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by Thomas R. Pickering

Editor’s note: The author was U.S. Ambassador to the UN 1989-1992.

Franklin Roosevelt knew a good thing when he saw it. In 1943, in the midst of a military campaign for American survival in the Pacific and clawing our way back against Nazi Germany in the Atlantic, Roosevelt put bright people to work to shape what would come next. International cooperation under the League of Nations had twice failed – the U.S. resolved to stay out and the League’s weakness led to World War II.

To fix it, Roosevelt took the name for the victory coalition of that great crusade – the United Nations – and fashioned an international organization to promote peace and prosperity through cooperation. Isolationist opposition in the U.S. endured, but many leaders of both parties had the vision and perspicacity to know that friends and allies working together made sense in achieving both objectives. Failure dogged the pursuit, but in Korea, the Gulf, Afghanistan, and the Balkans the organization made a real difference in war and peace.

Americans have now been through four years of disdain and disparagement about the United Nations and the Trump administration’s failure to understand or make good use of it. Chinese and Russian opposition did not help. The Biden team comes to power with the challenge – how can we use more effectively Roosevelt’s vision to promote peace and prosperity on the planet?

The name “United Nations”, coined by President Roosevelt, was first used in the “Declaration by United Nations” signed by representatives of 26 Allied nations in Washington, DC on January 1, 1942.
The name “United Nations”, coined by President Roosevelt, was first used in the “Declaration by United Nations” signed by representatives of 26 Allied nations in Washington, DC on January 1, 1942.

 Two paths are open to us. One is right before our eyes, widely used but seldom understood and even more rarely appreciated – the 24 Specialized Agencies that all together make the world run. The second, the Security Council, raises more daunting political obstacles and trenchant barriers but is well worth a new look and investment.

International Agencies Making the World Work

The second half of the 19th century saw the early blooming of a new trend coming from a simple problem to be solved. How can we make the national postage stamp carry a letter across international boundaries to anywhere on the globe? The Universal Postal Union, a treaty among states, was the result. More importantly, it started the development of a system that continues to this day. Instead of just paper mail, it covers electronics with the International Telecommunications Union, which makes sure radio frequencies are fairly assigned and the internet as a technical matter works effectively and efficiently.

But communications are not the only matter facilitated by these little known and widely ignored treaty agencies that literally make the international activities of the world grow and prosper. Bankers come together around a Basel agreement, maritime and civil aviation move safely from London and Montreal. Labor (and business) is protected and organized in Geneva. Almost anything we can think of now from health to atomic energy and from the environment to trade is part of a system of agencies whose charters and governance are organized by international agreements, whose members are states. Without these agencies the world would not function – and they would then have to be re-invented.

These agencies are all part of the United Nations system. They have independent governmental arrangements and raise their own funds to support their mission. They work closely with the Secretary General of the United Nations to coordinate their activities, exchange views, and assure effectiveness and efficiency in carrying out their missions.

They work quietly, almost always behind the scenes, and come in for attention most often not when they deserve praise for tasks well done, but when they are faulted for failing in one fashion or another. The pandemic has elevated our attention to the World Health Organization (WHO), a body where its members cooperate but have few obligations to do so beyond preserving their publics from the devastating impacts of health dangers run out of control, from AIDS to Ebola to Covid-19. Clearly some greater tightening of reporting responsibilities by states through the WHO, fuller transparency, and increased cooperation could be of real benefit.

When we think about the United Nations and what it means to woman and mankind – when we think of these bodies defined by acronyms like WHO, we should not have to be reminded that their mission is to make sure we live safely, care for each other, assist when the need comes, and cooperate to meet the many health and other challenges of modern life.

Devising an Organization to Make the World a Safer Place

During World War II, when it was certain that an international organization that could only act by unanimity had failed to preserve peace, ideas for a new organization turned to something different and more radical. With fewer than 60 countries in the world in 1945, a group of eleven states was thought to be about right to make critical decisions on war and peace in the then-new United Nations Security Council. The larger, victor states in the war would become permanent members – China, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the U.S., known as the P-5. Six others chosen three each year for two years at a time from the major regions of the word would complete the roster of members.

To offset the failings of the League of Nations Council, the body was given, by the treaty establishing it, the opportunity to make decisions mandating compliance by all member states of the United Nations. To assure the big victor states joined and were there to provide significant military forces if needed to ensure peace, they were given permanent seats and a veto over decisions of the Security Council. In 1964, as the number of member states grew, the Security Council was increased to 15, including ten non-permanent members, five of which would be elected for a two-year term every year.

For most of the Cold War the Council, with rare exceptions, was limited in its capacity to reach decisions in cases of conflict by the injection of Cold War differences into the decision-making process. For a short time in 1990, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, that faded away, and there were no vetoes in the Council’s action in the face of that aggression. First the Council imposed sanctions on Iraq and, when that showed its limitations in producing an end to the aggression, it authorized the use of force. Since then, for the most part, growing differences among big powers have blocked the unanimity required for the Security Council to act effectively to deal with threats to international peace and security.

Finding Better Ways to Deal with Conflict

The veto alone has not been the sole cause of failure. Differences over just how far resolutions should go in dealing with actions that threaten peace have played a role – weaker resolutions have been insufficient to block or end conflict. In part, this condition has reflected bilateral differences between the U.S. and Russia and the U.S. and China. But a world in turmoil through failure to reach diplomatic accord in New York reflects a strong need to seek a better relationship among the permanent members of the Council. None of them benefits from discord and unresolved disputes that lead to wider conflict. The challenge is a real one for the Biden administration as well as for China and Russia. And increasingly, we see no benefits from wider open use of force. Suggestions now for a summit meeting of the P-5 to deal with differences and related strategic stability talks between permanent members of the Security Council and a summit meeting of democracies can begin a process of enabling greater cohesion in dealing with conflict around the globe.

In the past, it has been suggested that the use of the Security Council veto might be tempered by an agreement not to use a veto unless three or more of the permanent members agreed to do so, perhaps beginning in cases where blocking genocide was at the center of the action to be taken. Following the end of the Cold War and in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, this may have been politically possible. Today it seems much less likely, even with the new dangerous rebuilding and modernization of nuclear arms and delivery vehicles going forward in the U.S., China, and Russia.

While such mechanical solutions of the veto might seem wise and even appropriate, there is not yet a widely shared view of what constitutes an existential danger to be avoided and how and in what way to address that problem. What is clear, however, is that in the absence of effective diplomacy, more and more issues are going to be left on the table to fester and grow. It is also clear that neither conventional force nor, God forbid, nuclear weapons, provides a realistic and enlightened answer to the issues involved.

Keeping Open the Lines of Diplomatic Communication

What has proven to be realistic in the work of the Security Council is keeping open the lines of diplomatic communication with a degree of transparency that provides for a truthful rendering widely of the concerns at stake and innovative efforts to resolve them. States are unwilling to accept now that other states will render full judgment on their activities. But coalitions and alliances do provide a degree of persuasive capacity of the equity and justice of decisions both to avoid conflict and determine outcomes with which they can live.

Much of the world is concerned with the fragility of the international system and attacks against it have gained ground. However, alternate ways of deciding issues have not been widely proposed nor have they brought about significant adoption of the alternatives tilted toward autocracy and dictatorship. The UN Security Council remains an option for settlement, just as do all the other means of peaceful resolution from judicial settlement to mediation and good offices. And clearly, they should prevail over the use of force as a method for dealing with threats to peace and security and settling the issues that arise in that regard.

Great powers have learned to solve problems diplomatically when force poses the alternative of mutual extinction. It has been true about nuclear weapons, at least in part. With China it also may be true with climate change. The Biden administration sees climate change as a planetary challenge impacting significantly the U.S.; China perhaps even more has tilted in the same direction. The door is ajar for cooperation and leadership by both. Competition thwarts the goals of survival and prosperity; cooperation secures these goals. Cooperation on existential issues also opens the door for working together on lesser but not insignificant problems in the common interest.

Many years ago, in India, I had a visit from Robert McNamara, then both a former Secretary of Defense and president of the World Bank. We were both deeply concerned about nuclear proliferation and India, Pakistan, and Israel as states which had become or were about to become members of the nuclear weapons club. He accepted the idea that, while extremely hard to sell, the elimination of all nuclear weapons would be the only way to ensure they were not misused or to avoid a catastrophe unfolding by accident. Once begun there was no known way to stop cascading use of such weapons. But the serious question arose of what happens if someone seeks putative advantage by making such weapons clandestinely. McNamara’s thoughts turned to an idea that some weapons should be preserved to be used by the Security Council as a deterrent – and in which the permanent members of the Council would have a role. We both recognized that there were flaws in the approach that stemmed from lack of trust among the states whose voice would be critical in managing such a deterrent.

Within weeks the next American administration will have to decide whether to continue New Start and subsequently whether to negotiate a more extensive follow-on. We are not yet to the point McNamara was challenged by, but with the right decision on extending New Start we could be moving toward it.

Missile defense has its own complications to offer. With low numbers of deliverable weapons on each side, even a technically less than perfect defense system becomes more likely to be disruptive in potentially protecting a first strike. But with no weapons available for offensive use does it become a safeguard against clandestine breakout? No easy answers here.

International cooperation and the threat of existential destruction could provide an answer that it is better to coexist with the enemy you know and do all to avoid mutual annihilation than it is to enter a race for some evanescent goal of domination with all the dangers inherent in such aberrant behavior. Such a conclusion should then inform behavior in and out of the Security Council and in dealing with issues of war and peace.End.


Thomas Pickering

Thomas R Pickering is former U.S. Under Secretary of State. He served as Ambassador to Russia, India, the United Nations, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan as well as Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment and Science and Executive Secretary of the State Department.

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