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International Peace Academy: Occasional Paper Series, Lynne Rienner, 92 pp., $8.95 (paper)

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by Ian Johnstone
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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,…

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