These two books make melancholy reading. They appear at a moment when their object, the United Nations, is paralyzed by a crisis which threatens its very existence as an operating international organization; yet they are full of pride over past achievements and of hope for the future. Reading them with that crisis in mind, one feels somewhat like an onlooker at a birthday party, with everybody shouting “many happy returns,” while the object of the celebration lingers between life and death. One cannot help asking oneself, will this birthday party end up as a wake?

Mr. Gardner’s book is by far the better of the two. It is a good book by any standard. Its high intellectual and literary quality is the more remarkable since it was written by a deputy Assistant Secretary of State while in office. Books by public officials tend to be bland, apologetic, orthodox, and, hence, unenlightening, and to show the leveling hand of the ghost writer. Mr. Gardner’s book has none of these weaknesses. It is analytical, objective, and searching as far as it goes. Both the professional and the layman can learn a great deal from it. Mr. Gardner does make one concession to his official position: he quotes abundantly from speeches by Messrs. Rusk and Cleveland, his superiors in the State Department; but it may well be that he is quoting himself, since he could easily be the author of some of these speeches.

Mr. Gardner’s support of the United Nations derives from the conviction that an international organization serves the interests of the United States, as of all other nations, in view of the objective conditions of the contemporary world. “It is one of the great paradoxes of our time,” he says, “and undoubtedly a major source of public frustration, that the most powerful nation in the world is less able to employ its power alone, in pursuit of national ends, than at any previous point in history.” Thus the United States must cooperate with other nations in order to serve its national interests. Hence, the need for international organization as “a new arm of diplomacy.” Mr. Gardner is justifiably tired of the sterile debate between the emotional proponents and opponents of international organization.

What we really need is to accept the fact that international organizations are here to stay and to turn to the much more difficult question of how we can use them better to promote our national interest. We need to discuss the U.N. and other international organizations in operational rather than in symbolic terms. We need to consider in professional detail just what these agencies do and how they could do it better.

This is what Mr. Gardner does by analyzing the interests and policies of the United States and the Soviet Union with regard to the United Nations, by assessing, and perhaps somewhat overrating, the role the United Nations has played in the Cuba and Congo crises, by discussing extensively the contributions international organization has made, and can make, to the general welfare of humanity in the fields of economic development, world trade, monetary policy, the population explosion, outer space, and human rights.

The other book under discussion is less satisfactory. It contains the Dag Hammarskjold memorial lectures, twenty-four in all, given by prominent people in prominent places throughout the world on a great variety of subjects, with a Foreword by the President of Columbia University and an Introduction by the Dean of the School of International Affairs of Columbia University. It is of course inevitable that such a collection of lectures, having as a common theme only the praise of Mr. Hammarskjold, varies widely in approach and quality. These lectures range all the way from a profound and illuminating account of the United Nations operation in the Congo by Ralph Bunche and Adlai Stevenson’s imaginative essay “From Containment to Cease-Fire and Peaceful Change,” to Barbara Ward’s by now all-too-familiar lyrical effusions on behalf of economic development. This is one of those books a reviewer really doesn’t know what to do with. But it performs its main function: to pay homage to a great man.

Dag Hammarskjold’s stewardship provides indeed the key to the past triumphs of the United Nations and its present misery. For he transformed the United Nations into something quite different from what the Charter envisaged it to be. The present crisis of the United Nations is a retrogressive reaction to what Hammarskjold made of it.

The Charter envisaged the Security Council as the executive organ of the United Nations while the General Assembly was to be limited essentially to debates and non-binding recommendations. The Security Council was to be dominated by its five permanent members—the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China—which, acting in unison and protected from being outvoted by the veto, would operate as a kind of limited world government. This constitutional scheme was never put into operation; for due to the Cold War splitting East and West, the permanent members were unable to act in unison in any major crisis and, hence, the Security Council was paralyzed from the outset. This virtual desuetude of the Security Council resulted in the ascendancy of the General Assembly, which performed the executive functions the Security Council was incapable of performing. Its recommendations came close to taking on the quality of legally binding obligations.


The General Assembly was able to perform these functions which the Charter reserved for the Security Council because its recommendations required only a two-thirds majority and were not subject to the Great-Power veto which paralyzed the Security Council. Up to about 1955, the United States could count upon a two-thirds majority supporting its major policies. Thus the United Nations became in good measure an instrument of American foreign policy. The American intervention in the Korean War under the auspices and with the support of the United Nations was the classic manifestation of this political configuration. The Uniting for Peace Resolution, passed by the General Assembly in 1950, formalized and generalized these new peace-keeping functions of the General Assembly.

It was a fine arrangement so far as the interests of the United States and the future development of the United Nations into a powerful organization at least approaching supranationality were concerned. But it could only continue as long as the composition of the membership provided a distribution of votes in the General Assembly which would continue to favor American interests and support the supranational functions of the United Nations. It was unforeseeable in 1950 that the admission to the United Nations of large numbers of new members would destroy the two-thirds majority which had supported both American interests and these functions of the United Nations.

The years 1955-56 constitute a turning point in the history of the United Nations. At that time, the United Nations admitted twenty new members, almost half as many as its original membership, and this influx of new members has continued until today the membership of the United Nations is more than double what it was twenty years ago. Most of these new members belong to the so-called Afro-Asian bloc. While they generally do not vote as a bloc, their membership has rendered virtually impossible the formation of a two-thirds majority in support of any substantive policies. In consequence, the influence of the United States has drastically declined, and the Secretary General, intended by the Charter to be only the head of the permanent bureaucracy of the United Nations, emerged as the wielder of executive power, a kind of prime minister of the United Nations.

Two factors made this ascendancy of the Secretary General possible. On the one hand, the General Assembly delegated its policy-making powers, which it could no longer exercise itself, to the Secretary General who used his discretion to give political meaning to the General Assembly’s broad delegation of powers. On the other hand, the United Nations had in Hammarskjold a statesman of extraordinary qualities who was able to perform these new executive functions with superb wisdom, courage, and tact. The United Nations intervention in the Congo was the classic example of this new statesmanship.

It is of course obvious that the new United Nations as it emerged in the early Sixties—government by the Secretary General with the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly—was a far cry from the United Nations envisaged by the Charter—government by the Great Powers acting in unison and protected by the veto. A Great Power could now be outvoted by two-thirds of the General Assembly authorizing the Secretary General to institute policies contrary to the interests of that Great Power. This is indeed what happened to the Soviet Union and France when the General Assembly authorized the Secretary General to intervene in the Congo. In consequence, these two powers have refused to pay for special peacekeeping activities of the United Nations for which they have not voted. Since the International Court of Justice declared that they were obligated to pay, they would lose their vote in the General Assembly if the provisions of the Charter were applied. In order to avoid this embarrassment, the current session of the General Assembly has refrained from transacting any business which would necessitate a vote. Thus the General Assembly has been paralyzed, and the United Nations has been brought close to bankruptcy.

At the bottom of this acute crisis of the United Nations is the reassertion of the sovereignty of the Great Powers against the tendency of the United Nations to develop into a supra-national government over the Great Powers. The Soviet Union and France want to return to the original intentions of the Charter. They want to reduce the General Assembly to a mere debating society and restore the original authority of the Security Council, in which they have a veto and, hence, cannot be outvoted. But since the Security Council has proven to be inoperative in the past, this would mean the end of the United Nations as an operating international agency.


Neither of these books addresses itself to this crisis of the United Nations in its full dimensions. They discuss the financial difficulties and implore the defaulting members to pay up what they owe. They also discuss new procedural schemes for financing the special peace-keeping functions of the United Nations. But they seem not to be aware of the revolution which Hammarskjold’s stewardship initiated in international organization, and of the counter-revolution of which the present crisis is the acute manifestation.

The present crisis of the United Nations signifies a counter-revolution in the name of national sovereignty against the revolution of the Uniting for Peace Resolution and Hammarskjold’s stewardship in the name of the supranational powers of the United Nations. It is no accident that the two nations, France and the Soviet Union, which are in the forefront of that counter-revolution, have in all their policies been uncompromising in their emphasis upon national sovereignty. This recent development runs counter to the conditions of the nuclear age, which have rendered the sovereign nation state obsolescent as a principle of political organization. National sovereignty, once the protector and promoter of the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the individual, threatens today the very survival of civilization on this planet by virtue of the availability of nuclear weapons. Thus the crisis of the United Nations is in a sense a crisis of humankind; for it paralyzes, at least for the time being, the only instrument devised, however timidly and imperfectly, to cope with the novel conditions of the nuclear age.

This Issue

March 25, 1965