Courtesy Reuters

The United Nations: The Tarnished Image

In my last annual report as Secretary-General, I tried to assess the United Nations' ability to measure up to the new challenges of our times. "I have to say," I concluded in 1981, "that for all our efforts and our undoubted sincerity, the Organization has not yet managed to cut through the political habits and attitudes of earlier and less hurried centuries and to come to grips decisively with [the] new factors of our existence."

Indeed it has not. As a human political organization, the United Nations is certainly flawed. Its defects limit its capacity for effective action. In a mood of widespread disenchantment, it is attacked on the grounds that it produces more rhetoric than action, that it is ineffective and often ignored, and that the one-nation, one-vote system allows the Third World to dominate decision-making-divorcing voting power from the ability to act.

The system on paper is impressive. It has frequently helped to avoid or contain international violence. Yet in recent years it has seemed to cope less and less effectively with international conflicts of various kinds, and its capabilities in other areas of international cooperation have also seemed to dwindle.

But this is not to assert, as some do, that the United Nations is no longer a useful organization. Such critics use the wrong standard of comparison. The truly meaningful question regarding the United Nations is not whether it functions perfectly, or even rather poorly. It is whether humankind, taken as a whole, is better off with it or without it. As to that, it seems to me, there can be no doubt.


Depending on one's point of view, many explanations can be offered for the current state of affairs. To me, one factor is fundamental. The war syndrome is an inevitable outgrowth of the doctrine of state sovereignty. As long as states insist that they are the supreme arbiters of their destinies-that as sovereign entities their decisions are subject to no higher authority-international organizations will never be

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