Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Boutros Boutros-Ghali; drawing by David Levine


By now it should be clear that the United Nations has been held back not just by the cold war and the Soviet veto. The task of creating an effective world organization is in itself extremely difficult and frustrating whatever the political climate. During the post–cold war period, after two or three unexpectedly successful operations, the UN has found itself once again in a lamentable predicament. While its meager resources are strained to the limit by new responsibilities, it is being suffocated by criticism and doubt.

In early 1945, after Yalta, at which the future world organization was a main topic of discussion, Franklin Roosevelt told the US Congress that the creation of the United Nations “spells—and it ought to spell—the end of the system of unilateral action, exclusive alliances, and spheres of influence, and balances of power, and all the other expedients which have been tried for centuries and have always failed.” Roosevelt’s sweeping vision, and the idea behind the original Charter itself that the nations of the world should unite in the face of danger and in the pursuit of great common causes, appear now to have been more the product of the horror of World War II than of any lasting political intention or commitment.

During the cold war the UN did, it is true, serve as a useful forum of last resort in the face of nuclear danger. In the Suez Crisis of 1956, in Lebanon in 1958, in the Congo in 1960, in the Indian Subcontinent in 1965, and in the Middle East in 1973, UN intervention contained conflicts which showed ominous signs of setting off an American-Soviet confrontation. In the Cuban Missile Crisis the Security Council provided a stage for publicizing the danger posed by the missiles in Cuba, while the UN secretary-general, U Thant, served as an impartial broker who provided both sides with a formula for drawing back from the nuclear brink without losing face.

In the post–cold war world, however, with its unforeseen and widespread outbreaks of low-level violence, its increasing tendencies toward civil war and ethnic conflict, its formidable economic and social problems, the old idea of the solidarity of nations in the UN has lost much of its force. Instead, one hears much talk, especially in the United States, that the UN is over-reaching itself. It is said to be incompetent and to be spending far too much money. It is seen as a capricious foreign entity, acting independently of its member governments and often heedless of their concerns. Any show of independence by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali tends to provoke cries of nationalist outrage, especially from the right.

One consequence of the end of the cold war was the new ability of the UN Security Council to agree on most of the issues that came before it, and at first this seemed an enormous step forward. The Council, for example, could quickly agree on the need to condemn the invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and take urgent action. Later, however, it became clear that the Security Council had a different and debilitating problem. In most of the violent situations it addressed, it was unable to make its decisions effective.

It was one thing to set up peacekeeping operations without the use of force during the cold war, in order to show that conflicts between sovereign states had been suspended, whether between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights, or between India and Pakistan in the Subcontinent. It has proved far more difficult to inject UN peace-keeping forces into active civil wars in which no government has invited them, the fighting factions are unwilling to cooperate with the UN forces, and there is little possibility of bringing political or other pressure to bear on those factions. Thus the UN’s discouraging experiences, especially in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Angola, and most recently Rwanda, have precipitated a new crisis of confidence which has quite overshadowed the organization’s relative success in Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and other places. In former Yugoslavia, more than fifty Security Council resolutions have failed to end the killing or the savage treatment of civilians, in spite of large peace-keeping forces and an enormous humanitarian operation. Only very recently have there been even a few signs of limited progress toward peace in Bosnia.

The UN was set up in 1945 primarily to deal with threats to the peace, acts of aggression, and disputes and conflicts between states. It is now increasingly perceived by the press and the public to be, or to have the potential of being, the world’s police force and humanitarian rescue service—in fact, the embryonic public-service sector of a “world community” that does not yet exist. The future of the UN will depend, in large measure, upon the willingness of its member governments to endorse this new role and to support it with money, resources, and manpower.


It is often pointed out, with good reason, that the management and administration of the UN’s field operations need to be vastly improved. It is less often said that while these operations have multiplied ten-fold in the last three years, a zero growth budget and a hiring freeze have been in force for an even longer period. Budgetary constraints have also meant that the UN has none of the reserve funds or standing facilities for contingency planning, logistics, and training that would make it possible to launch new operations without delay. Thus each operation starts from scratch and with severely limited funds. While popular pressure impels governments to bring the UN into violent and complex situations, they remain reluctant to provide solid support for such operations.

There are also, of course, fundamental, if unstated, political obstacles to improving the UN’s effectiveness. Governments, not least those of developing countries, clearly do not want to give the Security Council and the secretary-general greater authority or more effective capacity to intervene. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali’s proposals for volunteer “peace enforcement” units and for strengthening the UN’s peace-keeping capacity have been greeted with little enthusiasm. A “standby force” drawn from the armed forces of the members or, more suspect still, a standing UN volunteer force of the kind previously advocated in these pages,1 is widely seen, quite apart from considerations of expense, as a harbinger of interventionism and supranationalism.

Recent events in Bosnia have provoked one important advance in the UN’s approach to violent situations. When, in June 1993, I suggested in these pages that the UN needed an immediately available volunteer force, I noted that such a force would need the full support of member nations including, “if necessary, air, naval and other kinds of military action.” In February the credible threat, and limited use, of NATO air strikes called in by UN commanders on the ground was able, at least temporarily, to break the Serbian siege of Sarajevo after nearly two years of bloodshed and destruction, although other places are still blockaded or under attack, and communications with some towns are intermittently throttled. (Croat sieges of Muslim towns have been relaxed since the Croat-Muslim agreement in early March.) The outcome of the subsequent NATO air strikes on Gorazde on April 10 and 11 remains in doubt as I write. But the Security Council needs to consider whether a combined effort of the kind made recently in and near Sarajevo would not have been more effective at the very beginning of the Bosnian disaster, and if so what this could mean for the scope and conduct of future operations.

Can the UN realistically be expected to meet its present and future challenges without some built-in, immediately available, military capacity? The organization at present relies for its increasingly complex operations almost entirely on contingents and ad hoc logistical support from member governments. This means, among other things, that its initial reactions are often hesitant and slow, and its capacity to stay the course uncertain. Whether in Somalia or in Bosnia it is now also bedeviled by disputes over the command and control of the national units assigned to the UN, although in Sarajevo the current UN commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, has been giving a spirited demonstration of what a courageous, imaginative, and articulate leader can do to change the situation on the ground as well as the public perception of a UN operation. The questions of timely deployment and unity of command will be vital to the effectiveness and the credibility of future UN operations.


Most accounts of the activities of the United Nations have been critical—and rightly so. A great merit of the four works under review is their down-to-earth analysis of specific UN operations and of the lessons that can usefully be drawn from them.

It is unusual for a foreign minister to write a book while still in office, but Gareth Evans is no ordinary foreign minister. An Australian senator and a prolific writer on foreign affairs, he was one of the originators of the UN peace plan for Cambodia and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Cooperating for Peace addresses the question of how the UN should deal with the huge post–cold war expectations of it.

As Evans notes, preventive measures are obviously the most economical and effective way to tackle international problems. Yet such measures are rarely considered until conflict is more or less certain. He cites Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait as a glaring failure to use preventive diplomacy, pointing out that no real effort was made to address the specific issues in dispute—oil pricing, the ownership of the Rumalia oilfield, Iraq’s debt, and control of Warba Island and Bubiyan Island.


On the other hand, governments more often than not resent early warning, and Iraq would very probably have refused to cooperate in preventive efforts. We shall never know how much preventive intervention even the Kuwaiti government, in its pre-invasion state of mind, would have welcomed or even tolerated, or indeed how many governments would have been willing or ready to intervene at an earlier stage. The greatest obstacle to preventive diplomacy is the attitude of governments, especially those directly involved.

The preventive deployment of UN troops, suggested in Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 Agenda for Peace, is being tried out for the first time in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where some 1,050 troops have been stationed on the border with Serbia and Kosovo to prevent the new state of Macedonia, which has hardly any armed forces of its own, from being attacked by Serbia. So far this operation has not been challenged, although there are some ominous signs that it soon may be. The key question of preventive intervention remains what happens if someone activates the trip wire. Evans believes that a clear and specific mandate from the Security Council for the original preventive force may provide some answers to this question, but he is extremely cautious about what follow-up action would be possible if the preventive effort is challenged, and the wire is tripped. Recent NATO commitments to air strikes around Sarajevo indicate one possible form of follow-up action, provided, of course, that a regional military alliance is available and willing to act. However, neither the Security Council nor a military alliance such as NATO is likely to be willing to commit itself in advance to urgent forceful action. This, at present, is the vulnerable aspect of preventive deployment.

Peace-keeping—a frail experiment when first tried in the Sinai in 1956—has become the best-known and most sought-after activity of the UN. In its traditional form it involves the dispatch of a UN peace-keeping mission that starts after a cease-fire is in place, and that is based on the consent and cooperation of the fighting parties, as well as on the premise that force will not be used except in self-defense. Evans makes some usefully astringent comments on the UN’s peace-keeping record. The UN, he writes, continues its tendency to stay too long, for example in Cyprus or Kashmir. It should also be more rigorous in appraising the commitments it is asked to take on. In recent years, as in Bosnia, Somalia, or Angola, the UN has seemed too anxious at the outset to help those who have no intention of making peace with one another, thus assuming, in the public eye at least, the primary responsibility for success or failure.

During the cold war, the basic criterion for a UN action was the Charter’s concept of “maintaining international peace and security,” often in order to keep regional conflicts from setting off an East-West confrontation, a criterion that is scarcely relevant now and must be replaced. We need better means of measuring in advance both the potential usefulness of UN intervention and the potential cooperation of those who are being helped. Governments are less and less inclined to participate in altruistic international efforts which have no bearing on their own national security. In his first speech to the UN General Assembly President Clinton asserted that the United Nations must know “when to say no” to new involvements. What is worse, perhaps, than a failure to oppose undesirable UN intervention is to say both “yes” and “no,” as the United Nations’ most influential member, among others, has recently done in such places as Haiti.

Evans’s common-sense approach to many problems is refreshing. On financing: “The peace keeping bill must be compared with the potential much larger cost of not undertaking peace keeping.” Members of the US Congress would do well to read this book, along with the independent report of the group on UN financing,2 led by Paul Volcker and Shijuro Ogata, which finds that the UN needs a far firmer financial base, including prompt payment of their assessments by all governments and an adequate reserve fund for emergency operations like peace-keeping. The UN, that report concludes, must have the resources it needs: “a pittance by comparison with our society’s expenditure on arms.”

The most controversial aspect of recent UN operations has been the use of force. During the forty-five years before 1990 only two UN operations—the American-led defense of South Korea and the UN mission in the Congo—were authorized to use force for any purpose other than self-defense, and in the Congo only for very limited purposes, the prevention of civil war and the removal of mercenaries. Since 1990 the right to use force under Chapter VII of the Charter has been authorized in three cases—the effort to restore Kuwait’s independence (Desert Storm);3 the US-led task force in Somalia and its successor, UNOSOM II; and the UN Protection Force in former Yugoslavia, where force is authorized for its own security and freedom of movement, and for the protection of “safe areas.”

The UN’s operations in Somalia and Bosnia have shown the pitfalls of combining the use of force with peace-keeping and humanitarian aid. In Somalia the initial effort to capture one of the warlords, Mohamed Farah Aideed, created so much local opposition to the peace-keeping forces that the officials in charge of the UN operation (UNOSOM II)—as well as the United States—had to change their policy and try to appease Aideed. In Bosnia the presence of peace-keeping troops and humanitarian workers on the ground, and concern for their safety, has been a major obstacle to the use of NATO air strikes. Evans concludes that if such operations are to preserve their credibility and broad international support, the circumstances in which force may be used, as well as the way in which it is used, should be far more clearly defined.

Since enforcement entails more risks than traditional peace-keeping, governments providing troops understandably wish to retain some control. Evans believes that command for enforcement operations should be delegated to a national or coalition commander, as in Desert Storm, but he insists that the Security Council should retain ultimate political control. He admits that it is unlikely that the need for a single command, on the one hand, and, on the other, the insistence of governments on keeping some control over their contingents in the field can be fully reconciled.

Certainly the disastrous confusion among the various UN units in Somalia does not bode well for future peace enforcement operations with divided commands. In Somalia the UN commander was not in charge of the onshore US Quick Reaction Force, which was under the deputy UN commander, the United States General Thomas L. Montgomery. To complicate matters further, the calamitous operation by the US Rangers on October 3, 1993, in which eighteen soldiers, and many more Somalis, were killed, was initiated by the US Joint Special Operations Command, which is based in Tampa, Florida, and was operating independently of the UN headquarters in Mogadishu. As a result it took hours for the regular UN force to mount a rescue operation for the trapped Rangers. There were also disruptive episodes when other national contingents of the UN force in Somalia insisted on going their own way, ignoring the authority of the UN commander.

The issue of command and control is central to any military operation. Unless the Security Council has specifically delegated command, a UN operation launched in the name of all the member governments should not be effectively controlled by one government, or, worse still, become the subject of dispute among several governments contributing troops. The Security Council and the secretary-general have to develop a much more effective means of exercising command when it has not been specifically delegated to a single country.

Governments have mostly remained reluctant to commit themselves in advance to providing troops even for UN peace-keeping, let alone for enforcement duties, and recent experience and the constant demand for more troops have certainly made them more reluctant still. Timely deployment of a well-trained group of UN troops to carry out a decision of the Security Council has thus become increasingly difficult, and yet truly rapid deployment is very often essential to any success. It is instructive to consider the difference that a small, highly trained escort would have made in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in October 1993, when, after a vocal demonstration by a few dozen thugs on the pier, the US Navy ship carrying the UN team sailed away. It was partly for this reason that Boutros-Ghali, in Agenda for Peace, suggested volunteer “peace enforcement” units from the armies of member states. My own proposal was for a UN volunteer force which could be rapidly deployed in the crucial early days of a crisis to get the situation under control and to prepare the way, if necessary, for a later, larger, UN operation. This specifically UN force would not be affected by the reluctance of governments to involve their troops at an early stage in an unpredictable conflict.

Evans concludes that governments, especially of developing countries, would not be willing to strengthen the Security Council, not to mention the powers of the secretary-general, in this way. He believes that the practical difficulties, including the costs of a volunteer force, which he estimates at $1 billion annually, would also be overwhelming. He therefore falls back on the existing ad hoc arrangements, proposing to improve the Secretariat’s military planning and its ability to support military operations. I doubt whether this will make the necessary difference to the UN’s performance.


Evans’s book closes with some sensible suggestions for reforming the UN itself, including the appointment of four deputy secretaries-general to manage the main fields of work of the UN and to serve as a working cabinet for the secretary-general. He recommends that resolving disputes and preventing conflicts should come first among the UN’s tasks, along with “peace building,” meeting basic human needs, and creating plans for orderly relations among states. Considering the conditions in which the UN has to work at present, he writes, it is a “miracle, in many ways, that the UN has done as well as it has in responding to the peace and security challenges unceasingly hurled at it since the end of the Cold War.”

When one looks closely at some of those challenges, and the response to them, one tends to agree. The International Peace Academy,4 which concentrated on analyzing and giving instruction in peace-keeping at a time when it was politically impossible for the UN to do so itself, has recently sponsored several studies of the UN operations that have been conducted during the last few years. These include Samuel M. Makinda’s analysis of the record of the UN along with that of other organizations in dealing with the situation in Somalia.

The international response to the tragedy in Somalia is in some ways an object lesson in what to avoid in future. In the face of a mounting human disaster which was partly the consequence of the cold war, the international community was initially indifferent, although many non-governmental organizations tried to deal with increasing human misery. When pictures of Somali children dying of starvation were shown on television throughout the world, a belated, grossly inadequate UN humanitarian response was organized in April 1992. This was UNOSOM, which soon faltered because its military force arrived too late and was too weak to establish the minimum conditions for effective humanitarian relief. Somalis hostile to the UN controlled the Mogadishu docks and impeded food deliveries. UNOSOM was followed, surprisingly, by the immensely telegenic American effort, UNITAF (“Operation Restore Hope”), which was active, however, in only 40 percent of Somalia and announced its imminent withdrawal almost upon arrival. UNITAF did succeed in re-establishing the flow of food and relief supplies and halting the famine, but it did not disarm the warring factions which had caused the civil war.

In April 1993 UNITAF—at its peak 37,000 strong, with large-scale offshore support—handed over control to a militarily weaker organization, UNOSOM II—with, at most, 30,000 troops—which, with the encouragement of the United States, had, paradoxically, a much tougher mandate. Conceived under Chapter VII, the enforcement chapter of the Charter, UNOSOM II was charged, among other things, with guaranteeing the cease-fire and taking action against violators; disarming the factions; and securing ports, airports, and supply routes. UNOSOM II’s mandate has proved to be an awkward combination of traditional peace-keeping, enforcement, humanitarian relief, and nation building. From the first the UN forces have been working in a political, legal, and constitutional vacuum. As noted, the arrangements for command were extremely complicated and divisive, and they proved disastrous when, following murderous attacks on UN Pakistani troops, the Security Council ordered a hunt for General Mohamed Aideed, thus inviting the same kind of frenzied local opposition that undermined the United States-led multinational force in Beirut in the early 1980s.

In this situation UNOSOM II’s still considerable military capacity has proved of little use. Its Western contingents will have withdrawn this spring. It is still unclear whether Somalis of the various factions will see their long-term interest in cooperating with the remaining UN forces—numbering fewer than 20,000—or in returning to the power struggle that produced the disastrous situation in the first place.

Makinda raises doubts whether the UN, after a catastrophic start in Somalia, is capable of promoting national reconciliation and reconstruction, particularly in the absence of even a hint of a stable democratic system. The UN, he argues, has not found plausible ways to combine peace-keeping with enforcement. In dealing with a predominantly humanitarian crisis UN forces have traditionally refrained a) from using force except in self-defense and b) from identifying a particular faction as the enemy who has to be defeated, and he questions whether it was expedient or wise to have overridden these traditional restraints in Somalia. Makinda believes that the Somalia experience will be best remembered for its legal implications for UN intervention, for it showed the anomalous position of an international operation having, for humanitarian purposes, to deal with armed factions in a disintegrated state without a legitimate government or institutions. He concludes persuasively that the UN operation, unprecedented in scale—it has now cost approximately $1.15 billion—has shown how ill-equipped the present international system is to deal both with large humanitarian disasters and the problems of failed states.

The UN in Cambodia: Lessons for Complex Peacekeeping, by Michael Doyle and Nishkala Suntharalingam, is a cool analysis of what, after some excessively pessimistic comments in the press, is now widely regarded as a success for the United Nations. The particular merit of this study is that it looks both at what worked and at what did not.

The 1991 Paris Agreement on Cambodia between the Hun Sen government and the Khmer Rouge and the other opposition groups5 charged the UN—for the first time in its history—with changing the political and economic structure of one of its member states in order to bring about peace and reconciliation. It gave the UN at least six specific tasks to carry out, all of them extremely difficult in such a ravaged country: 1) supervising the cease-fire and disarming the factions; 2) maintaining law and order; 3) repatriating refugees; 4) promoting human rights and working out the principles for a new constitution; 5) supervising and controlling administrative machinery; 6) organizing, conducting, and monitoring elections. In Paris, the parties agreed in principle to establish a constitutional democracy in Cambodia. The UN was supposed to guarantee that the democratic process would work in a country where it had never before existed. The UN operation (UNTAC) required 15,000 troops and 7,000 civilians at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion over eighteen months.

UNTAC’s presence marked the end of large-scale civil war and the prospect of true independence for Cambodia. UNTAC peacefully repatriated and resettled 370,000 refugees from camps in Thailand. It organized a successful election in a country with a shattered infrastructure and under explicit threats of intimidation from the Khmer Rouge and other parties.

UNTAC failed in two major respects. It did not establish control over vital functions of civil administration and thus did not ensure a neutral political environment for the election. It failed, for example, to get control of public expenditure, or to put an end to many of the practices of a police state, including physical harassment of opposition parties. UNTAC also failed to group together, demobilize, and disarm 70 percent of the military forces of the four main factions, as the agreement demanded. Thus the elections did not take place in a secure political setting, immune from the military presence of the factions or the threat of violence. For the election itself, UNTAC recruited and trained 50,000 Cambodian poll workers, set up 2,000 polling sites, and provided security. Apart from many courageous and dedicated international workers, the Cambodian people were the decisive factor. “It is no exaggeration,” the study states, “to say that the courage of Cambodia’s voters rescued UNTAC from what appeared to be a looming disaster.” Though threatened with violence and even shelled on the way to the polling sites, 90 percent of the Cambodian people voted. As a result, “the most lasting effect of UNTAC will be a sense in the population that it can demand accountability from those who govern.”

The achievement of UNTAC can still be jeopardized by power struggles in Cambodia. Sporadic fighting continues between the government and the Khmer Rouge. UNTAC’s failure to solidify the rule of law or to demobilize the factions may still “come back to haunt its electoral success.” But the Paris Agreement was the last hope for Cambodia, and so far the omens are reasonably good.

Professor Doyle and Ms. Suntharalingam identify a particularly important general truth about international relations. The diplomats who negotiate agreements have to assume, or pretend to assume, the good faith of the parties they are negotiating with. Those who execute the agreements, on the other hand, must assume, if they are wise, that much of what was agreed at the conference table will not be honored or achievable in the field. Thus the original bargains and mandates tend to unravel as the parties learn to exploit the UN for their own advantage. Meanwhile the UN’s need to succeed increases as the date for withdrawal of its forces comes nearer, and as governments and the press actively, and all too often eagerly, discuss the possibility of failure. For an operation to succeed, UN officials must take prompt and early action to dominate the situation, and they must select courses of action that cannot be blocked by the local parties.


Ian Johnstone’s Aftermath of the Gulf War: An Assessment of UN Action deals with a completely different situation, the events following Desert Storm and the attempts to carry out the Security Council Resolution 687, known at the time as the “mother of all resolution,” which set the terms for the end of the military action against Iraq. As the first example of an international effort to control the future behavior of a country, this resolution may prove in the long run to be even more of a historical precedent than the war itself. Resolution 687 provides, among other things, for the demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border, the destruction of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, the limitation of Iraqi ballistic missiles, and Iraqi reparations. It was designed to complete the objectives of Operation Desert Storm by redressing the consequences of the Iraqi invasion and by neutralizing future threats from Iraq. None of this has proved easy, although the arms embargo and sanctions on Iraq have remained in force. Air strikes have occasionally been used to remind Saddam Hussein that the Security Council, or at least three of its permanent members—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—mean business. (One of the US air strikes was made to retaliate for an alleged plot to kill President Bush when he visited Kuwait.)

The history of Resolution 687 raises important questions. Can the use or threat of coercion to prevent the manufacture of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in Iraq be applied elsewhere? Could the threat of coercion, for example, be used against countries that have threatened to manufacture nuclear weapons, like North Korea? Can the UN teams which have made a search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq become the basis for a permanent weapons inspectorate? Johnstone argues that the unique collaboration between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN in Iraq sets a useful precedent, but he is skeptical about a permanent inspectorate within the UN along the lines of the UN Special Commission in Iraq. He is concerned that close association with the Security Council would create the perception that an inspectorate would be unduly influenced by the major powers. While he concludes that the experiment with Resolution 687 has been partially successful, he is wary of some of its aspects. He questions the legal competence of the Security Council to demarcate borders, on the grounds that it would be, and was, portrayed by Iraq as a purely political decision by three of the Council’s permanent members. If the International Court of Justice had been asked to make a judgment about the borders, that could have added weight and authority to the Council’s decisions.

Johnstone also deplores the almost exclusive domination by a few countries of the formulation and enforcement of the resolution. This pattern of decision-making began at the outset of the crisis in August 1990. Resolution 687 was not prepared by the entire Council but only by the permanent members, and the drafting, in effect, was taken over by France, the UK, and the US. Other members were given very little time or opportunity to become involved in the major decisions, especially in drawing up Resolution 687, the most complicated resolution ever adopted by the Security Council. Moreover military strikes against Iraq, purportedly under the Council’s authority, were decided upon with little or no reference to it.

Since the Council acts on behalf of all UN members and its decisions are binding on them, Johnstone argues, it is important, if the UN is ever to function effectively, that their views in matters of peace and security be taken into account. He argues strongly that military action by the UN must be clearly authorized and that independent, UN-controlled forces and monitors should be central in its military efforts. His main point is that “working through the UN rather than around it” is the best method of ensuring peace.

This goes to the heart of the UN’s present dilemma. One school maintains that, to be effective, international action can only be taken through the leadership and initiative of one or two powerful and willing states—as in Desert Storm, for example, or Somalia. The other school holds that the UN is a universal organization representing the interests of all governments, and that its members must be allowed to participate fully in its decisions and actions. The first opens the UN to accusations of elitism, special interests, and even neocolonialism. The second raises questions about the organization’s competence, its ability to make and carry out tough decisions, and the strength of its political and military leadership.

To survive as a useful international organization the UN clearly needs the backing of the more powerful countries, and it also needs a stronger capacity to deal with situations where no great power interest is involved and where it must call on the support of all its members. The argument that the UN does not have the capacity to direct and control complex operations is often made by governments that really do not want it to do so. The denial of the authority or resources to develop its capacity to act effectively will inevitably perpetuate the UN’s weaknesses.


Much could be done to make the world organization more effective, and less incoherent. There will be no serious improvement, however, if three basic issues are not addressed.

The first involves the attitude of governments toward the United Nations: their perception of what the organization is, or ought to be. If, in reality, governments are only looking for a place where they may dump awkward problems and occasionally protect their own interests, or join a coalition to fend off some undesirable development, nothing much will change. On the other hand, governments could come to see the United Nations as the place for developing the essential global institutions that the times, and our long-term problems, demand. Such institutions could provide advance warning of coming conflicts, intervene at an early stage to stop them from erupting into wars, and use preventive diplomacy and action. Most important of all in the long run, they would provide a center for concerted efforts to deal with the great social and economic problems which are the root causes of instability, and which will determine, one way or another, the entire future of the human race.

Two other concerns must be addressed if there is to be real improvement. The first involves leadership. Governments talk a great deal about the need for better management of the UN. If that is to come about, they must make a determined effort to ensure that the UN and other international organizations get the best possible leaders both for the international civil service and in national delegations. They must also see to it that these leaders are fully supported when in office. The performance of governments in this matter has hitherto been lackadaisical, if not deliberately neglectful.

The second need is for a vigorous revival of the concept of a genuinely independent international civil service, as well as acceptance by governments of the principle involved, which is stated firmly in the UN Charter. No one doubts that a dedicated, objective, and highly competent civil service is essential to effective national administration. The same is true for international organizations. More than thirty years ago Dag Hammarskjold described what would happen if the principle of an international civil service were abandoned. “We would [then] have executives or secretariats which were in fact a lower level of government or party representation.”6 While the UN Secretariat has many people of integrity and independence on its staff, many governments no longer recognize these qualities as indispensable and often even distrust them.

Sooner or later, the interdependent nature of the world we have created will pose the choice between a decline into chaos and a global society based on law. There is, in fact, already an immense body of international law on virtually all aspects of human activity, but we are nowhere near a functioning international legal regime to carry that law out. Each new experiment in international action should also contribute legal precedents and principles for future action. These elements must eventually become the basis of an acceptable and universally accepted international legal system, properly monitored and, if necessary, enforced.

How much can we afford to pay for an effective international system? From the comments of the press and national legislators, one might conclude that the UN and its operations are an unbearable financial burden. In fact, in 1992 the UN and all its peace-keeping operations throughout the world cost $2.4 billion—less than the cost of two days of Desert Storm or two Stealth bombers. The average ratio of UN peace-keeping assessments to national defense expenditures is of the order of one dollar to one thousand dollars.

In private business it is normal to invest large sums of money in the future, with no expectations of immediate returns. In international organizations investing for the future, whether in infrastructure, or for contingency arrangements, or for long-term objectives, is unpopular. Without a military structure or contingency funds, every UN peace-keeping operation has had to start from scratch, with its own meager separate budget. If such operations are really important, as presumably the members of the Security Council who initiated them must believe, this is an extremely short-sighted and inefficient way of organizing them.

In the great uncertainties and disorders that lie ahead, the UN, for all its shortcomings, will be called on again and again, because there is no other global institution, because there is a severe limit to what even the strongest powers wish to take on themselves, and because inaction and apathy toward human misery, or about the future of the human race, are unacceptable. New combinations of forces and new strategies must be worked out just as in Bosnia today, where after nearly two years of bloodshed and frustration, the combination of NATO air power, UN peace-keeping, and multilateral diplomacy has at least temporarily shown some results. The UN itself must learn how to deal with the new demands and complexities of the post–cold war world, whether the collapse of states, ethnic strife, or vast humanitarian emergencies.

Either the UN is vital to a more stable and equitable world and should be given the means to do its job, or peoples and governments should be encouraged to look elsewhere. But is there really an alternative?

April 14, 1994

This Issue

May 12, 1994