It is long overdue for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to intervene more forcefully in Russia’s war on Ukraine and use his good offices to try to forge a cease-fire and work out a final settlement on this nightmarish conflict. We have reached a perilous moment when any number of incidents may spin out of control and lead to a nuclear confrontation between the two most powerful nuclear-equipped nations on the planet, the United States and Russia. We can wait no longer.
Enough with Guterres’s speeches about putting out fires and prevailing on Russia to stop its attacks on innocent people. Enough with condemnations and calling on Russia to abide by international humanitarian laws. Guterres told the media this week that he has talked to a number of leaders who are in “permanent contact” with Putin, but to what effect?
Guterres has a good example to follow in mitigating this conflict. Sixty years ago, another UN secretary-general, U Thant, helped bring about a settlement between the same two countries in an equally dangerous dispute, the Cuban missile crisis, which also threatened a nuclear conflagration. Admittedly the two crises — Ukraine and Cuba — were different. In Cuba, an island nation 90 miles from the US coastline, Russia shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba in the deepest secrecy. There was no invasion.
The crisis in Ukraine, on the other hand, has involved a territory embedded directly in Europe, the site of two world wars, and it has evolved very publicly, with the Russians surrounding the country for months in an open, menacing manner before launching an invasion. It’s easy to watch Russia’s destruction against Ukraine on social media, including Russia’s deadly assault on a maternity hospital in Mariupol. But the Cuban crisis did not unfold online.
U Thant almost immediately brought the UN into the crisis. On Day 4 of the showdown between Washington and Moscow, after John Kennedy’s address to his own nation about the Soviet missiles and imposing a quarantine around Cuba, U Thant sent letters to both leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy. To Khrushchev, he implored him not to dispatch any more weapons to the island nation for the next two to three weeks. To Kennedy, he urged suspension of the US blockade, also for two to three weeks. He was seeking to gain time for UN negotiations to begin by requesting these specific concessions from both parties.
One wonders why Guterres can’t jump into the Ukrainian debacle right away in a similar manner — using an all hands-on-deck approach, as U Thant did with Cuba. Admittedly, Guterres has not stood on the sidelines. Early on, he courageously risked Moscow’s wrath by calling its invasion of Ukraine a violation of the UN Charter and international law, even disparaging the Russian claim that it was sending in “peacekeeping” troops and firmly calling for a cease-fire. In taking such action, however, Guterres has so far made no obvious dent in stopping the Ukrainian war, and three million refugees have now spilled out of the country to neighboring nations in less than three weeks. Such political interventions are the secretary-general’s main job — mediating in major disputes among members of the UN to ensure that global peace and security are upheld.
Indeed, Guterres’s role has already been overtaken by the warring parties themselves — and by European leaders like French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz — all of whom appear to be carrying the bulk of the peace-making efforts. Now the leaders of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia are planning to visit Kyiv, which remains nearly entrapped by Russian troops.
European leaders trying to stop the war may be the only reality that works right now. Still perhaps unknown to us, Guterres may be working behind the scenes. A lack of a public plan from the UN does not necessarily mean that it is not pursuing a diplomatic strategy that we have not learned about yet. His deputy spokesperson said this week that “conversations continue” at different levels of the organization to try to end the fighting, though the spokesperson provided no specific information. But the whole point of the UN should always be to stop the outbreak of war and do everything within its power to accomplish that task. This was the whole reason Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill invented the organization some 77 years ago in San Francisco.
There is also another UN legal resource that could be invoked by Guterres, the UN General Assembly “Uniting for Peace” resolution states that in cases where the Security Council, because of a lack of unanimity among its five permanent members, fails to act as required to maintain international peace and security, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately and may issue appropriate recommendations to UN members for collective measures, including the use of armed force when necessary, in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.
The Assembly did step in on Feb. 28, ultimately approving a resounding resolution demanding that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine. But more could be done using the Uniting for Peace agenda.
Back in the Cuban missile crisis, as a result of U Thant’s letters on the fourth day, Khrushchev agreed to U Thant’s proposal of delaying arms shipments. President Kennedy, for his turn, said the US would be willing to start talks but would not lift its quarantine. Then U Thant presented even a more concrete offering, suggesting an agreement by the US not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets pulling out its missiles. U Thant also got promises from both parties to avoid clashes over the blockade.
Moscow and Washington, perhaps prompted by U Thant, started down a negotiating path of their own. Their private discussions led to a deal whereby the US promised not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing its missiles from the island but included a provision not publicly disclosed at the time, whereby the US also agreed to secretly withdraw its missiles from Turkey. It was clear that U Thant’s proactive meddling into this public battlefield, in reassuring both sides that they had a feasible mediator in place, helped to accelerate a compromise agreement.
The lesson Guterres can draw from U Thant is to take every action possible at his disposal to bring about the end of a war. So far, there appears to be no public liaising on the crisis between the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and Guterres. At least any such actions are not mentioned in either of their dozens of public statements on the war. And if Guterres has talked to President Macron or Chancellor Scholz, what has changed?
On March 14, the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Zbigniew Rau, spoke in person to the Security Council about the group’s work in Ukraine. Rau, the foreign minister of Poland, then spoke to the media at length after the meeting, calling out Russia’s atrocities. Guterres should have been standing there with Rau, reinforcing the messages. In the afternoon, the ambassadors of France and Mexico also held a short media briefing, announcing that they were taking their draft resolution calling for a cease-fire in Ukraine out of the Council’s purview and into the General Assembly, aiming to get more global support for it and avoid a Russian veto. Guterres should have been standing with the two envoys at the briefing, showing a unified appearance.
The crisis in Ukraine is now the most dramatic crisis that Guterres is likely to face during his entire two terms in office. He should pull out all the stops. He should make daily pleas demanding an end to the conflict — not just occasional speechreading — proposing prisoner exchanges and asking for more humanitarian corridors for civilian escape, among many steps. He should be sending emissaries to all points on the globe for help, including to Moscow. A top UN official, Rosemary DiCarlo, an American and Russia expert, should be deeply involved in such a strategy, especially if Guterres is not considered neutral in this conflict.
DiCarlo should be speaking to the media daily about what the UN is doing on all fronts. We hear a lot of statistics on the humanitarian front from UN spokespeople and top humanitarian officials but what political work is being done? What about all of Guterres’s mediating team? Where are they? Silent!
Guterres should follow up with all sorts of new proposals on how to end the fighting. He should be sending UN emissaries to as many capitals for help, including in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He should be pounding the diplomatic pavement on a 24-hour-a day basis. And he should consult with nongovernmental organizations, neutral countries, military experts, opinion leaders, key figures in the warring parties, world citizenry and any other parties who may be able to provide assistance in ending this war immediately.
He should never stop. For this, history will judge him.
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.