IN 1945, when the United Nations was founded, its raison d'être was to provide greater security for its member nations. As the basic conflict of interests between Soviet Communism and the free nations unfolded, the cold war rapidly came to suffuse the entire organization like a sort of nerve gas, paralyzing but not killing. In a relatively short time, it was seen to be incapable of resolving or even seriously affecting the dominant world conflict. The United States and its principal allies were forced to conclude that except as it provided a forum for counter-propaganda the United Nations was irrelevant to the over-riding short-term military and security problem posed by aggressive and expansionist Soviet Communism.

The Korean War threw a new light on the capabilities of the U.N. as a political mechanism for organizing and demonstrating world-wide resistance to limited Communist aggression. But the disproportionately large contribution which the United States had to make to that fight strengthened the doubt whether the U.N. could play a central rôle in the short-run protection of American national security. It continued to exercise a powerful attraction for the American people, since it exemplified their great will for peace. But as the custodian of the peace it seemed to be in a fiduciary relationship not to us but to an unborn generation of men who might have a capacity for managing their affairs rather more harmoniously.

Reasons for the American public to favor continued participation in the U.N. were, besides the moral attraction of the Charter ideal, the possibility of using the organization selectively in the settlement of disputes within the free world, and its "secondary" activities involving dependent areas, technical assistance and the humanitarian achievements of the Specialized Agencies. Those functions turned out to be important enough to sustain American membership. But no amount of enthusiasm for the potentialities of the organization under different circumstances could overcome the conviction that at best it must be considered to be "on ice" so far as concerned the profound and immediate security problem that preoccupied us.

Meanwhile great changes have been taking place in power relationships and in the policies designed to protect national security. The capacity of the United States to influence international events decisively has seemed to decline in recent years. We cannot afford the luxury of misusing any available means of making our influence felt. What of the United Nations? Has our estimate of its capabilities taken account of our new insights into the present realities of international political life, specifically as they relate to political and technological developments? What contribution might it make to security in the years immediately ahead?


Four things have happened in recent years to put in question our old basic attitudes toward the U.N. as an agency promoting our national security.

The first is the loosening of the alliance structure on both sides. In the early days of the cold war it was not uncommon for the vote in the General Assembly to be 55 to 5 on a whole range of issues. The lines were sharply drawn; the balance of power was so rigid that little flexibility for manœuvre was left within the U.N. or for that matter outside. Even so, U.N. action played a part in varying degrees in Iran, Greece, the Berlin blockade, Korea and, later, Hungary. In the over-all it was not much. There clearly was no possibility of "U.N. action" in the cold war apart from whatever the United States and its allies were themselves able or willing to do.

In view of the cold war, the presence of Soviets and Americans under one roof posed a novel problem for Western diplomacy. In a time when we were struggling to organize a world-wide defensive coalition against the Communist threat, we had to meet and negotiate with our allies in the presence of the enemy. Each issue and each vote thus came to represent a separate test of free-world unity, and often it was more important in this sense than because of the actual question involved. As time went on, the unity of the non-Communist world was put under increasing strain by the growing split between the poles of what might be called North and South, primarily on issues arising in the colonial field. But the over-all alliance held together, albeit with difficulty.

Since 1952, the tone and mode of Soviet diplomacy, in and out of the U.N., have altered. The political effect of this has been acute, coming at a time when the bipolar political world was itself beginning to splinter. With the development of something like a military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, forces within the two coalitions began to assert their freedom of manœuvre and to move toward positions relatively independent of the two leader states. Britain, India, Jugoslavia, Poland, Egypt, China and Germany suddenly began to emerge as foci of new independent leadership. "Automatic majorities" and "automatic leadership" in the U.N., if they had ever really existed, became things of the past. The world was changing, and the U.N. was changing with it.

A second development was the enhanced rôle of the uncommitted countries. The success of the West in gathering support from these countries through the U.N. has become increasingly dependent on the stands which Western nations take on issues of primary importance to the peoples of that "third world." These have not been such issues as capitalism vs. Communism, or German unification, or liberation of the satellites, but colonialism, "self-determination," economic development and racial discrimination. Out of the present membership of 81 countries, approximately 45 members for one reason or another see these as the crucial issues and put the United States to the test in regard to them with increasing frequency. Here again the issue often is purely symbolic; it may reflect an accumulated heritage of resentment or be designed to play off the East against the West. But in the U.N. these issues take concrete shape in resolutions and action programs in which Russian and American performance is constantly made the measure for a host of other attitudes.

The way in which we have restructured the U.N. itself has added to the American dilemma. For perfectly good reasons the United States urged a greater rôle for the General Assembly (where all nations, whatever their size, have equal votes) in order to offset the impotence of the Security Council. In the fall of 1950 it appeared essential to re-mobilize the capabilities of the U.N. for collective military action. Happily the American display of determined resistance in Korea as well as other subsequent developments have tended to discourage military risk-taking by the Communists. The Assembly's real rôle in this field therefore is still not measurable. But as part of the same development the Assembly has become a prime political forum for the nations which remain outside the East-West camps and pursue their own goals of political independence, economic improvement and racial dignity. In this situation what might be called the North-South conflict cuts across the East-West issues and makes its own powerful demands on American diplomacy, while offering magnificent opportunities for the Soviets to seize the political initiative.

The third change is in the military scene. It is by its performance here that many people would have the U.N. stand or fall. Of course, it long since became clear that the Security Council would not be able to carry out its enforcement powers. Yet in the 13 years since the Charter was drafted there has been no general war, and one of the chief reasons for this has certainly been that the important operational principles of the Charter--collective action for security and avoidance of violence in resolving disputes--have been in general effect. It might be said that the San Francisco principle has failed in detail but has had general validity in the sense that it has been translated into regional and self-defense arrangements which, because the Charter existed, were able to borrow from its spirit and purpose.

The U.N. has also invented new military and quasi-military functions connected with the security task. UNEF in Egypt and the earlier military observer teams in Palestine and Kashmir are cases in point. And despite waning confidence in the validity of its major premise, the U.N. displayed unforeseen capabilities in a "hard" case of Communist aggression--Korea--which could scarcely be envisaged in 1945. Both in and out of the U.N., then, many states have acted as though they had assumed an important general commitment and meant to take it seriously. In a way which the old League of Nations could never achieve, all states are involved in each successive crisis. This has obvious disadvantages in potentially widening an otherwise limited conflict. The offsetting advantage may be in keeping these crises from ending in general war.

The "failure of collective security," then, turns out to be a failure in the procedure which had been established more than in the substantive result achieved. The notion of universal collective security based on an abstract commitment to fight anyone, anywhere, anytime, on the call of a majority, has evaporated; but it had never really been a legitimate expectation, in the absence of a true world community and given the wide variety of meanings ascribed to the concept of "justice."

But something more than this must be said about the political rôle of the U.N. as an agency of military security in the period ahead. The revolution in military weapons has changed both the kind of wars most likely to be fought and the attitudes of the great Powers toward war itself. The political status quo of the West is anathema to the Soviets, and the territorial status quo of world Communism is unacceptable to us. Yet as general war becomes an increasingly unattractive proposition for both parties, the de facto line between the two worlds has hardened. When it is crossed in strength, as in Korea, the entire world appears to recognize it as a plain violation of the peace, and counter-action becomes politically feasible. Even India and Egypt voted initially to oppose the Communist aggression in Korea. On the other hand, as we saw in Hungary, a general military counter-action across the line was quite impossible politically even if we had been willing to lead it--which we were not.

Unlike the Communists, the United States through the President and Secretary of State has specifically renounced force to resolve political differences. There is no doubt that we would react vigorously to open Communist aggression, i.e. action across the line. But we explicitly avoid steps that could lead to general war. We have applied this self-denying ordinance to ourselves in the case of Communist China, the Berlin blockade, the crossing of the Yalu, Indochina and, most recently, Hungary. We have also applied this policy to our friends, as in the Suez crisis of 1956. It is argued that the United States could and should have blocked the shipment of Soviet arms into the Middle East, with the aim of heading off the subsequent crises, but the President was being entirely consistent in refusing to countenance a local military action that could lead directly to world war, however great the provocation to our friends. A significant result of the Suez fiasco is the realization that both the United States and the U.S.S.R. are likely to veto military action by third parties that might commit them to expanding potentially uncontrollable situations. Barring a drastic change in Soviet estimates of Western power, it would appear that the paraphernalia for all-out war has more political than military significance today. In turn, lesser instruments for exerting power assume increasing importance. The United Nations is one of them.

The fourth change is in the significance of disputes within the free world. Cases in point are the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir; Palestine, in all its ramifications, including the status of international waterways; India versus South Africa over Indian minority rights and racial discrimination; Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom over Cyprus; and Indonesia versus the Netherlands over West New Guinea. Each might "go critical." As Suez illustrated, a dispute which did not directly involve the two great Powers can quickly pose life-and-death decisions for the entire human family. As things stand, the control rods of "the Suez pile" are held by an international brigade of U.N. troops. The chain reaction can start there again. But for the moment the world is buying time with the help of a variety of U.N. instrumentalities and functions, including UNEF, the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization and the activities of the Secretary-General. If Kashmir should be the scene of renewed fighting, and if the Soviet Union backed India and the United States backed Pakistan, the risks that the direct Soviet-American confrontation might develop into general war would be that much greater, given the geography and the stakes.

Whenever possible, the United States has preferred to leave disputes not directly involving Communist nations to the U.N. It is within this range of issues that the U.N. machinery for the pacific settlement of disputes has been brought into play. The Suez case is an indication of how we have become prisoners of outmoded ways of thinking about the organization. Throughout the intense and futile negotiations in the summer of 1956 the United States and its partners rigidly shunned any positive use of U.N. instrumentalities. One American motive in this was to avoid the possibility of a public discussion of the Panama Canal, by association, as it were. Consequently we relied exclusively on the so-called London group. This forum was unacceptable to Egypt. At the same time we failed to avail ourselves of a wide range of possible actions through the U.N., including appointment of a U.N. mediator, or of a U.N. agent-general to operate the Canal in the interim without prejudice, or the establishment of a joint régime, or, at a minimum, recognition through a U.N. resolution that the Canal was international in character. Reasonable proposals that enlisted heavy U.N. support could conceivably have altered Egypt's intransigence. We now see that when the British and French finally went to the U.N. in early October it was to clear the way for unilateral action. Only when fighting broke out did we ourselves turn to the U.N. to stop it. And this was of course the one thing the U.N. was unable to do apart from its exertion of purely moral force and apart from whatever outside pressure individual members such as we and the Russians could apply.

Western statesmen have spoken for years, quite correctly, about the great value of the U.N. in getting the parties to a dispute around the table, substituting talk and mediation and conciliation, however endless and frustrating, for bullets, and offering a variety of institutional means for limiting the conflict and facilitating peaceful change. In the case of Suez we underestimated the preventive capacity of the U.N. before the crisis became acute, overestimated its capabilities when the crisis arrived, and again lost interest when the crisis had passed. Our attention immediately wandered to another dimension of the problem--the possibility of overt Russian military aggression. The resolutions regarding a peace settlement and the refugee problem which we introduced in the hectic early nights of the crisis were never again referred to, and instead we brought forth the Eisenhower Doctrine for the Middle East. It may have been worth while to post a U.S. "keep out" sign in the area, even though the possibility of overt aggression was and is comparatively slight. But this was our only real move to remedy a whole set of critical local situations which did not primarily involve the Communist bloc but which were the basic sources of conflict in the area. Because all of these, including specifically the refugee problem, have once again been passed over, it can confidently be predicted that the next local explosion will be that much more potent.


How should the considerations just mentioned affect American policy toward the United Nations in the years immediately ahead? Let us first identify some of the over-riding security goals of this policy today and see how the U.N. might help in achieving them.

Of course, our principal and obvious security objective is to create the kind of world order in which we and every other nation can cultivate our respective societies free from external threats of disruption. Everything else falls within this governing purpose. Fully spelled out, it would comprehend a wide variety of subordinate objectives in the economic, social, humanitarian and cultural fields. Here, however, we shall concentrate on the most acute problems which determine our choice of means and our allocation of resources.

Objective number one, then, is to reduce the generalized threat which Soviet Communist power presents to the United States and all Western society. This broad objective has three components. The first is to reduce the Soviet capability to inflict intolerable physical damage upon us. The second is to moderate hostile Soviet intentions. The third is to limit and if possible reduce present international support for the Soviet Union.

The second objective is to find means of limiting warfare if it does break out.

The third is to ensure, in the event of general war, that we rally maximum political support to our side, in order that we may have the best chance of organizing the postwar world in an acceptable way.

The fourth is to reduce the possibility of a general war developing inadvertently.

Reducing Soviet military capabilities. Since the U.N. does not have any military force of its own it would seem of little use to us in attaining this first objective. It can provide a variety of forums for negotiating the limitation and regulation of armaments and restricting the use of outer space to non-warlike purposes. True, whether or not these questions are to be resolved depends on agreement between the United States and the U.S.S.R., and in this sense the decision will be bilateral rather than multilateral. Nevertheless the wide choice of means of negotiation offered by the U.N. should not be discounted, as was shown when Russia wanted to talk privately with us about liquidating the Berlin blockade. A summary appraisal must be, then, that the U.N. can affect Soviet military capabilities only indirectly, by furnishing a negotiating vehicle.

Affecting Soviet intentions. This objective is more complex. At its least complicated level--military intentions--Soviet policy since Korea seems to have consciously excluded the overt use of military force in favor of more profitable and acceptable techniques of political and economic warfare. Secretary Dulles has said on several occasions that if it were not for the U.N. we would be in World War III. The real significance of the commitment undertaken by 81 nations--including the Soviet Union--to refrain from the threat or use of force is obviously not in its legal quality. Because any warlike act will immediately be brought before 80 other nations, the Soviet Union is faced with the fact that it must persuade an effective majority that it has not breached the existing line which neither side can properly cross, whatever it may be doing behind that line.

This deterrent is not comparable with the deterrent of our Strategic Air Command, but there have been too many examples of Soviet sensitivity to world public opinion for us to write it off as meaningless. It is not always remembered that the U.N. resolution condemning the U.S.S.R. in Hungary was supported by 15 Afro-Asian states, with none in opposition. The Soviets periodically stumble badly because of the difficulty of sustaining a soft line in the U.N. when their line outside hardens. Soviet troops are still in Hungary, but the Soviet Union's reputation in the uncommitted nations was gravely tarnished just when its efforts to woo them were at a peak. On balance, the fact that the U.N. exists can be set down as a consideration affecting Soviet calculations about the profitability of military operations, but it hardly figures as a prime factor. On the other hand, regional and collective self-defense arrangements largely embody the Charter commitment to oppose aggression, and these manifestly shape the Soviet estimate of the non-Communist world's vulnerability.

If, however, we think of Soviet intentions in the context of an evolution of Soviet society into something more tolerant and more tolerable, there are additional dimensions to the possible U.N. rôle which may not always be fully grasped. Certainly the U.N. cannot transform the nature of Soviet Communism significantly, but in various ways it might exert a favorable influence.

The fact that it is a continuous point of contact between the Communist bloc and the West may acquire special significance in a changing situation, if only by giving the Soviet Union assurance of being readily accepted into the community of nations as a great Power even though it is rejected as a messianic and apocalyptic force. Meanwhile, U.N. membership can have the effect of sustaining and encouraging the independent identity of such satellites as Poland.

Thus we should continue to offer the Soviets alternative courses of action that one day may appear realistic and attractive to them. With or without them, we should continue to work to institutionalize areas of common action and to create an international community that can compete successfully with the barren Soviet variety. We have already led the way in nonpolitical programs such as health and technical assistance, which the Russians, for many reasons, ultimately have come to join. Seen in this light, the cold war should spur us to greater experiments with multilateralism among those disposed to coöperate; it should not serve as an excuse for us to retreat into inaction and defeatism.

One further matter may be mentioned conveniently here even though it is not directly related to Soviet intentions.

The U.N. is a demonstration and testing point for the unity of the free world. When that unity increases, the Soviets have seemed to raise their estimates of Western capabilities; and conversely, Western disunity has encouraged the Soviets to calculate their opportunities as more promising. Sometimes the U.N. has been an embarrassment to us when used as a place for airing the free world's dirty linen. Sometimes the Russians have been able to use it as a place to disrupt free world unity. If we are to live successfully in the kind of U.N. that has developed, and retain majority support when it really counts, we must do a number of new things. We must be prepared to go a great deal further than we have with our close friends on issues which are of great political importance to them but of only secondary importance to us. Primarily these represent differences over essentially procedural matters such as elections or budgets or the composition of committees, which often have been the source of more inter-allied friction than any substantive policy issues except Chinese representation or Suez. We might do better not to engage the prestige of the United States on such procedural issues but to save it for the big ones. We might also gracefully accept an occasional minority position on some issues instead of insisting on having our own way, or going over the heads of friendly delegates, or threatening retaliation, however subtly.

Limiting international support for the Soviet Union. This support is coming primarily from the underdeveloped, neutralist, anti-colonial countries and territories. No actions of ours can be expected wholly to reverse this tide until it has run its course. Nevertheless, it is here that the battle is being fought, and our task is to find ways of diverting local forces of discontent into constructive channels, to furnish incentives for native leadership so that the forces of nationalism may be harnessed to tasks of building rather than destruction and hate.

The prime factor here is economic. We should estimate afresh the political and economic benefits that might stem from greater use of the U.N. in financing the development of underdeveloped countries. But there also are important psychological factors, and here the style and sensitivity of our diplomacy can be crucial. Both in and out of the U.N., our ability to command the support of an effective majority depends heavily on the way we handle the legacy of bruised feelings left by centuries of Western claims to racial superiority, and on the understanding with which we view the ambition of Asians or Latin Americans to "catch up," to become industrialized, to be less dependent on a peasant economy that offers only continued human misery and poverty.

The U.N. is the one place where all of these tensions and claims and expectations come into focus in full view of virtually all the world. There the uncommitted nations have found their place in the sun, there the concept of the legal equality of states offers them the self-respect and dignity they seek.[i] There they acquire a parliamentary strength entirely disproportionate to the amount of real power they command in the world. This power is used primarily to bring before the rest of the world their ambitions and grievances, incorporated in concrete issues and demands: freedom from the only kind of foreign domination they know about; generous economic assistance for development, specifically grants, low-interest loans and fair capital investment; protection of their exports from uncontrollable fluctuations in world prices; racial equality in practice; freedom for the remaining colonial possessions of Western Powers; in short, equality with the rest of the world.

If we are to have the political support of these nations we must find better ways than we have done so far to relate our own interests to their interests, aspirations and goals. Where the U.N. provides the only agency acceptable to them we must utilize it to the utmost.

Limiting warfare if it breaks out. Our general military objective here has three parts. One is to avoid a direct military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, as already discussed. Another is to keep such a confrontation within bounds if it happens. A third is to keep outbreaks within the non-Communist world from spreading into a general war.

The scope of hostilities between free-world and Communist nations would undoubtedly be determined by the estimates each side made of the intentions and the capabilities of the other. Given the will of each to keep them limited, the U.N. can then offer the advantages it did when the United States made its decision to resist the Russians in Korea.

These advantages are several. First, the U.N. furnishes one means for us to secure maximum world-wide political support. This support is indispensable if we are not to lose the sense of legitimacy and moral right which we as a people need in order to sustain a military effort. The second advantage is the opportunity given us by the commitment made by all U.N. members to assist the organization in any action it takes in accordance with the Charter. This does not have to mean "action" in the legal sense of Security Council enforcement. Marginal offers of bases, transit rights--even "a sharpshooter on a camel"--cannot merely demonstrate the breadth of international disapproval of a Soviet act of limited aggression but can pay important strategic dividends. The third advantage is that the mere fact that the conflict is before the U.N. tends to discourage participants from expanding the scope of the war recklessly or setting extravagant war aims.

Perhaps the situation most likely to arise is one in which a military outbreak does not directly involve the armed forces of the United States or the U.S.S.R. Here the rôle of the U.N. is essentially political. When there is an effective majority against the continuance of hostilities, and the parties involved are responsive to it as they were in the Suez crisis, the conflict may be halted before it gets completely out of hand. An international military force such as UNEF can then play a most important rôle in helping restore conditions favorable to peaceful settlement and perhaps peaceful change.

Schemes for a standing U.N. force to counter large-scale aggression call for a relative preponderance of power at the center. Without some form of world government this is unattainable. Yet there is a more limited military rôle for the U.N. that is realistic and at the same time would serve to meet a vital contemporary need. Only the U.N. can develop and perfect the sort of limited and neutral force needed to prevent or deal with local situations which we know constitute a real and present danger to world peace. Such a force would not be supposed to undertake full-scale military action but only police functions. The response of the smaller nations in 1956 proved that they are ready, able and willing to contribute to such a force. Rather than continuing to present the U.N. as a club of like-minded states all prepared to take identical action, we should be grateful that some of them may form a "third party" available to be interposed in such situations. We ourselves have been the "third party" on occasion, as in the Indonesian Good Offices Committee, or in Algeria, and might well play such a rôle again.

A defect of various valuable suggestions recently made for establishing a permanent force along these lines lies in their failure to reckon fully with the formidable financial costs involved. One way to overcome this problem would be to set up a training command with a small permanent cadre. Selected units from member countries would be rotated there for a specified period, but would then return home to be held as a reserve.

Using the U.N. in a general war situation. We are prone to believe that general war would mean the end of the U.N., and this may be so. Yet as we saw in the case of Korea, the U.N. can serve as an umbrella under which the United States can legitimize its military response to a Communist aggression. Our planning must not ignore this possibility. We must assume there will be a postwar world to organize. The U.N. might accord legitimacy to non-Communist representatives of peoples in the Soviet bloc while hostilities were still in progress and thus arrange a vital political focus for the forces which would coöperate to bring into being the sort of world for which we had fought. Finally, if the political war aims were defined by the U.N. rather than by a single nation this might bring hostilities to a satisfactory end more promptly.

Reducing the possibility of general war developing inadvertently. Since it is unlikely under present conditions that general war will be launched by the deliberate decision of any nation, the chief concern of responsible statesmen should be to prevent the outbreak of war by inadvertence. If we rule out the use of force to remedy the legitimate grievances of states, we are obliged to find other means for the solution of those problems. It is here that the U.N. has possibly its most vital future task to play in terms of our national security. But to energize the U.N. to under-take this task and to exploit its institutional potentialities fully the United States is going to have to attach a wholly new order of importance to developing better means for peacefully settling disputes and facilitating peaceful change. We must apply political muscle to the "preventive peace" about which we speak so frequently. It may mean a concentrated political and financial effort to resolve the Palestine refugee deadlock. It may mean taking the Peace Observation Commission out of mothballs and urging that it be dispatched to an unquiet frontier like that between Tunisia and Algeria. It may mean leading the way to greater use of the International Court of Justice, instead of setting an opposite kind of example by falling back on the domestic jurisdiction plea, as in the Interhandel Case. It may mean pressing for the international regulation of international waterways--including the Panama Canal. In short, it means doing what no one has ever done before in all history--expending an effort to prevent violence comparable to the effort usually made in picking up the pieces afterward.

In working with enlarged purpose and effort on the chronic causes of instability and friction, we should not find our motivation only in the Soviet threat. Persistent international tensions threaten our ability to fulfill the promises of our own society. For our own internal good our rôle in the world must be more than that of a powerful negative force. Our well-rounded development as a people has come to depend on the development of stability for other peoples. Means must be found to resolve peacefully the clash between the status quo and the dynamic forces that continuously challenge it.

In the period ahead the United Nations may have extremely important uses both in support of the national interest and in support of the common interest in a more stable peace. These uses, as indicated here, may have little to do with the stereotypes and symbols of U.N. action that we still cling to, expressed in terms of universal collective security, "misuse of the veto," overemphasis on purely military estimates of the cold war, excessive U.S. control over multilateral funds and programs, the "popularity contest" theory, and expectations about altruistic international behavior. The crisis is too grave for us to afford to misunderstand the capabilities of any instrumentality offering genuine opportunities to advance our national prospects and the prospects for a tolerable world around us.

[i] This, incidentally, is why a weighted voting system, for all its logic, does not seem feasible unless and until genuine powers are reposed in the General Assembly.

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  • LINCOLN P. BLOOMFIELD, director of a study on the United Nations at the Center for International Studies, M.I.T.; formerly special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs; author of "The Problem of Peaceful Territorial Change"
  • More By Lincoln P. Bloomfield