How did the U.N. get started?
It was the dream of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War II, F.D.R. began drawing up plans for an international organization to stop future world wars. But he wanted something with more teeth than Woodrow Wilson’s failed League of Nations. He envisioned an organization in which every nation would have a voice, backed up by the military might of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China. These four countries, in F.D.R.’s scheme, would act as the four “policemen.” On Oct. 24, 1945, shortly after Roosevelt died, 51 nations signed the charter creating the United Nations. Today 191 nations belong.
How is it organized?
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Pretty much as F.D.R. envisioned it. The General Assembly, which includes all the member nations, gives every country one vote and a platform to voice its views. The Secretariat is the U.N.’s executive branch, headed now by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It is essentially a vast bureaucracy, of about 8,900 staff from 160 countries, that administers peacekeeping operations, mediates international disputes, and surveys international social and economic trends. But it is with the Security Council that the real power lies.
What is the Security Council’s role?
Under the U.N. charter, it is responsible for maintaining international peace and security. It has a variety of tools at its disposal: economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and peacekeeping missions made up of soldiers from member countries. If all else fails, the Security Council can give countries the authority to attack others.
Who sits on the Security Council?
F.D.R.’s four policemen plus France. Although F.D.R. disliked Gen. Charles de Gaulle, Britain’s Winston Churchill believed that with Germany decimated, Western Europe needed the French to block any westward moves by the Soviet Union. These five are known as the Permanent 5, or P5. Another 10 members are elected for two-year terms. For the council to act, nine of the 15 members must vote yes. Only the P5 have veto power, which can block any decision or resolution.
Does France belong on the council?
Some argue that France, Britain, and even Russia no longer belong among the permanent members, because they are no longer the political, economic, or military forces they were when the U.N. was formed. These critics say they should be replaced or joined by rising, populous powers such as India, Brazil, or Nigeria, or by the economic powers of Germany and Japan. For years, The Economist says, a “working group” of the U.N. has been studying whether to change or expand the membership of the Security Council. But it will probably never happen. France and the U.K. would like to see Germany on the council, but won’t voluntarily give up their own seats. The U.S. would object to putting pacifist countries like Germany and Japan on the Security Council, knowing they might object to any and all military actions. And Pakistan might pull out of the U.N. altogether if its archenemy India is elevated to the P5.
How effective has the U.N. been?
It’s had both triumphs and moments of Alice-in-Wonderland pointlessness. During the Cold War, the U.N. was frozen in immobility, as the Soviet Union used its veto 119 times. But since the ’80s, the Security Council has sent missions all over the world—to end the war between Iran and Iraq, to oversee the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, to supervise elections in Nicaragua. It also authorized the Gulf War to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. But some U.N. “peacekeeping” missions have been terrible failures. In the 1993 civil war in Somalia, 54 Pakistani troops and later 18 American ones were gunned down by battling warlords, and the U.N. essentially gave up. In Bosnia from 1993 to 1995, U.N. forces stood helplessly by as the Serbs massacred about 20,000 people in so-called safe zones. The U.N. also proved to be impotent in the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. With no major power willing to intervene, rampaging Hutus hacked to death, shot, and murdered 800,000 Tutsis.
Has the U.S. ever ignored the U.N.?
Many times. America spent a decade at war with North Vietnam without any U.N. authorization. More recently, the Clinton administration went around the Security Council on several occasions: In 1998, without a U.N. resolution, the U.S. bombed Iraq to punish it for refusing to cooperate with inspectors. A year later, President Clinton did seek U.N. authority to intervene militarily to stop the genocidal “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo. But Russia vowed to veto any military intervention. So the U.S. and its NATO allies sent bombers without Security Council approval.
How will an Iraqi war affect the U.N.?
President Bush has warned that if the Security Council refuses to respond to Saddam Hussein’s refusal to disarm, it will become irrelevant. But over time, the current animosity between the U.S. and the U.N. is likely to ebb. In an age of globalization, isolationism is impossible, and most major problems require some measure of international consensus and cooperation. The AIDS epidemic is just one example. Nuclear proliferation is another. “The world has shrunk to a global village,” says Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s ambassador to the U.N. “Every village needs a village council.” Even the “hyperpower,” as the French call the U.S., will sometimes find a world forum useful—as a source of help in dealing with rogue nations like North Korea, holding a postwar Iraq together, and finding a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “One may not be happy with the U.N. today or the Council today because one is not getting one’s way,” Kofi Annan recently told The New Yorker. “But tomorrow one is going to need that organization.”
The Bosnian debacle
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.