In its ﬁrst sixty-ﬁve years the United Nations has been called many things—“a permanent partnership…among the peoples of the world for their common peace and common well-being” (President Harry Truman) and a “cesspool” (a mayor of New York). In the memoirs of a recent US ambassador to the UN, we find the heading “There Is No Such Thing as the United Nations.” While surviving these and countless other characterizations, the UN has somehow continued to reinvent itself, never to the total satisfaction of anyone. The current demand for reinvention is as pressing as any the organization has faced.
The United Nations Charter is a mixture of great-power hardheadedness and a series of more or less idealistic notions about the future. The idea of giving the leaders of the victorious wartime alliance, which had been fighting since 1942 under the collective title “United Nations,” the task, as permanent members of the Security Council, of securing and if necessary enforcing the peace seemed in 1945 to be a logical course to follow.1 With the onset of the cold war, however, it became a formula for political paralysis. Starting in the 1950s the organization improvised a new method, peacekeeping operations, to contain brushﬁre conﬂicts that might ignite an East–West confrontation, particularly in the Middle East. It also provided a forum where the contestants in the ideological and nuclear arms races, the two superpowers, could, as a last resort, meet without loss of face even during the most heated crisis, to stave off the ultimate horror of nuclear war.
The UN was the catalyst for decolonization, a process that went much faster than its founders had anticipated. Many of the new members that brought the membership from the original ﬁfty to the present 192 were states that had just gained their independence. Economic and social development became the predominant task of the UN and its specialized agencies and programs—WHO, FAO, and UNICEF among them—that make up the so-called “UN system.” Not surprisingly, the new members were intensely protective of their newly acquired sovereignty.
When the cold war ended it seemed for a while as if the United Nations might at last be able to work as its founders had originally intended. But the nature of peace and war as well as the other challenges facing the organization were very different from those that governments thought they were facing in 1945 when the charter was written. The bloody conflicts that the public assumed should be the responsibility of the United Nations—in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Cambodia, and East Timor, for instance—were more frequently within the borders of a single state than between states.
So-called “global problems,” issues that no government can successfully deal with by itself, were virtually…
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