The first 70 years of the United Nations: achievements and challenges.

Author:Mortimer, Edward
Position:The United Nations at 70


Perhaps inevitably, the United Nations started on a steep downward trajectory from the high expectations that surrounded it at its birth. The global security organization envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations, based on a perpetuation of the victorious alliance against Nazi Germany, was stillborn because of the rapidly developing rift between the Soviet Union and its Western allies. The Security Council of the United Nations, entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security, was soon paralysed by the inability of its permanent members to take decisions on any issue where they perceived their interests to be in conflict. (1) The fact that this "cold war" did not develop into a hot one is generally attributed not to the United Nations, but to the "balance of terror" between nuclear-armed super-Powers, both of which were likely to be destroyed by any direct conflict. The role of Secretary-General U Thant in helping to prevent such a conflict during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has been too widely overlooked, even though at the time both super-Powers acknowledged it in writing.

The development of the role of the "good offices" of the Secretary-General in preventing conflict through quiet diplomacy--not mentioned in the Charter, though perhaps implicit in Article 99--was certainly one of the achievements of the United Nations during the cold war period, although by its nature, it is seldom publicized, and its efficacy is hard to measure or even prove. Prevention can never be proved, since counterfactual outcomes are inherently uncertain. Another was the improvisation of the peacekeeping role of the United Nations--often an important element enabling warring parties to agree and observe a truce or ceasefire, since it built confidence on each side that the other could not launch a new attack without being detected.

The super-Powers were also able to agree, from time to time, on Security Council resolutions aimed at stabilizing parts of the world where they could not be confident of controlling their respective allies, notably the Middle East, where such resolutions enshrined the terms of ceasefires, and laid down the principles for an eventual political settlement, in 1967 and again in 1973.

Another widely cited achievement of this period is decolonization, although arguably this owed more to the determination of the colonized peoples, and to the colonial powers' gradual acceptance that the physical and moral price of continued dominion was too high to be worth paying. What is certain is that...

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