Amazement and concern are often expressed these days that the United Nations seems unable or unwilling to "do anything" about Viet Nam. What is the Security Council for, it is asked, if not to stop wars? If the Council is blocked by a veto, why does not the General Assembly act? Yet neither apparently will even discuss Viet Nam.
The history and limitations of the United Nations are not always well understood. Americans forget that we collaborated with the Soviet Union in writing into the Charter severe restrictions on the powers of the Security Council, and that we have of late publicly shared with our West European and Latin American friends apprehension that new "swirling" Afro-Asian majorities in the General Assembly might drag us into adventures against our interest. A narrow mandate conferred on the United Nations, if sauce for the goose, has to be sauce for the gander too.
In 1945 the Security Council was conceived as the all-powerful peacekeeping instrument of Five Great Powers acting together but capable only of procedural action and ineffectual debate if one of the Five dissented. At the same time, the Assembly was conceived not at all as a world legislature- perish the thought!-but as a vehicle of parliamentary or multilateral diplomacy, able to recommend what could be negotiated among the requisite majority but unable to decide or enforce.
What is really astonishing is the amount of effective work the two bodies have been able to do. The Council, in the absence by chance of a permanent member, mobilized an international army against an aggressor in Korea and subsequently has authorized and supervised military operations not only between but inside sovereign states, with their consent. The Assembly set up and has ever since maintained a substantial peacekeeping presence at Suez, and has nursed and prodded disarmament negotiations as far as the Five Powers would tolerate and sometimes further than they would like.
At the present moment, however, the United Nations is seriously weakened by
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