The United Nations: Challenges and Leadership
By René Wadlow
To dream of vast horizons of the Soul
Through dreams made whole,
Unfettered, free — help me!
Help me make our world anew.
- Langston Hughes
The United Nations remains the only universally representative body the world has to deal with threats to international peace and security. However, the nature of the threats to international security has changed, and the United Nations, just as the national governments which make it up, have difficulty meeting these new challenges.
The United Nations was born with the start of the Cold War. In the early months of 1945, it was obvious that Nazi Germany would be defeated and that the Soviet Union would be facing the three Western allies: the USA, the UK and France in that order. The war with Japan, while important militarily, never had the same intellectual impact on the drafters of the UN Charter as had the war on Germany.
At the creation of the United Nations, there was a two-pronged view of security. One prong looked to disputes which can lead to aggression and which must be met by cooperative military action through the Security Council. The second prong focused upon the need for social and economic advancement of all peoples. This two-pronged approach arose from an analysis of the events leading to the Second World War: territorial disputes which led to armed aggression and a world-wide economic crisis which led to political dictatorships and nationalistic economic policies which prevented cooperative action .
William Rappard, Swiss historian and participant-observer of the League of Nations wrote early in 1946 “The UN was born of and during a great war. The founders of the organization were both the initial, pacific victims of, and the final, complete victors over, the bellicose foes whose wanton aggression had obliged them to fight in self-defense. The consequence of the belligerent origin of the UN is, in my eyes, its hierarchic structure, its authoritarian spirit, and the unpacified and militant character of the most significant provisions of the Charter. In war there is and there can be no equality of nations. The powerful command and the weak obey…that is why the San Francisco Charter, drafted as it was by the belligerent allies before the end of the hostilities, much as it speaks of the sovereign equality of states violates that principle to a degree unknown in all previous annals of international law. It not only distributes influence according to importance as did the Covenant of the League of Nations by recognizing the privileged position of the permanent members of the Council. But, what is much more debatable, the Charter further creates two distinct sets of rights and duties. It, in fact, places the five great powers above the law laid down for the others, a procedure for which there is, to my knowledge, neither precedent in the law of nations, nor analogy in any liberal national constitution. Not only is the international aristocracy of the powerful recognized as such in the Charter and endowed with almost unlimited authority over the underprivileged masses, but its individual members are assured of almost unlimited impunity in case of violation of their pacific covenants. It is therefore not cynicism but only clearsightedness to note that the freedom of the underprivileged members of the UN is conditioned by the disunity of their privileged masters.”
The disunity among the privileged masters — the five permanent members of the Security Council — has far exceeded what was predicted in 1946, although some analysts foresaw difficulties from the start. Stefan Possony writing in the Yale Law Journal also in 1946 noted that “While the Charter may offer protection against small dangers, it offers none against the chief danger — war between the big powers. The UN will possibly be able to prevent some wars, especially those which break out without being willed by anybody. That the UN will be able to master the great crises of history and prevent those major wars which are provoked deliberately by powerful nations is doubtful; in fact, it is highly improbable… We have seen that attempts to outlaw war must, in some way or other, be based upon the sanctity of the status quo,, at least as long as there are no effective methods of peaceful change.”
Although the Soviet Union was widely considered as a “revolutionary” government, its main aim, as that of the Western states, was to maintain the status quo and the current division of power. The Cold War structured international relations, and although there were dangerous moments and an expensive arms build up, the period 1945 -1990 was one of little change and, with the exception of the 1950-1953 Korean War, few cases of cross-frontier aggression where the Security Council could act.
The end of formal colonialism brought a multitude of new states into the UN. There was little change in UN structures. The aim stressed by the states of the Third World of “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” were part of the UN’s goals from the start. While much of the UN system is devoted to helping the developing world, there were few changes in the dominant socio-economic system during the Cold War period.
As Gwynne Dyer noted “The United Nations was not founded by popular demand. It was created by governments who were terrified by where the existing system was leading them, and could not afford to ignore the grim realities of the situation by taking refuge in the comforting myths about independence and national security that pass for truth in domestic political discourse. The people who actually have the responsibility for running foreign policy in most countries, and especially in the great powers, know that the present international system is in potentially terminal trouble, and many of them have drawn the necessary conclusion.”
It was the break up of the Soviet Union along with the disintegration of Yugoslavia that put an end to Cold War structures and their ideological justifications. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN has had difficulty in finding its role in the intra-state conflicts which have followed such as those in former Yugoslavia, Chechenya, and in several African states.
The UN’s current difficulties are a reflection of the tests and trials of humanity moving toward a world civilization where the forces of world unity play a more dominant role than the forces of separation and of limited solidarities.
Since its establishment, the crucial role of the United Nations has been to lay the foundations of such a world civilization based on world law and justice. Due to the awareness-building efforts of the UN, an ever larger number of people see their lives in a cooperative focus rather than a confrontational one.
There are four closely related challenges which must be met by the UN system:
The first is the globalization of the world economy. The world economy is becoming more globalized than ever, though its working is hardly understood, and it is without direction or control. Thus, there must be better policy coherence and cooperation between the United Nations, its Specialized Agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, multilateral bodies, and the private sector which is the motor of globalization.
The second challenge, closely related to the first, is the need for ecologically-sound development with a particular emphasis on the need to reduce the number of people living in poverty and without access to basic services: shelter, water and food, education, health, and employment.
The third challenge is to deal effectively with new forms of violence, in particular intra-state conflict. Such conflicts and the resultant refugee flows are not merely a separation from the old home and community but also from the customary restraints and humane values that hold people together in settled circumstances.
The fourth challenge, closely related to the third, is increased respect for the rule of law and human rights.
To meet these four challenges, we need leadership. As D. Rudhyar noted “We must summon from within us the courage to meet, with open eyes and minds free of archaic allegiances, the present-day release of unparalleled and utterly transforming potentialities for planet-wide rebirth.” Enlightened leadership with clear vision and with political courage in articulating the way the world has changed and the directional flow of the next cycle is needed. Such leadership within the UN Secretariat, within national governments and within non-governmental organizations will improve the quality of the United Nations so that it will be a transformed instrument for the benefit of all the world’s people.
René Wadlow is Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.