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The United Nations & Its Discontents


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.

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