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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.