker side utilizes to persevere in its struggle despite the odds.[14] For Palestinians, the refugee agency UNRWA has long served as a site that embodies their right of return. As such, in the face of relentless US attacks during the Trump presidency, UNRWA’s very survival against the odds has preserved the collective resistance against US attempts to impose a new form of hegemonic legitimacy that negates Palestine refugee rights. In Syria, the Syrian state has over the past several years placed great emphasis on retaining its international legitimacy (with Russian backing) within UN fora. By accepting the relevant UN Security council resolutions and acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, for instance, it forced the international community’s de facto legitimizing its institutions and authority during and after the chemical weapons disarmament process.

Overall, the uncertain and ambivalent role of the UN during the Arab uprisings reflects a world order in transition. It is caught between maintaining an old order that it is familiar with—mediating, working with sovereign states to find political solutions, creating space for humanitarians to work, and assisting the liberalizing process—and an emerging order in which the US moment is in decline, a more “multiplex” order is emerging, and non-state players increasingly challenge the notion of sovereignty. During such turbulence, the default of the UN machinery is to work towards maintaining order and stability rather than to promote genuine transformation. Such a view makes it easier to understand—if not accept—why Lynn Pascoe’s remarks about the UN siding with the “people” during the uprisings was merely aspirational.


[1] United Nations Peacekeeping (2011), “The Arab Awakening and the UN Political response: An Interview with B. Lynn Pascoe” in United Nations Peace Operations Review 2011, p.12.

[2] Toby Dodge (2013), ‘Intervention and Dreams of Exogenous State-building: The Application of Liberal Peacebuilding in Afghanistan and Iraq,’ Review of International Studies (2013), 39, p. 1195.

[3] Karim Makdisi (2017), “Intervention and the Arab Uprisings: From Transformation to Maintenance of Regional Order,” in eds. Rasmus Boserup et al, New Conflict Dynamics: Between Regional Autonomy and Intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, Danish Institute for International Studies, pp. 93-107.

[4] Jeff Bachman (2017), “Libya: a UN Resolution and NATO failure to protect,” in Makdisi and Prashad (eds.), Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations in the Arab World, Los Angeles, University of California Press, p.226.

[5] Reinoud Leenders (2016), “UN $4 billion aid in Syria is morally bankrupt,” The Guardian (29 August, 2016),f

[6] Al-Jazeera (2016), “Syria’s war: Aid agencies suspend cooperation with UN,” (9 September, 2016),

[7] Tom Miles, “As refugee crisis grows, UN agency faces questions,” Reuters (16 September, 2015),

[8] Makdisi, Karim and Vijay Prashad (2017), Land of Blue Helmets: The United Nations in the Arab World, Los Angeles, University of California Press.

[9] Robert Cox (1992), “Multilateralism and World Order,” Review of International Studies, Volume 18, p.177.

[10] Ibid., p.163.

[11] Waleed Hazbun (2017), “Beyond the American Era in the Middle East: An Evolving Landscape of Turbulence,” in New Conflict Dynamics, op.cit, pp. 31-42.

[12] Bali, Asla and Aziz Rana (2017), “The Wrong Kind of Intervention in Syria,” in Land of Blue Helmets, op.cit., pp. 115-140.

[13] Arafat Jamal (2017), “The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Iraq Refugee Operation: Resettling Refugees, Shifting the Middle East Humanitarian Landscape,” in Land of Blue Helmets, op.cit., pp.335-358.

[14] Falk, Richard (2005), “Legality and Legitimacy: The Quest for Principled Flexibility and Restraint,” Review of International Studies: 31, pp. 33-50.