The recent vast expansion of the United Nations’ peace-keeping commitments has sorely tested the UN’s ability to intervene in violent local conflicts before they get out of hand, as well as its willingness to place soldiers at risk when they do. Though UN forces have achieved major successes in such places as Namibia, El Salvador, and the Golan Heights, they have faced increasing difficulty elsewhere. In Cambodia, lightly armed peace-keepers are shot at, harassed, and even killed with impunity. In Angola, a tiny contingent of UN monitors has been overwhelmed by a rebel army determined to get its way by force of arms. In Mozambique, it has taken months for the UN to convince governments to contribute troops to an urgent mission in a situation that has not yet caught the attention of the Western press and television.
Above all, the tragedy of Bosnia has shown that international organizations are not able to deal effectively, and when necessary forcefully, with violent and single-minded factions in a civil war. The reluctance of governments to commit their troops to combat in a quagmire is understandable. Yet the Bosnian Muslims, among others, have paid a terrible price, and the credibility and relevance of international organizations are dangerously diminished. How can such impotence be prevented in the future? A stillborn idea from the past may suggest an answer.
The first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 was also the first major test of the UN’s ability to make its decisions stick. In a speech at Harvard during that tumultuous summer, the first secretary-general of the UN, Trygve Lie, proposed the establishment of a “comparatively small UN guard force…recruited by the Secretary-General and placed at the disposal of the Security Council.” Lie argued that “even a small United Nations force would command respect, for it would have all the authority of the United Nations behind it.”1 The kind of task he had in mind for such a force was to put an end to factional fighting in Jerusalem and to shore up the truce decreed by the Security Council.
In fact, the UN Charter had originally envisaged something much more ambitious. One of the great innovations of the Charter was the provision, in Article 43, for member nations to make military forces available to the Security Council. It is worth recalling the scale on which action by the Security Council was originally envisaged. The United States estimate of the forces it would supply under Article 43, which was by far the largest, included twenty divisions—over 300,000 troops—a very large naval force, 1,250 bombers and 2,250 fighters. However, by 1948, action along the lines of Article 43 had already been frozen by the cold war and by Soviet insistence that the great powers must make exactly equal contributions.
In Palestine the Arab states had rejected the UN partition decision and had gone to war to suppress the new state of Israel. Trygve Lie regarded this challenge to the UN’s authority as a vital test of the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
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.