The United Nations: a Prospectus

The General Assembly

GOVERNMENT," said Alexander Hamilton, "ought to contain an active principle." Political institutions which advance the welfare of their human constituents achieve an internal state which is cohesive and dynamic and produce an external environment which is sympathetic and receptive. Those are the conditions needed for survival and growth.

The United Nations Organization is charged with positive tasks. That at least gives it a chance to be potent in the world. Whether the chance is realized will depend primarily upon the General Assembly. The rôle of the Security Council is predominantly negative. Its task is to stop the nations from public brawling. But it has no mandate to change the conditions which make brawls likely.

By contrast, the General Assembly, directly or through its Economic and Social Council, is charged: to promote international coöperation in economic, social, cultural, educational and health fields; to assist in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion and, in this connection, to establish a Commission on Human Rights; to promote higher standards of living, full employment and conditions of economic and social progress and development; to coördinate the policies and activities of what the Charter calls "specialized agencies," such as the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization; to promote the development and codification of international law; to recommend measures for the peaceful adjustment of any situation likely to impair the general welfare or friendly relations among nations; to deal with colonial trusteeships for non-strategic areas; and, generally, to discuss any matter within the scope of the Charter -- thus assuming the rôle of a "town meeting of the world," where public opinion is focused as an effective force.

The foregoing list is not complete, but it is enough to give an impression of the vast range of opportunities opened up to the Assembly. Also, it is enough to make apparent that the Assembly is given a tempting invitation to chase rainbows.

The Assembly will have to pick its way carefully if it is to justify the responsibility which the Charter places upon it. It cannot afford the luxury of dabbling pleasurably in experimentation while looking to the Security Council to keep the peace. The tasks given it are, indeed, the primary means to peace. They must be undertaken with sober realization of such basic facts as these:

The Organization as now set up lacks the political powers usually relied upon to assure civic order. It would, therefore, be reckless to let peace depend upon the political functioning of the Organization.

The Organization's lack of political power is a semi-permanent fact. It is not due to an oversight or incompetence on the part of the authors but to basic conditions which the Charter meritoriously reflects.

Peace, accordingly, will depend primarily upon there being such fellowship among the member nations as will prevent the occurrence of a major war, while advancing the time when the Organization can be made into a more adequate political instrument.

Fellowship based on a war coalition usually disintegrates after the enemy's defeat. The way to prevent this from happening to the United Nations is to continue them in combat against the material and spiritual enemies of human welfare. To organize that combat is the primary responsibility of the General Assembly, and to do it successfully calls for a high order of statesmanship.

II

The political inadequacy of the United Nations Organization is obvious. Any political order which eliminates major violence over a long period of time must depend largely on laws defining, concretely and acceptably, what conduct is admissible and what is not. They need to be changed frequently so as to adapt the basic judgments they express to constantly changing conditions and so as to assure an acceptable balance among members of the society who incline to pull in different directions. The achievement of such a body of laws calls for a lawmaking process. And to enforce them there is required, in addition to the pressure of public opinion, a judicial system and a police force which will act automatically as the law directs.

At San Francisco these political goals could not be realized. The Charter itself does not establish rules of conduct which the Organization is committed to enforce. It does set forth certain general principles; but these are expressed as self-denying ordinances, not as law which the Organization enforces. The Security Council is under no injunction to move against violators. Some consideration was given to a possible prohibition of "aggression." But, as Mr. Eden observed at San Francisco, aggression is a concept without any precise agreed content. Some expansions and contractions of zones of national influence are reprehensible and some may be desirable. It is not easy to find words which would define and prohibit such exploits as the initial acts of Hitler and Hirohito and yet permit the expansion of the U.S.S.R. from the low ebb to which Russia fell under the Tsars and authorize Great Britain to "erase the sore spots in Europe" as now proposed by Professor Laski.

Of course, there are always people who would like to make change in the world illegal. Some are satisfied and selfish, some are morally shocked at the injustices which too often accompany change. That point of view prevailed in 1919, with the result that the Covenant of the League of Nations, by Article 10, went far toward identifying peace and morality with the maintenance of the status quo. Elihu Root, when he saw that proposed Article, said:

It would be an attempt to preserve for all time unchanged the distribution of power and territory made in accordance with the views and exigencies of the Allies in this present juncture of affairs. It would necessarily be futile. . . . It would not only be futile; it would be mischievous. Change and growth are the law of life, and no generation can impose its will in regard to the growth of nations and the distribution of power, upon succeeding generations.

The point of view thus expressed by Root prevailed at San Francisco. The Conference abstained from seeking to legislate perpetual peace by a single Article sanctifying for all time things as they are. Yet after that deceptively easy way had been rejected, the problem of legislating was seen as immensely difficult. The nations represented at San Francisco had not yet reached the position where they constituted a true community with common judgments about conduct. Also, many of them did not want the establishment of any law which would be superior to their own particular will and conscience. Wisely, then, the Conference did not attempt to write laws for the Organization to enforce. But it recognized that the omission to do this represented a grave inadequacy in the Organization as constituted.

The San Francisco Conference also failed to establish a body to make laws hereafter. There is to be an international court; but courts do not, or at least should not, legislate. The Assembly is directed to encourage the development and codification of international law. But neither it nor the Security Council is given any authority to enact law. The Security Council, although not intended to be a legislating body, might conceivably build up a body of international common law through its reasoned action in dealing with international disputes. In view, however, of the difficulty of the Security Council's taking any action at all, under its voting procedure, it is not likely that an adequate body of law could develop in this way in time to meet the necessities which will face the world.

Obviously, neither the Assembly nor the Security Council was qualified to be a legislating body. The voting procedure in both is so artificial that it could not be relied upon to reflect the predominant will of the world community. In the Assembly, where each state has one vote regardless of size, a small minority of the people in the world could impose its will on the great majority. In the Security Council, a single great state could block action desired by all the others. At San Francisco much was said about the inequity of a big Power like the United States or Soviet Russia having a right of veto. Very little was said about Liberia and Luxembourg, for example, having equal voting power in the Assembly with the United States and Soviet Russia. The fact is, the small powers as well as the big ones are still tenacious of special privileges. So long as that is so, the Organization cannot be politically mature. This was a second grave inadequacy to which the Conference felt it must reconcile itself.

Since the San Francisco Conference was unable either to write rules of conduct into the Charter or to establish a lawmaking process, it could not establish any effective enforcement procedure. Neither courts nor policemen can do much without an adequate body of law behind them. A police force ought to work automatically, as previously instructed by law. With no laws, and with no body to make them, an international force cannot perform in the manner of a police force. No act of violence, however flagrant, will enable the military contingents of the World Organization to go into action immediately. In every case they must await the decision of the Security Council. The reaching of that decision is a quasi-legislative process, something like passing a special law which will be retroactive. Many political factors will have to be considered and, finally, the five Permanent Member States will have to concur.

In view of this, many persons at San Francisco felt that the Security Council might prove rather impotent so far as concerned its use of force. That was a third grave inadequacy to which the Conference felt it had to reconcile itself.

III

The political inadequacies described above are not of a kind that can be quickly remedied. It is not a matter of rewording the Charter. Underlying conditions caused the Charter to be what it is. Many went to San Francisco hoping for a Charter worded differently from the one which emerged. Few, at the end, would have had it very different from what it is.

The present Charter represents a conscientious and successful effort to create the best world organization which the realities permit. Of course, anyone who is free to disregard realities and to act only in the realm of theory can write a "better" Charter. A reasonably intelligent schoolboy could do that. The task of statesmanship, however, is to relate theory to reality. Political institutions ought to come as close to theoretical perfection as is consonant with their vigorous survival in the existing environment. Orchids may be the perfect flower. But it is a waste of time to plant orchids in Iceland. That is what many peace planners would do.

The merit of the present Charter is not disclosed if one judges it merely as an abstract political document. That, as we have seen, discloses its inadequacies. The merit of the present Charter lies in the fact that its words correspond with the realities. What in the abstract are defects become in reality merits. The Charter was deliberately made to mirror the hopes and fears, the trusts and distrusts, the strength and infirmities of the human environment in which it must live and work.

Never before has such a project been tested on so tough a proving ground. The Holy Alliance was the exclusive handiwork of three rulers and their personal advisers. Its noble words bore no relation to realities. The Covenant of the League of Nations was essentially the work of five or six men. It was adopted after a committee of 20, made up of two representatives from each of five states and one representative of each of ten states, had held 14 meetings. At San Francisco, 12 Committees, each composed of 50 delegates and about 100 advisers and technical assistants, met regularly over a two-month period. Literally hundreds of proposals were considered and every avenue of action was explored. The discussion took place in an atmosphere of freedom and in a spirit of responsibility. There was no compulsion and no veto except that imposed by the good judgment of the delegates.

The result is an honest document. Under present conditions it could not advantageously be made materially different. But some day it ought to be different. The delegates at San Francisco were almost unanimous about that. They gave much thought to how and when the Charter should be revised. Indeed, that was the most debated topic of the Conference. But the most earnest proponents of easy amendment did not want an immediate special Conference to review the Charter. About ten years should elapse, they felt, before a first review of the Charter could usefully be attempted. That was because they realized that what was needed could not be brought about by changing words, but only by changing the conditions which had made the present words inevitable. Such a change of conditions, they saw, would require well-directed efforts over a period of time.

IV

The present war has caused an unprecedented exhaustion, both human and material, and the end has not yet been reached. Even now that Japan has been beaten there may still be an aftermath of disturbances as peoples and régimes seek new equilibriums, internal and external. But the time will probably come when the dominant craving of men everywhere will be for a chance to recuperate and when no important group will tolerate a government whose policies risk a major war. During such a period even an inadequate organization can keep the peace. Exhaustion and fear will be its allies. But, judging by reason and experience, this will be merely an interlude between wars unless the time is used to good advantage.

The San Francisco Conference succeeded in transforming a war alliance into a political association containing the potentialities of growth. As we have seen, however, it was not able to establish an Organization possessing the political powers usually depended on to maintain civic order, because the United Nations are not yet sufficiently aware of their continuing interdependence, sufficiently homogeneous and sufficiently trustful of each other to delegate such powers to a new political organism.

We must not accept that condition as permanent. There are certain risks which only an adequate political institution will be able to eliminate. To seek the increased trust and sense of unity which will make the attainment of a more adequate political instrument possible should therefore be the major goal of the next era. Human nature is still such, however, that unity is achieved easily only through common effort for a common advantage. That is why external perils create coalitions and why those coalitions disintegrate when the common enemy is vanquished. That is why the present unity of the United Nations will vanish unless we find new enemies to fight together.

The great merit of the Charter is that it faces up to this reality. It creates an Organization which has "active principles." It brands intolerance, repression, injustice and economic want as common enemies of tomorrow, just as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have been the common enemies of yesterday. It proposes to its members that they stay united to wage war against those evils.

If this new call to battle arouses the enthusiasm of the peoples of the United Nations, and if they commit their best abilities to waging it successfully, the normal trend toward disintegration can be halted and a trend toward a greater sense of unity and greater friendship can be substituted. Thus can be gradually created the store of trust and confidence which must precede any adequate delegation of power to a world organization.

V

It is the General Assembly which will have to plan the campaign of the United Nations against their newly proclaimed enemies. The Charter offers many possible objectives, not all of which can be pursued immediately. The Assembly must make an orderly choice, and it must take into account not merely the relative merits of the goals themselves but the degree to which the pursuit of them will produce the by-products of increased fellowship between the member nations. Various considerations will need to be weighed in this connection.

It is very important, for example, particularly during the first years when the war coalition will tend to disintegrate, that the Assembly choose projects which are likely to succeed. The possibility of preserving unity between the United Nations will depend above all upon a quick practical demonstration that, by staying together, they can accomplish desired results which otherwise would be impossible. A joint success brings co-workers to a generous appreciation of each other, while a failure leads to recrimination and disunity. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the Organization in its early stages should embark on undertakings where success is likely.

It is important, too, that the goals first chosen by the Assembly should include some which will arouse popular interest and backing. Much technical work can usefully be done on an international basis, but the compilation of scientific data on meteorological and hydrographic matters does little to promote the fellowship of peoples. Though such tasks should of course continue to be undertaken, they are no substitute for activities which will develop the enthusiastic loyalty and support of the peoples of many lands and afford a peaceful outlet for their dynamic impulses. The Assembly should seek psychological substitutes for military warfare. It must do some things that will be dramatic.

The Charter recognizes in Article 55 that "conditions of stability and well-being are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations." Economic distress and social maladjustments give evil men the opportunity to gain leadership and to menace the peace of the world. In choosing its objectives, therefore, the Assembly should utilize its grant of authority and act to ameliorate the economic and social conditions which help to breed war.

Future peace depends above all upon accord between the Great Powers. The Charter recognizes this by forbidding the Security Council to take any enforcement measures unless the "Big Five" are in agreement. But while this emphasizes the importance of harmony, it does not assure that harmony will exist. Of course, the Great Powers themselves will primarily determine the character of their relations with each other; but the Assembly can contribute to the accord between them which is necessary if the Security Council is to function. Negatively, it can refrain from using its privileges, notably that of discussion, in a way to exploit and magnify the minor differences which will inevitably arise among the Great Powers. Affirmatively, it can select tasks upon which the Great Powers can readily unite.

Since the smaller nations control the Assembly, there will be a natural tendency for them to organize its social and economic activities so as to benefit themselves at the expense of the larger members. Of course, the strong must help the weak, if only because their self-interest is served by preventing anarchy. But such help, of which UNRRA is an example, should be left to the initiative of the strong powers. The Assembly should consciously sponsor activities which bring the larger powers to like an international way of life and thereby promote harmony between themselves and the small powers. It will succeed in this if it chooses activities of a kind which will be affirmatively advantageous to all.

Other factors which the Assembly should consider in deciding on its initial program could be mentioned. But even the above tests show how hard its choice will be if it is to be successful. To illustrate:

One mandatory task of the General Assembly is to encourage the development and codification of international law. This is of extreme importance, since, as we have seen, lack of law is a principal weakness of the present situation. However, to achieve a body of written law enforceable against states as such is a most difficult project. "The Federalist" said that thinking men would at once dismiss it "as idle and visionary;" and added: "The principle of legislation for sovereign States, supported by military coercion, has never been found effectual. It has rarely been attempted to be employed, but against the weaker members."

There is, however, an alternative to legislation for states, namely, the adoption of laws to operate upon individuals. This avenue of development is being explored today, when considerations of justice have brought the United Nations to postulate the existence of an international law enforceable against individual Germans. The time is thus propitious to begin to frame international law which will not be merely applicable retroactively but which will operate in the future to deter individuals anywhere from wilfully or maliciously plotting or inciting international disorder. Also, once individual duties are made a subject of international law, it becomes logical also to define the international aspects of individual rights. By promoting that development the General Assembly could begin to give practical content to the affirmation by the peoples of the United Nations of their "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person."

If an effort were made to develop international law for individuals rather than for states, then the criteria we have mentioned could largely be met. There would be a good chance of some success. The effort would be dramatic and would awaken popular interest. A cause of war might be curbed. The effort would be one in which the nations, large and small, could be expected to work together in harmony. It was the sponsoring Powers which, at San Francisco, by one of their "four-power amendments," unhesitatingly and enthusiastically determined that a major purpose of the Organization should be to promote and encourage "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

Another task for the General Assembly is the solution of international problems of an economic character. The conditions of trade and finance ought to be such that nations can acquire, on a fair exchange basis, the food, raw materials and other products which do not lie within their own resources and which they need for the maintenance of tolerable standards of living. The Bretton Woods plan for a World Bank and Monetary Fund is an effort to solve this problem primarily through its financial aspects. That approach alone will be inadequate, for neither credit nor monetary arrangements can permanently substitute for a near balance in the exchange of goods and services. The Assembly can undertake a broader and sounder approach. The effort probably would not arouse popular enthusiasm. Also it might frighten, even though needlessly, the more productive countries. Nevertheless, a practical success can be achieved along this line, and it ought to be possible to achieve it on a basis advantageous to all. A success here would do much to eliminate some of the underlying causes of war.

The General Assembly is authorized to promote international coöperation in the field of health. Of course, disease is not in a primary sense a cause of war. Indeed, a cynic might say that to reduce mortality from disease increases the risk of war from population pressures. On the other hand, a successful combat against disease, particularly the epidemics which inspire general dread, can arouse popular interest and give a practical demonstration of the advantages of international action. The Rockefeller Foundation, now in its thirty-third year, works in various fields -- health, natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. Its labors which have produced the most tangible results and have brought it world-wide good will have been those in the field of international health. The Assembly could, with advantage, consider that experience in deciding what lines of effort can be expected to produce a demonstrable success. The field is one where all the Powers could advantageously work together, pooling for peace the achievements of their scientists, as they pooled them in war to produce the atomic bomb.

Such are some of the problems which the Assembly will face in planning its contribution to peace. The San Francisco Conference was, in a sense, the first meeting of the Assembly. It will now approach its concrete tasks with zeal born of a first success and with discretion born of responsibility. The meeting at San Francisco went far to assure a successful transition from the unity of war to a new unity of peace. Trust and confidence, somewhat in suspense during the early days of the Conference, developed strongly toward the end. Hard, competent work resulted in a good start being made. The Conference can be said to have done much to reverse the normal trend toward postwar disintegration.

It cannot be taken for granted, however, that future meetings of the Assembly will be like that of San Francisco. Success there was due above all to the millions of individuals throughout the world who directed upon that Conference the power of their spirit. They put the immediate participants under the strongest possible moral pressure not to fail. Without that constant pressure the Conference might have broken up on any one of several issues, or it might have ended with merely perfunctory results.

The present danger is that the millions who compelled the achievements of San Francisco will now relax, feeling that the battle has been won and the Organization can carry on alone from this point. That would be disastrous. Organizations are incorporeal; they have no will, no mind, no soul. They live only through human beings who implement them. The individuals whose wills and brains and spirits will animate the Assembly of the United Nations will need the same sort of stimulus that made the San Francisco Conference a success. Their task will not be mechanistic. It will be to select, plan, organize and lead great works of human betterment. They can do that successfully only in response to the expressed wishes and demands of their fellows. Thus, in the final analysis, the peoples of the world will decide their own fate.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue

Close We are offering free and open access for a short period of time. Read more about why we are doing this.

Days
Hrs
Min
Sec