The United Nations in the 21st Century
No. 3 2004 July/September

The Soviet Union, along with the United States and Great
Britain, was one of the three countries that contributed most to
the writing of the United Nations Charter. Russia is one of the
five permanent members of the Security Council. Russia has always
had a special weight in the affairs of the world organization, and
it will also play an important part in determining the direction
the organization will take in the confusing and dangerous world of
the 21st century.

From 1945

From its earliest days, the United Nations has had to live with
certain basic false assumptions. Because the Charter was written
before the end of World War II, the work and membership of its most
important organ, the Security Council, was based on the assumption
that the victorious wartime alliance would stay together to
monitor, and, if necessary, to enforce world peace. The leaders of
the victorious wartime alliance became the five permanent members
of the Council whose unanimity was to be the basis of the Council’s
capacity to act. If that unanimity was regularly broken by the
veto, the Council would to a large extent be paralyzed. Even now
that the Cold War has been over for fifteen years, the unanimity of
the permanent five, as we saw last year over Iraq, still cannot be
taken for granted.

The authors of the Charter believed that arms races had been a
major cause of war in the past. One of the basic ideas of the
Charter was that a collective security system, monitored and, if
necessary, enforced by the five permanent members, would permit a
major degree of world disarmament. Within four years of the signing
of the Charter, however, the greatest arms race in history,
including weapons of mass destruction, was under way among the
permanent members of the Security Council. From being the
designated guardians of peace and security, they had themselves
become the greatest threat to world peace.

That is not the only paradoxical element in the history of the
Security Council. Today conventional weapons, and especially small
arms, account for virtually all the casualties in the conflicts
that rage around the world at any given time. The permanent members
of the Security Council account for more than 80 percent of the
thriving arms trade that sustains these conflicts.

After the original dream of the United Nations collapsed, the
organization had to find its way through the forty years of the
Cold War by a process of improvisation and readjustment. The
Security Council was paralyzed for much of the time by the lack of
unanimity of its permanent members. The speed of the decolonization
process had not been anticipated at San Francisco and created
points of friction and conflict in several sensitive regions –
Kashmir, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and, later on, in Cyprus
and the Congo and other parts of Africa. In order to prevent such
regional disturbances from triggering what everyone on the planet
feared most, a nuclear confrontation between East and West, the
Security Council was able to agree to – or at least not to oppose –
a means of containing regional conflicts without the direct
involvement of the Soviet Union and the United States. Thus was
born the technique that is now called peacekeeping – non-forceful
operations managed by the Secretary-General under the general
authority of the Security Council.

The Secretary-General was originally intended to be a
predominantly administrative official. Another unanticipated
consequence of the Cold War was a large expansion of the political
role of the Secretary-General. With the Security Council paralyzed
and the superpowers suspended in the balance of nuclear terror, an
elected, high international official, universally recognized as
non-partisan and serving only the United Nations, proved on a
number of occasions to be a life-saving asset for the international
community, especially in resolving critical situations between East
and West. The Secretary-General’s political role now occupies most
of his time and energy.

When the Cold War unexpectedly came to an end, there was a brief
period when it seemed that the Security Council might at last be
able to work in the way the Charter had envisaged. The Council’s
legitimizing role in evicting Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait
was an exemplary use of Chapter VII of the Charter, which provides
for forceful action against aggression. During the 1990s, however,
it became clear that the nature of the problems that came before
the Council was changing. Conflicts between states had largely
given way to disorders within sovereign nations. The old
peacekeeping technique, designed to contain conflicts between
states, was far less suited to dealing with the collapse of
governmental authority, and with violence and massive suffering
within national borders, in places like Somalia, Bosnia,
Mozambique, Cambodia or Angola.  Nonetheless, of seventeen
such operations mandated by the Security Council, only three –
Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda – were unquestionable failures. Perhaps
the most important general development of the 1990s, especially
after the UN’s failure to stop the Rwanda genocide, was that the
question of humanitarian intervention by the United Nations could
no longer be ignored. Indeed, by the end of the decade, it seemed
to be the most pressing security issue for the immediate

The 21st century

The events of the early 21st century took the United Nations,
and the world, in a very different direction. The September 11,
2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the radical
national security policies of the George W. Bush administration,
the second Iraq war, and the persistence of global suicide
terrorism have created a climate of alarm and confusion that is
only now, in 2004, beginning to resolve itself into new agreements,
better international relations, and a common resolve to face the
new dangers together.

One of Washington’s reactions to the tragedy of September 11 was
to declare a radical new national security policy of unilateral
preventive, or even preemptive, war. This policy was in
contravention of the basic principle contained in Article 2.4 of
the Charter – that all nations should refrain from the threat or
use of force against the territorial or political integrity of any
state. For this reason, and because a widespread adoption of such a
policy would be catastrophic, it caused serious international
concern. Succeeding events have shown some of the practical
difficulties of preventive or preemptive war. The operation against
the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and, even more starkly,
the occupation of Iraq, have shown that even the greatest military
power, although it can easily win the opening battle, will have the
utmost difficulty in dealing with guerilla or terrorist resistance,
with setting up a new representative government, or with bringing
preventive military operations to a satisfactory conclusion. It has
also become clear that preventive operations depend upon a degree
of accurate intelligence that was not available in the case of the
second Iraq war. In other words, unilateral preventive action is
far from being the realistic and practical policy that some assumed
it to be two years ago.

The situation in Iraq has also changed. The invasion of Iraq by
the American-led coalition in March 2003 with no Security Council
legitimization caused a rancorous division among the membership of
the United Nations. After more than a year, during which the
initial victory over Saddam Hussein was followed by an increasingly
chaotic and bloody occupation, a new stage has been reached. With
the assistance of the Secretary-General’s representative, Lakhdar
Brahimi, it was possible to put together an interim government in
Baghdad to which sovereignty has now been handed over by the United
States. And in a new and unanimous resolution the Security Council
has defined and legitimized the steps to be taken by the United
Nations and its members for the future of Iraq. Although there are
still enormous problems and risks ahead, at least the United
Nations consensus over Iraq has been restored, and the United
States has been partially extricated from an impossible situation,
although its troops are still the main element of security in

After all the divisiveness and frustration of 2003, the UN has
to some extent resumed its proper place in international affairs,
but serious questions remain. The United States declared the policy
of unilateral preventive or preemptive war because Washington
believed that there was no other effective way of confronting the
new dangers so dramatically exemplified by the attacks of September
11, 2001. Its recent experiences with preventive war in Afghanistan
and Iraq may well have modified that view, but how far is the
United Nations, in its present state, capable of playing a central
role in ensuring international peace and security in a world where
many nations have become, or feel they have become, dramatically
less secure? Does the Security Council, for all its excellent
resolutions on terrorism or nuclear proliferation, have the
practical capacity to help nations to deal with the new face of
danger – the deadly triad of global suicide terrorism, the possible
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the problem of
rogue or dysfunctional states?

The United Nations: Strengths, weaknesses, and new

The Secretary-General and his special representatives throughout
the world have proved their usefulness again and again. The quiet
diplomacy of Kofi Annan and his team is little known to the public.
Indeed its confidentiality is one of its major assets. The work of
Lakhdar Brahimi, for example, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, was
indispensable to setting up interim governments and moving the
process forward toward constitution-building and elections. The
Secretary-General and his representatives, however, have only
skill, integrity, determination and patience. Action backed by real
power, even force, has to originate in the Security Council.

Timely decision-making has often been a problem for the Security
Council in the past. Even after the Rwanda genocide and the
Council’s total failure to take any action in time, there is still
no general agreement on humanitarian intervention. For example,
apart from the efforts of the Secretary-General, nothing practical
has yet been done to check the brutal ethnic cleansing of more than
one million people in the Darfur region of Sudan.

It seems certain that the immediate action required to deal with
threats of terrorism, perhaps combined with nuclear proliferation,
will be even more difficult for the Council to decide on. In the
past the Council has usually reacted to events rather than
anticipating them. In normal situations this is certainly much
better than doing nothing at all, but faced with the threat of
terrorism and proliferation, mere reaction to disaster is obviously
not enough. Such threats will originate from groups completely
outside the traditional international community – groups that will
not be deterred by diplomatic, economic, or military pressure.
Often only expeditious action will have any hope of success. Thus
it may well be that the future effectiveness of the Council will
depend on a radical change in its attitude to emergency preventive
intervention. This is one of the most difficult questions the
Council has yet faced.

In the past the Council has encountered other problems that
cause delay and give the impression of lack of authority. I have
already mentioned lack of unanimity among the permanent members.
Often in the past, the effort to avoid a veto has caused long
delays in reaching a decision and has also resulted in feeble
compromise resolutions in crises that demand rapid and decisive
action. Moreover, the Council’s current permanent membership
represents the world’s power structure in 1945 and is now to a
considerable extent an anachronism. Southeast Asia, Africa, and
Latin America have no permanent representation on the Council. This
is yet another problem that will require attention if the authority
and standing of the Council are to be strengthened.
Another serious problem is the present lack of United Nations
physical capacity to act. The UN has no reliable standing capacity
to take emergency action. At present it takes at least three months
to assemble and deploy a peacekeeping force. The member governments
have so far rejected all suggestions for a small standing UN rapid
reaction force, so when immediate action is required the world must
look elsewhere. This is one of the United Nations’ greatest
weaknesses, and, incidentally, one of the strongest arguments for
unilateral preventive action, although experience, as I have
mentioned above, is showing that that approach does not work very
well either. NATO, various “coalitions of the willing,” regional
organizations, and sometimes individual countries – Australia in
East Timor, for example – are increasingly called on to take on
emergency peacekeeping duties until the United Nations can organize
a peacekeeping force. In the worst of crises, like Rwanda, the UN
was unable to find a single country willing to act in its name.
Sixty years after its foundation, the United Nations, whose primary
function is the maintenance of international peace and security,
still has no capacity of its own to take immediate practical
action. In the light of the new threats to security, which will
certainly demand swift action, the Security Council should also
consider this problem again.

The events of the first four years of the 21st century have
shown the value, as well as the weaknesses, of the United Nations.
Those events have also shown that the international community is
facing new forms of danger that will demand new forms of action,
reaction, and cooperation. For the United Nations, the world’s
primary agency for peace and security and its center for
harmonizing the policies of nations on important matters, this is
an especial challenge. The Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on
Threats, Challenges, and Change is expected to deliver its report
before the end of this year. The quality of its proposals, and the
reaction of the Security Council and other UN organs to them, will
be a test of the organization’s ability to adapt to change. Only an
evident willingness to adapt and to renew its sense of mission will
inspire, in the governments and peoples of the world, the
confidence and support that will allow the United Nations to meet
the challenge of the years ahead.