Neither the post-Cold War climate nor civil wars can rightfully be blamed for the failures that have beset the United Nations since 1991. External factors only partially explain the dramatic reversal of fortune in U.N. prestige. One must look to the workings of the United Nations itself, to the division of labor between the office of the Secretary General and the Security Council, to identify the most distinguishing factor between its periods of success and setback.

The Cold War actually ended for the United Nations more than two years before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The catalyst was Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, with his new attitude toward the world body, and the occasion was the Iran-Iraq War, perhaps the first non-East-West conflict. The five permanent members of the Security Council began a new way of working together in early 1987, and a year later the Secretary General brokered the end of the Iran-Iraq War, perhaps the most remarkable in a series of U.N. successes between 1987 and 1991. Among those, El Salvador’s conflict was a civil war, whose resolution garnered a 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, and others had civil war characteristics. In addition, the United Nations helped broker the accords that led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, shepherded Namibia to independence, extracted the hostages from Lebanon, and fashioned the agreement for the subsequent settlement in Cambodia.

In all those cases, the office of the Secretary General played a key role. Importantly, however, U.N. success was not secured by the use of force. The United Nations was engaged under the Secretary General’s direction solely in negotiations and peacekeeping. The sole U.N. success in this period that did involve the use of force was the Gulf War. But there, critically, it was the U.N. Security Council that empowered a U.S.-led military coalition to repel Iraq from Kuwait. From that conflict, the office of the Secretary General was, de facto, kept out.

Taken together, these successes illuminate a critical rule: the functions of the institution of the Secretary General and the Security Council are complementary and work best when separated at the key dividing line involving the use of force. The roles of the Secretary General and the Security Council are and should be kept separate to be of maximum benefit to the international community.

Under the U.N. Charter, the use of force is decided and managed by the Security Council, and even then the Security Council has been most successful in implementing Chapter VII resolutions when it subcontracts out those duties directly or to a subsidiary organ. The institution of the Secretary General is inherently inappropriate to manage the use of force. It does not have the tools and has thus been understandably un- successful at it. Equally important, by involving itself in decisions on the use of force, the institution of the Secretary General compromises the impartiality critical to its capacity as a negotiator.


In the present international system, decisions on the use of force reside with nation states. Accordingly, the Security Council, where states dominate, is the organ within the U.N. framework that decides when force is to be used.

To date the Security Council members have shown reluctance to provide the institution of the Secretary General with the resources necessary to a Chapter VII use of force assignment, standby funds, appropriately trained troops, and adequate command, control, and intelligence systems. The result is that the Secretary General has managed use-0f-force operations with tools better suited to Chapter VI peacekeeping ventures. This gap has led to questionable results in Somalia and Bosnia. The case of Bosnia, in particular, proves how uneasy member states are about relinquishing the management of force to a nongovernmental institution like the U.N. Secretary General. And the confused chain of command that we have witnessed in the Balkans has helped neither the credibility of the institution nor the effectiveness of the international effort.

Were the institution of the Secretary General to receive some of the military, financial, and intelligence tools of states, it would most likely be so endowed in highly limited ways. Transforming the institution of the Secretary General into a pale imitation of a state would have three negative consequences. First, it would risk ineffectiveness because of the limited tools at the Secretary General’s disposal. Second, it would undermine the Secretary General’s impartial negotiating role, thus depriving the international community of a further instrument that it already possesses. Finally, it would forfeit the inherent strength that the institution of the Secretary General derives from having no traditional vested interests of its own. Thus assumption of powers by the Secretary General to manage the use of force may well be a suicidal embrace.

This argument is not against any use of force under U.N. auspices. The decision to use Chapter VII rests with the Security Council. Its inability to carry out such a decision will simply diminish the credibility of that institution and, in the final analysis, its member states. Thus it is in the interest of those states to be part of an effective institution, even as command and control of military and financial resources remain under their control. To retain that control, the management of Chapter VII use of force should be subcontracted to a coalition of member states, as in the case of the war against Iraq, to a military alliance or a combination of alliances and other states.

The Security Council might also consider a military variation of a less noted structural precedent: that of Rolf Ekeus, executive chairman of the special commission on disarmament and arms control in Iraq. He was appointed by and technically reports to the Security Council, not the Secretary General. Ambassador Ekeus’ work has proceeded well so far as his relationship is with the Security Council and not the Secretary General. His task is intertwined with some of the structures and tools of states, to which he needs access and which could hardly be available to the institution of the Secretary General.

The U.N. Charter of course points to a "military staff committee" to manage the use of force. But that provision is not much in favor these days. A separation of roles between the Secretary General and the Security Council would most benefit the member states. A Security Council with effective options for managing force and an unencumbered Secretary General would be less competitive and more effective. Furthermore, member states that are opposed to the use of force should find it useful to provide the Secretary General with political room so as to limit, by negotiations, the option of the use of force.


To have no army and no central bank is no witness. Because the Secretary General’s institution does not carry with it those basic tools of states, its strength and effectiveness derive mainly from the lack of traditional vested interests and from credibility. Years after the hostage-taking saga in Lebanon was over, some of those who had been engaged in the practice were asked why the Secretary General’s office was chosen as the instrument of resolution instead of a state. The answer was quick and clear: credibility and no vested interests.

I can attest more personally than is comfortable to the truth of that response. During the course of the Secretary General’s operation that led to the release of 11 Western and 91 Lebanese hostages, the recovery of the remains of two Americans, and the identification of the remains of two Israelis, I met several times as the U.N. negotiator with the hostage-takers under unorthodox circumstances. One of the first questions asked me was whether I was an emissary of the Secretary General or the Security Council. I gave the right answer. Had I said "the Security Council," as I was subsequently informed, I would have been killed. The question demonstrated quite an understanding of the United Nations organization and a perception of the Security Council as supposedly representing the vested interests of its member states. In this instance, the Secretary General’s office could do what the Security Council could not, just as the reverse was true in the war against Iraq.

Credibility also implies that the Secretary General’s choice of colleagues and special representatives is crucial. While one hopes that they are not total strangers to the issues, eleventh-hour experts could only add credibility if they bring an overwhelming political prestige of their own. To build that credibility, ideas, and consistency are important. Structures are useful but subsidiary. They do not solve problems, people do, individuals do, starting from an idea and a vision (not from force, particularly if you do not have it or do not intend to use it). Credibility, furthermore, is crucial if the institution of the Secretary General is to perform its new role in preventive diplomacy.

Consistency of behavior, although never fully achieved in the political arena, is like-wise important. But it has different implications for the institution of the Secretary General than it does for the Security Council. It has been argued that the international community’s response to violations of international law in other areas of the Middle East did not match its strident response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Nor did the U.N. measures in the Balkans match those in the horn of Africa. The perceived lack of consistency undermines the credibility of the institution.

Consistency in the use of force rightfully comes under more careful scrutiny. However, when the institution is the Security Council, which is to say its member states, the lack of consistency seems to have been weathered quite well: states can justify such inconsistency by pointing to an overriding national interest. However, the institution of the Secretary General does not have that luxury. What supreme international interest could be called upon to justify the lack of consistency in using force in Somalia, where 24 peacekeepers were killed, but not using it in Bosnia, where 46 peacekeepers have lost their lives?

Yet another detriment of associating the Secretary General’s office with Chapter VII uses of force is loss of the useful distinction between the United Nations’ "good cop" and "bad cop." Bosnia illustrates that no compensating gain flows from blurring those roles. On a recent fact-finding trip to the Balkans, I asked some officials if the office of the Secretary General was strengthened because it had the power to decide bombing Serbian positions. The unanimous answer was no. In fact, having that power hampered the Secretary General’s ability to play the "good cop" negotiator, warning from time to time of what the "bad cop" Security Council might do if negotiations failed.

The need for a good cop-bad cop interplay survives the bipolarity of the Cold War. One of several examples that could be cited involves the Iran-Iraq War. Following negotiations between the Secretary General and the two adversaries, a cease-fire ended the hostilities on August 8, 1988. But some powers did not wish the conflict to end when it did, a fact known to the Secretary General. Constant interplay between the Secretary General and the Security Council nonetheless continued, even though they did not always agree on the politics. This divergence of views was not played out in the press or the corridors of power. Discretion was fundamental to success because the Secretary General’s strength as a negotiator does not derive from the exposure of weakness or embarrassment of a member state, rather the opposite.

Finally, there is the importance of morality as an anchor for the Secretary General. Even if the institution of the Secretary General could manage a Chapter VII use-of-force operation, it would then be the decision of his office to authorize intentional killing. This power is quite another matter than the tragic but unintended deaths that may accompany peacekeeping operations. In carrying out an offensive use of force, U.N. soldiers, identified aggressors, and civilians might all be casualties in unexpectedly high numbers. The authority to order killing, far from strengthening the institution of the Secretary General, would render it no different in the eyes of suspicious combatants than major nation states and their alliances.


During the Cold War, the two superpowers defined the "red lines" of international behavior, signaling to other nation states and political groupings what activities were off limits because they threatened the interests of the bipolar contestants. Now the Security Council, more than the East-West framework, can be the forum in which those "red lines" are drawn. If it chooses, the Security Council can define a structure for managing the use of force that increases the clarity of its decision-making and the predictability of its actions. The various actors in today’s civil war-like conflicts are unrestrained by an awareness of "red lines" and of who will set or enforce them. Predictability by itself will function as a deterrent in some cases, thus limiting the recourse to force. Establishing it will take time, but unless it is done, the alternative may be international anarchy.

Other negative effects will grow if the Security Council does not assume the task of managing the use of force. Already, the credibility of all U.N. activities has suffered, perhaps unjustly, from the mishandling of recent conflicts. Separating the roles of the Security Council and Secretary General at the critical juncture of managing the use of force may enhance both, as well as the U.N. ability to gain support and resources for other services, including tasks that precede or are an alternative to the use of force. The more the institution of the Secretary General tries to resemble a state, the more it will fade away and, most seriously perhaps, the United Nations will become no more than the sum of its members. In other words, an enforcing alliance, at times; a modern Congress of Vienna, at best.

Yes, there are other roles that this new era has brought upon the various U.N. institutions. The end of the Cold War has implicitly given the United Nations the monumental task of redefining the concept of enemy. The institution of the Secretary General may be the most appropriate to that task. Can it rally the world community against its new enemy, intolerance, and can the Security Council draw the "red lines" of the emerging international system? Or will member states produce leaders who can lead without an enemy?

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  • Giandomenico Picco is Chairman of GDP Associates, former U.N. Assistant Secretary for General Political Affairs, and U.N. hostage negotiator in Lebanon.
  • More By Giandomenico Picco