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Thirty years ago, in 1987, a group of scholars and UN practitioners came together at Dartmouth College for a conference whose purpose was to create a new organization to stimulate and support research and teaching on the role of the UN system in international relations.  There was a shared sense among a number of scholars at the time that activities at the United Nations University and throughout the UN system were not benefitting from research and teaching taking place in universities and research centers.  As Gene Lyons, one of ACUNS’ founders and its first Executive Director, noted in his history of the first decade, “Research on international peace and security and on social and economic development …seemed to have little impact on what was actually going on…and there appeared to be a continued decline in research on the UN itself and on the institutions of the UN system.”[i]  This disconnect was also not new, but had been noted in 1970 by Stanley Hoffman[ii] and in 1983 by Inis Claude.[iii]  To observers of international affairs, it was obvious that the UN was then largely irrelevant to major issues of international security and international political economy and it was caught up in the north-south conflict over the proposed NIEO and related issues. In the United States, this decline was matched by UN-bashing in foreign policy and action by the US Congress to withhold US dues.[iv]  The teaching of international organization especially in the US had declined and there were very few doctoral students writing dissertations about the UN system which had implications for the future of university teaching.

Details of the story of ACUNS’ founding can be found in the full text of Gene Lyons narrative “Putting ACUNS Together.”  Briefly, however, that story includes a number of key people besides Lyons himself, among them the distinguished sociologist and peace activist Elise Boulding who had been on the board of the UN University and the faculty of Dartmouth College; Benjamin Rivlin, director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; John Fobes, former Deputy Director-General of UNESCO; Oran Young, then at the Dickey Center at Dartmouth College; James P. Sewell of Brock University; the former Canadian diplomat John Holmes then on the faculty of the University of Toronto; and Victor Urquidi who had early UN experience in the secretariat of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and had been president of El Colegio de Mexico.

In many respects then, ACUNS was conceived and developed by academics who had had experience also as practitioners within the UN system.  The goal was not to advocate for the UN but to encourage the study of the UN system and the teaching of international organization more generally.  The goal was also more than just to create a new professional association.  As Lyons notes, “It was also to recognize that international organizations were taking on new operations and changing the structures of international relations” as well as new organizational issues and persistent longstanding ones that raised “theoretical and policy questions about international organization that needed to be researched and analyzed.”[v]  A range of issues, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; swelling numbers of displaced peoples; persistent poverty and suffering; gross violations of human rights; an increase in the number and intensity of civil conflicts; the expansion of international trade; and the growth and acceleration of international financial flows, demanded attention and analysis from scholars and practitioners alike.  Thus, Lyons concluded, “the ultimate aim is [sic] to encourage a new generation of scholars, teachers, and practitioners to give new and critical attention to the role of international organizations in world affairs.”[vi]

Several key organizational challenges faced those who founded the Council, including ensuring its financial stability; making it an international body; renewing ties with the UN; and drawing in the next generation of scholars and practitioners.  Many leading academics and practitioners have played significant roles in guiding the development of ACUNS.  Some have served as consultants and/or board members; still others have participated in the annual Workshops and conferences; and some have given the annual John W. Holmes lectures.

From that very first conference in 1987, ACUNS’ agenda included information and documentation services, research, and teaching.  A year after the founding conference, it convened the first Annual Meeting in New York at which the inaugural John W. Holmes Lecture was given—although unfortunately not by Holmes himself who was too ill to attend.  Also in 1988, Donald Puchala and Roger Coate produced the “State of the United Nations” report which became the first of a series of occasional papers and reports published by ACUNS. Four years later in 1991, the first ACUNS Workshop for junior scholars and practitioners jointly sponsored by the American Society for International Law and supported by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations was held at Dartmouth College.  In 1995, after the executive directorship of ACUNS had passed to Thomas Weiss and Brown University, the journal Global Governance was launched under the editorship of Craig Murphy and Roger Coate and just two years thereafter was named “The best new journal in the United States in Business, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities” by the Association of American Publishers.  In 1995, an annual Dissertation Fellowship was launched to recognizeemerging students of extraordinary potential who have reached the stage of writing an advanced graduate-level dissertation on a topic of direct and demonstrable relevance to the United Nations and/or the UN system .  From the beginning, the Ralph Bunche Center at CUNY functioned as an ACUNS-UN Liaison Office to assist scholars seeking to do research at the UN and to facilitate ACUNS’ own links to the UN.  Subsequently, Liaison Offices have been established in Vienna, Tokyo, Geneva, and New Delhi. ACUNS’ membership initially was largely limited to North America given the founding by Canadian, American, and Mexican scholars and practitioners.  Membership is now truly global with members from over 55 countries and that fact is underscored by the very first annual conference held in Asia in 2017, following conferences in Latin America, Europe, and Turkey and the 2016 workshop held in India.

Over the years, a number of specific projects and activities have helped ACUNS to continue pursuing its ongoing goals, including:

  • The annual Workshop on International Organization Studies, bringing young practitioners into conversation with young academics on key aspects of international organization continue to be a very successful program drawing together some 20 young participants each year, linking them together in a valuable professional and personal, shared experience.
  • The peer-reviewed journal, Global Governance, is in its 23rd volume and continues its tradition of excellent scholarship aimed at an audience of both scholars and practitioners.
  • Research projects and publications, and a widely-disseminated E-Update featuring special podcast series covering Current Issues, Professional Development, and a Book Talk series.
  • A book series with Edward Elgar Publishers: The ACUNS Series on the UN System.
  • Annual Meetings which draw approximately 300 scholars and practitioners each June for plenary and workshop panels on a wide range of topics.
  • The annual John Holmes Memorial Lecture, delivered during the ACUNS Annual Meeting and subsequently published in Global Governance, showcases a leading thinker at the intersection of international law and international organization.
  • The Secretariat provides ongoing leadership and administrative support for all ACUNS activities and projects. Located first at Dartmouth College, it moved to Brown University where Thomas Weiss served as Executive Director from 1992-1998, then to Yale University in 1999 where Jean Krasno, and then to the Centre for International Governance Innovation at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in 2003 where Alistair Edgar and Patricia Goff have served as successive Executive Directors.

The fundamental disconnect between the nature of a growing number of global problems and the current inadequate structures for international problem-solving makes the United Nations, warts and all, the closest approximation that we have to a central institutional presence on the global stage. Now with members in over 55 countries, ACUNS continues to be an intellectually vibrant association of scholars and practitioners engaged in research and writing, teaching, and policy practice related to the United Nations, the UN system, and international organization more broadly.

[i] Gene M. Lyons, “Putting ACUNS Together.”  ACUNS Reports & Papers 1999, No. 2, pp. 1-2.

[ii] Stanley Hoffman, “International Organization and the International System,” International Organization 24:3 (1970), p. 389.

[iii] Inis L. Claude, Jr., Swords into Plowshares 4th ed. (New York:  Random House), p. vii.

[iv] Ref Kassebaum amendment and also Karns/Mingst chapter

[v] Lyons, pp. 18-19.

[vi] Ibid., p. 19.