Our Misguided Neglect of the UN

News Abroad

Mr. Schlesinger, Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University, is the author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, published in mid-September 2003 by Westview Press.

"Four times in the modern age," English historian John Keegan has written, "men have sat down to reorder the world -- at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 after the Thirty Years War, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, in Paris in 1919 after World War I and in San Francisco in 1945 after World War II." Such is the march of human history that all of these events -- except for the most recent one -- collapsed in disagreements that eventually led to renewed war. The fortunes of the last of these, the San Francisco Conference, are still not known. However, what happened in that California city that produced the last of these grand compacts, the United Nations, has already had an enormous impact over the past six decades. Indeed, the founding of the UN, in far more sinister circumstances than faced any of its predecessors -- the age of nuclear weaponry -- is affecting the survival or demise of humanity.

The U.N. and its labors have become the background noise of our global age -- sometimes loud, sometimes soft, but always emitting a hum. One cannot pick up any major newspaper or watch any network newscast or listen to any radio news show or consult any media website in America and not hear or see the name of the U.N. invoked regularly by a broadcaster or written down in a daily report by a journalist. The mention of the U.N. has become as commonplace for the U.S. public as that of the White House or Congress. For the UN has been inextricably involved in an infinite variety of crises around the world. But people forget that, before the UN's founding, there was no truly functioning international organization (except for the creaky, faltering institution called the League of Nations). This meant for many decades there was no place for nations to go to in case of global conflicts.

Today, after a half-century of the U.N., most of us are aware now that this aging planetary experiment in global society has given some modicum of hope to the world -- despite its dearth of financial resources and the brickbats tossed at it by American politicians. It has become the world's geopolitical emergency room. But now the question is whether it can survive into the future. After all, we should remember that even its original birth was chancy. The founders in San Francisco had to overcome Great Power rivalries, ideological spats, big versus small nations, and personal conflicts, although once the conference produced a Charter, the U.S. Senate ratified it by an overwhelmingly vote of 89-2.

Fifty-eight years later, in today's America, however, the staying-power of the UN is unfortunately suspect. The sad fact is that our country would probably not pass the same Charter today. Right-wing demagogues in our land have so unremittingly denigrated the organization for so long -- for being bloated, for being anti-American, for wasting time on speechmaking, for abdicating its responsibilities, and for being out of touch -- that leading members of the Senate now routinely dismiss its importance and argue the body is too limiting on our sovereignty.

Furthermore, unilateralism is back in fashion. The Bush Administration, following the attacks of Septembers 11th, has now promulgated a doctrine of preventive war, which allows a nation to go into battle whenever it decides against whomever it wishes, whether there is a legitimate provocation or not. By this standard, last spring the U.S. was able to bypass the UN Security Council to invade Iraq, relying on its preemptive doctrine. And, in any case, even if Washington actually wanted to convene another UN conference, it would be virtually impossible to convince the 192 nations of the world again to draft a new charter for the security of the earth. Because of the sheer number of countries involved today, a consensus could never be reached on a new document.

As we look back on the UN's creation, we should realize how fortunate we were to obtain it. It took a grand vision, formidable planning and brilliant political leadership to make the organization a reality. What should shine through today for Americans in our more cynical age is the unusual intellect and honest internationalism of those American founding fathers and mothers of the U.N. -- particularly, the seven members of the U.S. delegation to San Francisco. These individuals, balancing peace with cold-eyed realism, especially with regard to the veto, erected a formidable structure. There were Democrats, including Senator Tom Connally and Adlai Stevenson, as well as Republicans, ranging from Senator Arthur Vandenberg, John Foster Dulles, Nelson Rockefeller to Harold Stassen. Guiding them were two exceptional presidents -- Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman -- each of whom believed in the need for world organization to oversee and guide state craft toward a peaceful future. Having endured the most calamitous war in human history, this World War 2 generation extracted from the human propensity for devastation the right lesson for our time. That these men and women could fashion such a righteous journey, especially in light of the League of Nations' failure, delegates squabbles and a world war itself, was remarkable.

If we are to revive the role of the UN today as a peacemaker and security guarantor, the United States, as the only superpower on the planet, must again commit to making the body function effectively. This is especially so with the Cold War's demise, which allows the UN to return to its original principles. Why now should America get reinvolved? Because the UN offers America political legitimacy for its various global undertakings, including its foreign operations of all sorts, especially military ones. In turn, this permits Washington to save tax payers' dollars and the lives of its soldiers. Instead of taking on our ventures alone, we would be able to share with other nations of the earth the burdens of reconstructing societies, policing conflicts, training armies, providing legal frameworks and upholding open governance standards, intervening to stop bloodshed, and promoting human rights. There are, in short, benefits of a revitalized UN.

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Gus Moner - 9/16/2003

Brilliant, Mr Wright

Gus Moner - 9/16/2003

The UN did not authorise the use of force.

Gus Moner - 9/16/2003

“Where in its fifty years has your paramour, the United Nations, protected one country, saved one people from genocide or prevented one war?”

Come now Mr Heuisler, we’ve had this chat before. Remember East Timor? Cyprus? Bear in mind that it’s only really begun to work properly since the end of the Cold War confrontation.

”The UN recently frustrated our attempts to enforce one of its own resolutions…”

There was a significant difference of opinion regarding whether it was the time to intervene militarily. Considering the resolutions were about WMD and not regime change, time has proven the 75% of the UNSC that opposed the invasion were rather more on the mark.

“The UN is a huge bureaucracy whose membership regularly votes against the US”.

Isn’t democracy about just this? Doesn’t the US veto resolutions as well, voting against everyone else by using a veto? It’s only bad if it is used against the US.

NYGuy - 9/13/2003


"NY Times may have been sloppy in that article, but Pew Research has done statistically genuine research and come to similar results."


Clever response. You acknowledge that the NY methodology is flawed, then claim that the Pew methodology is perfect, than go on to assert that the NY Times conclusions are accurate. It does not work. The NY Times interpretations were propaganda not statistical analysis while your comments say PEW is statistically meaningful but do not give the results.

Seem like another example of meaningless analysis. The key to all surveys is the questions and you don't help us much on this point with your response.

Good try.

Spring Bleeker - 9/13/2003

NY Times may have been sloppy in that article, but Pew Research has done statistically genuine research and come to similar results. The truth, is whatever their screwed up misconceptions, foreigners are basically right. Bush is an unmitigated disaster. It is those who try to deny this that tend to resort most often to propaganda, not out of sloppiness, but because there is no other choice.

NYGuy - 9/12/2003


I wrote the item on Roger, but in last response inadvertently signed it NYTimes.

Roger had no answers to Bill’s email, but he responds with his “helicopters bearing down on ….etc.” which is another indication he has nothing to say.

As for the NY Times its front page article,

“Foreign Views of U. S. Darken After Sept. 11”,

in my opinion was just a piece of propaganda betraying the political thinking of the writers. Usually the opening sentence gives the basis of the analysis, but in this case we get the following propaganda in the first paragraph, which is not proven in the article.

“….and support has given way to a widespread vision of America as an imperial power that has defied world power through unjustified and unilateral use of military force.

In the second paragraph to prove their case they quote a South African flight attendant, “They act like the big guy riding roughshod over everyone else.”

By the third paragraph we finally get a little insight into the report which is not a scientific poll but a bunch of selected interviews with no statistical basis:

“In interviews by Times correspondents from Africa to Europe to Southeast Asia, one point emerged clearly: The war in Iraq has had a major impact on public opinion which has moved generally from post 9/11 sympathy to post-Iraq antipathy; or at least to disappointment over what is seen as the sole superpower’s inclination to act pre-emotively, or without either persuasive reasons or United Nations approval.

Later on the first page, fourth paragraph:

“To some degree, the resentment is centered on the person of President Bush, who is seen by many of those interviewed, at best, as an ineffective spokesman for American interests and at worst, as a gun slinging cowboy knocking over international treaties and bent on controlling the world’s oil, if not the entire world.”

There is no report on the way the Times gathered the above conclusions, and the “basis” of how the survey was covered is not detailed. Out of the billions of people in the world, the NY Times came to this conclusion.

In my opinion it seems like nothing has changed at the NY Times, reporters make up their stories without leaving the office and then submit their expense accounts. So much for “all the news that’s fit to print.

Steve Brody - 9/12/2003

NYTimes, Sorry I missed the sarcasm.

The problem with this site is that many contributors consider Roger's personal invective to be keen analysis. My humble apologies for mistaking you for one.

Spring Bleeker - 9/12/2003

The fact that there are erroneous impressions of America from abroad does not make everything the U.S. does "right" or turn a dry-drunk over-promoted frat boy into a statesman. If the NY Times is no longer "respectable" go ahead and switch to the "Post" - it doubles nicely as colorful toilet paper.

NYTimes - 9/11/2003


My comments were tongue in cheek. Rogers comments were so absurd as was his logic, of which there was none. It was an immature attempt to mount an attack on Bill Heuisler.


The NY Times article was a purely political statement, not a true analysis. In the introductory paragraphs it had all the propaganda of the left.

If the article is true, then we should stop letting people like those quoted come to this country to study if they feel it is not worth their effort. But, when push comes to shove, the U. S. wins out every time and they change their tune if they have a chance to come to this wonderful country. And of course, the other countries are trapped in a view of the past and neglect to see the changes that are occuring in the world. It may take them a few years to wake up. but this does not change the fact that GW and the U. S. are on the right track.

And, of course we have to consider the soure, the NY Times which used to be a respectable newspaper.

Frank Lee - 9/11/2003

Papa Bush asked for and received explicit UN authority to attack Iraq. Wet-behind-the ears Junior insulted and defied the U.N. (See also the HNN "Why invading Iraq is risky" article recently put up).

I understand your libertarian disdain for any central authority, Jesse, but you really ought to show more respect for the historical facts. It is a ridiculous Bush-in-2004 fraud to paper over the huge difference between 1991 when the world was with us in the Gulf War, and 2003 when the world was not "with the terrorists" (which had no connection to Saddam, despite Dubya's lies to that effect) or with Saddam, but was also very disgusted at the "worst American president ever" and his unwillingness to cooperate with longstanding friends and allies abroad. See also today's New York Times article on that point.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/11/2003

And as far as the Korean conflict goes, the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council in June of 1950, and never took the opportunity to veto Truman's "police action".

Steve Brody - 9/11/2003

"Quick wit and broad scholarship"? Are you serious? Your standards for wit and scholarship are low indeed.

The only thing Roger shows a knack for is personal vitriol and an inability to address issues.

Schlesinger's contention that only Right-wing demagogues believe that the UN is bloated or out of touch is ridiculous. Who can take the UN seriously when it allows Libya to preside over the UN Commission on Human Rights and Iraq to preside over the UN Disarmament Conference? I guess only right-wing demagogues see this as an indication of a UN that is a little out of touch.

In reality it is the UN that has made itself irrelevant by issuing mandates and directives without any will to enforce them.

By the way, Roger, it was a Coalition of nations, led by the US, not the UN that saved Kuwait from Iraqi aggression. As for Korea, the UN acted at the urging of the US

Frank Lee - 9/10/2003

Once you have signed up for Spelling, Dave, you might want to see if there is a History course opening as well. In between classes, a local bookstore might have a copy of the "Information Please Almanac". On page 896 of the 2002 edition you could read the following introductory paragraph to the preamble of the UN Charter:

"We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetimes has brought untold sorrow to mankind..."

Whatever your history class covers, I am quite sure that it will not include World War III. If you are lucky, the teacher might talk about multiple causation, but, if he or she is any good, something will almost certainly be said about avoiding broad, unsupported generalizations, such as claiming that a major international historical institution of which you are ignorant “serves no effective purpose for humanity” even if that IS exactly what you heard some guy on the talk radio station say.

Good luck in your classes.

Dave Thomas - 9/10/2003

The United Nations is a self-serving extra national institution that serves the interests of its most powerful members and serves no effective purpose for humanity outside of being a forum for rhetorical debate.

The United States made millions selling biological weapons and military arms to Iraq. The UN did nothing.

France made billions from a Saddam by selling their vote on the security council in exchange for exclusive contracts for shoddy and overpriced humanitarian aid.

Russia made billions selling Saddam military equipment.

This is the United Nations secruity council. Want a boost to humanity.

NYGuy - 9/9/2003

Brillant reply Roger. You are a breath of fresh air on HNN showing quick wit and broad scholarship.

Can't wait for your next reply.

Roger Wright - 9/9/2003

If HNN is worldwide, then the "joke" is Bill.

How can you claim that the U.S. is responsible stopping for Communism ?

Don't you realize that short-haired WASPS under 28 years of age "took most casualties and did the bulk of the fighting" ?

Of course, given your own "reputation" on this website, there may be little to risk in trying to cover your crass errors with petty tricks of pseudo logic. But watch out, the helicopter is bearing down. And somewhere past the library of unread or long forgotten history books, somewhere there in the decadent urban sprawling wasteland of post-Gingrich-Republican Tucson, is the local nuthouse.

Bill Heuisler - 9/9/2003

Mr. Wright,
Thank you for your evaluations of me and your concern for my education, but wouldn't it be more productive on HNN for you to master the topic at hand before indulging in social work?

You say. "The UN protected South Korea, liberated Kuwait, and has prevented wars in the Mideast, in Cyprus, on the Indian subcontinent, and in Macedonia."

But there's little evidence to support your wishful claims.
American troops and SEATO allies took most casualties and did the bulk of the fighting in Korea. Same with our NATO allies in Kuwait. To give the UN credit in either is casuistic.

When Nasser demanded the removal of 3,400 UN troops from the Sinai and Gaza in May of 1967 U Thant meekly pulled his peace-keepers out of the way of the Egyptian tanks. There were four major wars in the Middle East while the UN "kept the peace".

The US Truman Doctrine effectively stopped Soviet-inspired Communists from taking control of Greece and Turkey after WWII. A 1967 war between NATO Allies, Greece and Turkey was prevented by strong warnings from LBJ. In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus twice and established an enclave in the North with 30,000 troops. President Nixon threatened to remove our bases from Turkey and the Turks accepted a status quo. The UN has had peacekeeping forces there since and repeated Security Council Resolutions have expressed concern about the introduction of sophisticated weaponry into Cyprus. In August 1998 Greek Cypriots purchased hundreds of new S-300 missiles with powerful radars from Russia.
Isn't Russia a member of the UN Security Council?

The Indian subcontinent is certainly safer because of Boutros and Fofi...never mind those pesky wars and those Nuke tests. We needn't mention Africa at all. The UN is a worldwide joke, Mr. Wright and I'm surprised you would risk your (surely) quite estimable reputation defending the indefensible.
Bill Heuisler

Roger Wright - 9/9/2003

The U.N. protected South Korea, liberated Kuwait, and has prevented wars in the Mideast, in Cyprus, on the Indian subcontinent, and in Macedonia. The UN's effectiveness has been limited for most of its existence by the Soviet veto, and the veto power still blocks intemperate action as Colin Powell recently learned, and the UN has more than its fair share of bureaucratic incompetents (who like Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft in America accomplish little beyond producing red tape) but within its limits it has done much more than nothing. In fact, I think I hear a big black helicopter on its way to Tucson right now. Yep, it's going to pick you up and drop you into a library, Bill, if you don't finally log off your reactionary websites and read an actual history book for a change.

Bill Heuisler - 9/8/2003

Mr. Schlesinger,
Your love letter to altruism would ring so much truer if there were factual results you could cite. Where in its fifty years has your paramour, the United Nations, protected one country, saved one people from genocide or prevented one war?

The United States funds a large proportion of the UN. We have always carried the military weight for the UN. The UN recently frustrated our attempts to enforce one of its own resolutions, and you have the nerve to castigate American conservatives.

You wrote. "Right-wing demagogues...denigrated the organization
...for being bloated...anti-American...wasting time...abdicating its responsibilities..." Right-wing in this context means what?
And demagogues appeal to prejudice and passion, don't they?
The UN is a huge bureaucracy whose membership regularly votes against the US; the speeches are interminable, but action is as rare as statesmanship. Where's the demagoguery? Sounds like you've got a political problem to go with your naivete'.

Love is blind, we know, but you never bothered to explain where these Right-wingers were wrong. Is there a follow-up article?
Bill Heuisler

Horace Rotlich - 9/8/2003

Encouraging "re-involvement" of America with the UN might have made practical sense in 1991 when the first President Bush was mouthing platitudes about "new world order" but doing nothing substantive to take advantage of possibilities for multilateral cooperation opened up by the collapse of the Soviet Union. It might have been good advice for President Clinton in 1993 and 1994 when he was busy holding town meetings regarding the astounding fact that soldiers, like every other human grouping, have a minority with contrarian sexual preferences, while Rwanda fell to pieces. It might have been a fruitful avenue for firm American leadership during the cat-and-mouse games in Iraq in 1998, when the U.S. president was focused on defending his adulterous escapades, or in 2001 when his successor was working to organize tax cuts for his rich friends and ignore the Mideast.

But now ? After longstanding American neglect of the UN has been updated with a policy of deliberate torpedoing of it ? There is, to be sure, a faction within the current executive administration in Washington that wants to have its cake and eat it too. To first trash the UN and then go back to it begging for help after the failure of "shock and awe". But there can be little doubt that those who engineered a deliberate policy of preemptive war to deliberately violate the plain language of the UN charter, did so with the pre-meditated idea of wrecking the fundamental premise of collective security underpinning the UN:

"We the peoples of the world...to insure, by the acceptance of principles and the institutions of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest...do hereby establish...[the UN]".

No plan for "revitalizing" the UN can be credible unless it directly confronts the deliberate mortal wound inflicted upon that international body, under a thin veil of pretense about self-defense against terrorism.

It took bold and farsighted American statesmanship to establish the UN in 1945. It will take bold and visionary American leaders to now rescue the UN, but first they will need to rescue their own country.