In September this year, it will be 20 years since Dag Hammarskjöld's plane crashed at Ndola-then in Northern Rhodesia, now in Zambia. The dramatic nature of his death, set against the somber violence of the Congo crisis and the loneliness and confrontation of his last months, have left a popular picture of Hammarskjöld which is, to some extent at least, oversimplified.

Hammarskjöld is now sometimes recalled as a sort of superman before whom governments trembled and world problems magically dissolved. In fact he faced insoluble problems much as his successors have had to, doing his best to mitigate and contain them, offering solutions which governments could sometimes accept and often could not. His last year was darkened by a complete break in relations with Khrushchev and de Gaulle, a crippling impediment for a Secretary-General, who must be able to deal constructively with member governments and especially with the permanent members of the Security Council. The Congo melée, which was at its height when he met his death in September 1961, had already given rise to a fundamental constitutional crisis in the United Nations. It fell to Hammarskjöld's much underestimated successor, U Thant, to find the way out of these difficulties.

It is now widely believed that Hammarskjöld was admired and enthusiastically supported throughout by the majority of member governments, and especially by the Western countries. This is a considerable distortion of the truth. He had been proposed originally by the Western permanent members of the Security Council on the mistaken assumption that as Secretary-General he would be a safe, rather colorless, non-political technocrat. In the event, his single-minded internationalism and integrity were not particularly popular with Western governments, except rather grudgingly when he was resolving problems in which they had ensnared themselves-American prisoners in China, the 1956 Suez crisis, or Lebanon in 1958, for example. Often they found him too high-minded for their taste and doggedly ahead of his time.

They emphatically did not like Hammarskjöld's ideas for developing the United Nations as an organization with quasi-supranational possibilities. His public confrontation with Khrushchev over the Congo caused a surge of popularity in the West and distracted attention from his disagreements with Western governments, but by and large, though respected, he was often found to be a somewhat uncomfortable feature on the international scene. In the emerging, post-colonial Third World, which aroused his warm enthusiasm, he was more accepted, but even there, especially in Africa during the Congo crisis, he became a controversial figure, distrusted by some.

What does Hammarskjöld's glowing posthumous reputation signify? Is it perhaps that governments in principle want a strong and independent United Nations but in practice may find such an organization awkward to deal with? Does it mean that while they have ratified the Charter, most governments are still a long way from recognizing and living by the practical implications of that document?

Hammarskjöld's working view of the office of the Secretary-General and above all his long-term objectives for the United Nations call for renewed study today, when the United Nations, not for the first time, is going through a period of public doubt and skepticism. What were his objectives and how much nearer have we come to them since his death?


"The policy line as I see it," Hammarskjöld wrote in 1959, "is that the U.N. simply must respond to those demands which may be put to it. . . . The United Nations should respond and have confidence in its strength." An important part of this approach was his feeling that the smaller powers had a particular stake in the Organization. Thus he wrote in 1960:

The UN has increasingly become the main platform-and the main protector of the interests-of those many nations who feel themselves strong as members of the international family but who are weak in isolation. . . . They look to the Organization as a spokesman and as an agent for principles which give them strength in an international concert in which other voices can mobilize all the weight of armed force, wealth, an historical role and that influence which is the other side of a special responsibility for peace and security.

And again, three months before his death:

I would rather say that I see the future of this Organization very much as one of an organ which primarily serves the interests of smaller countries which otherwise would not have a platform in world affairs-these smaller countries, however, within the Organization intimately cooperating with the big powers.

This part of his vision of the United Nations, as the platform for the majority of smaller powers, has certainly been amply fulfilled in the intervening years. And the cooperation within the Organization between them and the big powers, if not as yet exactly intimate, is certainly increasing on a wide range of essential subjects.

But the second part of his vision-which is the subject of this article-has been a different story. Hammarskjöld's basic view of international peace and security was that a reliable and just world order could only be built pragmatically by making precedents and by case law. By this process he hoped that the United Nations would be gradually transformed from an institutional mechanism into a constitutional instrument recognized and respected by all nations.

He considered that the Secretary-General had a special role to play in that transformation. While this role might be applicable to any form of international conflict, it had special relevance as regards the great powers and the cold war. As he said in 1959:

I consider it a very natural function for the Secretary-General to keep problems as much as possible outside the cold war orbit and on the other hand, of course, to lift problems out of the cold war orbit to all the extent he can. That is for many reasons. One of them is that it is one way in which we can get over the difficulties created for the UN and UN operations by the cold war. It is one way, so to say, if not to thaw the cold war, at least to limit its impact on international life.

In his second term, Hammarskjöld began to speak of the emergence of an "independent position" for the Organization rooted in the existence at the United Nations of "an opinion independent of partisan interests and dominated by the objectives indicated in the UN Charter." He believed that some kind of international order and international conscience were taking shape at the United Nations for which he, as Secretary-General, was best placed to be the spokesman and even the executive-because, by the nature of his office and his election as Secretary-General, he was lifted above the conflicts that divided the Organization. He spoke of "imaginative and constructive constitutional innovations" to encompass this new nature of the United Nations. Sovereign governments were on the whole not enchanted by such heady notions.

Hammarskjöld lost no opportunity to put before the member governments the choice of alternatives for the future of the United Nations. On the one hand, it could be simply "a vast conference machinery. . . a framework for public multilateral negotiations . . . robbed of its possibilities of action in the preservation of peace"-a reversion to the pattern of the League of Nations-or, on the other, the active peace organization that had slowly been emerging during the previous five years. It is this crucial choice and the related developments of the last 20 years that will be examined in the following pages.


Partly as a result of his strong views about the development of the United Nations as an active organization for the pursuit and preservation of peace, Hammarskjöld's relationship with the Security Council was not always a smooth one. From the beginning there was a feeling that he was trying to push the Council and its members too fast and too far. His first major row with a great power was with the United States in 1954 over its destabilizing activities in Guatemala; his insistence on the responsibilities of the Security Council as opposed to the more easily manipulated regional Organization of American States caused violent indignation in Washington.

Then, in 1956, he was deeply distrusted by the British and French over his active role in resolving the Suez crisis and especially over his "declaration of conscience" to the Security Council at the outset of that crisis. In that declaration, which the British denounced as "unfair," and which was widely interpreted as a threat of resignation, Hammarskjöld warned that the Secretary-General could not necessarily be expected to continue to serve in situations where the conduct of member states, and especially of permanent members of the Security Council, was in violation of the Charter.

He again used the Council to the limit in 1958 in his effort to establish a United Nations presence in Lebanon to forestall other attempts to tilt the balance there. That effort, which resulted in the establishment of a sizable observer group in Lebanon, was accompanied by energetic diplomatic contacts by Hammarskjöld himself with the leaders mainly concerned. The overall result was the stabilization of a potentially extremely dangerous situation-a civil war with external ramifications. And when, as a result of a misreading of the political nature of the Kassem coup in Iraq, the United States undertook an unexpected military intervention in Lebanon, once again threatening a major international crisis, the United Nations machinery there proved an invaluable face-saving device for the early withdrawal of the American forces. At the same time, a different form of United Nations presence was devised for Jordan, partly in order to cover the withdrawal of the British force which had been sent to that country at the same time.

In the fall of 1959, the situation in Laos was explosive, threatening the precarious neutrality agreed to in 1954 at Geneva; then, and perhaps even more in hindsight, Laos appeared the seedbed of renewed war in Vietnam. Hammarskjöld took the initiative in bringing the crisis before the Security Council, using a procedural device that did not involve Article 99 of the Charter (which allows the Secretary-General to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security). But his activism was distrusted almost equally by the United States and the Soviet Union. His basic idea was the establishment of a United Nations presence in Indochina with special concern for the economic and social problems which rendered Laos and its neighbors unstable politically-an international presence designed also to fill the vacuum which otherwise would inevitably be filled by a great power struggle fought through the different political factions of the countries concerned. It is tempting, although futile, to speculate on how this far-sighted plan, which found little favor either among the great powers or the factions in the area, might have mitigated the tragedy of the succeeding years in Indochina.

Hammarskjöld was certainly aware of the suspicions aroused by such efforts and in 1960, before invoking Article 99 to bring the Congo crisis to the Security Council, he secured in advance the concurrence of all the members. Article 99 had never before been formally invoked for this purpose. No one at the time foresaw the depth or complication of the Organization's involvement in the Congo, or where it would lead. The international rivalry underlying the Congo crisis only became fully clear later when President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, backed respectively by West and East, parted company and each declared a rival government. From that point, Hammarskjöld, the Security Council and the United Nations as a whole descended into a devastating and often tragic imbroglio which lasted nearly four years.1

In the Congo, the various opposing factions, including secessionist movements, each had their backers in the outside world. Thus the violence, disorder and tragedy of the local situation reverberated throughout the political structure of the United Nations, causing deep divisions among the membership which tended to paralyze the decision-making capacity of the Security Council and the General Assembly. This in turn left the Secretary-General with the responsibility for deciding how to keep under control, with a force of 20,000 U.N. soldiers and a large civilian operation, the chaotic situation in a vast, newly independent country in a state of full dissolution and anarchy. This controversial exercise of authority by the Secretary-General in a desperate situation raised fundamental constitutional and other questions, especially as regards the authority of the Secretary-General and the nature and conduct of peace-keeping operations. This process culminated, after Hammarskjöld's death, in the Article 19 controversy over the suspension of voting rights for non-payment of contributions, which tied up the General Assembly for an entire session. The United Nations is in some ways still recovering from that experience.

The fact that the Organization ultimately succeeded in its main aim of preserving the territorial integrity of the Congo was largely lost to the public in the welter of secessions, disasters, civil wars, denunciations and constitutional wranglings which bedevilled that audacious enterprise. Perhaps even more important, much of the thrust of Hammarskjöld's efforts for the development of the United Nations as an active political instrument in times of crisis was also submerged in the later stages of the Congo crisis. After Suez and the success of the first substantial U.N. peace-keeping force (UNEF I), great interest and enthusiasm had been aroused by the new technique of peace-keeping triumphantly pioneered by Hammarskjöld, as well as by his imaginative and dynamic development of the Secretary-General's office as an instrument for international problem-solving, mediation and quiet diplomacy.2 The Congo experience, often either willfully or unintentionally misinterpreted or wrongly perceived, did much to dampen and set back the hopes for the United Nations as the active instrument of peace and conflict control which Hammarskjöld's earlier efforts had done so much to encourage.


Twenty years later, it is clear that we are still far from achieving even the first stage of Hammarskjöld's vision of the United Nations as a more active and comprehensive peace organization. Governments, where their own interests are involved, tend to go their own way, getting as much as they can, acting, if necessary, with little respect for the U.N. Charter and sometimes becoming involved in costly and futile conflicts. Expediency tends to be the order of the day-expediency born of fear or opportunism and of conflicting economic, political and military interests and the increasing economic interdependence of countries and continents. Armaments and the arms race continue to spiral out of all control. The rule of law is still a dream on the international stage. The United Nations, often ignored in normal times as the central instrument of an agreed world order, is relegated, in the political sphere at least, to the position of last resort-last resort for the great powers when nuclear confrontation looms, last resort for the weak and the threatened, and the upholder, all too often impotent, of the rights of the dispossessed and of the victims of conflict.

This is not a negligible function, and it is one which deserves far more recognition and respect than it gets, but it is hardly the role that the chastened victors of World War II had in mind for the future world Organization. The sequence of events leading to the foundation of the United Nations is all too well known-the steady erosion, after a promising start, of the League of Nations and in its place a growing and deadly cynicism about international organization and the capacity of nations to do something sensible together; the collapse of dreams of disarmament; the disastrous failure of collective will in facing the aggressions-Japanese, Italian and German-of the 1930s, and the descent into world war; and finally the rise, like a phoenix from the ashes, of the old discredited idea of a world organization for the maintenance of international peace and security. Are we doomed, with our new-found capacity for nearly total destruction, to repeat this disastrous cycle one final time?

The Charter was written with the disasters of previous years in mind. Not surprisingly, it did not foresee accurately the shape and balance of the postwar world. The apotheosis of the major victors of the war (China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the U.S.S.R.) as permanent members of the Security Council with the power of veto, in itself put a limitation on the powers of the new world Organization for political action and even for political development. On the other hand, without such preferential status it is unlikely that the world's two most powerful states would have joined the Organization. It can also be argued that this recognition of the realities of power serves to balance the other extreme of international democracy, the one country-one vote system in the General Assembly.

Did Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill and, later on, de Gaulle, really believe that they were founding an Organization which would "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war"? And, if so, knowing all too well the nature of sovereign states, how did they think it could work in practice?

The primary theme of the Charter is the peaceful settlement of international disputes and the mobilization of the international community to deal with threats to the peace and acts of aggression. In the postwar situation, clear acts of aggression were hard to identify and even harder to agree on. In fact, the main current of threats to peace flowing from the East-West competition for power and influence ran through the very heart of the Security Council which was supposed to deal with threats to peace.

The Charter describes a system for maintaining international peace and security which assumes that all governments will play the roles assigned to them. Those involved in disputes will avail themselves of the means available in the Charter to settle those disputes peacefully. If they fail to do this the membership of the United Nations, under the guidance of the Security Council, will take a series of steps designed to persuade them to do so. The governments concerned will heed and obey the injunctions of the Council. And if in the end the threat to peace persists, the Council, led by its permanent members, will apply enforcement measures, ranging from economic sanctions to military action, to restore peace and security.

This, in simple terms, was the plan the founders put their signatures to. Admittedly the veto power meant that the Council would be unable to mount an enforcement operation against one of its own permanent members-a precaution which is as much in the interests of the smaller powers as of the large ones, because it eliminates the possibility of their being required by the Security Council to take part in a war against a great power. But aside from that, the founders do not seem to have wished to consider how far the Security Council could in reality be expected to act as a body united by a higher responsibility for world peace and security, and how far its performance would inevitably be limited and its unity denied by the conflicting national interests of its members. Thus, from the outset the various conflicts between the interests of its members, and especially those arising from the cold war, have often made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Council to fulfill its true role. In times of crisis, the separate lines of individual national interest have tended therefore to come together, if at all, only in cautiously worded and sometimes ambiguous resolutions of the Council or in a more or less vague delegation of responsibility to the Secretary-General.


Since 1945 there have been several significant wars and a large number of smaller conflicts. The efforts of the Council to deal with these situations have varied from ineffectiveness, as in Vietnam, to painstaking and ultimately successful efforts to contain conflict in various parts of the world, sometimes through the new and improvised technique of peace-keeping. Chapter VII of the Charter, the enforcement chapter, has been invoked as an admonition on one or two occasions, and, with indifferent success, as a basis for economic sanctions, including arms embargoes, in relation to Rhodesia and South Africa. But, with the constitutionally unusual exception of Korea in 1950-when the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council-it has not been applied to field an army that would stop a breach of the peace or act of aggression by force. In effect, the political circumstances of the postwar world, and in particular the East-West conflict, have made it impossible for the international community to use to the full the system for maintaining international peace and security laid down by the Charter, especially when it comes to stopping wars.

Nonetheless, the United Nations has on many occasions shown itself to be of great usefulness in crises which threaten to escalate to the global level. We have already noted examples from the 1950s, in the Hammarskjöld period. After his death, the United Nations played an essential role in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, not only in providing the forum where both sides could expound their positions publicly but also in suggesting, through letters from Secretary-General U Thant to Chairman Khrushchev and President Kennedy, steps that might be taken simultaneously by both sides to de-escalate the crisis. These suggestions, coming from a respected and impartial third party, were accepted and contributed in an important way to the resolution of the crisis.

The United Kingdom in 1964 brought to the Security Council the problem of Cyprus, then in a state of violent civil war, and since then the Council and the Secretary-General, through a peace-keeping force and a series of mediation, good offices and negotiating efforts have played a central role in controlling the local situation and in searching actively for a lasting settlement of the problem. Although violently interrupted by the events of 1974, these efforts continue. The India-Pakistan war of 1965, which constituted a potentially grave threat to the peace, came to an end due to the efforts of the Secretary-General and the Security Council, who also arranged and supervised the cease-fire pending the return of the armies to the original lines and frontiers.

On the other hand, the Middle East war in 1967, preceded by the withdrawal of UNEF I-again an episode whose origins and nature are widely misunderstood-was certainly a grave setback. In 1971, despite the urging of U Thant, the Organization's failure to face up to the dangers of the war between India and Pakistan, until much too late did it no credit either. And in Vietnam, again despite U Thant's personal efforts, the United Nations could do little or nothing in face of the positions of the great powers involved.

The uneven record of the Security Council in the 1960s has continued through the decade of the 1970s. Certainly, its inherent usefulness in a situation threatening to involve the nuclear powers was forcefully demonstrated by its role in bringing a halt to the 1973 Middle East fighting. Here, the apparent danger of the increasing involvement of the Soviet Union and the United States added momentum to the unanimous effort of the Security Council to bring the fighting to an end, first by demanding a cease-fire and, when that failed to halt the hostilities, by interposing a peace-keeping force-UNEF II. This force, mustered and deployed with great speed by the Secretary-General, provided the practical basis for the further disengagement agreements negotiated by Secretary Kissinger.

A year later, however, the Council's inability to preempt disaster in Cyprus (again to some extent the result of reluctance by some members) raised new doubts about its reliability as a peacekeeping instrument if faced with determined opposition. The balance was somewhat restored by the Council's rapid intervention in south Lebanon in 1978 and once again shaken by its incapacity to influence events in Indochina and Afghanistan in 1979, or to come to effective grips in 1980 with the war between Iran and Iraq.

Looking back over these last two decades, one can conclude that the Security Council has for the most part provided the machinery and face-saving devices for stopping wars when the parties were hopelessly deadlocked or when the great powers acted in concert in applying political and other pressures for a cease-fire. But the Security Council has proved unable to stop wars as long as one of the parties thought that it was in a position to impose its will on the other without running serious risk of intervention by the major powers. Once a certain stage of escalation is reached, it may be too late for the Security Council to take effective action. This realization has been the major cause of the prevailing disillusionment and skepticism. It should also be a cause for the deepest anxiety, since, if history is any guide, we shall not forever escape a sudden and unexpected threat to world peace too strong to be dealt with by the desperate last-minute efforts within and outside the United Nations which have so far been effective in preventing limited regional conflicts from escalating into a global war.

In cases where the great powers have been involved and have recognized that their interest in the restoration of peace transcends other considerations, the United Nations, and especially the Security Council, has had important successes in precisely this kind of last-resort global crisis management. This is perhaps the most important achievement of the Organization in maintaining international peace, and it is one too little recognized. On many occasions when regional conflicts have shown signs of leading to confrontation between the nuclear powers, those powers have very effectively used the machinery of the Security Council as a device for altering course away from confrontation. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1973 Middle East war mentioned earlier are only two examples among many of this vital function of the United Nations system. In fact the United Nations can be and has been on many occasions an invaluable refuge in the new and terrifying situation created by nuclear armaments.

The Security Council has been less successful in dealing with wars between smaller powers, at best usually providing the pretexts under which exhausted combatants can agree to a cease-fire and sometimes to a peace-keeping arrangement, or stepping in when the war has threatened to involve the major powers. The Council has never actually stopped a war by force, and its capacity for mediation and negotiation has seldom proved persuasive enough to forestall the conflicts of determined adversaries or even to terminate them in any decisive way. Nor has the Council generally proved effective in bringing the necessary pressure to bear to enforce its own decisions. It can be, and is, easily defied by a determined government with a mind of its own.


Is it realistic to suppose that the Security Council will be able, in the foreseeable future, radically to improve the quality of its guardianship of international peace and security? It is customary to answer this question by suggesting that the peace-keeping and mediating capacity of the United Nations be increased and rendered more effective, or that in some unexplained way the Secretary-General should act more decisively. Such suggestions avoid the basic issue, which is one of governmental intention and will.

It is understandable enough that governments who have an adventure in mind and believe they are strong enough to carry it through do not come first to the Security Council. It is also often difficult for governments who suspect they may be threatened to come to the Council in time, for this may trigger off the very threat they are trying to avoid. The permanent members of the Council, however, with their special position and responsibilities, might be expected to be looking for means to overcome these problems in the interests of preserving the wider peace.

Current experience seems to show the opposite tendency. Indeed, there appears to be an increasing reluctance to mobilize the Council in situations where there is a clear danger of conflict or even when fighting has actually broken out. Recently it took several initiatives by the Secretary-General in the form of letters to the Security Council President to bring the Council even to consult upon the Iran-Iraq war, on which the Council finally supported the Secretary-General's initiative to send to the area a Special Representative, Olof Palme of Sweden, to pursue a peaceful settlement. There was a somewhat similar reluctance over the violent situation in Lebanon in the mid-1970s, which the Secretary-General also brought to the Council's attention. Lebanon came formally onto the Council's agenda only after the Israeli military intervention in south Lebanon in 1978. It was also the Secretary-General, in the absence of an initiative by any of the members, who brought the Cyprus situation to the Council during the disasters of 1974 on the island-a situation incidentally with which the United Nations was intimately concerned because of the presence of a U.N. peace-keeping force there.

What are the springs of this reluctance, especially among the permanent members of the Council, which so often debilitates the capacity of the Security Council to carry out its primary function, the maintenance of international peace and security? The natural human tendency not to get involved in trouble in the hope that it will somehow go away certainly affects many governments, but this is surely not the real problem. The ramifications of the international relationships of most major powers nowadays are so complex as to make them often reluctant in many situations to take a firm stand on one side or the other, or on a matter of principle. "What will it do to our relations with 'X'?" is at the root of much of the expediency which gnaws at the basic principles of the Charter. Domestic politics also play a primary role in involvement or noninvolvement in most international questions.

The permanent members of the Security Council are certainly also inhibited by their relationship with each other. On a wide variety of international conflicts or potential conflicts, it is axiomatic that the East will be on one side and the West on the other. If a forthright resolution is before the Council on such matters, it is therefore likely to be vetoed by one side or the other. Permanent members are naturally cautious about precipitating such a situation, which publicly displays the built-in limitations of the Council. Nor are they eager to find themselves outvoted by a majority opposed to their policies, forcing them to use the veto in a politically damaging manner. On the other hand, the Council is capable on occasion of responding unanimously to a serious situation, as for example over the American hostages in Iran or in the recent call for a cease-fire in Lebanon.

Other groups of members also have problems about resorting to the Security Council. There is a natural desire that regional problems should be handled, if at all possible, by regional organizations. Indeed, the Charter provides for this. This sometimes means that a regional organization holds on to a problem too long before admitting that it may require treatment in the wider context of the United Nations. There seems no good reason why the action of regional organizations should not, when necessary, be reinforced by partnership with the Security Council. The relationship should be a mutually supportive one.

Moreover, governments as a rule prefer to solve their problems by the most direct possible method and if possible without the publicity, not to mention the political involvement, that is inevitable in a recourse to the Security Council. This is a perennial reason why serious problems tend to be brought before the Security Council only at a late stage when they are correspondingly more difficult to deal with.

All this being said, the question inevitably arises whether governments really believe in the machinery they set up after the last world war or indeed in collective action for the maintenance of peace through the United Nations, except when things have come to such a pass that there is no other resort or alternative. It is well to recall that a basic lack of confidence in collective action, more than anything else, effectively killed the League of Nations and led to World War II. Will history repeat itself? This question is important unless one assumes that the United Nations-or any other fledgling system of world order for that matter-is a quixotic and fundamentally superfluous activity to which lip service must be paid while the real business of international relations goes on elsewhere. We have surely had enough lessons in this century alone to show that this is an extremely short-sighted and dangerous belief.

The Security Council has certainly developed and changed since the public confrontations, dramas and walkouts of its earlier days. It is a more cautious, less dramatic body than it was, and it is worth considering the advantages and disadvantages of this tendency in terms of its future development. A large proportion of the Council's working time is now spent in informal consultations in a room recently built for this purpose-and in waiting for those consultations to start. In fact, the Council now almost never holds a public meeting without consulting informally in advance, collectively and in smaller groups, on the scenario and the decisions to be taken. Sometimes the consultations maximize the Council's reluctance to meet to the point where it decides not to meet publicly at all. On such occasions it is in effect reduced to mumbling behind closed doors on issues affecting international peace and security-which does little to increase its prestige or the public respect in which it should be held. Although this trend tends to increase the role of the Secretary-General in international crises-and Secretary-General Waldheim has made persistent efforts to provide leadership and initiative in successive crises-it does not provide him with the strong and consistent backing necessary for his effectiveness in difficult situations.

If the consultation process, in which the Council members discuss matters very frankly and informally, in the end has the effect of consolidating the will of the Council and turning it into the united peace-maintaining body it was originally set up to be, it will prove to have been an important stage in the Council's development. If on the other hand the consultation process is principally a means of escaping public disagreement and adopting an increasingly expedient and evasive approach to world problems, it may in the end reduce the Council to a level of impotence and disrespect from which it will not be able to recover in time the influence necessary to play a decisive role in a desperate crisis.


Experience shows that governments can sometimes overcome their doubts and reservations about collective action and work together through the Security Council if the situation demands it. Governments, and especially the members of the Security Council, have already gone a long way in developing the habit and practice of cooperation. Lack of confidence in each other or in the United Nations or insuperable conflicts of interest, often tend, however, to delay or impede their cooperation. It is here that a higher development of the international will and intention of which Hammarskjöld spoke could serve to direct and coordinate the separate and often tangled strands of national interest for the general good and, if necessary, for the general salvation.

At present, in times of crisis, it is normally left to the Secretary-General to try to articulate in the first instance a general United Nations view to which all can rally. On matters of peace and security the Security Council has a primary responsibility for articulating the general intention and acting for the general good-a responsibility which it sometimes can fulfill and at other times can not.

The Security Council as it now exists is an experienced body of highly competent and responsible professionals, accustomed to working with each other and to discussing serious matters in a constructive and non-polemical way-but mostly behind closed doors. The expertise which has been built up over the years has often proved indispensable in times of crisis-far more indispensable than is generally recognized-in reducing the heat and friction of dangerous situations to a safer level, in giving tempers time to cool and in pointing the way to honorable and acceptable solutions. This rational and responsible work deserves greater public recognition as a reassuring factor in an uncertain and anxious world. The working relationship between the Council and the Secretary-General has also developed in recent years into a mutually supporting partnership which can be extremely valuable in critical times.

But conflicting national interests remain an insuperable obstacle to the workings of the instruments for peace set up in the United Nations Charter 36 years ago. Sooner or later, the human community will be faced with a situation where world peace-and perhaps survival-will depend on the governments concerned in an acute crisis giving priority to the general international good rather than to specific national interests. When that time comes, it seems likely that the Security Council will be the best instrument through which the crucial choice can be made. At such a critical time, much will obviously depend on the stature and international reputation of the Security Council and on the value and reliance which governments place on it as the primary instrument for peace it was originally intended to be. Its performance and the public assessment of that performance will then be essential factors in the outcome of a situation which may well affect the whole future of humanity.

Renewed attention should be given to the fundamental importance of the Security Council in its basic role. The noble words of the Charter about the primacy of the task of maintaining international peace and security were not idle rhetoric, but the fruit of bitter experience. Dag Hammarskjöld was not a power-hungry egomaniac, but a deeply responsible man of great vision and compassion who desperately wanted to strengthen the United Nations as a protection and insurance against the great storms of the future. We have survived for more than 36 years without a world war owing to a variety of factors including the existence and activities of the United Nations. But the balance is still precarious. Is it not time to take a new step to a less haphazard and less risky future?

2 Peacekeeping may be briefly defined as the use by the United Nations of military personnel and formations not in a fighting or enforcement role but interposed as a mechanism to bring an end to hostilities and as a buffer between hostile forces. In effect, it serves as an internationally constituted pretext for the parties to a conflict to stop fighting and as a mechanism to maintain a cease fire.



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  • Brian Urquhart is Under Secretary-General of the United Nations for Special Political Affairs. He has worked in the United Nations Secretariat, either in or close to the office of the Secretary-General, since 1945, and is the author of Hammarskjold, a major biography published in 1972. The views expressed are purely personal opinions and have no official character.
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