Commentary Magazine


The New Secretary-General

The United Nations Charter describes the Secretary-General as “the chief administrative officer of the organization.” It limits his political initiative to “bring[ing] to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” In the performance of other non-administrative functions, he is instructed to act upon the initiative, and as the agent, of the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the Trusteeship Council. He and his colleagues are enjoined to “refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the organization.”

This limited and subordinate character of the functions assigned by the Charter to the Secretary-General is predicated upon the assumption that the main political agencies of the United Nations—the Security Council and the General Assembly—are able to act in accordance with the intentions of the Charter. This assumption has proven illusory, for the Security Council has been rendered impotent by the cold war between the Soviet Union and the other permanent members of that body, and the General Assembly has been made unwieldy by the increase in membership from the original fifty-one to the present one hundred and ten. As the Russian veto has immobilized the Security Council, so a large and disparate membership threatens the ability of the General Assembly to marshal a two-thirds majority behind any substantive policy. The present eminence of the office of the Secretary-General, unforeseen and unintended by the Charter, is a function of this decline of the Security Council and the General Assembly as the main political organs of the United Nations. First, the weight of political decision shifted from an impotent Security Council to the General Assembly, and then it shifted from an unwieldy General Assembly to the Secretary-General.

Yet this latter shift would not have been possible if not for the fortuitous circumstance that during the decisive period, from 1953 to 1961, the office of Secretary-General was occupied by a man endowed with unsurpassed qualities of wisdom, skill, and courage: Dag Hammarskjold. Without him, the United Nations could never have become what it is today, and it might well have followed the League of Nations into oblivion as an operating political institution. Hammarskjold developed into a kind of prime minister of the United Nations; by virtue of delegations of power by the Security Council or the General Assembly, his office took over political functions which the Security Council and the General Assembly themselves should have performed but could not. The terms of the delegation were frequently most vague, such as the restoration of peace and order in the Congo, and thus gave broad discretion to the Secretary-General’s initiative, limited only by the willingness of member states to implement it with the required financial, technical, and military means.

Mr. Hammarskjold’s initiative, however cautiously and skillfully conceived and executed, could not help being controversial. More particularly, he and his policies were violently attacked by the Soviet Union. It was inevitable that this conflict should have arisen between the great imperialistic power of the age and the chief political officer of an international organization which by its very nature is committed to the defense of a particular status quo, to be changed only by peaceful and lawful means. Mr. Hammarskjold could be, and was, impartial in his attitude toward different nations; he could not be, and was not, neutral when it came to this fundamental issue of changes in the status quo by violent or illegal means. Thus political opposition was added to the lack of constitutional base and weakness of institutional support that threatened Mr. Hammarskjold’s new conception of the Secretary-General’s office. That his conception prevailed is above all a tribute to the extraordinary qualities of the man. This triumph of a single individual—powerfully supported, it is true, by the universal fear of war—has served to conceal the inner weakness of the organization on behalf of which he spoke and acted. He walked on the most brittle of grounds. It was only the sureness of his step which made those grounds seem less brittle than they actually were.

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These observations are prompted by the George Huntington Williams Memorial Lecture which the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. U Thant, gave at Johns Hopkins University on December 2, 1962. The lecture was delivered two days after Mr. U Thant’s election and therefore commands special attention as a programmatic statement of the new Secretary-General’s political philosophy. As such it is disquieting, both in its general subject matter and in the specific views it contains.

Mr. U Thant does something which to the best of my recollection Mr. Hammarskjold never did: he reviews the international scene, analyzes and assesses the trend of events, praises and criticizes particular policies, and offers advice to the governments of the world. He postulates compromise as a universal principle of foreign policy. He distinguishes between Khrushchev’s foreign policy and Stalin’s and takes the West to task for not reacting properly to the changes. He approves of the Cuban and Laotian settlements. He seems to favor neutralism as a general principle for the non-aligned nations. He sees “one of the root causes of political tension” in the disparity in the wealth of nations.

With these statements, Mr. U Thant postulates an entirely novel conception of the Secretary-General’s office, for he speaks here as a kind of superego in the conduct of foreign policy. His appears to be the voice of truth and reason, to be heard above the melee by the less enlightened and less pure nations. However, no man, no matter how great his wisdom and purity of motive, can perform the function which the new Secretary-General of the United Nations has here assumed, and the attempt to perform it is not only doomed to failure but also fraught with mortal danger to the United Nations. It is because the United Nations is an important, if not an indispensable, instrument for the preservation of peace in the contemporary world that one must point to the weakness of Mr. U Thant’s position.

Mr. U Thant obviously thinks that by a sheer act of will an individual, such as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, can elevate himself to a perspective above the political conflicts of the times and judge the positions and policies of different nations by completely objective standards. He is capable of doing this, so he seems to believe, because he is identified not with any particular nation or group of nations, but with the organization of all nations, the United Nations. In this belief, Mr. U Thant is mistaken. The United Nations does not exist in separation from the interests and policies of its members. Either it represents and gives actual substance to the consensus of a majority of its members, expressed through the procedures of the Charter and supported by effective power, or it does not exist at all as a significant operating agency. When in the past the Security Council or the General Assembly delegated their powers in a specific instance to the Secretary-General, it was left to the genius of Mr. Hammarskjold to sense the limits within which the consensus of the members and their power would support his action; and it can well be argued that in the Congo he went to those very limits, if he did not in fact overstep them.

The Secretary-General’s voice and action, then, are not his own, nor do they belong to the United Nations in the abstract. Rather, the Secretary-General speaks and acts as the agent of a temporary majority which has coalesced in support of a particular policy aimed at a specific issue. He can speak for the United Nations in the abstract only on one occasion: when he offers the peace-preserving and restoring procedures of the United Nations by pointing out what the United Nations could do if the members were only to avail themselves of its facilities. This was always the burden of Mr. Hammarskjold’s argument presented in his classic annual reports.

A Secretary-General who tries to do more than that by pretending to judge the positions and policies of individual nations by the objective standards of truth and reason is bound to end up speaking only for himself, supported by one and opposed by another nation, as the case may be. This is as it must be in a world of many nations; it has happened to John Foster Dulles and Mr. Nehru, among others. Yet when it happens to the Secretary-General of the United Nations it has not just happened to another statesman whose pretenses have left the facts behind, but to the United Nations itself. The United Nations, with its collective political organs paralyzed or ineffective, has only one agent left through whom it can act: its Secretary-General. His political purity, as it were, is his most precious political asset. When the chips are down, he cannot help antagonizing the nation or group of nations who are trying to change the status quo by illegal or violent means. Thus he cannot help using up his political capital as the price of his effectiveness; this was the fate of Mr. U Thant’s predecessors. But neither can he afford to squander that capital in futile and dubious pronouncements which have no bearing upon the concrete issues he is called upon to deal with as Secretary-General. How can he command the requisite political and military support of the member states if he has impaired his reputation for impartiality by pretentiously pontificating on the affairs of the world? A few such pronouncements, antagonizing a sufficient number of nations, may well end the usefulness of the Secretary-General as the agent of a majority of member states. They may also thereby bring to an end the usefulness of the United Nations as “a dynamic instrument of governments,” to use Mr. Hammarskjold’s pregnant phrase.

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This danger would arise even if the Secretary-General’s pronouncements on concrete policies were pearls of wisdom, for it would not necessarily be a wisdom palatable to the nations who possess a preponderance of numbers and power. But it becomes doubly dangerous when the pronouncements of the Secretary-General are, far from being wise, rather trivial and beside the point. I shall not concern myself here with statements in Mr. U Thant’s address which are controversial in that they express a preference for one kind of policy as over against another, such as his approval of the Cuban and Laotian settlements and his call for a compromise on Berlin. I shall instead analyze a statement which is so deficient intellectually that it might be subject to universal criticism, regardless of national preference:

. . . the system created and maintained by Stalin was manifestly ruthless and obsolescent even before his departure. Mr. Khrushchev, who is now in control of the reins of government, belongs to a different category of leaders, with a coherent philosophy of the world based on the thesis, not of the inevitability of war, but of the imperative of competitive coexistence.

We may or may not agree with his philosophy or with his aims, but we have very good reasons to believe that he does not want war. The West does not seem to appreciate the full significance of this obvious change of political climate in the Soviet Union.

I submit that this analysis is trivial insofar as it is correct, and that it completely misses the decisive issue.

No statesman in his senses wants war as an end in itself; that was as true of Stalin as it is of Khrushchev and as it has been of most statesmen in modern times. The real issue, to which Mr. U Thant does not address himself at all, is whether certain statesmen pursue objectives which can only be achieved at the risk or through the actual employment of war. Two examples of such objectives are the Communization of the world by the Soviet Union and the establishment of an Asian empire by China. The difference between the foreign policies of Stalin and Khrushchev is a matter of method, not of objectives; Mr. Khrushchev’s words and deeds testify to that. A case could even be made in support of the proposition that Stalin’s objectives were limited in the tradition of Czarist imperialism while Khrushchev’s objectives restore the universalistic aims of Lenin. How would Mr. U Thant have the West react to that change? His answer is: through bargaining and the give and take of compromise. These are indeed instruments of foreign policy which, as I have tried to point out for the past fifteen years, have been too little used by the government of the United States. But they must be used with discrimination; they are not universal principles. There are situations in which compromise is appropriate; there are others in which it is not. After all, the Munich settlement of 1938 was also a compromise ! To turn to the present, how do you bargain with a nation that believes in the inevitable universal triumph of Communism and regards itself as charged with the mission of bringing about your doom? What can you give a nation by way of compromise if that nation is bent on taking all? How can India bargain with China, when China is seeking its downfall?

Mr. U Thant does not raise these questions, and as Secretary-General of the United Nations he has no business raising them. But the questions he has raised instead are the wrong questions. By raising questions which he should not have raised at all even if they had been the right ones, he has put in jeopardy the effectiveness of his office. Since without the effectiveness of that office the United Nations cannot survive as an instrument for the preservation and restoration of peace, he has done a disservice to the international organization which under present circumstances must stand or fall with him.

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