How to Revive the UN? Look Backwards

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Mr. Roberts is a professor of history at University College Cork, Ireland, and a writer for the History News Service.

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The United Nations' 60th-anniversary celebrations have been overshadowed by controversy about the organization's future. The most contentious issue is whether Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States should retain their veto power in the Security Council. Under the UN Charter any one of these five permanent members has the power to veto any decision or action that it disagrees with.
There's no chance that the Big Five will give up the veto or that they'll agree to extend this privilege to states such as Germany, Japan, India and Brazil. Such a move would paralyze decision-making and turn the UN into a new version of the discredited League of Nations, which failed to take effective action in the face of German, Italian and Japanese aggression in the 1930s.
In fact, what the UN needs to do is to return to its roots and strengthen rather than dilute the powers and role of the permanent members of the Security Council.
When it was established in 1945,the UN was an organization of the victor states of World War II. Its foundations rested on the wartime Grand Alliance of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. Indeed, the UN's name was derived from the"Declaration by United Nations," signed in Washington in January 1942, which set out the war and peace aims of the Grand Alliance.
Discussions within the Grand Alliance about the creation of a new global security organization began in 1942 when President Roosevelt proposed that the Great Powers should constitute themselves as international policemen and use their combined military forces to impose order on world affairs.
This idea of a proactive policing of the postwar world was enthusiastically taken up by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who insisted that such an arrangement would only work if the Big Three maintained their unity. The organizational expression of that unity -- the veto system -- meant the Great Powers could not use the UN against each other nor could they take collective security action except on the basis of consent.
The UN was founded at a conference of fifty allied nations in San Francisco in June 1945, but all the important decisions about the structure and role of the new organization had already been taken by the Big Three. The Charter had been drafted at an American-British-Soviet conference at Dumbarton Oaks in August 1944. In February 1945, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt agreed on the veto system.
The Big Three decided which states would be invited to become UN founding members. Included were those states that had fought on the allied side during the war; excluded were not only all enemy states, but neutrals such as Ireland, Sweden, Portugal and Spain. France and China became permanent members of the Security Council at the behest of the Big Three.
In San Francisco numerous complaints about the"great powerism" of the Big Three were aired and demands made for the establishment of a more egalitarian organization. Many of these complaints came from states such as Australia and Canada that had played a significant role in the allied war effort. But the stark reality was that without the Big Three there would be no UN and that meant accepting a  mechanism -- the veto -- to enable the Great Powers to protect their individual and collective interests.
When, not long after the end of the World War II, the Grand Alliance collapsed, the UN became a battleground of the Soviet-Western Cold War. In that context the UN was unable to function as it was originally intended, as a framework for the Great Powers to pool their military resources and agree on action against aggressive states. Instead, various lobbies within the UN began to emphasize the organization's universalistic character and its role as the protector of the rights of states and their citizens.
Embodied in this reinvention of the UN as the precursor of a new, morally superior international order was a rewriting of history that glossed over its wartime origins in great-power politics.
The UN is a now a very different organization from that founded by the Big Three. It has many more members, is more diverse and is deeply involved in the world's economic, social, cultural and educational affairs as well as with security issues. But the UN's core identity is still defined by the co-operation and conflict of the Great Powers within the Security Council.
When Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided to establish the UN they saw clearly that it could only be as effective as the collective will of its most important and militarily powerful members. They aimed to use the UN to protect their own countries' interests but also to create a global order that would mean peace and security for all states.
Sixty years later there is a lot to be said in favor of their brand of great powerism. Now that the Cold War is long over it's time to return to their realistic vision of the conditions necessary for the UN to make an effective contribution to world peace and security.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Roberts presents an interesting analysis that certainly goes some way towards popping the central myth of many kneejerk anti-UN bashers: that the organization should be judged as a government, when it was clearly never intended as anything of the sort, and is unlikely to become one any time soon.

How to improve the effectiveness of the UN is not an easy question to address. Roberts' final claim about the the "realistic vision" of the UN founders rings hollow, because the idea that Britain, the USA, and any kind of Russia, but especially Stalin's USSR, were going to work together to police the world had, and continues to have, little credibility, and adding France and China to the mix, and now maybe others as well, surely does not enhance likely effectiveness.

Ironically, by making an end run around the UN, and falling flat on his face to wallow in an Iraqi quagmire largely of his own making, G. W. Bush has needlessly squandered an historic opportunity to reshape global security arrangements post 9-11-01. As a result of his hypocritical blunder-ridden fiasco, future U.S. presidents will be forced to rely MORE heavily on questionable structures such as the UN than they otherwise would have. We are therefore going to need more articles of this type exploring the past and possible future roles of entities such as the UN, because unilateralism has been so badly tarnished (at least until Bush & Co are properly punished for their violations of the basic principles of non-aggression that were at the core of the UN's mission).

I see no single "magic bullet" remedy here, but would suggest to Mr. Simon that the power of information technology, exaltated by him (on an earlier comment page, see for example:, might contribute significantly to an eventuall overall solution (despite simulaneously causing or exacerbating problems). Nowadays, nasty things done by nasty people in government sare not as easily hidden from the masses as in the past.

E. Simon - 8/3/2005

Lest we forget that the bloodiest internecine conflict in U.S. history, the Civil War, originated in the denial of basic rights - afforded so many others - to its slave population; and that the only way to correct this was an explicit promulgation ensuring that no state could again deny the rights of any U.S. citizen within its borders. I am curious to see how many civil wars across the globe have originated in the actual or perceived denial of rights of a good number of any nation's citizens.

So with a "global government," (defined by the national conception with which so many unfortunately prefer to think of the U.N.), it seems natural that the conflicts of an increasingly democratized world will have their root in this same idea; nations that deny their citizens the right to participate in the course of said nations' foreign policy through elected leadership and oversight, being more disposed to aggression with either each other as well as with the most powerful liberal democracies. The idea of the democratic peace, originating with Kant and perfected by Rummel, predicts nothing less.

However, given the problematic nature of investing ever-greater portions of power in the kind of unchecked, unfederalized global governing structure that would be necessary to stage a military showdown against repressive militaristic dictatorships such as, for example, the PRC over its citizens' rights (or lack thereof), the way the federal government sent in forces to maintain desegregation within U.S. states, I think a far better alternative could be envisioned. Less draconian than either military confrontation or a threat of expulsion from a global body that would, no doubt, be used for political ends, we could arrange instead for a re-structuring of the U.N. Unlike the U.N. General Assembly, upper houses of legislature in any given liberal democracy rarely go unaccompanied by a lower house. Allow the U.N. to apportion representative districts of say, 10 to 50 million persons, both within any country or across countries, for just such a lower house with global reach. I think the kind of pressure on authoritarian regimes to allow for the kind elections (freer, fairer, more transparent, more broadly scrutinized [as they would be similar in nature and timing across the globe]) would be the right incentive for ushering in a phase of the kind of democratic reform that would actually give them the political legitimacy necessary for sharing the decision-making stage rightly occupied by the liberal democracies that the people of the world actually prefer (when given the choice) to live in.

Tony Luke - 8/1/2005

I think the point of the article was along the lines of "had the Grand Alliance remained intact, the UN would not have become" the sick joke that it, indeed, has become. That said, I think it was unrealistic and foolish for the US and Great Britain to believe that they could maintain an alliance with Stalin and the USSR. The UN has become what it has become and it will never be restored to the state that it once was. There is, however, a new alliance--it is the US, Great Britain, Australia, Italy, and the other nations that are actively participating in the Global War on Terror.

Scott Michael Ryan - 8/1/2005

You fear for the future of the UN because of Bolton? You’re as clueless as the author.

Scott Michael Ryan - 8/1/2005

The UN was created to, “…create a global order that would mean peace and security for all states.”

Yes, it is really working out that way isn’t it?
- A third of the member states vote freely on UN business while they deny this same right to their own countrymen.
- States like China, Cuba and Zimbabwe sit on the UN Commission for Human Rights
- Corruption and mismanagement are rampant
- Indecisive on Iraq
- Ineffective in Bosnia and the Sudan
- Insufferable on Israel
- Insipid on a soon to be nuclear Iran
The UN today is a sick joke. And claiming that giving more power to the Security Council is the solution shows a profound misunderstanding of the organization and its problems.

Lynn Max Cheatum - 8/1/2005

Geoffrey Roberts covered some interesting historical facts, but since he wrote this, Mr. Bolton has been named as U.N. ambassador from the U.S. With him on the job, I fear for the future of the international group.
– Lynn Cheatum, Kansas City MO