Commentary Magazine

What Use Is the UN?

For a golden jubilee, the celebrations were strangely subdued. To commemorate 50 years since the founding of the United Nations, the General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution expressing satisfaction that the world body had “survived and played an important role,” gamely noting the UN’s ongoing “determination” to prevent war and to “invigorate the dialogue and partnership between all countries.” In a manner utterly characteristic of the institution, it took 32 meetings for a committee to come up with this text, with its opaque bromides about “accelerating globalization and interdependence” and ensuring the “maximization of the benefits from and the minimization of the negative effects of” something or other.

As for the United States, whose brainchild the UN was, its press and politicians were equally restrained on the occasion, coupling dogged incantations of faith in the organization with an unmistakable underlying disenchantment. The New York Times commented: “Without significant changes in organization and behavior, the UN will lose its remaining effectiveness and public support.” Newsweek: “No one loves the United Nations.” Time “How beautiful. How brave. How naive.” Even President Clinton could come up with nothing better than: “The dreams of [the UN’s] founders have not been fully realized, but its promise endures.”

These pathetic encomia should be measured not only against the grand ambitions which attended the birth of the organization 50 years earlier but against the more chastened hopes of only five years ago. Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. ambassador to the world body, framed the question then by writing that with the end of the cold war, “we will finally see how useful the United Nations can be.” Around the same time, the columnist Morton Kondracke, no starry-eyed romantic, observed that “the United Nations is suddenly alive again and doing useful work.” And a report by the Bush administration declared that “the United Nations has been given a new lease on life, emerging as a central instrument for the prevention and resolution of conflicts and the preservation of peace.”

Soon a new Secretary General would turn these vague hopes into policy. The United Nations, declared Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was “suddenly at the center of international efforts to deal with unresolved problems of the past decades as well as an emerging array of present and future issues.” He exhorted the member nations “to seize this extraordinary opportunity to expand, adapt, and reinvigorate the work of the United Nations.” In particular, the new Secretary General proposed to activate long-moribund provisions of the UN Charter for a permanent military force to undertake missions more ambitious than traditional UN peacekeeping. These would include “peace-enforcement,” “respond[ing] to outright aggression, imminent or actual,” and even “preventive deployment” within wartorn countries “to alleviate suffering and to limit and control violence.” The goal, said a spokesman, was to create a “Pax UN.”

Boutros-Ghali’s aspirations struck a responsive chord in Bill Clinton. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton advocated establishing a “new voluntary UN rapid-deployment force.” Once in office, he declared that “UN peacekeeping holds the promise to resolve many of this era’s conflicts.” For Clinton, the idea of a newly assertive UN was not only attractive in itself, it held the additional promise of alleviating America’s international burdens and thereby leaving him free to focus on the domestic economy. As his ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, explained, “multilateral action” offered a “third alternative” between the two repugnant extremes of “self-absorption” and “hyperactivity,” that is, between isolationism and playing the world’s policeman.

But Clinton’s wishful thinking and Boutros-Ghali’s grand plans soon came a cropper in a string of debacles in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia.



In his own final days in office, President Bush had dispatched American forces to Somalia under UN auspices to bring a halt to mass starvation by protecting the delivery of food and medicine. But Bush resisted pressures from Boutros-Ghali to take larger responsibility for the “reestablishment of national and regional institutions and civil administration in the entire country” (in the words of a Security Council resolution). When Bush left office, however, his successor proved much less resistant to Boutros-Ghali’s plans. Months after the starvation had been ended, American troops were still in Somalia, working, as Ambassador Albright put it, to “help lift [Somalia] and its people from the category of a failed state into that of an emerging democracy.” In that effort, a company of U.S. Army Rangers was wiped out in the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993, precipitating a hasty American departure and soon thereafter a termination of the UN mission.

The toll of the Somalia misadventure was to be counted not only in the lives of Americans but in the far more numerous lives of the Tutsi of Rwanda. There, six months later, in the clearest case of genocide since Hitler, a vast slaughter occurred which claimed a half million or more victims. Unlike the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda was carried out in full view—and yet, despite the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the UN, having been burned in Somalia, simply stood by and watched.

Nay, it did worse. It so happened that a small UN military force was already stationed in Rwanda, the legacy of an earlier conflict. To this day its commander, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, insists that with 1,800 properly equipped men he could have stopped the slaughter. But when the bloodletting began, instead of sending reinforcements, the UN hastened to withdraw most of its forces after ten soldiers were killed trying to protect the moderate Hutu prime minister from Hutu extremists. Moreover, it now appears that UN superiors chose to ignore Dallaire’s early intelligence of the genocidal plans of the extremists.

If the UN’s debacles in Somalia and Rwanda were demonstrations, respectively, of naivete and cowardice, its role in Bosnia was still more discreditable, for there it actively abetted the very same evil it officially exists to combat.

As the disintegration of Yugoslavia reached a climax in the summer of 1991, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo. The Western states that voted for the embargo, presumably failing to foresee its effect—namely, that it would work to cripple all but the Serbs—acted merely in a knee-jerk reflex. Then various Yugoslav republics, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, seceded, were granted diplomatic recognition, and were admitted to the UN as independent states. But despite the Charter’s explicit affirmation of every member’s “inherent right of . . . self-defense,” Boutros-Ghali determined that the arms embargo on Yugoslavia should now apply to its successor states, and the Security Council concurred.

Having thus deprived the Bosnians of the means to defend themselves effectively, the UN assigned “peacekeepers” to facilitate the delivery of relief supplies. In mid-1993, the Security Council declared six cities in Bosnia to be “safe areas” to which Muslims fleeing “ethnic cleansing” might repair. Though the Security Council authorized the use of force in protection of these safe areas, the UN peacekeepers were allowed to fire only if they themselves were fired upon, not if the people under their putative protection were targeted. Thus, for the better part of a year, under the imperturbable eyes of the UN, Serbian snipers and artillery rained murder and mayhem on Sarajevo and the five other safe areas.



There is little point in rehearsing the rest of the sorry story of the UN’s engagement in Bosnia. Suffice it to say that in it the cowardice, buck-passing, and appeasement which have become the organization’s hallmarks were brought to full fruition. It was, indeed, this universally perceived moral failure that may have accounted for the tepidness of the 50th-birthday wishes. It is also what renders inadequate the various proposals now being bandied about for structural reform of the institution.

To be sure, UN practices cry out for administrative reforms. But most of the nostrums now being pushed by various statesmen and blue-ribbon panels would only make matters worse. Thus, enlarging the Security Council would compound the UN’s entropy. Giving it powers of taxation would compound its irresponsibility.

Even if the various proposed changes were meritorious, however, they would barely scratch the surface, for they are only procedural solutions to failings deeply substantive. In the area of human rights, for example, the world body has proved nothing short of a farce. Although membership on the Commission on Human Rights rotates, it invariably includes representatives of the most brutal governments on earth. At virtually every session, the Commission denounces human-rights violations in Israel, but it has never denounced them in Saudi Arabia. In 1995, it issued a scathing report exposing rife human-rights abuses in . . . the United States; it has never ordered a report on abuses in China.

Similarly, in its cherished field of “development,” the world body has played a positively harmful role. It was the UN that in the 1950’s and 1960’s enshrined the now discredited theory of “dependency,” the brainchild of the head of the UN Commission on Trade and Development. This theory taught third-world governments that to develop their industries they needed to protect them from foreign competition. Many heeded the call, and paid the price in decades of stagnation.

The UN’s most profound failure, however, has been in the area of global security, the very reason for which it was brought into existence.

When a violation of the peace arises, the first response prescribed in the Charter is economic sanctions. These have been imposed five times, and in the words of Sir Anthony Parsons, a former British ambassador to the UN, “On all these occasions, albeit for different reasons in each case, they have proved ineffective.”

When economic sanctions fail, the Charter envisions military action, as set forth in Articles 42 through 49. These articles provide for the creation of a Military Staff Committee to assist the Security Council in launching military action “to maintain or restore international peace and security.” For this purpose, all member states undertake to make military units “available” to the Security Council “on its call.”

Although the Military Staff Committee has indeed been brought into nominal existence, none of the other provisions has ever been acted upon. Again to quote Parsons, even in the case of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait “no serious attempt . . . was made to activate the Military Staff Committee . . ., still less to put Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm under the control of the Security Council. The United States and its allies were in effect given carte blanche.” Parsons’s point—a crucial one—is that this was no mere oversight:

It is in fact hard to see how a large-scale, logistically complex and minutely planned operation such as Desert Storm could in practice have been organized by a committee . . . comprising American, Russian, Chinese, British, and French officers, while so diverse a body as the fifteen-member Security Council would have been hard put to it to “plan the application of armed force,” even to maintain the minimum of military security required with Cuba and Yemen present at the table.

Useless when it comes to providing security, the UN can, it is true, sometimes serve a diplomatic function. Indeed, as the cold war ended, a variety of local conflicts were ripe for settlement in such places as Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia; in each of these, the UN served as mediator. And in cases where parties to a conflict have already agreed to a settlement, UN forces, even though they lack the capacity to compel compliance, can serve as observers or provide early warning.

Yet instances in which this has occurred or is likely to occur are few and far between. And as for UN mediation, the results of that in the last decade have been, as even so staunch an internationalist as Abba Eban has written, “relatively meager” when considered “against the more impressive achievements of conventional diplomacy” in the same period.

This record undermines the excuse proffered by defenders of the UN for its failures: namely, that they are the failures of its individual constituents. Even to the extent that this is true, it still begs the question of whether the organization brings out the best or the worst in its members. In fact, not only has the UN failed to promote beneficent action by individual states on the world stage, it has positively impeded or discouraged it. Absent the UN, for example, the American mission to rescue Somalia almost surely would have gone better, and it is also conceivable that more would have been done to halt the genocide in Rwanda, either by African states or by others. In Bosnia, there would have been no arms embargo tying the hands of the victims, and no one could have prevented U.S. or NATO air strikes to stop the shelling of civilian centers. Whether it was the Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi, the English general Michael Rose, or the French general Bernard Janvier, the most shameful roles in Bosnia were played by public servants wearing the colors of the UN.



The UN was born in the late 1940’s out of a recognition that the Allied nations had helped to bring on a global conflict by failing to respond in time to halt Nazi aggression. Through policies of shortsighted selfishness, they had contributed to what Churchill so memorably called “the unnecessary war.” To prevent a recurrence, the doctrine of “collective security” became the central basis of the UN.

But this doctrine actually conflated two separable ideas. One was the “indivisibility of peace,” i.e., that there is a universal interest in upholding a principled stand against aggression. The other was that the best way to stop aggression is by some mechanism of collective action.

But is it? Upon signing the UN Charter, President Truman declared: “If we had had this Charter a few years ago—and above all the will to use it—millions now dead would be alive.” This statement, repeated in countless enthusiastic editorials, was true only in its reference to the element of will. For when the aggression that grew into World War II began, there already was a charter, not of the UN but of the League of Nations. It, too, was based on the theory of collective security. But when Japan attacked Manchuria in 1931, the League’s response was to create a study commission, which after nearly a year’s deliberation duly rebuked Japanese aggression. The only certifiable act that ensued was Japan’s resignation from the League.

The League got a second chance in 1935, when Mussolini ordered his armies to conquer Abyssinia. The emperor, Haile Selassie, appealed for help, and the League declared Italy guilty of aggression, buttressing this with economic sanctions which, in the words of one historian, “were purposely designed to ensure their ineffectiveness.” Four years later, the League expelled the Soviet Union for invading Finland, but again took no forceful action.

In sum, it would have been more accurate for Truman to say that “if we had had Churchill as Prime Minister of England a few years ago, millions now dead would be alive.” Had Churchill been in power in 1935, when Hitler shredded the Treaty of Versailles and marched his unready armies into the Rhineland, England and France surely would have resisted—charter or no charter, League or no League, UN or no UN. And as we now know, if that had happened, the German armies would have turned back at once, conceivably leading to Hitler’s downfall.

Similarly, in the 50 years since the UN’s founding, the world has witnessed somewhere between one and two dozen cases of aggression. Twice the organization has embarked on “collective security”: in Korea and Kuwait. Both actions were American-led and -organized, and Americans did most of the fighting; in both cases, America would have acted even in the absence of the UN, and many others would have joined in.

Trying to defend the UN against its record in Bosnia, the columnist Robert Wright has written: “collective security didn’t fail in Bosnia; it was never tried.” But there is no doubt that, in Bosnia as elsewhere, if the nations had united against aggression they would have prevailed. The question is whether the doctrine of collective security and the presence of the UN make such action by any of them more or less likely.

In the end, whatever useful function the United Nations may still perform—as a kind of salon for the exchange of ideas and information, perhaps, or as a place where America can round up a posse when necessary—the critical agency for securing peace in our time is not the UN but the U.S. To the degree the world organization feeds American illusions, or constrains American actions, it is less an asset to global security than a liability.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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