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 able to guarantee the maintenance of peace.

The statesmen who put together the United Nations at the end of World War II were quite aware of the need for some sort of supranational authority for an organization designed to prevent wars. But for understandable reasons they were unable, and indeed even unwilling, to make the radical changes needed to design a system that could be guaranteed to work. Accordingly, while the first purpose of the United Nations, as expressed in Article 1, paragraph 1 of its Charter, is "to maintain international peace and security. . .", the first principle of the Organization, as stated in Article 2, paragraph 1, is ". . .the sovereign equality of all its Members."

Limited by that constraint, the U.N. founding fathers went as far as they could to establish a system that would deter international conflict while it encouraged friendly relations among nations, and economic growth and social progress through international cooperation. Essentially, the Organization they created operates through persuasion of sovereign states, not through compulsion. No substantive action of the U.N. General Assembly binds any member against its will, and the enforcement powers of the Security Council have remained almost unused. Thus, the United Nations enjoys strictly limited powers entirely disproportionate to the all-encompassing objectives it was created to seek. It is small wonder that many of these objectives remain beyond reach. It is because people do not know, or have forgotten, how little authority the United Nations actually has that they expect so much from it. In this sense it has been, as Americans are accustomed to say, "oversold".

Perhaps those who created the United Nations are open to the criticism that they led their peoples to expect too much from it, so that their disappointment is correspondingly greater. This point may be particularly applicable to Americans. In a sense, the United Nations is their own creation and the words of the Charter are in large part derived from the terminology of American political idealism.

For many Europeans, the projection of the American dream into the international arena was a dangerous doctrine. They remembered Woodrow Wilson and the tide of emotional support for a new world order on which he arrived in Europe to make peace after the First World War. They recalled that in his noble naïveté he permitted himself to be used for the parochial interests so ably advanced by Lloyd George of Britain and Clemenceau of France. While assuring the birth of the League of Nations, he became a party to an inequitable peace treaty which helped to pave the way for the Germany of Adolf Hitler.

Europeans wonder whether, at the end of the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt did not fall into the same trap, prepared for the practitioners of idealism by the practitioners of realism. For a Central European like myself, there is a parallel between the punitive settlement at Versailles in 1919 and the Yalta Conference in 1945. The division of the European continent at that time into two zones of influence, Eastern and Western, just as the ground rules for the U.N. Charter were being worked out, has had far-reaching, long-term effects, and many of our problems today grew out of this division.

The Yalta Agreement is only one example proving that the superpowers have an underlying preference for settling their problems bilaterally, rather than through an international forum. Inevitably, it appears, they tend toward a spheres-of-influence policy involving the allies of both sides. In this regard they simply carry on with past history: the powers of the day have always preferred deals made bilaterally, rather than through the use of internationally available multilateral means.

No doubt this is a more direct, more simple, and more practical way for the Great Powers to do business. But these powers, under the U.N. Charter, have the principal responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, and the privileged voting position that goes with such a responsibility-the authority to block enforcement by veto. When they set such an example, who can blame other countries for pursuing the same course?


The 51 founding members of the United Nations consisted essentially of two groups: a preponderant (in numbers) bloc of Western-oriented states, and a tightly cohesive communist minority bloc. The set-piece dramas that took place on the U.N. stage in the early years of its life typically arrayed the majority against the minority, in highly publicized debates over cold-war matters that could have only one voting outcome.

Nevertheless, the United Nations, in this earlier configuration, was able to carry out many important tasks. It presided over the process of moving the former Italian colonies to independence. It was the midwife for the creation of the state of Israel. It spearheaded many aspects of the process of economic development. It made human rights practices a matter of international concern. There were, to be sure, regrets over its failure to do more. But on balance, the accomplishments of the Organization, limited though they were, were recognized and considered a basis for future progress.

Beginning in 1955, the membership of the United Nations began to grow rapidly. Sixteen countries joined the Organization in that year alone. In 1960, 17 joined. There was hardly a year without a new member. In 1984 the total membership reached 158.

The new members consisted predominantly of new states, created through the process of decolonization-a movement the United Nations itself fostered, endorsed and legitimized through the admissions process. The new arrivals were overwhelmingly non-white, non-Western, underdeveloped and unschooled in the practice of national and international governance. They brought to the U.N. corridors a burning sense of injustice done them under their former colonial masters, a chip-on-the-shoulder insistence that the West therefore owed them the wherewithal needed for economic growth, and a more or less conscious rejection of the tenets of Western liberal democracy.

The leaders of the new membership may have lacked experience, but they were politically astute. The Arab countries, for example, realized that they could forge a firm alliance with other new members by stressing the common interest in certain fundamental principles. The Arab states based their opposition to Israel on the twin Charter principles of the self-determination of peoples and the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. To the new members in Africa, Asia and the smaller American republics, these principles were critically significant. Self-determination justified their national existence; the non-acquisition of territory by force undergirded their independence. Out of this common approach grew the general support for Palestinian aspirations in the United Nations and general opposition to Israel's continued occupation of all the territories it had retained after the Six-Day War.

As much as any other factor, this was the genesis of the Third World grouping. Third World leadership proved highly adept at organizing operational alliances within the United Nations, principally the Nonaligned Movement for political matters, the African-Asian regional group, and the Group of 77 (now well over 100 states) concentrating on economic problems. Egged on by the Soviet bloc, which encourages the Third World belief that "Western imperialism" is the cause of their infirmities, this new majority overwhelms the outnumbered West.

With their new agenda and their surprisingly firm political discipline, the Third World countries have radically changed the whole orientation of the United Nations. After 1960, many Westerners came to describe it, depending on their point of view, as an increasingly dangerous or at best a useless place. Its priorities were not their priorities. It rode roughshod over their ideas of justice and fairness. Time after time, it put the West in the dock. It ground out innumerable resolutions at once castigating the West for its malfeasance and making impossible demands for redress.

It is hard for an outsider to realize how striking the changes in tone and substance are. I recall a visit to the United Nations early in the 1960s, by the former prime minister of Belgium and former president of the General Assembly, Paul-Henri Spaak. As he observed the proceedings of the Security Council, after an absence of several years, he was thunderstruck. "My God!" he said incredulously, "This is unreal. I no longer recognize the United Nations."


It fell to me as Secretary-General to try to keep the Organization on an even keel during the turbulent decade of the 1970s. During this period I witnessed a high-water mark in the Third World quest for far-reaching changes in the international economic system at the stormy Sixth Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly in 1974. This was the meeting that produced the call for a New International Economic Order, and a program of action for its implementation. It condemned the existing international economic and financial system and called for a radical restructuring of international trade, finance, the control of natural resources, and multinational corporations, as well as major increases in funding for development assistance. As rounded out by a Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, proposed by Luis Echeverria, then president of Mexico, and adopted December 12, 1974, the General Assembly in that period embraced a broad doctrine of economic revisionism. The proposals of the developing countries tipped the balance of economic relationships very close to the point of absolute sovereignty of all states over their natural resources, regardless of prior agreements permitting their extraction by foreign enterprises.

This all-out attack on existing relationships between the North and the South represented an understandable reaction to past "imperialist" practices but ignored certain basic realities. Economic development requires capital and technical skills that have to be provided from the North, either through bilateral arrangements with business or governments, or through multilateral mechanisms.

Further, as seen by the Americans and some other Western countries, the Third World proposals would have legitimized the expropriation of foreign property without fair compensation, and they advocated producer-dominated cartels as a means of managing international trade in raw materials for the benefit of the developing countries.

This was too much for the major industrial states, and all of them either voted against or abstained on the Charter. But-a significant point-the impasse did not continue. At the Seventh Special Session of the General Assembly, called in 1975, both sides proved more accommodating. The tone of this session was set to a considerable degree by a remarkable statement by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger containing a wide gamut of proposals designed to help meet some of the principal problems of the developing countries. It was a landmark event. While it has been followed up to only a small degree, the new note struck at the Seventh Special Session demonstrated that it is possible for much to be done, by common consent, to redress inequities in international economic relations.

Over the years, the Third World countries have shown remarkable solidarity in pursuit of their objectives. Some might have thought that the oil shocks of 1973-74 and 1979 would cause a split between the oil-exporting countries and their less fortunate underdeveloped brethren. But this did not happen. The deep, underlying kinship of ideas and interests binding the Third World group together proved stronger than any divisive tendencies caused by envy or disappointment. There was indeed a good deal of admiration among the poorer developing countries over the way in which their more fortunate colleagues had seized the opportunity to turn the tables on the wealthy and make them pay dearly for essential imports.

The Third World was itself divided, so to speak, into rich and poor countries. Would the newly endowed states come to the assistance of their fellow underdeveloped states that had not been blessed with oil deposits under their soil? Generally speaking, they did so only to a limited degree. The new oil-rich countries did make funds available for multinational uses, but only in specific areas. Direct aid to poverty-stricken Third World nations was closely restricted to special cases.

While the U.S.S.R. supported the Third World thesis, it has generally stood outside this international economic confrontation. The Soviets have never considered participating in multilateral economic aid programs for developing countries in any substantial way. I remember quite well one of my conversations on this subject with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. I was asked to try to get the Soviet Union to attend the Cancun Conference, the 1981 summit meeting of 22 heads of state or government to discuss North-South economic problems. I brought up the issue with Gromyko in Moscow in June 1981. He answered at once that they were not interested and would not attend. I tried to stress how useful a Soviet contribution to the North-South dialogue could be. Gromyko responded by stating that the problems facing the Third World in the economic sphere are the result of colonialism. He insisted that the Soviet Union, never having been a colonial power, had no reason to get involved in the consequences of Western colonialism. "It is up to them to make up for what they have done to the countries of the Third World," he said. "We shall not attend because we do not wish to be placed in the same category with the Western powers. . . ." He added that as far as economic help to developing countries was concerned, the Soviet Union "will of course help them, but we shall do so on a bilateral basis." This position of the Soviet Union was confirmed by Leonid Brezhnev himself, when I met him in the Kremlin.

Supported by the Soviet bloc, the Third World countries have sought to attain their ends by seeking sweeping changes in the U.N. system as it is presently organized. Currently the levers of economic power in the U.N. system lie in the hands of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and similar agencies, where voting strength closely reflects economic power. The South would like somehow to shift the venue of decision-making in these matters into the one-nation, one-vote General Assembly. In this they have been unsuccessful, since the specialized agencies concerned were created by separate treaties and are not subordinate to the United Nations. All the exhortations contained in the General Assembly resolutions adopted on these subjects, by their ineffectiveness, have only compounded the frustrations of the developing countries and the irritation of the developed.

I have seen very little in recent years to suggest that, as a group, the West is ready for basic changes in the existing economic system. It has strongly resisted Third World efforts to begin "global negotiations" on international cooperation for economic development. I was asked by some Third World leaders to intercede with President Jimmy Carter, in the hope that he might break the stalemate by giving favorable consideration to the then current proposals of the Group of 77. The timing was hardly auspicious. It was the autumn of 1980, and the presidential election was only a few weeks away. Nevertheless, I reached Carter on the telephone and asked him to take a good look at the proposals, bearing in mind that the developing countries believed that the United States was the major obstacle in the way of starting the negotiations. The President said he would do so, but he reminded me that it was a delicate moment for him.

He made two points. First, he said, the United States could not accept anything that would give the U.N. General Assembly any sort of authority over the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or GATT. Second, we should not forget that the American Congress takes a jaundiced view of the United Nations-so much so that he had serious problems in getting the funds needed for the American contributions appropriated. If we were not careful, he continued, our actions could become counterproductive. It was in the interest of the United Nations not to push the United States too far.


The Soviets adhered to their practice of joining the Third World countries in the United Nations in their attack on colonialism. Not surprisingly, the Western powers have been anything but happy with this development. They have pointed out that Soviet domination in Eastern Europe is a form of colonialism too. But Western arguments about Soviet "colonialism" have left most of the nations of the South, particularly the Africans, unimpressed. In their experience colonialism has a racial connotation: the colonizer was white, the colonized a people of color. To the latter, oppression (real or imagined) of whites by whites is not colonialism, reprehensible as it may be on other grounds.

To the West this seems patently unjust. It betokens a glaringly inequitable double standard of judgment. The peoples of the Western democracies say that the Soviet bloc, at home and abroad, brushes aside considerations of individual rights and freedoms and makes a mockery of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants concluded to translate its general provisions into binding obligations. The same criticism is made of most of the developing countries governed by one-party regimes. Both groups of countries join to shift the U.N. human rights efforts toward collective "rights" such as economic and social benefits for whole peoples and the rights of states to control their own resources.

These are sharply conflicting approaches to the fundamental problems of freedom and welfare. They spring from very different philosophical and political premises. It does no good to ignore them; until satisfactory ways are found to give due weight to both conceptions of the U.N. human rights concerns, the Organization will continue to be seriously split, and seriously criticized, over the issue.

Several specific problems give rise to accusations that the United Nations practices a double standard and further undercut its standing and influence. Two stand out in particular: the opposition to apartheid in South Africa, and the controversy over Israel's policies in the Middle East.

South Africa's practice of apartheid-governmentally enforced racial segregation and discrimination-is particularly abhorrent. No voice is raised to defend apartheid in U.N. councils. It is condemned repeatedly in debates and in scores of resolutions. Yet for all the U.N. efforts, there has been little discernible effect on the South African government's race policies. Diplomats of the Third World, in their exasperation and impatience, are often driven to condemn the Western powers as the parties responsible for the failure of the Organization to produce results. They contend that if the Security Council would apply, and actually enforce, comprehensive sanctions against South Africa, the evil of apartheid could be eliminated. They are particularly critical of the United States. It has the resources, they say, to bring the South Africans around if it wishes to do so.

From the standpoint of the Western states, the situation is viewed differently, although a number of them share the Third World approach. All join in deploring the practice of apartheid and in calling for its termination and for progress toward majority rule in African territories as elsewhere. But as the West sees it, there are a number of problems involved in embarking on the kind of all-out opposition to the South African government advocated by the Third World states.

First, a number of Western countries raise the question of proportionality. Important as it is, the issue of apartheid is not the only instance of mass discrimination. The world abounds in cases of discrimination against tribal, religious and ethnic groups-not least among the African states themselves. Some reasonable limit, it is felt, must be placed on the extent to which the Organization can go in any single situation.

Second, these countries argue, the enforcement provisions of the Charter were not designed to deal with matter of this sort. Under the Charter, sanctions were to be applied in the event of threats to or breaches of international peace and security. Although the larger Western countries agree with the Third World that apartheid is a serious abuse and a clear violation of human rights, they do not generally share the view that, in itself, apartheid constitutes a threat to international peace and security. The African states take a contrary position. They contend that the existing situation threatens to produce a conflict involving all of southern Africa.

Finally, Western countries are concerned about the consequence of a sanctions policy. South Africa is an important player in international affairs. It has a place in the world geopolitical equation. It is a strong economic power, with significant trade and investment relationships. Measures taken against it would be costly to South Africa's trading partners, including both Western and African nations. They would endanger South Africa's weak and exposed African neighbors. And they would bear heavily on the economic welfare of South Africa's black inhabitants themselves. From the West's point of view, generally speaking, persuasion rather than attempted compulsion is the preferred method of influencing South Africa.

This line of argument is received with disdain by African and other Third World countries. For my part, I have consistently made it clear that I believed they were right to keep the problem very much alive. I must admit, however, that failure to produce results diminishes U.N. credibility, while the acrimony over who is responsible inhibits sensible cooperation for agreed purposes.

One other aspect of the South African problem deserves comment. Since 1974, the South Africans have been barred from most means of active participation in U.N. activities through a procedural device. In the General Assembly, and consequently in other organs, the majority has for some years refused to accept the credentials of the South African representatives. This, in effect, excludes South Africa from the Organization's deliberations-in a way not sanctioned by the Charter. Legally, suspension or expulsion of members requires action by both the Security Council and the General Assembly. Since such action would presumably be vetoed by one or more permanent members of the Council, it is highly unlikely to take place.

The credentials of delegates to U.N. organs are attestations of the fact that they represent the governments for whom they are authorized to speak, and nothing more. To deny their validity on the ground that the government concerned follows a particular policy, however reprehensible, seems to me an improper practice.

Moreover, it is in my judgment not helpful to silence the voice of any U.N. member in the Organization's councils. However indefensible its conduct, it should be present at the discussion of the charges against it, and given the opportunity to make a considered reply. Not only is this intrinsically fair; in the long run it probably offers more hope for the initiation of a useful dialogue looking toward eliminating the practice of apartheid than does a policy of parliamentary ostracism. The United Nations has nothing to gain by the creation of a class of pariah states.


Somewhat similar problems have arisen in relation to Arab-Israeli issues. There is a bitter irony in the fact that the United Nations, which in 1947 conceived the plan to partition Palestine and in 1949 legitimized Israel's admission to the international community through U.N. membership, is today so solidly ranged against it. The United Nations of that day recognized Israel as a new state holding out the promise of an independent national existence for a Jewish community ravaged by the Nazi holocaust. What this failed to take adequately into account was the resistance of Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states to the creation of an alien country in their midst. In no field has the Organization sought to do more for the sake of a peaceful settlement. Unfortunately, as I write, such a settlement seems to be as distant as ever.

My own position in this matter has long been clear. Israel's existence and independence must be maintained. The legitimate rights of Palestinian Arabs living in the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, and of Arabs displaced from their homes in Israel, must also be recognized. I would have hoped that Israel, which has so recently achieved nationhood, would be more receptive to Arab demands for similar self-determination and a political entity for the Palestinians. I do not condone terrorism or resort to war as a means of altering the status quo. But neither can I condone creeping Israeli expansionism, through the implantation of Israeli settlements in the Arab-inhabited West Bank and the annexation of all Jerusalem.

Irrespective of the merits of the case, the form in which the subject has been considered in the United Nations must be regarded as highly unproductive. With some 20 votes of their own, the Arab members of the Organization have worked closely with other Muslim members, and indeed the entire nonaligned majority, to form a solid anti-Israeli bloc within the Organization. The Soviet bloc states have strongly supported them; at times some or all of the Western countries have joined in. A frequent voting pattern ranges almost the entire membership against Israel, with the exception of the United States and one or two others, and sometimes not even that.

To the extent that such an alignment reflects the viewpoints of the nations concerned, this cannot be cause for complaint. But when this bloc grouping is marshalled in behalf of extreme and unbalanced measures, the Organization inevitably suffers. One example is the General Assembly resolution of 1975 equating Zionism with racism. This act has been counterproductive and clearly harmful to the Organization. The repeated attempts to exclude Israel from meetings of U.N. organs, and from various benefits of membership, have been equally damaging.

These actions put the future of the world organization at risk because of their divisive effect. They could destroy or gravely weaken the only global organization to which the weaker states can turn for support against injustice.

Various other U.N. actions also seem to me to be counterproductive, however well intentioned they may be. Year after year, for example, the General Assembly adopts a package of resolutions supporting the cause of specific interest groups, for instance in the Middle East, southern Africa, or elsewhere. The effect of this activity is to cheapen the currency of U.N. resolutions, and thus to reduce the effectiveness of the United Nations in the peaceful resolution of disputes.

I do not question the good faith of those who sponsor such resolutions. I do question their judgment, if they really desire to avoid an unending cycle of wars in those regions. And I fear that by pressing matters to such extremes, they are weakening the fabric of the United Nations generally.

The intense preoccupation of the Organization with a few specific problems of this character, although understandable, is not healthy. This is particularly true when these issues are injected into discussions on general economic, social, or technical matters, in organs which were never intended to cope with such questions. Such tactics focus attention more often on highly political controversy than on the problem for which the meeting in question was convened. Inadequate time may be left to consider the issues on the agenda. Discussion of nonpolitical problems in permanent organs of the United Nations can be hampered and distorted in the same way.

This is what gives rise to the often-heard complaint that the United Nations has become too politicized to function effectively. As much as I understand the emotions which sometimes influence the attitude of delegates, I do not think that the procedures I have described help to solve the problems at hand. I feel they do more harm than good to the prestige and the credibility of the United Nations. Yet it is important to remember that a large number of the U.N. members are states with little experience in international diplomacy. While an international organization is not a government, I believe that it can be shaped with experience to improve its procedures.


There are signs that attitudes and alignments are shifting in the United Nations. The invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces impaired Soviet credibility among the developing countries. Afghanistan is a Muslim state and a member of the nonaligned group. Most of the Third World countries supported resolutions in the General Assembly which, while not specifically mentioning the Soviet Union, have called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and for a "political solution" preserving Afghan independence. Thus, in an unprecedented way, the links between the nonaligned Third World grouping and the Soviet bloc have been weakened.

A similar voting realignment has occurred in connection with the invasion of Kampuchea by Vietnamese forces. Again, without mentioning Vietnam by name, the General Assembly resolutions on this subject call for the withdrawal of these forces, the restoration of Kampuchean independence, and support for a political solution.

Furthermore, U.N. human rights agencies, which once carefully avoided any mention of the practices of Marxist regimes, have now begun to discuss problems like the human rights situation in Poland. It can no longer be said that the United Nations condemns authoritarian practices in right-wing dictatorships while turning a completely blind eye toward authoritarianism of the left.

Such incremental changes do make some slight impact, even on the superpowers. The Soviet attitude in the case of Afghanistan is interesting in this connection. At the outset, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko would never discuss with me the possibility of multilateral action. In his view the situation was exclusively a matter for the two governments directly involved to handle. Gromyko made it clear that the Soviet Union would disregard any U.N. proposals on the subject.

Eventually, however, the Soviet attitude became more flexible. The General Assembly had asked me to appoint a special representative for this question, and on that basis I undertook extensive consultation with the Soviet Union and other concerned parties. After lengthy discussions, during which I made the point that this was in their own interest, the Soviet government did not oppose the appointment of such a representative. Thus, I was able to designate Javier Pérez de Cuellar, who was once Peruvian ambassador to Moscow and had served for several years as an Under Secretary General of the United Nations, as my personal representative to explore the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the problem. Although the appointment did not solve the problem, it has certainly opened the door to a dialogue with the Soviet Union and contacts with the other parties involved.

Even the strongest powers are unwise to discard broad-based collective action as a first option in areas of tension. The sorry history of the multilateral force in Lebanon from 1982 to 1984 is a case in point. The participants in the force-the Americans, British, French and Italians-were surely well enough equipped for such an operation. Yet when they established and positioned such a force, without a clear mandate or a unified command, it became involved in the internal conflicts of Lebanon and eventually had to withdraw. While I recognize that their objective was pacification, they had become part of the problem rather than a means for its solution. I do not believe that a United Nations force drawn from smaller, politically disinterested countries would have provoked the massive terrorist attacks that doomed the Western force.


I close with a statement of fact and a plea for perspective.

The fact is plain. The United Nations has fallen upon hard days. It goes through its paces in a workaday routine that is increasingly ignored or condemned and that threatens to become increasingly irrelevant in the real world. Its vitality is being sapped. To some, its future is at best obscure. It is moving into fields of operation in which clashing interests threaten to tear it apart.

Let us try for perspective, for there are brighter elements in the picture. Forty years after its founding, the United Nations is more than ever a unique and universal organization. Unlike the League of Nations, it has not lost membership through withdrawals. It has not ceased to exist. Membership remains the badge of legitimacy for every newly independent country. The Organization can fairly take credit for having contributed in some crisis situations to the prevention of general war. When countries wish to use it, it can still serve as an instrument of peace-either as a safety valve for the venting of dangerous emotions or as a peacemaking/peacekeeping instrument for the containment of national rivalries. It is a meeting place for leaders and a crucible in which opposing conceptions of world order can be reconciled. The world would be the worse for its disappearance. And as a practical matter, it is just not possible realistically to expect its replacement by a better alternative.

To be sure, the habit of international cooperation is waning. In matters involving international security the trend is perfectly clear, but it is less evident in other fields. In large part this is because so much activity in the economic, social, human rights, and technological fields continues without attracting much notice, in spite of its utility. But in these areas, too, the United Nations is now approaching zones of sensitivity that sharply pit members of different backgrounds against one another.

The new agenda, atop the ongoing debate over the New International Economic Order, raises complex problems of equity, ideology and conflicting interests. States enjoying a technological or an economic lead tend to view U.N. intervention with suspicion. The United States, for example, has rejected the Law of the Sea Treaty, laboriously crafted over a period of many years with the concurrence of U.S. delegations representing earlier American administrations. And the U.S. perception of the threat posed by the proposed New International Information Order was, in large part, responsible for the American announcement of its intention to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. On its side, the Soviet Union continues to abstain from multilateral cooperation in the field of economic development.

Nonetheless, I believe the enlightened self-interest of the nations should impel them to move in the right direction. I believe that sooner or later they will recognize the need for the single great world community-the interdependent world order-that is embodied in the Charter. They will learn to live together in a single global village, adjusting their differences and settling their common problems in a spirit of mutual accommodation.

For the superpowers this means following policies of détente and peaceful coexistence. For the North and the South, it means reaching across the chasm that separates the industrial and developing worlds for arrangements that will benefit them both. For states quarreling over territorial boundaries, it means a willingness to work for and accept compromise settlements, with the assistance, where needed, of disinterested third parties. In short, nations will have to learn to live within a pluralistic world system, integrated by an overriding interest in global peace and welfare. Because of these imperatives, I have an abiding faith in the survival of the United Nations.

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  • Kurt Waldheim was Secretary-General of the United Nations from January 1972 until January 1982.
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