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The United Nations & Its Discontents

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar; drawing by David Levine


At a surprisingly early stage in the Second World War, in a move that displayed a striking confidence in the outcome, Britain, the United States, and their allies embarked on “postwar planning.” The objective was nothing less than to formulate a vision of the postwar world and to provide blueprints to realize it. Thus, in the last months of the war and the first months of peace, it was possible to set up a comprehensive system of international organizations—the International Bank and the International Monetary Fund, a network of other specialized agencies including some revived from the prewar period, the International Court of Justice, and, at the center of the system, the United Nations itself. As an immediate move to put the world on its feet again, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration moved into the shattered nations of the world with emergency assistance.

For a short time between the end of the war and the onset of the cold war, it seemed as if the world’s governments might have learned the terrible lessons of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945. For a few months in 1945 a new world based on peace, law, and reason seemed possible. That prospect soon vanished.

During a war even the greatest optimist learns that the best plans seldom work out as intended, and this turned out to be the case with the UN. The very phrase “United Nations” came from the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and referred to countries united in war, not in peace. It was widely assumed that the victorious great powers—the five permanent members of the Security Council—would stay together to maintain international peace, which was the primary purpose of the new world organization. A French veteran of the League of Nations, Joseph Paul Boncour, prophetically told the closing session of the League of Nations in 1946, “The strength and weakness—I repeat the strength and weakness—of the new institution is that it depends on agreement between the five permanent Great Powers.”

For its first forty years this was indeed the weakness of the United Nations. Instead of the Olympian concept of collective security supervised by a benevolent concert of great powers, the political life of the United Nations became a continuous effort to improvise ways to sidestep the mutual hostility of East and West and to find substitutes for the unanimity that was to have been the main driving force of the new world organization. The political role of the secretary-general was increased, and various techniques of peace making and peace keeping were devised. These improvisations did not provide the comprehensive system of peace, security, and disarmament envisaged in the Charter, but they served to defuse, or in some cases to bring an end to, a number of dangerous international crises in Cyprus, the Congo, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere. But they were safety nets, not a system.

The bleak international climate of its first forty years stunted the development of the United Nations in other ways as well. The Security Council veto imposed enormous limitations on the choice of the secretary-general, its chief officer. Thus in 1946, instead of one of the several renowned figures who had been mentioned in the press, Trygve Lie, a relatively obscure Norwegian politician of little-known character or ability, was the only candidate the Security Council could agree on.

The adverse political climate also hampered the development of the UN Secretariat, the international civil service, which was not immune to the effects of the cold war. The Soviet Union made no secret of its contempt for the concept of an impartial international civil service and imposed its own appointees for the Soviet quota without any pretense about whom they were actually working for. The United States during the witch-hunting years of Senator McCarthy and Senator McCarran also imposed on its many nationals in the secretariat a loyalty-screening procedure that caused great hardship for a number of American secretariat members, as well as much distress among their colleagues. The attitudes of the Soviet Union and the United States not only did much to erode, in different ways, the charter’s concept of an independent and impartial civil service, but also gravely hampered the early development of the secretariat.

In 1945 it was generally believed that decolonizing the great European empires would take sixty or seventy years at least. But once decolonization started—with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947—it sharply accelerated, and the process was virtually complete by the mid-1970s; the number of member states rose from 50 in 1945 to 159 today. The effects of this geopolitical revolution on the United Nations were far-reaching. The new group of countries—variously called nonaligned or “Third World”—constituted, by 1970, an active, and often anti-Western, majority of more than one hundred states in the General Assembly, which had originally been regarded as a Western bastion against the Soviet Union and its crippling veto in the Security Council. The agenda of the UN became broader and its decisions less predictable. Considerable impatience and disillusion with the organization began to pervade the capitals of the West.

While Article 101 of the UN charter specifies that the paramount consideration for the employment of the staff shall be the “necessity of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity,” it adds that “due regard shall be paid to the importance of recruiting staff on as wide a geographical basis as possible.” These divergent criteria imposed an immensely difficult burden on successive secretaries-general, particularly at a time when many new states were rightfully demanding representation in the secretariat.

From the beginning it had proved difficult to attract people of the right caliber for senior posts in the secretariat. This was true of virtually all countries. Cold war pressures and the legitimate strivings of new countries for representation in the secretariat further impeded the orderly development of the international civil service. Successive secretaries-general, increasingly preoccupied with political crises, did not adequately resist these pressures, nor did most governments refrain from applying them. As a result the international civil service was perennially in need of reform and revitalization.

Even Dag Hammarskjöld was daunted by this problem, saying in 1953:

Sometimes, when I look ahead, the problems raised by our need to develop a truly international and independent Secretariat seem to me beyond human capacity. But I know that this is not so…. We are in the fortunate position of pioneers….

As set up in 1945, the UN system consists of a central political organization and a galaxy of autonomous specialized agencies (FAO, WHO, UNESCO, etc.) and programs (UNICEF, High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations Development Program, United Nations Population Fund, etc.). The specialized agencies are independent, having their own budgets; but they are supposed to cooperate with the UN and with one another, while the secretary-general and the Economic and Social Council are theoretically responsible for coordinating their activities. Every secretary-general has found that this diffuse and competitive system is virtually impossible to coordinate, and extremely difficult to bring together to deal with emergencies or to focus on larger global problems. The uneven quality of its leadership and performance adds to the problem.

While the obstacles to the achievement of the great postwar vision of 1945 have been formidable, it would be a mistake to conclude that the first forty-five years of the United Nations have been barren. On the contrary, its accomplishments during this extraordinarily difficult period were considerable. Much was then planted that is now coming to fruition in the more benevolent international climate of the last two years.

Lacking the political basis for a reliable system of collective security, the Security Council and the secretary-general have had to create new techniques of peace making and peace keeping, which are now proving to be extremely useful in a variety of different situations, for example in Namibia, the Gulf, Central America, and perhaps in Cambodia. The UN served as the catalyst for the revolution of decolonization, allowing it to take place with remarkably little violence or bloodshed, and establishing a new basis for relations between the old colonial powers, the industrialized world, and the newly independent states. It has a longstanding, world-wide program of aid to developing countries. The organization has also made serious efforts to muster a response to the new generation of global problems—environment, food, population, water, etc.—now dominating the waning years of the twentieth century. It has worked to develop new international law, including the negotiation of the Law of the Sea Treaty which establishes a legal regime for all oceans and seas of the world and has been signed by 159 nations and ratified by 42.

With the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and much successive international legislation, human rights have been given international importance which, for all their continuing violations, governments have found increasingly hard to ignore. Although the human rights machinery at the UN has been, often rightly, criticized for its inactivity or its selectiveness, there are indications that it is now becoming more lively and responsive. Here again the new political climate is an important factor.

That the organization needs to be reformed, strengthened, and modernized should by now be obvious. After the tumultuous changes of the past forty-five years, the world of 1990 bears little resemblance to that of 1945. Now that East and West are becoming reconciled, the differences between North and South—developed and developing nations—seem a more likely source of future difficulties. In 1945 the main common objective of nations was to avoid a third world war, to establish a collective system of peace and security, and to achieve an agreement on general disarmament. After forty frustrating and violent years it now looks as if this objective may conceivably be realized, while other problems have become dominant, challenging many of the assumptions on which the original UN system was based.

One such assumption is the primacy of governments in human affairs. The UN is an organization of sovereign governments, and its policies and actions are to a large extent determined by those governments. In 1945 this seemed logical, since it was widely believed that governments controlled, or could control if they cooperated with one another, the major developments that would shape the future of the human race. We all know that this is no longer true, if it ever was. Science and technology, including the incalculable effects of the communications revolution, migrations from poor to rich countries, the electronic flow of money across borders for investment and speculation, population increase, the impact of new ideas or of religious movements, environmental damage, drugs, AIDS, terrorism—clearly governments are not in control of such forces.

An international system based solely on relations between governments is obviously no longer adequate. In years to come, nongovernmental organizations, international corporations and unions, and various other representatives of the private sector will have to take part if the United Nations is to deal with such interlinked problems as poverty, the environment, and technological developments. Commensurate changes in the leadership and management of the organizations that make up the international system will also be required, although a plan for bringing about such a transformation has yet to be proposed.

Another assumption in 1945 was that the various forms of human activity could be compartmentalized in special agencies and, above all, should be kept separate from the corrosive politics of the central body, the United Nations itself. Each specialized agency was to be the projection on the international scene of the corresponding ministry in the governments of the member states. Each agency would be financially and institutionally independent, going about its specialized business without paying too much attention to the other agencies, or to the central body, the UN itself. A kind of feudal system of agencies and programs was thus created, paying lip service, but little else, to the UN’s central organization.

By the early 1950s the magnitude and complexity of the needs of the developing world for economic and technical aid already put the wisdom of this assumption in doubt. The difficulty of coordinating responses to great emergencies—famine and chaos in Bangladesh, drought in Africa, or the plight of people in Cambodia—also displayed the weakness of the system. Such doubts became stronger when the international community began to consider the challenge of so-called global problems in the 1970s.

The present UN “system” cannot respond readily to the great emergencies—war, famines, floods, earth-quakes, or other disasters—that require humanitarian aid; nor can it yet effectively organize international and national responses to the vast complex of interconnected social and economic problems we now face—the polluted environment, poverty and migration, or drugs, for example. This is not so much an indictment of the system devised in 1945 as a recognition of the vast changes that have taken place since. To bring the international system up to date will demand a major effort of imagination and reorganization. The problem is to convert an intergovernmental system, in which national sovereignty and interests are paramount, to an international system in which an increasing number of activities beyond the control of individual governments can be carried out by international, or even supranational institutions. The particular interests involved and the extreme sensitivity of governments in matters touching on their sovereignty will inevitably make this evolution laborious and frustrating.


It is ironic that the United Nations appears to be regaining its credibility with governments, as well as some degree of public acceptance, at precisely the time when it is clearly in need of radical change. This new acceptance, however, is by no means unanimous. To the usual critics of multilateralism and internationalism have lately been added several journalists in search of a subject, some neoconservative think tanks, and at least one novelist.

Of these critics, the most impassioned is the novelist Shirley Hazzard, a former UN employee who, in a forthcoming book, Countenance of Truth, subtitled The United Nations and the Waldheim Case, stokes the ashes of her earlier polemic, Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-Destruction of the United Nations (1973). Most of the new book has appeared under the title “Breaking Faith” in The New Yorker, which—quaintly, for a responsible journal—refuses to print critical comments or corrections, even in the case of highly questionable and controversial articles such as these.1

For someone who has selected as a title “Countenance of Truth,” Hazzard seems remarkably careless with facts. She writes with a rage and a self-righteousness that efface both historical accuracy and any sense of proportion, not to mention irony or humor. Stated with less anger and fewer distortions, some of Hazzard’s points and criticisms could have been useful in stimulating a very necessary public debate about international organization. But her objective is apparently to bring about the

dissolution of the existing United Nations, and reembodiment of its original precepts in a new and radically different organism.

This, too, would be an interesting idea to pursue, provided it could be demonstrated that it might have some chance of being realized and might produce better results than the existing institution. Hazzard, however, makes no attempt to pursue the idea or to make specific suggestions for a new institution. Instead she persists in a relentless denunciation of the present one.

Her first large claim is that, during the McCarthy period, the United States government, with the connivance of Secretary-General Trygve Lie, largely destroyed the concept of the independence of the international civil service. (She hardly mentions the Soviet Union.) Hazzard treats the episode as a craven surrender by Lie and his colleagues to the forces of evil represented by the government and Congress of the United States, who demanded the right to screen Americans in the secretariat for “loyalty” and to have those found wanting dismissed. In discussing these matters she shows little understanding of the extraordinary atmosphere of panic and the other pressures created in the United States by McCarthyism. Nor does she take account of the overwhelming influence and importance of the United States to the United Nations at that time. For the UN Secretariat, this was a miserable period in which many people (including two of my closest American friends) suffered humiliations and, in some cases, unjust dismissal. Many of us at the time, and later,2 were critical of Trygve Lie for not doing more to defend Americans at the UN from their government’s inquisition.3 As far as I remember, no member state except the Soviet Union, and very few informed observers, believed that it would be a good idea for Lie simply to defy the United States without regard for the consequences, which could well have been the withdrawal of all American support. Certainly the UN’s response to McCarthyism is worth the attention of independent and serious scholars, but it does not need a polemicist.

Hazzard unaccountably attributes Lie’s resignation entirely to his being “unnerved by the public illumination of his covert policies, yet ever more acquiescent to McCarthyist demands.” In another place she also refers to Lie’s “forced resignation.” There is in fact no evidence that Lie’s resignation was anything but his own idea, and he kept it entirely to himself until he announced it. According to Lie himself and most other knowledgeable sources, the Soviet boycott of Lie over his position opposing the North Korean invasion of South Korea was the decisive reason for his resignation. One gets little sense of this from Countenance of Truth.

Hazzard maintains that intelligent life at the UN vanished after Dag Hammarskjöld, for whom she seems to have a patronizing, heavily qualified admiration. For her to substantiate this position, she must dismiss or discredit the officials who succeeded him, beginning with the third secretary-general, U Thant; her treatment of him is a good example of the historical sleight-of-hand that pervades the book.

As a Buddhist and an Asian, U Thant was sickened by the Vietnam War and made prolonged efforts with all the parties to the conflict to stop it. Hazzard gives him no credit for these efforts, but merely mentions his “undisclosed” attempts to end the Vietnam War (they were in fact disclosed at the time by Eric Sevareid and are described in detail in U Thant’s memoirs) and his “publicly unvoiced” aversion to the war, although his concern about it was strongly expressed in many public speeches and statements.

For example, in a press conference on February 24, 1965, he said,

I am sure that the great American people, if only they knew the true facts and background to the developments in South Vietnam, will agree with me that further bloodshed is unnecessary…. As you know, in times of war and of hostilities, the first casualty is truth.4

U Thant also had a vital part in resolving the Cuban missile crisis. He spoke out in the Security Council about its great danger; he made proposals to Kennedy and Khrushchev for mutual withdrawal, which became an important part of the solution. He visited Cuba to talk to Castro and to assess the situation on the ground and Castro’s reactions to the proposals to withdraw the missiles. All this Hazzard simply ignores, referring instead only to the “ritualistic role assigned to the world body.” She says nothing whatever about U Thant’s efforts.

One of the recent books about the missile crisis, On the Brink, is the record of a conference, held in 1987, of American and Soviet experts on the crisis, in which both sides gave considerable credit to U Thant.5 At the conference Dean Rusk disclosed a contingency plan to ask U Thant to make a face-saving proposal for removing both the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey and the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Sergo Mikoyan, editor of Latinskaya amerika and son of Anastas I. Mikoyan, Soviet first deputy premier during the Cuban missile crisis, described U Thant’s influence on Castro:

He came to Havana and spoke with Castro. He persuaded Fidel that the agreement would be met. Fidel liked him and believed him, though he did not believe you [the United States]. He thought that U Thant had good intentions.

An American commentator observes:

It should also be remembered in this regard that UN Acting Secretary General U Thant played a crucial role here by providing Khrushchev with a face-saving way of justifying his order to halt his ships short of the quarantine line. He did so by proposing on October 24 that the United States suspend the quarantine and the Soviets suspend arms shipments for a period of two to three weeks in order to facilitate negotiations.6

The British diplomat Sir Anthony Parsons recently wrote,

Looking back, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was probably U Thant’s finest hour. Krushchev was out on a limb…. He had to climb down but…could not do so unilaterally in the face of American pressure. This was where the UN came in, fulfilling its valuable role of a ladder down which great powers can climb without loss of face, their national policies having projected them into untenable positions.7

U Thant may have been an indifferent administrator, but the Cuban missile crisis was the nearest we have got to nuclear disaster, and he had a part in avoiding it. Hazzard’s ignoring, or ignorance, of this fact reveals a mind strangely closed to the positive side of the UN record.

In the same vein, Hazzard speaks, in passing, of the secretariat’s “unresponsiveness” to the 1965 India-Pakistan War. I was particularly interested to read this, because during that war I myself accompanied U Thant to the subcontinent to negotiate a cease-fire, which was eventually accepted by both sides in the Security Council and which was monitored by a new United Nations peace-keeping operation that we set up for this purpose.

The secretariat was, according to Hazzard, equally “unresponsive” to the emergency in Bangladesh in which, in historical fact, the United Nations, originally on the initiative of the secretary-general and his staff, was continuously involved. Her mention of the Bangladesh episode is a perfect example of her technique of distortion. In quoting from my foreword to The United Nations in Bangladesh,8 written by Thomas Oliver, she has chosen a book that very few people are likely to see, on a subject of which most people are ignorant. She quotes me as follows:

The operation was a happy combination of multilateral and bilateral effort concerted by the United Nations. It was also an example of the whole U.N. system working as a team and speaking with one voice.

Hazzard objects that this view is not borne out by Oliver’s book, although in his conclusion Oliver writes as follows:

The one-voice principle was effective and welcomed by governments…the operation was in the fullest sense a joint undertaking in which funds, equipment and expertise were pooled and moulded into an integrated effort.

And later:

The operation was efficient, economical, and vigorous. It was also an outstandingly successful exercize in cooperation….

Hazzard has apparently only read the first part of the book. She bases her argument on a “confidential” report by one Toni Hagen, a Swiss geologist and a former chief of the UN Mission during its early days from 1971 until April 1972. Hagen complains of “a total lack of organization at headquarters and the deaf ear of New York vis a vis people in the field.” Hazzard does not, however, mention Oliver’s description of the series of Hagen’s own misjudgments which led to his replacement. For example, Hagen vastly underestimated the tonnage of food grains urgently required to feed starving people; and in a particularly foolish public statement, which was virtually the equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, he prophesied that riots over food would take place.

Nor does she quote Oliver’s laconic assessment that Hagen

was given to rapid judgments. He sometimes reversed these, but tended to recall his own role as having been right.

Nor, of course, does she mention Oliver’s account of how (incidentally at my suggestion) a new team was sent to Bangladesh led by Sir Robert Jackson, one of the few people for whom she has, in another context, a good word. I described the results of this change in my book, A Life in Peace and War, as follows, “At long last in Bangladesh we switched from quixotic amateurism to large-scale professionalism.” It was this highly successful relief operation in extremely difficult conditions that I was referring to in the foreword to Oliver’s book, as Hazzard must have been aware unless she read only the early pages. Is this Truth’s Countenance?

The main argument of Countenance of Truth concerns the iniquities of Kurt Waldheim, of the governments that elected him, and of the staff that supported him during his ten years as secretary-general. On this subject, my own unforgivable practice of defending the United Nations is compounded, in Hazzard’s eyes, by the sin of occasionally putting in a good word for Waldheim. In A Life in Peace and War I described how I was dismayed by Waldheim’s election and, when I first met him, by his unappealing personality. I also wrote that I subsequently found that he had compensating qualities of stamina and application, and that it was possible to have a constructive working relationship with him. My work at the United Nations almost throughout my tenure, although Hazzard doesn’t mention it, had to do with peace making and peace keeping. During the 1970s, in a very bleak period, Waldheim was given much credit for some of his efforts in this field, and I think he deserved it.

In order to sustain her case against Waldheim, Hazzard has to ignore any of his actions that might have had beneficial results or commanded approval at the time. To cite only a few examples, Waldheim was responsible for streamlining and greatly improving the effectiveness of the huge relief operation in Bangladesh, and for setting up relief operations in sub-Saharan Africa, in Cambodia, and for the refugees in Thailand. He helped to restore peace in the Middle East by setting up two major peace-keeping efforts in 1973 and 1974 after the Yom Kippur War, and he organized and served as chairman at the 1973 Middle East Peace Conference. He reestablished and pursued negotiations between the two hostile communities in Cyprus after the 1974 war. He set up another major peace-keeping operation in Lebanon in 1978, after the first Israeli invasion, which threatened to disrupt the peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. He invoked his powers under the Charter to try to obtain the release of the American hostages in Iran and went to Tehran himself to negotiate on their behalf. He called on the Security Council to face up to the Iran-Iraq War at its outset, and he appointed Olof Palme of Sweden as his representative to negotiate between Iran and Iraq. He encouraged the negotiations for the independence of Namibia and appointed a special representative (the present secretary-general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar) to search for a solution to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Some of these initiatives had immediate results and some had effects that took years to emerge. But however much we may have condemned Waldheim since 1986, when his persistent lying about his war record was revealed, Hazzard disqualifies herself as a judge by giving a misleading account of his record as secretary-general.

To defend Waldheim, as I did when he was secretary-general, was even then not a popular task and was sometimes far from easy; but he had been lawfully appointed to the job and unanimously reappointed, and, had it not been for the Chinese who were insisting on a secretary-general from the third world, he would have been reappointed for a third term. In 1945 I had pledged myself to work as best I could for the United Nations. This included working for the current secretary-general, whoever he might be, supporting him, and trying to help him do an exceedingly difficult, demanding job.

That Waldheim was not the secretary-general I myself would have chosen was irrelevant. For better or for worse, he was the man the UN’s member governments had chosen, and anyone who wanted to help the United Nations to work had to make the best of it. The United Nations is primarily an organization of governments, most of which found Waldheim useful, tractable, and hard-working. This was precisely what they wanted, and why he lasted so long.

For all her dismissals of every secretary-general except Hammarskjöld, Hazzard does not pursue the important question why most powerful governments have not favored inspired, dynamic and independent secretaries-general, and how this tendency might be changed.

Hazzard, I should add, has a number of disobliging remarks to make about me, but characteristically she does not mention my main work at the United Nations, which was to mount and direct peace-keeping operations. There is no lack of independent observers to testify that we maintained both a peace-keeping staff at UN headquarters and operations in the field that gained the respect of all sides in violent conflicts and that were seen by governments and the public as a new, objective, and positive force in international relations. In the Middle East, Kashmir, Lebanon, the Congo, Cyprus, and elsewhere we tried to develop, and with some success, the idea of using soldiers as a catalyst for peace rather than as instruments of war. This was certainly not done by truckling to governments or ignoring questions of principle. Since this part of the UN’s history, whch was recognized in 1988 with the Nobel Peace Prize, does not fit Hazzard’s thesis, she simply ignores it.

Many of Hazzard’s judgments seem to proceed from a willful misconception of the political nature and problems of the United Nations. She admiringly quotes Solzhenitsyn’s statement that the United Nations “is not a United Nations Organization but a United Governments Organization.” Of course, there is much truth in this remark. Governments set up the United Nations; it is they who control UN decisions and actions by vote; they pay its budget; they select and appoint its top official. Their cooperation is essential to its success; their quarrels are the stuff of much of its business. On the other hand, the United Nations is forbidden by its charter to interfere in the internal affairs of its member states. That is the nature of the institution and the basic state from which it has to evolve.

For this reason the temptation to compare the UN unfavorably with a nongovernmental organization like Amnesty International is not illuminating. The UN, as an intergovernmental organization, can do many things Amnesty cannot do. And Amnesty International, as an independent nongovernmental organization, can do things the UN cannot do. The work of each should complement and strengthen the work of the other. This is not to deny that for many years the UN’s performance in human rights was timid, selective, and generally uninspired.

Hazzard castigates the “UN System” (which she never defines) for “offering itself as the mere creature of its member governments,” which, she says, accounts for its “arrested moral development, marked by the habitual emblems of immaturity.” Politically the situation is far more complicated than this simplistic imagery would suggest. At its best—in a great crisis, for example—the United Nations can prove, and has proved, to be more than the sum of its parts. On such occasions the secretary-general can play a vital part, as Dag Hammarskjöld did in the 1956 Suez crisis and in the Congo crisis in 1960, or as U Thant did over the Cuban missiles.

On the other hand, it is not possible to ignore the fact that governments are highly sensitive to any hint of supranational activity that would threaten their sovereignty. And if they withdraw their cooperation, the capacity for the UN to act can be destroyed.

Dag Hammarskjöld, and indeed all the secretaries-general, faced such constraint on their actions many times. And when Hammarskjöld mentioned in a speech “possibilities of action independent of the will and policies of member governments” and the possible existence at the UN “of an opinion independent of partisan interests and dominated by the objectives indicated in the UN Charter,” he had to explain, in a public statement a day or two later, that he was talking about “possibilities.” “That is not,” he said, “the same as to say that those possibilities should be used.”

Nonetheless an “opinion independent of partisan interests” is precisely what is required in peace-making or peace-keeping operations and in other fields as well. The secretary-general and his representatives must remain “independent of partisan interests” in their various arduous efforts to resolve differences and conflicts. That, after many years of struggle, governments are now willing to accept UN peace-keeping and negotiating missions, based on such independence—the recent missions in Namibia, the Gulf, and Central America, for example—is not mentioned in Countenance of Truth.

Shirley Hazzard writes of “the constitutional authority—embodied in the opening words of the Charter—of world citizenry over the very nature and direction of the United Nations.” But she fails to make it clear that the phrase. “We the peoples of the United Nations” appears only in the preamble of the Charter, while its 111 articles speak only of governments. Hazzard seems to think that the secretary-general and the secretariat should go over the heads of governments, in her words, “loosening the bonds of Secretariat servitude to governments in favor of a new involvement with responsible elements of the public.” Those “responsible elements,” like the “thoughtful citizens” who frequent Hazzard’s pages, are presumably people who agree with her on any given issue.

The idea of appealing over the heads of governments to constituencies (“responsible elements”) within their nations was anticipated in Article 2, paragraph 7 of the Charter, which specifically bars the United Nations from intervening in “matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” This article is frequently invoked by governments and constitutes no small obstacle to many actions which enlightened public opinion might wish the UN to take. Hazzard ignores this very real problem, as when she writes, for example,

More than twenty million persons have lived in the clutch of arbitrary rule, under threat of torture, detention, and death, uncomforted by any gesture from the vast organization whose sworn duty it is to speak in their defense.

These are, indeed, terrible situations and it is true that the UN has often failed to act to alleviate them. But Hazzard does not make it clear that far from its being the UN’s “sworn duty” to intervene in them, most of these situations are excluded from UN action because member governments invoke Article 2, paragraph 7. National sovereignty is a highly sensitive issue with all states without exception. Nations still go to war over it, as they did in the Falklands. Indignant moralizing is unlikely to change this situation. Arduous and persuasive work in developing the authority of the UN is more likely to produce results.

Certainly the UN should, and could, make better efforts to secure public support and to call attention to abuses of human rights, but its officials are obliged to recognize that it is basically an organization established by and composed of, governments. An abrupt effort to circumvent governments of the kind Hazzard proposes would be doomed from the start. What has to be done is to encourage the evolution of intergovernmental organization into a much more inclusive political institution better suited to the problems and conditions of the twenty-first century. Not only should private and nongovernmental institutions be included increasingly in the work of the UN, as I have noted, but the organization must continue to build a record of precedents, resembling case law, in all its activities, as it has done, for example, in peace-keeping. The overall objective is to transform the UN from an intergovernmental into an international organization, from an institutional arrangement into a constitutional mechanism capable of dealing with the vast complexities of the planet in the twenty-first century.

Shirley Hazzard and I disagree on fundamental issues. She left the UN Secretariat in 1961 and apparently wishes to sink the organization. I stayed on and tried to make it work better. She thinks the UN in its present form is useless. I believe that, for all its faults, it is the best existing foundation for a more peaceful world and that, in spite of everything, it has already accomplished much. She seems to think that the international civil service can and should function without reference to the concerns and conflicts of governments; I do not believe that this would be a productive approach. She believes that the UN should be abolished; I believe it should be reorganized and given a new structure.

Whichever is the better approach, these issues are not clarified by a book in which facts or examples that do not suit the author’s view are ruthlessly distorted or excluded and in which unsubstantiated judgments take the place of objective analysis. In The New York Times Book Review of November 14, 1982, in a piece entitled. “The Making of A Writer—We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think,” Shirley Hazzard wrote,

The testimony of the accurate word is perhaps the last great mystery to which we can make ourselves accessible, to which we can still subscribe.

There’s still time.


'The UN and Its Discontents': An Exchange April 26, 1990

Trygve Lie & the War May 17, 1990

  1. 1

    “Breaking Faith” appeared in The New Yorker of September 25 and October 2, 1989. Countenance of Truth will be published by Viking this spring. 

  2. 2

    Hazzard is an expert in selective quotation. For example, she quotes me with disapproval as writing in A Life in Peace and War, “Lie tried to defend his American staff by cooperating with the American authorities in investigations to clear those who were under suspicion.” To make sure the reader concludes that this is a fatuous defense of Lie she omits the next two sentences of the paragraph: 

  3. 3

    I was one of the secretariat members whom Hazzard mentions as calling—unsuccessfully—on Anthony Eden to defend the international civil service. 

  4. 4

    U Thant, View from the UN (Double-day, 1978), p. 67. 

  5. 5

    James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (Hill and Wang, 1989). 

  6. 6

    On the Brink, pp. 268 and 367. See also p. 9. 

  7. 7

    International Relations, November 1989, p. 557. 

  8. 8

    Princeton University Press, 1978.