22 June 2005
United Nations Anniversary
By Gwynne Dyer
“The great force on which we must rely is the hatred of the cruelty
and waste of war which now exists. As soon as the war is over the process
of oblivion sets in…,” Lord Robert Cecil wrote as the war drew to an end.
“It is only, therefore, while the recollection of all we have been through
is burning fresh that we can hope to overcome the inevitable opposition and
establish…a new and better organisation of the nations of the world.”
Cecil, a member of Britain’s Imperial War Cabinet, wrote that at
the end of the First World War, and the organisation he hoped could prevent
another such war was the League of Nations. It failed, of course, and so we
got the Second World War, which killed five times as many people. By the
end of that one, nuclear weapons were being dropped on cities — so the
victors had no choice but to clone the League, making some significant
improvements, and try again. Sixty years ago this Sunday (26 June), the
Charter of the United Nations was signed by fifty nations in San Francisco.
There was not a single idealist among the men and women who signed
the Charter. They were badly frightened people who had lived through the
worst war in human history and who feared that an even worse one lay in
wait for their children. They were so frightened that they were even
willing to give up the most important aspect of national sovereignty: the
right to wage war against other countries. Six decades later, how is their
Two things cannot be denied: the UN has already survived three
times longer than its ill-starred predecessor, and the great war it was
meant to prevent has not happened. In the various crises that might have
ended with the superpowers sliding into a nuclear war — the Cuban crisis
of 1962, the Middle East war of 1973, and so on — the United Nations
Security Council was an essential forum for negotiations, and the Charter
provided a new kind of international law that the rivals could defer to
without losing face when they wanted to back away from the crisis.
So why is the United Nations so widely disdained today? One reason
is that Lord Robert Cecil was right: “the process of oblivion sets in”
quickly, and later generations cannot remember why it was so supremely
important to create an organisation to prevent further great-power wars.
Besides, the UN isn’t really all that widely disdained.
It gets a bad press in the United States, but that is mainly
because it acts as a brake on the untrammelled exercise of American
military power. It’s still quite popular in most of the world, although it
continues to annoys nationalists in all the great powers — and at the
other extreme, it frustrates and infuriates all the idealists who want it
to be about justice and democracy and maybe even brotherly love.
It’s not. As Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican senator and ambassador
to the United Nations, said in 1955: “This organisation is created to keep
you from going to Hell. It isn’t created to take you to Heaven.” For all
the fine words of the Charter, the UN is still mainly about preventing
another major war between the great powers (and as many other wars as
Does the United Nations need to be “reformed”? Certainly. It has
acquired some bad habits, and its structures have not kept up with the
realities of a rapidly changing world. The current main focus of reformers
is on the Security Council, whose permanent, veto-wielding members are
still the five victorious great powers of 1945. Three-quarters of the
countries that now comprise the UN were not even independent then, so
clearly some adjustment is overdue.
However, the only imaginable solution is an expansion of the number
of permanent members, because demoting any of the existing permanent
members is unthinkable (and would simply be vetoed). But then come the
questions — how many new members, and which ones, and do they get vetoes
too? — so reform may not happen soon.
Is the UN still more or less functional the way it is? Yes. Its
various specialised agencies, from the World Health Organisation to UNESCO,
do much good work, and its core, the Security Council, is there for when
it’s needed. Most of the time it is not — but when a crisis hits, it
still usually manages to rise to the occasion. It has done particularly
well in the last few years, bending its own rules to support a decisive US
response to terrorism in Afghanistan, but then withstanding enormous
pressure to do the same over the Bush administration’s misbegotten invasion
The United Nations is an attempt to change the way that
international politics works, because the only alternative was to accept
perpetual war, and by 1945 that was no longer an acceptable option. But
not even the optimists imagined that it could succeed in less than a
century or so.
Sixty years on, it may not yet be even halfway to its goal. No
need to despair. As its most influential secretary-general, Dag
Hammarskjold, used to say: “None of us are ever going to see the world
order we dream of appear in our lifetime. Nevertheless, the effort to
build that order is the difference between anarchy and a tolerable degree
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“However…Iraq”)
Gwynne Dyer is an independent London-based journalist whose
articles are published in 45 countries.