Why the U.N. Fails: It Cannot Mediate

Courtesy Reuters

Only a few years ago it was widely expected that the end of the Cold War would lead to the rebirth of the United Nations. Between 1987 and 1991, the United Nations mediated a series of agreements that helped end fighting between Iran and Iraq, led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, established a broad-based coalition government in Cambodia, and ended El Salvador’s chronic civil war. This brief window of success encouraged the view that it was the Cold War that had prevented the United Nations from being an effective mediator. The East-West standoff, many surmised, had made the collective security mechanism, envisaged by the U.N. Charter and premised on great power cooperation, a dream deferred.

That dream has already lost much of its promise. In hindsight, those successes clearly stemmed from unique circumstances. Successful U.N. mediation was made possible by the exhaustion of local parties and the unwillingness of external powers to continue supporting clients whose usefulness had expired with the Cold War. Iran and Iraq accepted a U.N.-brokered cease-fire only after they had spent themselves in an eight-year battle of attrition. The Soviet Union was eager to withdraw from a losing venture in Afghanistan, and U.N. mediation provided it with the face-saving mechanism to do so. Once denied Soviet backing, the Vietnamese desired to reduce their commitments in Cambodia, as did the Chinese who, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, wished to dissociate themselves from the Khmer Rouge and improve their international image. In El Salvador, both superpowers wanted to disengage and pressured their respective allies, themselves discouraged by an inconclusive war, to modify their positions.

Those heady days inspired the false hope that the United Nations could be an effective mediator of international disputes. Since then, U.N. negotiators, however talented and experienced, have tried for years to resolve or reduce conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Haiti, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, all without success. In fact, U.N. mediation seems

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