Why Is The UN In The United States? We Explain

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The United Nations is the arguably the most important international organisation in the world. Tasked with working towards global peace and security through improving how nations work together, almost every country in the world in a member of the UN. The United Nations works around the world on a huge range of issues. But wait, if the UN is a truly global organisation with over 190 member states, then why is its headquarters located in… America?

The United Nations is located in the United States because America signed a treaty with the UN in 1948. The founding members of the UN all agreed for America to host the organisation’s headquarters.

…but that’s just an overview, in order to fully understand why the United Nations is based in the US, we need to go into some more detail.

Reasons Why The UN Headquarters Is In America

Although the main reason for why the UN is based in America is because of the treaty the US signed when the United Nations was founded, there are actually many reasons for why the UN’s founding members all agreed on the organisations headquarters being in the United States. These include:

  • To prevent a return to American isolationism
  • Europe was devasted by World War Two
  • Switzerland was ruled out as a location for the un
  • It couldn’t be located in a former fascist country
  • The UN couldn’t be based in a communist country

Let’s go over each of these…

To Prevent A Return To American Isolationism

Following World War One, America entered a period of isolationism. This meant that the US predominantly focused on domestic issues and limited its engagement with foreign affairs. The retreat of the US from world stage was seen as one of the major reasons why Fascist Germany, Italy and Japan could rise unchecked and ultimately cause World War Two.

After the Second World War, there was a fear that America would again become isolationist. Placing the UN headquarters – the centre of international diplomacy, within the United States, was seen as a way to ensure America’s attention was at least partly focused on global affairs.

The fear of American isolationism was especially strong in Europe, who saw its consequence in the run-up and the early years of the World War Two. This meant the European founding members of the United Nations were strongly in favour of putting the organisations HQ in the US. However, the American government at the time was also fearful that future administrations may be more isolationist, and so were also keen for the UN to be based in America.

One factor that was seen as key to preventing America returning to isolationism was the public opinion across the US. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the American public was unwilling for the nation to get heavily involved in external affairs. It was thought that basing the UN within the United States would increase the American publics understanding and connection to the organisation, and in-turn potentially decrease the American public’s potential desire to return to isolationism.

Europe Was Devasted By The War

Europe was devasted after World War Two. Although many European nations initially pushed for the UN to be based in Europe, establishing the United Nations on the continent amidst widespread war damage and extensive reconstruction was not seen as feasible. Therefore, the US, undamaged in the war, was a seen a good option.

Switzerland Was Ruled Out As A Location For The UN

One option that could have been proposed as a location for the United Nations was Switzerland. As a nation with a long history of neutrality, Switzerland has hosted many international organisations. However, Geneva, in Switzerland, was the location of the UN’s predecessor organisation the League of Nations. Following World War Two the League of Nations was seen as a failure as it prevented the world returning to a major conflict. Therefore, the associations with the League of Nations meant Switzerland was not decided upon.

The UN did later open an office in Geneva, occupying the former buildings of the League of Nations. However, this was not to be the headquarters of the UN, but a regional office for the organisation.

It Couldn’t Be Located In A Former Fascist Country

Another factor that had to be considered when deciding a location for United Nations was that it was not seen as appropriate to base the organisation on territory of the Fascist states that had caused World War Two. It was also seen as inappropriate to put the UN HQ in countries allied to them. This meant Germany, Italy and Japan were not options, nor were Austria, Hungry, Romania or Thailand. As a result, America was again seen as a good location for the UN.

The UN Couldn’t Be Based In A Communist Country

The Soviet Union was a founding member of the United Nations. Although there were some in the USSR who would have liked the UN to be located in the Soviet Union, or another communist country, it was clear that Europe and America, as well as other founding members, would not have supported this. In fact, the Soviets became strong supporters of basing the UN in America. This may have been because they thought locating the organisation in Europe would limit their plans for expansion there and hosting it on Soviet territory would mean more international diplomats being based there.

United Nations Online Courses

If you want to learn more about the United Nations, and the organisations history, we highly recommend the online course Global Diplomacy: The United Nations in the World offered by SOAS in London. We think it provides one of the best overviews of the UN and its role in the current global order. SOAS is also one of the top universities in the world for international relations and courses related to the UN. Click the link for more information.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) underpin all of the UN’s work. In order to fully understand the United Nations, you need a basic understanding of the SDG. We think the online short course The Sustainable Development Goals – A Global, Transdisciplinary Vision For The Future offered by the University of Copenhagen is one of the best introductions to the SDG. Follow the link to the course’s page.

The University of Leiden in the Netherlands offers an online short course on The Changing Global Order. It includes a specific look at how shifting international power dynamics are affecting the current global system and the United Nations. For those wanting to understand the UN, this online course is a must. We’ve linked to the course’s page.

Why Is The United Nations In New York City?

Now we’ve established why the UN is based in the United States, there is another important question we need to look at… why is the United Nations in New York? Many other American cities, including Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, or LA could have become hosts of the UN, so why was New York chosen?

The United Nations is in New York because it leases land from the city of New York for its headquarters. New York was chosen as the site for the UN because it is a major global city, located on America’s East coast – so closer to Europe and the Soviet Union, and importantly, it’s not America’s capital city.

Several American cities expressed interest in being the site of the United Nations. San Francisco was seen as a strong contender, as it hosted the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization, in which the United Nations Charter was signed, and the organisation was officially established. However, the city’s location on the west coast of America, far from other nations, was seen as a key reason why it couldn’t be the location of the UN.

Other American cities that were considered as options for the location of the UN included Philadelphia and Detroit.

One reason why New York was finally set-upon as the location for the United Nations was because John D. Rockefeller donated a portion of land on the west side of Manhattan for the construction of the UN’s headquarters. This gift was a key factor in why New York became the location of the UN.

Why Not All Of The UN Is Based In America

When discussing why the United Nations is located in the US, it’s important to note that not all of the organisation is based there.

Although the UN headquarters in located in America, including the General Assembly and Security Council, in fact most of the UN is located outside of the United States.

The United Nations has 15 specialised agencies, and another 15 funds and programmes. There are also seven ‘related organisations’ that are part of the UN. All these bodies implement much of the UN’s humanitarian and development work, as well as coordinate key international functions including civil aviation, global maritime services, and international communications. Out of the 37 UN agencies and funds, only six are based in America.

Major UN agencies, including the World Food Programme, World Health Organization, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, are all based in other countries and not in the United States. In fact, the majority of UN staff are based in offices around the world, and not in the US.

There are many reasons why different United Nations agencies are located where they are. Sometimes it is to be near to where their operations are needed, or because a country has a historical tie to the UN agencies work. Nations often agree to host UN agencies as a way to increase their international prestige.

A key reason why many UN agencies are not located in the US is because the UN HQ, General Assembly and Security Council are based in America. Spreading the UN and its agencies around the world, rather than locating them all in the US, is seen as a way to ensure the UN is a truly global organisation.

If you want to learn more about the United Nations, and why it is based in the United States, explore our list of the top UN online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.