Commentary Magazine

What Can the UN Do?

A pile of new books on the United Nations1 is usually enough to drive even the most public-spirited man to his Ian Fleming. After all, what can be said about the UN that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? And if anything new could be said, what difference would it make? The UN seems here to stay, its longevity assured by the fact that it knows its place. It has not been allowed to interfere with the vital interests of the super-powers, nor to intervene in areas where world peace is really threatened. Except for the lunatic fringe of Maoists and Birchites, the UN has no real enemies. Liberals sing its praises, conservatives accept it as a minor inconvenience, and virtually everyone agrees with U Thant’s recent assurance of “how much sorrier a state the world would now be in if the United Nations had not existed.”

It is, of course, easy to take the name of the UN in vain, but few people would be tempted to dispense with it altogether. It is too useful, too sacrosanct, and, when it comes to the really crucial issues, too irrelevant. Therein lies the secret of its success. It has won the world’s heart because it has not stepped on any powerful nation’s toes—or at least not hard enough to do any damage. Having settled for weakness as the price of survival, the UN has been absorbed into the world power structure. Why attack it for not being more than it is, when what it is serves most people’s interests so well? If the UN did not exist, we would have to invent it, and what we would invent would probably be very much like what we have today. This is the tragedy of the UN, and also the reason for its endurance.

However, the fact that we are stuck with the kind of UN we deserve does not prevent us from yearning for something better, or from berating the failure of the organization to live up to our own romantic expectations—expectations which would probably horrify us if they were ever realized. We are all victims of our own illusions about what the UN is supposed to be, and we make the UN itself the scapegoat for our disappointments. This is illustrated by T. R. Fehrenbach who, in arguing for more realism about the role and the powers of the UN, fails to apply his own analysis. Unable to free himself from the assumption that the real value of the UN lies in its usefulness as an instrument of American foreign policy, he has written a book which is less interesting as an analysis of the UN than as an example of the confusion and conflicting motives most Americans bring to the subject. A staccato-like scenario of the cold war, filled with glib generalizations and rather simplistic conclusions, This Kind of Peace contains little that might help to explain the part the UN has or might have in maintaining any kind of peace.

As an exposé of an organization that hardly needs exposing, Mr. Fehrenbach’s book falls short even of the high-level gossip provided by Hernane Tavares de Sa, a disgruntled Brazilian who was formerly head of the UN information services. A born storyteller, Senhor Tavares vents his spleen—deftly, but often with tiresome pettiness—on the foibles of the UN and those who run it. The Play Within the Play suffers from being confined to the limits of non-fiction. The author’s malicious tongue and gift for dialogue qualify him for writing a delightful novel, or even a real play. Now that Senhor Tavares is free from the confinements of Turtle Bay, one hopes that he will use these gifts to write the dramatic farce which he sees the UN as exemplifying. Surely the organization deserves its Alan Drury, and Senhor Tavares is more than well-equipped for that role. As it stands, however, the comic impact of his “inside story of the UN” is weakened by his unfortunate attempts at political analysis.



On a more serious level, James J. Wadsworth, who at one time served as American representative to the UN, also provides the reader with an insider’s view, one which makes up in sincerity what it lacks in wit. In emphasizing such non-political aspects of the UN as the technical assistance program, UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, and WHO, The Glass House helps put the organization into perspective and to remind us that for much of the world’s population the UN stands for economic and social progress rather than for the political millennium. The shortcomings of the UN as a peacekeeping organization have tended to obscure some of its real achievements in the field of economic and social affairs—which comprise about three-quarters of its activities. For the press, to be sure, “the pounding of a shoe reverberates with a hundred times more decibels than the feeding and care of millions of children.” Whatever its other shortcomings, however, the UN has been dispensing a considerable amount of foreign aid, and that is perhaps the most useful thing it could do.

The idea that the real role of the UN is that of a global welfare agency strikes many people as irreverant, or even as subversive of the UN’s high political ambitions. Those who live in the prosperous countries of the West are not likely to be aware of the effects, or even existence, of the UN’s welfare and technical assistance programs, and thus tend to see the organization entirely in political terms. Unless it punishes aggressors, keeps the peace, and sows the seeds of world government, such people assume that the UN is clearly failing in its task. But this merely reveals their own preoccupations. Every country has its own view of the proper function of the UN. The United States wants to use it to contain Communism and to smother left-wing revolutions. The Europeans see it as a useful forum for the airing of grievances and as a convenient center for diplomatic contact among nations. The Russians view it as a necessary evil in which they must participate, lest the “imperialists” monopolize it. And the economically backward ex-colonial states cling to it as the instrument by which they can make their anxieties felt and can shame the wealthy nations into providing more economic assistance. Every country, then, wants to use the UN for its own purposes, and those who fail to recognize this fall victim to their own mythology.



Professor Alf Ross, a Danish philosopher of international law, has no illusions about the motives that inspire the member-states of the UN, nor does he betray much sentimentality about the organization’s utopian ambitions. Nevertheless, he thinks that the UN can be a significant instrument for allowing the major powers of the world to defend their interests by means less primitive than periodic slaughter. He argues that unless the great powers have a vested interest in preserving the UN, and unless it can be made relevant to the necessities of their own diplomacy, the UN cannot hope to survive. To breathe new life into the UN, Professor Ross would therefore have it transformed into a benevolent dictatorship by which the great powers keep the peace. With impressive scholarship, with clarity and felicity of style, he presents his case that world peace, if it ever comes, will more likely be achieved through a dictatorship of the super-powers than through majority voting in the General Assembly. Thus Professor Ross would reform the UN in accordance with the intention of its founders by establishing a great-power directorate in the Security Council. Despite its rather ponderous title, The United Nations: Peace and Progress is an engaging and highly informative work by one of the more serious scholars who have tried to cope with the woes of the international organization.

Given the inability of the great powers to agree on much of anything over the past twenty years, Professor Ross’s prescription for great-power unanimity may sound utopian, but it is based on the assumption that the super-powers have a common interest in preventing the UN from being used in a manner detrimental to themselves. This view is confirmed by the increasing tendency of America and Russia to deal with their differences privately, rather than to drag them into the UN, where they are subject to the scrutiny, the diatribes, and the adverse votes of the mini-powers. Over the past few years, there has been a steady movement away from the General Assembly, where the super-powers have to lobby for the votes of states like Chad and Malawi, and back to the Security Council, where they enjoy the prerogatives of the veto. Perhaps it is too late for a great-power dictatorship such as Professor Ross favors, for the superpowers no longer rule the world as they did a decade or two ago, and there are now a good many matters about which they cannot hope to do much more than agree to disagree. But they do share a real disenchantment with the General Assembly, where every nation enjoys an equal vote. Even the United States, which tried to augment the powers of the General Assembly so long as it enjoyed a majority of votes there, has increasingly of late come to look upon the Security Council with new affection.

Up to now the United States has been able to avoid using the veto in the Security Council. Its abstinence, however, stems less from respect for principle than from the ability to protect its interests in other ways so effectively that the UN has rarely dared to approve resolutions considered unfriendly to Washington. Anyone entertaining any illusions about the role of the United States within the UN will find them ably demolished in John G. Stoessinger’s The United Nations and the Superpowers, a compact and enlightening study of great-power interactions in the world organization. The author, a professor of political science at Hunter College, is well aware that America has at times seen fit to support an expansion of the powers of the General Assembly and the Secretary-General, but he points out that there are also periods “when the American interest dictates a more conservative role for the UN.” In the past, therefore, “the United States has employed the hidden veto [pressure in the General Assembly], attacked the Secretariat, prolonged the membership stalemate, fought for the exclusion of Red China, withdrawn support from the IRO [International Refugee Organization], bypassed the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], and attacked the unanimity principle of the Special Fund.”

But according to Mr. Stoessinger, such moves—as well as those undertaken by Russia to protect her national interests—have strengthened rather than harmed the UN; they have forced it to develop its own political resources for circumventing the great-power impasse. The UN, he argues, “has moved forward because of the super-power struggle as well as in spite of it.” He sees the UN as a pawn which “has had to learn to live between the giants and, ultimately, to capitalize on that position.” By so doing, he believes, it may continue to augment its strength and perhaps one day become a powerful political force.



If, however, the UN were to develop such power, would it be a force for peace or for greater instability? To make the UN relevant as a political body is to give it political power, and this can be done only at the sufferance of the great powers. But is a great-power dictatorship any more likely to secure the peace than great-power antagonisms held in check by a balance of forces? And if the great powers should refuse to play such a role, can the disparate member-states of the UN evolve any system that is more likely to approximate international justice than the current system? Those who would augment the political effectiveness of the UN, who would endow it with an independent army and vastly expanded “peace-keeping” powers, usually fail to come to terms with the likely consequences of such a move. It would mean either the collusion of the great powers and, in effect, the imposition of a great-power dictatorship—which has been tried before and has failed—or it would mean that the great powers would be willing to allow a majority in the General Assembly to impose its will on recalcitrant minorities. Yet to accept this is to endow the member-states of the UN with virtually unlimited powers to punish a nation even for its domestic policies.

The problem inherent in this punishment power is being dramatized today in the case of Rhodesia, whose internal policies are repugnant to a majority of nations in the General Assembly. For this reason, Rhodesia has been declared a “threat to the peace,” thereby permitting Chapter VII of the Charter to be called into use. Under this provision the UN has, for the first time in its history, made economic sanctions obligatory upon all UN members, and even upon non-members. A failure to observe such sanctions is thus a violation of international law. These are extraordinary powers, and, if followed to their logical conclusion, would result in the dispatch of a UN “peace-keeping” force to subdue the government of Rhodesia.

Since it is exceedingly unlikely that economic sanctions will succeed in bringing down the Smith regime, there will probably be demands from the General Assembly for more stringent action: for a blockade of South Africa and the Portuguese territories to plug the holes in the embargo. The African nations, incapable of providing such a blockade themselves, must call upon the great powers to do so. Is the United States willing to blockade South Africa, Angola, and Mozambique? Is it willing to support the invasion of Rhodesia by an African army wearing UN helmets? Is it willing to dedicate itself to the overthrow of governments because their internal policies are repugnant to a majority in the General Assembly, or to the views of most Americans? If so, why single out Rhodesia, whose racist policies, however obnoxious, are no more obnoxious than the domestic policies of many of the nations which voted for sanctions?

What is involved here is not a principle, but an act of expediency. Sanctions were imposed upon Rhodesia because the British government has been incapable of either defeating the Smith regime or coming to terms with it. In desperation, it therefore turned to the UN, where nations which are unable to agree on anything else are able to form a majority to denounce white colonialism. The UN has allowed itself to be used as a dumping ground for London’s failure, and has responded with a gesture that could conceivably set the stage for a race war in southern Africa.

After having shown its inability to deal with such real threats to the peace as the Berlin crisis, Suez, Budapest, and Vietnam, the UN has now bravely pounced upon Rhodesia and has unleashed its vast legal powers to punish her as a “threat to the peace.” While bombs are falling and people are dying in Vietnam, while millions are suffering from malnutrition, while uncontrolled population growth breeds misery, frustration, and perhaps future aggression, the UN has decided that the real danger to the peace of the world is a government in Salisbury which will no longer accept instructions from London. By the kind of irony that is becoming the hallmark of the UN, the very nations which so pride themselves on their anti-colonialism are trying to punish Rhodesia for refusing to behave like a colony.

Before we lend our own power to the support of such actions, we would do well to ask whether they might not be a greater threat to the peace than the policies of the government they are designed to punish. Then, too, we ought to ask ourselves whether we would ever be willing to tolerate this kind of intervention in our own internal affairs.

By using Chapter VII to interfere in a nation’s domestic policies, the UN might well be laying the ground for a crisis within its own ranks. Gestures against a small and friendless state like Rhodesia are cheap, but to expand the powers of the UN in this way is to make the organization itself an instrument of aggression by temporary majorities. Intervention in a nation’s domestic affairs rarely ensures justice; in many cases it is likely to furnish the pretext for the imposition of puppet governments by the great powers, or for the kind of military conflagration that the UN is supposedly designed to prevent. The justification of intervention as a way of helping a lawful government deal with its internal problems—or of forcing it to deal with its problems in a manner congenial to the intervening powers—is, as Alf Ross comments, “one of the most unfortunate principles of international law of our time,” for it “opens the way for infiltration and camouflaged invasions.”



The un charter is flexible, to be sure, but it cannot be stretched too far without endangering the existence of the organization itself. If the UN should founder, the small nations would be the ones to suffer, not the great ones, for it is the mini-powers that benefit most from the UN. It gives them a forum to express their grievances and, what is more important, it provides the technical assistance on which they are so dependent. The UN is a luxury for the great powers, which use or ignore it at their pleasure. It is, however, a necessity for the small powers, for without it they would have an even harder time than they do now in making their presence felt and their wishes known. Basically, the UN is their organization, but unless they are willing to show a sense of restraint about the use of its political powers, they may well provoke the very crisis that could lead to its demise.

The UN ought to survive because its virtues are numerous, its idealism desirable, and its drawbacks—so far—minimal. The world deserves something better than the deification of the nation-state, and if the UN can provide the possibility of an alternative, it merits our continuing sympathy and support. But the price of survival in this world is relevance. Unless the UN is able to bring its actions into line with its principles, and unless it can be made into something more than the plaything of the super-powers and the instrument of irresponsible mini-powers, it may suffer the fate of its predecessor. This would be regrettable and perhaps even tragic. But it would be even more tragic to allow the UN to be twisted into an arbitrary international gendarmery which places small and defenseless nations at the mercy of great-power opportunists and mini-power Machiavellis.

Today it is Rhodesia’s turn to have the vast legal powers inherent in the UN Charter applied against it by states whose domestic policy is, in many ways, no better than her own. Tomorrow it could be the turn of other isolated and weak states such as Portugal—or Israel. The precedent is a dangerous one that liberals, idealists, and even one-worlders should be wary of. It may be important to make the UN powerful. It is even more important to ensure that it does not use its potential power to enforce a tyranny of the majority.




1 This Kind of Peace by T. R. Fehrenbach, McKay, 402 pp., $6.50; The Play Within the Play by Hernane Tavares de Sa, Knopf, 309 pp., $5.95; The Glass House by James J. Wadsworth, Praeger, 224 pp., $4.95; The United Nations: Peace and Progress, by Alf Ross, Bedminster, 443 pp., $8.00; The United Nations and the Superpowers by John G. Stoessinger, Random House, 206 pp. $3.95.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest