Depending on the nature of the question and on the views of the majority, General Assembly debates may lead to one or a combination of the following: recommendations, phrased in varying degrees of urgency, to individual countries or to all countries; initiation of studies and reports; creation of new UN organs, committees of inquiry, and permanent special bodies that are assigned specific tasks; and adoption of international covenants, treaties, and agreements.
Since 1960, when the impact of the number of newly independent African and Asian nations first began to make itself felt in the UN, the General Assembly's voting patterns have undergone a marked alteration. Until then, the majority of controversial resolutions had tended essentially to reflect a simple East-West division of opinion. In the resulting lineup of votes, the Western view, marshaled under the leadership of the United States, easily attained comfortable majorities on most issues, since it was supported not only by the countries of Western Europe but by the Latin American states as well. The formation of what has come to be known as the "Afro-Asian group," coupled with the general detente in East-West relations, introduced a new element into the voting equation.
Interested in wielding influence within the world body and preoccupied with the problems of development and decolonization rather than with cold war issues as such, African and Asian countries sought to unite themselves into an independent or "nonaligned" voting bloc. On occasion, the unity of the group is split by divided interests. This division occurs most frequently in major political issues of special importance to the big powers, when some small countries may find it expedient to associate themselves with the big power on which they are dependent for financial aid. At other times, notably on items connected with economic development, African and Asian nations may join the developing countries of the Latin American group in order to create a formidable voting bloc that can force through requests to which the highly developed nations, from East and West alike, may be reluctant to accede.
Then again, the emergence of what is in effect a floating third voting force in the General Assembly has resulted in the creation of special alliances as occasion demands. For example, the former Soviet bloc and the nonaligned groups often combined to defeat or harry the West on colonial issues. This development also opened up possibilities for striking voting bargains on individual draft resolutions. Accordingly, one group might support an initiative taken by a second group in exchange for the latter's support on a different item.
The indiscriminate wielding of voting strength by small nations is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Indeed, many small nations have shown indications of growing restraint, realizing that there is little point in pushing through resolutions requiring, for example, increased expenditure on economic development if the big powers, which make the largest financial contributions, are not prepared to implement them. Similarly, these nations have recognized that there is little to be gained from trying to compel the big powers to go beyond their own pace in agreeing upon measures for disarmament or for resolving their differences on peacekeeping issues.
One important outcome of the growing recognition by the small nations of the practical limitations of their voting strength, coupled with the realization by the Western powers that they no longer can be certain of majority support, even on items of particular importance to them, has been a general recourse wherever possible to compromise resolutions that command unanimous or nearly unanimous support. However, notwithstanding this partial solution to the problems created by the emergence of a floating third voting force in the General Assembly, the big powers, especially those from the West, have become increasingly dissatisfied with this situation, and some of their leaders have come to question the principle of "one country, one vote."
While the decisions of the General Assembly have no legally binding force for governments, they carry the weight of world opinion on major international issues, as well as the moral authority of the world community. Even so, the fact that a resolution receives an overwhelming majority vote does not guarantee its effectiveness. Nor does the fact that a resolution was adopted by a slender margin necessarily mean that it will serve no purpose. In general, it may be said that a resolution will be effective insofar as its adoption is not regarded by any country as inimical to its national interests. The most effective resolutions, then, are those that concern matters on which all members are prepared to accept a degree of compromise (though this acceptance may not necessarily be reflected in the actual voting) and that establish goals all members are eager to achieve or to which they have no objection. Like the UN itself, resolutions can be only as effective as the membership wants them to be.