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The Clamor to Remake the UN Misunderstands Its History


Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, left, and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in the Security Council on Sept. 30, 2015, during a break in a meeting on counterterrorism. KIM HAUGHTON/UN PHOTO

It is a well-known story that the five world powers at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 — the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Great Britain and France — set up the organization so that they alone could control it. They did this by reserving the veto power to themselves. But what is not often recalled is that the arrangement was the only way the body could have been established. The US and the USSR, in particular, made it absolutely clear to the other participating nations from the start that they would not join the organization without having secured that fundamental right. And, had Washington and Moscow not joined, the UN would undoubtedly have gone the way of the League of Nations.

Forming the UN was an act of realpolitik. The smaller states at San Francisco understood this and reluctantly accepted the situation because they could see no better option. For them, it was smarter to have the big powers inside the tent than outside it. One could argue that one reason the UN has survived over the past 70 years is partly because the institution based itself on the global power realities of that era.

That is the organization that we live with today. But few people would disagree that it must be reformed. Power realities in 2015 are profoundly different than they were in 1945. However, it is also fair to say that nothing is going to happen on reform anytime soon. As we celebrate the venerable 70th anniversary of this assemblage this year, the world surely understands that we still must maintain our main focus on the organization’s strengths in order to assure the influence and continuing governance of the UN around the planet. Notwithstanding the UN’s retrograde structure, it remains the task of the 193 member states to build on those areas where the institution has made significant differences around the globe rather than dwelling solely on its weaknesses.

For example, despite the paralysis of the 45 years of the Cold War — and with the participation of the five veto powers — recall that the UN in the 1950s introduced the novel concept of peacekeeping. That is now a permanent operational mechanism in the UN’s tool kit. Indeed, there are now 16 or so peacekeeping missions at work today. Now we know that all these operations are not themselves paragons of virtue. We know that many units in the field are badly supplied, lack sufficient equipment and don’t always show good leadership. But at least the UN is acting where others won’t. It is incumbent on the member states to improve their abilities and upgrade their personnel of the peacekeepers.

The UN in the past has also helped to settle conflicts in countries like El Salvador, Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guatemala — and in that last country alone in 2007 it established an outside independent investigative commission that just recently forced the ouster of a crooked president. In addition, the UN has, at present, emissaries in almost every conflict zone on the globe — Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — trying to bring about peaceful settlements. In many ways, these envoys are occasionally viewed as ineffective. But they can only be effective when the two (or more) sides to a dispute are ready to negotiate.

Until that happens, these UN representatives remain available to push the process forward and initiate talks when the opportunity arises. The UN is the only body in the world that can achieve this movement forward. It is important to focus on strengthening the UN’s peacemaking capacities and shoring up its envoy system.

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Finally, one paradox of the UN Charter is that it was not really written as a peace-building document — though that is its public repute. In fact, it was mainly written as a militaristic document. When one looks at Chapter 7 of the Charter, it is full of language endorsing sanctions, embargoes, air attacks, military actions and related armed measures. Indeed, the delegates to San Francisco figured that after two catastrophic world wars in which about 90 million people died, the UN’s first duty was to prevent a third world war. The Charter counted on the five veto states to act collectively to thwart future aggressors.

Then the Cold War intervened. Finally, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Charter’s mandate was fulfilled. At that time, the five permanent member states, working together under the umbrella of the Security Council, forged their first joint action in 45 years, ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the first Gulf War — just as the founders envisaged for the body. Since then, their togetherness has been more fitful but evident, as in the approved sanctions on North Korea and Iran and in support for peacekeeping missions abroad. Collective action, however, still must be reactivated.

The argument here is not to maintain the status quo. Instead, it is the pragmatic notion that the UN membership should use the best of what the body can offer — until the time for real change eventually arrives.

Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.

Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.

Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.

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