The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
THE first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York is a good time to review some of the theories on which the United Nations was founded at San Francisco, to test those theories against the developments in the United Nations since the first General Assembly meeting in London, and to analyze the record and speculate on the future.
The United Nations was founded on the basic theory that there must not be a world war every generation; that the death of some 40 million human beings through war during the past thirty years was enough; and that it was imperative, if the nations were to justify the notion that they were civilized, to combine together to prevent, and if necessary to repel, future aggression.
Nobody denies the validity of this basic premise. It is still good. Mr. Byrnes, Mr. Molotov and Mr. Bevin may argue about everything else but they agree on this. There is very little evidence that the nations have learned as much as they have suffered or that they are willing to do without the things that lead to war; but peace, they unanimously proclaim, is a good thing. So the first theory stands.
The second theory on which the United Nations was founded was that peace depended on the unanimity not of all the states, as the Wilsonian doctrine held, but on the unanimity of those states which had the power to wage modern war.
There was a corollary to this theory which is not clearly understood, at least in the United States. This was that there was never any intention that the United Nations should have power to coerce one of the great states. These states promised each other and the world to abandon war as an instrument of policy, and on the basis of this promise, which they insisted was sufficient, agreed that the United Nations did not need to have, and should not have, sufficient force to coerce one of "The Five."
Many delegates and observers at San Francisco thought the security organization should have such power, and apparently many more persons think so today, but in this argument, as in many others, it was conceded by the vast majority at San Francisco that the approval of the great states was essential; and these states insisted -- with the eventual approval of the rest -- that the organization was designed not to police them but to police everybody but them.
It was out of these two ideas -- 1, peace depends on the unanimity of those who have power to wage modern war; and 2, those who have power to wage modern war will not agree to create an organization with power to coerce any of the Big Five -- that the veto grew.
In its inception the veto was believed to be a positive thing. The idea behind it was that action by a security league would not be effective unless it had the coöperation of the Big Five. Therefore, each of these five was given the right of veto over all questions of substance dealing with the maintenance of international peace.
A complete analysis of these theories would fill a library rather than a few paragraphs in a magazine, but one or two points seem pertinent at this time. The first is that there is still general agreement that peace depends on the agreement and unity of the Big Five. The second is that if the nations gathering for the United Nations General Assembly were meeting to draft the Charter all over again, they would, in the opinion of the overwhelming number of observers in this country, still insist on the rule of unanimity, and therefore the veto, for the Big Five.
In short, they would still reject the alternative of a security parliament with power to legislate and enforce its decisions on its members. Indeed, the relations among the great states being what they are, they would probably emphasize even more than they did at San Francisco, if that is possible, the necessity of creating not a system of law, enforceable on all states, but an association of sovereign states with executive and veto power resting in the hands of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China.
The small Powers still believe in the doctrine of a security parliament, in a system of law enforceable against all; and, as Mr. Huxley has remarked, doctrines do not necessarily die merely because they are killed. But everybody who knows anything about Soviet policy, and anyone who is willing to make an objective judgment about the Senate of the United States today, must agree that these two large nations, the most powerful, the most influential, and the most inexperienced in the annals of world leadership, are not prepared to agree to such a change.
It may be that what the multitude says is so, or soon will be, and if this honorable doctrine is correct, there is hope for a basic change in the structure of the United Nations at some future date. But as of today, despite the fact that the British Government and a growing section of the American intelligentsia are siding with the views of the small states on the necessity for a security parliament, the Soviet Government and the American Senate are opposed to it, and no group of nations can withstand such a coalition in the United Nations.
But the theories on which the security organization was founded, and the general assumptions about the way in which those theories would be carried out, are two different things. It is not enough to say merely that 1, everybody agrees on the necessity for international organization to prevent war; 2, peace depends on the collaboration of those who have power to make war; 3, a security parliament is a political impossibility at the present time, and in an association based on sovereign equality, effective action depends on the unanimity of the Big Five. These basic theories, still valid or politically necessary, were known at San Francisco to depend on several basic assumptions about the way in which the theories would be put into practice, and these assumptions need to be recalled and compared with the record of the past nine months.
The first basic assumption at San Francisco was that, since this organization was based on the principle of "sovereign equality," all member states, large and small -- and especially large -- would "fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present charter," including the principles and purposes of the Charter. Among these was the fundamental obligation that "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."
It must be said here -- for it is being said by diplomats in private all over the world -- that the Great Powers have not always fulfilled in good faith the obligations they assumed.
Specifically, the general opinion among those who have followed the activities of the Security Council in its first nine months is that the Soviet Union did use force and the threat of force against the political independence of Iran. In contradiction to the sanctity of international agreements, on which the entire organization rests, the Soviet kept troops in Iran beyond the date when it had promised to withdraw them. In contradiction to the sovereign rights of Iran, the Soviet Union prevented the central government of that state from carrying out its duties to maintain and administer the law, and even to move freely about its own territory. In contradiction to every acknowledged law that governs the relations between sovereign states, it threatened to use its force to put into power in Azerbaijan political elements favorable to the Soviet Union. And in contradiction to its obligations to allow Iran to appeal freely to the United Nations, and to remain in the Council chamber while the question was being discussed, it boycotted the Iranian debate, warned the Iranian premier that any appeal to the United Nations would be considered an "unfriendly act," and instructed the Soviet representative in the Security Council not only to oppose the right of the Iranian representative to be heard but to oppose the right of the Security Council to consider the case under the agreed terms of the Charter.
Because it is still recognized that effective action in the security field cannot be taken without the collaboration of all the big states, and because the organization was based on the promise of its members to uphold the principles of the Charter, the organization was powerless to deal with the case effectively and lost prestige when it tried to do so. Historians may very well decide that this was the first important test case of the United Nations, that the Soviet Union weakened the principle on which the association depended, and that it carried out a policy of aggression by political and military infiltration in defiance of the organization and in violation of the first basic assumption on which the organization was founded.
The second basic assumption on which the United Nations was founded was that the big states would not have the right of vote or veto in the peaceful settlement of controversies to which they were a party, and that while they would have the right of veto on all other questions of substance, this right would be used "sparingly."
Again, as in the implementation of the obligation to carry out the purposes and principles of the Charter, it is a matter of opinion as to whether this second basic assumption has proved to be correct; but it is certainly a fact that nobody except the Soviet delegate at the United Nations and a few of his friends think that it has. The Soviet delegate himself has used the veto five times against the majority on questions where the vital interests of the Soviet Union were not at issue, and by a unilateral interpretation of the veto provision his government has sought to expand the veto beyond the intent of the San Francisco Conference.
So much has been said during the battle of the veto that it is necessary to go back and define the voting issue as discussed and decided at Yalta and San Francisco. The second basic assumption listed above contains a principle, which was proposed by the late President Roosevelt, and a promise, which was given by the big states at San Francisco. The acceptance of the principle by Premier Stalin at Yalta induced the United States to back the voting formula that was proposed at San Francisco, and the promise of the Big Five induced the small and middle Powers to accept the veto provisions.
The principle was that, while the Big States had to have the veto on all decisions involving punitive action, regardless of whether they were involved in these cases, and even on decisions involving the pacific settlement of a controversy in which they were not involved, they should not have the right of vote or veto in the preliminary or peaceful settlement of cases in which they were involved.
This principle was put forward by Mr. Roosevelt as a compromise. Originally, the Soviet Union wanted the right to vote on all cases where punitive action was proposed, even against the Soviet Union; and on the pacific settlement of disputes regardless of whether the Soviet Union was a party to the case. The United States and Britain met them part-way. There was no opposition to the request for the right of veto on punitive decisions. Some members of both the American and British delegations at Yalta (like the majority of the delegations at San Francisco) thought there should not be a veto on the peaceful or pacific settlement of any case before the Council. In the last analysis, however, Mr. Roosevelt agreed to the veto on the peaceful settlement of disputes, but insisted that no state, large or small, should have this right regarding decisions involving the peaceful settlement of a controversy to which it was a party.
This principle of abstention from voting on the peaceful settlement of cases in which a state is involved has not been carried out by the Soviet Union, any more than it carried out the principles of the Charter in the Iranian case. The Soviet Government has sought to minimize or abolish the abstention principle in several different ways. In the Indonesian case, it did so by having its case presented by the Ukraine (thus enabling the Soviet to say it was not involved in the case and had the right of veto). In the Spanish case, Poland made the formal charges, with the same result. In the Iranian case, where the Soviet representatives were directly charged, however, they switched tactics and, at one point or another, made these arguments: 1, that while they accepted the Yalta compromise that the parties to a dispute should abstain from voting on peaceful decisions, it was necessary first to find that a "dispute" actually did exist; 2, that it was also necessary for the Council to find that the "dispute" actually threatened international peace and security; and 3, that the Council could not properly hold that a "dispute" existed or that that "dispute" threatened international peace and security without the vote of the Soviet Union, which had a veto, and could even make that veto effective merely by being absent from the Council when the vote was taken.
There is nothing in the record to support this construction of the rules, and much to oppose it. It is true that the Yalta voting compromise referred to "parties to a dispute" because Chapter VIII, Section A, Paragraph 5, of the Dumbarton Oaks proposals which was before the conferees at Yalta used the phrase "parties to a dispute." But time and again, in the official explanations of the veto and in the official report on the San Francisco Conference, the word "dispute" is used synonymously with "situation" and with "case" and "controversy."
In explaining the voting formula after Yalta, Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., then Secretary of State, said of the abstention clause in the Yalta voting agreement: "This means that no nation, large or small, if party to a dispute, would participate in the decisions in the Security Council on questions like the following: whether the dispute or situation is of such a nature that its continuation is likely to threaten the peace." On this occasion, Mr. Stettinius uses the words "dispute" and "situation" synonymously, as the Canadians did in their official report on the conference. Moreover, in Mr. Stettinius' report to President Truman on San Francisco,[i] he uses the broader word "case" to emphasize the intention that the abstention clause should apply to all peaceful settlements of "cases" in which a member is involved. "The principal decision made at Yalta," said Mr. Stettinius in the report to the President, "was that the unanimity requirement should apply to procedures of pacific settlement but that it should not be carried to the extent of permitting a member of the Security Council to take part in deciding a case to which it is a party. . . ."
So much for the principle involved in the second basic assumption. The promise was equally clear. The Big Five, explaining the voting procedure at San Francisco, said: "It is not to be assumed, however, that the permanent members, any more than the non-permanent members, would use their veto power wilfully to obstruct the operation of the Council. . . ." The official American report was even more explicit: "During the course of the debate on the . . . voting formula itself, it was stressed by the Great Powers that their special voting position would be used with a great sense of responsibility and consideration of the interests of the smaller nations and that therefore the 'veto' would be used sparingly. . . ."
Of course, it is perhaps open to each nation to define "sparingly" as it pleases, but there is no doubt that in the opinion of the vast majority of those who have observed the United Nations since its inception, the Soviet Union has violated both the Roosevelt principle and the Big Five promise which make up the basic assumption about the veto.
The third basic assumption about the United Nations was that the General Assembly would serve as a forum in which the real issues among the Powers would be discussed, and where the nations, by joint positive action on common international questions, would develop habits of coöperation that would eventually produce a conciliatory spirit in all the organs of the United Nations, including the Security Council.
This assumption has not proved to be correct either, and maybe it was based on a misconception to begin with. In the first place, the nations have not dealt, and perhaps could not possibly deal in public, with the "real issues" that divide them. The "real issue" for the United States and Britain in the Spanish and Greek questions, for example, was the possible spread of Communism and Soviet influence into the Iberian peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean. They did not want to assist in the exchange of another Mikhailovitch for another Tito. But while these questions were debated ad nauseam in the Security Council, nobody even mentioned the word "Communism."
The same thing was true in most of the other debates during the first nine months of the General Assembly and the Council. The "real issue" in Iran was not oil, as has been so widely contended. At both the Tehran and Yalta Conferences the United States and Britain stated they had no objection to the Soviet Union getting oil concessions in that country. The issue was aggression by political and military infiltration, and while the American and British foreign offices had all the information on how the trick was done, and while they know today that we have seen only the first chapter in the Soviet campaign to get the British out of all Iran and get a "friendly" government established in Tehran, nobody did anything more than skirt around the question of aggression.
Moreover, there was very little evidence in the first meetings of the General Assembly that it was capable of effective work on positive questions. Indeed, instead of a conciliatory atmosphere spreading from the General Assembly into the Security Council, the tendency has been for the acrimonious discussions of the Council to spread to the Assembly.
It is possible, of course, to place too much significance on these sharp arguments. Our ears are still attuned to the polite pianissimo of the old diplomacy after new leaders with new and noisier instruments have taken the stage. Words are no longer chosen by leading diplomats and statesmen as carefully as they used to be. (Mr. Byrnes, in referring to the Palestine issue recently, used "partition" when he meant "federation," with results that every student of foreign affairs can imagine.) The practice of understatement has been replaced by the process of declamation and denunciation. The latter, though harder on the nerves, may be no worse than the former. For the moment, however, the third basic assumption, like the other two, has not been carried to realization.
It has not been carried out, and neither have the others, because the most important of all the basic assumptions about the United Nations has not been fulfilled. This assumption was that the great states would manage to have a little faith in each other; not much, maybe, but at least enough to operate an association that depended on unity.
"It was taken as axiomatic at Dumbarton Oaks," said Mr. Stettinius' official American report on the San Francisco Conference, "that the cornerstone of world security is the unity of those nations which formed the core of the grand alliance against the Axis. . . ." It was hoped that somehow the Russian emphasis on power as a weapon to be wielded as of right and the Anglo-Saxon emphasis on power as a responsibility could be brought closer than they were on the opening day of the San Francisco Conference. But this does not seem to have happened.
Still, if it is true, as we in this country sometimes think it is, that the imponderables are often as important as the ponderables, it cannot be concluded that all the developments of the past year in the United Nations have been for the worse. The gap between reality and hope is certainly great. The judgments of most of the delegates to the first General Assembly in New York are more melancholy than the visions many of them had at San Francisco. But it cannot be said that there is not a bright corner to the picture or that the United Nations itself is in some way responsible for the gloomy prospect.
No American who left San Francisco a year ago last July would have predicted that the United States Senate would have ratified the Charter by 89 to 2. Few would have predicted that the United States would be taking the lead, as it is today, in the United Nations. And certainly nobody would have believed it possible that the United Nations would have before it today a proposal backed by the President and the Secretary of State (though, in all honesty, it should be noted, not yet approved by the Senate) that the veto be abandoned in the realm of atomic energy.
Too much should not be assumed from this latter fact. American policy on the veto is wavering. In the executive branch of the Government there is a strong movement toward minimizing it as much as possible. In the country as a whole, the pressure of public opinion for the moment is seeking not to limit the powers of the United Nations, as it was after the San Francisco Conference, but to widen it. Even in Congress, it would undoubtedly be possible to get the veto abolished on all questions involving the pacific settlement of controversies. But beyond this it would not be safe to rely on Congressional approval.
At the present moment, the Truman Administration is wavering and perhaps even inconsistent. It favors the abolition of the veto in the realm of atomic energy, after certain safeguards (unacceptable to the Russians) have been agreed upon, but it opposes the Cuban motion to abolish the veto altogether. It argues for a liberal trusteeship policy by the British, but hesitates to adopt one for the new territories the United States has acquired in the Pacific.
Moreover, it may be charged that Mr. Truman has repeated the mistake of Woodrow Wilson, and to a certain extent of Franklin Roosevelt, in that he has not emphasized to the American people the necessity of making clear that now, as before, the United States will fight any nation that consistently seeks to destroy the principles and purposes on which world order rests, even if there is no express commitment to fight for them under a legal charter.
But aside from these hesitations, the United States has moved more rapidly toward a position of world leadership than ever before in its history, and is more and more making the United Nations the center of its policy. Those who are directing American policy in the United Nations are fully aware of the fact that the Soviet Union is attempting by interpretation of the rules to get the kind of charter they wanted in the first place: a charter in which the nations of the world are expected to approve and carry out the prearranged decisions of the Big Five, and in which each of the Big Five has a veto on the others. The Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians both attempted to interpret the Constitution of the United States to fit their original desires, and that fight is still going on.
The United States does not want that kind of a security organization. Our officials and even our Congress have come to the realization that in the realm of security the interests of the United States and the interests of the vast majority of the nations of the world are similar if not identical. That is why Mr. Byrnes seeks to increase the number of nations at the peace conferences and why Americans are glad to see all the United Nations attending the General Assembly.
[i]Cf. "Charter of the United Nations: Report to the President on the Results of the San Francisco Conference." (Department of State Publication 2349.)