ONLY yesterday we were living more or less at ease in an atmosphere of relaxed international tension, enthusiastically practising the principle of peaceful coexistence set forth by the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party. This happy state of affairs had lasted for some months. As a result, even the most skeptical among us had gained a certain degree of confidence. The prevailing tone was one of optimism.

On July 26, in defiance of international obligations, Colonel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, thereby setting off a whole chain of reactions. Just when the crisis was most acute, a revolution broke out in Hungary and the Soviet Union stepped in with unparalleled brutality to repress it. Within a few weeks the international horizon was darkened by heavier clouds than at any other time in the last ten years. The effect was that of falling from a high place. Illusions faded as we found ourselves face to face with stark reality.

As I write these lines, nothing is settled. There is a general strike in Budapest, and the Russian tanks are still there. In Egypt, an international contingent is about to relieve the Anglo-French forces, but we wonder anxiously how the two related conflicts can be resolved, one concerning the Canal, the other between Israel and the Arab nations.

Yet although nothing is settled, it is possible to measure some of the consequences of these events. All international institutions have been shaken by this double crisis. It has directly affected the United Nations, NATO and the whole attempt to achieve unity in Europe. In this welter of events, resolutions and decisions, not to mention feelings, we find food for somber thought. Already we can reach certain conclusions.

First of all, let us look at the United Nations. I note, with mingled surprise and satisfaction, that in world opinion its prestige still is high. I say with surprise, because from the start I had excessively great hopes for this organization. Too often they have been dashed. Those who do not know the inner workings of the United Nations, its ponderousness, the time it wastes, the hypocrisy which frequently marks its debates, its oft-demonstrated inefficiency--in short, those who are acquainted with it only from the outside and hark back to its generous principles and noble ideals--all these have held fast to their original confidence and faith.

There is something profoundly touching about this widespread reaction. Facing any case of international injustice or threat of war, people in large numbers turn to the United Nations for redress. I only wish that I could still number myself among the faithful. And yet I honestly cannot. On the contrary, it seems to me that never before has the insufficiency of the United Nations as at present constituted stood out so clearly. In spite of its apparent success, I believe that it has never come so near to the brink of failure--that is, unless it proceeds promptly to reëstablish its strength.

It looks as if the United Nations had been able to prevent the extension of the war in Egypt but were powerless to block or end the Soviet aggression against Hungary. This difference fosters the fear that in an organization where impartiality was supposed to be the rule, power or cynicism actually has carried the day. This is a fundamental fault, but there is another still worse. The Charter signed at San Francisco aspired to be all-embracing. Of course the main aim was to outlaw war, to condemn and prevent recourse to violence. But there was also the constructive idea of establishing law and assuring the triumph of justice. Although the United Nations has, to a certain extent, prevented war, I fear--much as I should like to be mistaken--that it is quite incapable of making the right prevail.

The San Francisco Charter seems to me dangerously incomplete and so ineffectual that I do not see how, in its present form, it can long endure. To eliminate war as a political weapon is certainly a great moral step forward. But if no alternative recourse is provided, then the system is handicapped from the start and can lead only to chaos.

Let me put it in a different way. In the present United Nations setup, which is not what its founders wished and hoped it would be, everything short of war is allowed. Treaties may be violated, promises can be broken, a nation is licensed to menace its neighbor or to perpetrate any sort of trick on it, just as long as there is no actual war. The attitude of Egypt during the last few months is a case in point. While Egypt denied transit through the Suez Canal to Israeli ships, sent death commandos onto Israeli soil, violated the Treaty of Constantinople, sent arms to be used against the French in Algeria and made preparations to attack its neighbor, the United Nations was powerless to intervene. Such intervention would not come within the scope of the Charter as at present interpreted. But let Israel in desperation send troops into the Sinai peninsula and let Anglo-French forces land at Port Said, and they are sure to be condemned. Meanwhile, those who were looking on impassively at the brutal repression of the revolt in Hungary could not find words harsh enough to damn them.

This brand of justice, I repeat, is nothing but a caricature. Such an interpretation of principles amounts to rewarding any nation which is audacious enough to accomplish the most reprehensible act but which very cleverly stops short, not of violence, but of open war. This state of things cannot endure. It is high time to modify the Charter, to abolish the veto, to make for responsible voting, to decree that violators of international law shall be excluded, ipso facto, from the organization, and to set up a real international army.

Obviously, all this is very difficult to bring about. That the veto has rendered the Security Council powerless does not need to be demonstrated further. Thus, as was foreseen at San Francisco by a good many delegations, the system established there has proved to be inapplicable. Yet there is hope, perhaps, in the fact that the General Assembly seems to be more and more aware of its possibilities and anxious to make up for the too-evident bankruptcy of the Security Council. Is the Assembly strong enough to set up an order of things which could, to a certain extent, compensate for these shortcomings? In any event the question is being asked.

My optimism, I admit, is limited, principally because of the attitude of Soviet Russia and the satellite countries. The spectacle which they have presented in the course of debate in the present Assembly is indeed profoundly shocking. They become passionate defenders of the General Assembly's recommendations every time that Egypt is in question, but they treat all resolutions concerning Hungary like dead letters. This attitude is so immoral that the very authority of the Assembly becomes deeply affected by it. Under such conditions it is impossible to believe that peace can be maintained and international justice assured.

But perhaps the very depth of the evil will force people to open their eyes. During the early days of the United Nations reform of the Charter was often discussed, but these efforts came up against fierce opposition from the Soviet Union, and they have been progressively abandoned. Today the subject is again the order of the day; those who believe in the need for the United Nations are once more demanding its adaptation to new circumstances. If this trend could grow and assert itself, it would undoubtedly represent the best hope of the moment.

Secondly, let us look at the Atlantic Alliance. In this moment of major crisis it failed to function. Ironically enough, just when at the instance of all the partner nations three "wise men" were studying ways of strengthening NATO, particularly by means of periodic consultations, the great Western Powers suddenly revealed their fundamental disagreement. Let us not inquire who is to blame. Are not all the Great Powers equally guilty for letting themselves get into this situation?

Today when the aims of Soviet policy are again dangerously clear the Atlantic Alliance is more necessary than ever. It is urgent to repair the damage done to it, and this requires an effort of will. First, all the parties must arrive at the same interpretation of the facts, and then they must consent, once for all, to sacrifice the unimportant to the essential. And what may the essential be? The essential is this: that although both before and after the Twentieth Communist Party Congress there were changes in the Soviet Union's domestic policy, its foreign policy has remained exactly the same. Its aim is still what it was under Stalin: to weaken the Western nations, to create difficulties for them by complicating and poisoning the problems with which they are faced, and yet to refrain from overstepping certain limits beyond which they inevitably would find themselves involved in a world war.

This policy is determined by two imperatives. The Soviet Union remains completely Communist, it seeks the victory of Communism, but at the same time it wishes to avoid a war. For even if it were victorious, its economic and social ideals would be retarded and perhaps the achievement of them would be jeopardized. Strange to say, the real face and the essential nature of Communism are still little known and badly understood, particularly, perhaps, in the United States.

Too many people continue to think of Communism as an extreme left-wing movement, opposed to capitalism and favoring collective ownership. But Communism is much more than this. It is a new form of civilization trying to impose itself from the top, and its fundamental principles are diametrically opposed to those from which the moral, political, economic and social evolution of both Europe and America has proceeded and on which it today is based. Our civilization is shaped to the measure of man. Its chief characteristic is respect for the human person. From that, all the rest stems. Communism, on the other hand, denies and ignores man, takes no interest in him as an individual and certainly does not respect him.

With such different points of departure, no purpose common to the two systems can be found. One of the two must triumph over the other, and if it is to be ours we must stick together. Europe can no longer do without the United States; that is a fact which calls for no further demonstration. And the United States would be deeply mistaken to imagine that it can get along without Europe. In spite of the difficulties which sometimes make the coördination of policy difficult, in spite of the regrettable events of these last months, where are America's best friends? In Asia or Africa? No, in Europe.

In what parts of the globe are the misery of the people and inexperienced leadership opening the way to Communist infiltration? Where, on the contrary, is Communism held in check or forced to recede? The answer to these questions is not difficult to find. The essential thing is the defense of our civilization. All the rest, no matter how important it may seem, is secondary.

So little is needed to make the Atlantic Alliance what it should be. The principal partners need only to have a little more trust in one another, to be more deeply aware of their fundamental unity. As I write, the three "wise men" are about to turn in the report which was requested of them. Its general content is not hard to guess. It will call for more frequent and regular consultations among the signatories of the Atlantic Pact; it will ask each to abstain from any single-handed action capable of disrupting the policy of the others; and it will suggest fuller exchange of information regarding each one's aims and objectives.

Everyone is going to agree with these recommendations. But this does not reassure me completely. What is needed is an active will to press forward along these lines rather than a mere verbal acquiescence in them. Have the perils through which we have recently passed and are still passing opened our eyes?

Fortunately, the Soviet Union committed a serious diplomatic error by asking the United States to join it in opposing the Anglo-French enterprise in Egypt. This was too much. It pointed up unmistakably the low estate into which the Atlantic Alliance had fallen. It will be, I believe, the indirect cause of an effort to rebuild it. This alliance is the tool for making a joint policy. It is inconceivable that we shall not employ it.

Although the present crisis presents dangers for both the United Nations and NATO, it may well be beneficial to the cause of European unity. Ever since the nationalization of the Suez Canal there has been a strong current of opinion in that direction. Colonel Nasser's bold move showed what a definite lack of esteem for the great European nations exists in certain quarters. And the failure of the United States to support the Anglo-French cause has underlined the same theme. The European nations are somewhat like scattered chicks. When they see a hawk hovering above them--whether in the form of Stalin or Nasser--they tend to come together.

Chancellor Adenauer and Premier Guy Mollet have restated forcefully their desire to pursue European unity. They have done even more. They have devised constructive solutions for various technical problems, proving once again that when a political will exists technicalities can easily be swept away. In this field things are evolving favorably, and there is a chance that within a few weeks we shall see agreement on a common European market and on Euratom, the European project for atomic energy development. Once again the goal seems within reach. But this was equally true in the period of the European Defense Community; and having lived through this experience, I cannot allow myself to be carried away by premature enthusiasm. Those of us who work for European unity are fated to be constantly on the verge of either triumph or disaster. It is an incontrovertible fact, however, that the idea of a third force, a united Europe, has made great progress in the course of recent months. For the United States this should be a cause of rejoicing. The third force is not an attempt to neutralize Europe and place her at an equal distance between America and Russia. On the contrary, it expresses the European will to cease being a dead weight upon America and to become a genuine ally, ready to assume a full share of responsibilities.

I have said--and there is no use trying to hide it--that things seem to me to have been going badly. I am not entirely pessimistic; I do not look for a third world war. But I do fear (I must admit) that a more and more confused situation is developing in which the Western world risks losing much. It can gain only by showing unexpected courage and unity.

A sense of fatality seems to smother us. We know what must be done. We even succeed in expressing it quite clearly. But for one reason or another we are not able to translate our will into action. We were right to create the United Nations, we were right to make the Atlantic Alliance, we are right to dream of a united Europe. But once the policy has been agreed upon and the instruments forged we are not able to make them operate efficiently. Little by little the instrumentalities lose their force and scope and hopes dissolve in disillusionment. Where are the men of clear mind and resolute will that the West needs desperately to save its precious inheritance?

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • PAULHENRI SPAAK, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium; previously three times Prime Minister and four times Minister of Foreign Affairs; President of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946
  • More By Paul-Henri Spaak