A History of the United Nations. Vol. 1: The Years of Western Domination 
by Evan Luard.
Macmillan, 404 pp., £25, June 1982, 0 333 24389 7
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When the American, Soviet and British representatives recently presented themselves together before the Secretary-General of the United Nations to object to that organisation’s extravagance, it must have seemed like very old times indeed. The guise of colluding overlords was the one in which the Great Powers who were about to become the victors of World War Two confronted the ‘hoi polloi’ at San Francisco. Stalin had confided in Churchill at Yalta that he was worried that the spirit of wartime solidarity would not outlast the first decade of peace. In this history of the UN’s pursuit of world security during that decade, Evan Luard recalls that it did not outlast the first year. According to Churchill’s account, the Soviet leader particularly distrusted the deciding of issues by votes, recalling with bitterness how the Soviet Union was punished for its aggression against Finland by expulsion from a dying League of Nations. He was much comforted by Churchill’s meticulous explanation of the working of the veto in the Security Council, the example cited being that of Britain’s ability to prevent in this way any attempt by Egypt to dislodge her from the Suez Canal.

The United Nations was dreamed up while the war was still to be won, on one overriding assumption: that in time of peace the ‘four Policemen’, the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and what Churchill termed ‘America’s faggot-vote, China’ would continue to place the achievement of consensus among themselves before any other consideration. At Churchill’s insistence, a place at this top table of permanent members of the Security Council was also left vacant for France. British leaders were perfectly willing to make their contribution to consensus alongside the totalitarian dictatorship to which they were allied: this was, after all, the period of the ‘victims of Yalta’, when Ukrainians, Cossacks and ex-Russian Whites were ruthlessly handed over to Stalin’s men for murder or the Gulag treatment, and it was the period of mass expulsions of populations in East and Central Europe. Yet there were limits to the amount of Russian cynicism – over, for example, the formation and behaviour of the new regime in Poland – that the West was able to accommodate.

Still, at San Francisco in 1945 the ‘Greats’ with some difficulty held together enough to keep the rest at bay. The United Nations was the product, and even bears the name, of a military alliance victorious in war. For a country to be a founder member it had to be ‘peace-loving’, and to be that it had to have been at war by a given date (1 March 1945) and against stipulated enemies (Germany and Japan), for which reason there was a great rush of Middle Eastern and South American states to achieve a death-bed belligerency. Argentina just made it before Germany’s surrender but she missed the exact deadline, as a result of which her membership became one of the points of maximum strain in Great Power unity at San Francisco. The military junta in Buenos Aires had so conducted itself that in 1944 the country had been accused by the American President and Secretary of State of providing a new home for Nazi Fascism just as it was collapsing in Europe. By April 1945, however, the Americans, who not long before had attempted to force a reluctant Britain into economic sanctions against the Argentinians, had swung right round to a posture of hemispheric solidarity. Argentina, after all, was a Latin American state, had been accepted by the other American states into the Act of Chapultepec, and had, however shabbily, however belatedly, gone through the motions of declaring war. The United States became the champion of Argentine membership, while Molotov, ideologically self-righteous, and quoting at length from Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, cited her manifold disqualifications. But the line of collusive solidarity held. Argentina was voted in as soon as White Russia and the Ukraine had been confirmed as suitable peace-loving states with autonomous foreign policies.

The Latin American bloc provided two-fifths of the votes in the early General Assemblies, thus ensuring for the time being a permanent American majority in that body while supplying an anti-colonial chorus to harass and torment Britain and other imperial powers. At San Francisco the Latins were far more effective at getting the Charter amended than were other spokesmen of the minor powers, such as Herbert Evatt of Australia, who tried to increase the role of the General Assembly, where every country, however weak or strong, had only one vote. It was pressure from the Latin American bloc that had inserted not only the provision for regional security pacts (like Chapultepec and, subsequently, Nato) but also the famous Article 51 (‘Nothing in this present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs ... until the Security Council has taken measures ... ’), though the actual wording of the latter, Luard shows, was supplied by Britain, which was appropriate enough in view of its value to Britain as a prop during the Falklands conflict.

Evan Luard has been in and out of Parliament for the marginal seat of Oxford and has twice been Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office in Labour Governments, which has involved his being a delegate at the United Nations. Similarly he has been in and out of academic life and has a lengthy list of books, most of them about international organisations, to his credit. That he has written about the specialised agencies elsewhere must be his excuse for publishing now a book called A History of the United Nations that ignores the agencies and deals only with issues of international peace and security. Within this limitation he has written a brisk, fair and at times quite sharply critical account of the planning and setting-up of the UN and of its responses to the various problems with which, during the first ten years of its life, it found itself confronted. With the exception of the first Secretary-General, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, whose record as the rogue elephant of the international scene he examines at some length, all questions of personality are rigorously excluded, while research on the issues themselves is substantially confined to the UN’s own, only partially available records. In its desire to be fair to the Soviet viewpoint the book at times reads like that of a revisionist historian, but this is an impression that is not in the end sustained.

In view of the Soviet Union’s obsessions about the prospect of finding herself in the dock at the UN, Luard regards it as a singularly unhappy circumstance that, in January 1946, when the Security Council first opened for business, Iran was waiting on the steps with a complaint against the Soviet Union: Soviet troops were preventing the Iranian Government from crushing a secessionist movement in the province of Azerbaijan. Since, says Luard, the UN in Russia’s eyes was an organisation whose success depended on Great Power unity, she ‘could claim that to open the Council’s affairs with a charge against herself was to betray the spirit that lay behind the organisation’s creation’. It would have been interesting to inquire what and who lay behind the Iranian delegate’s too prompt appearance. But Luard has not investigated this or, if he has, has uncovered no clues. The Russians were alert to what was happening. Without letting a moment pass, they slapped down two counter-writs against Britain, the first from the Soviet Union in person against the conduct of British troops in Greece, on the grounds that they were interfering with the Communist insurrection there, the second from the Ukraine against the conduct of British troops in Indonesia, on the grounds that they were helping to reimpose Dutch colonial rule.

What followed from each of these three complaints is explained in three chapters of Luard’s book. None of the complaints as presented was endorsed. But the Russians eventually withdrew from Iran and the Dutch from Indonesia (having before the end exasperated absolutely everybody). The Greeks were fortified in resisting successfully the penetration of their borders by military irregulars. But what was most striking about these years was that the Soviet Union failed to exploit to the full the great diplomatic opportunities provided by the rapidly accelerating anti-colonial movement, and the instinctive American sympathy with it, in order to drive a decisive wedge between the American and the European democratic states. In Britain and France there were perpetual apprehensions that this might come about, but it would have required a degree of suppleness in the handling of German and East European affairs, not to mention tactics at the UN, that was alien to Moscow’s style.

Already by 1947 Communist pressure had forced the Americans and British into the same camp to the extent that America took over Britain’s responsibilities in Greece, and Britain, despite any private worries about precedents being set, voted with the United States to switch the Greek question from the Security Council to the General Assembly. This meant no veto, but likewise no mandatory force to the decisions made. The UNSCOB (United Nations Special Committee on the Balkans) which investigated incidents on Greece’s borders with her neighbours functioned on the Greek side alone.* The precedent was followed. The UN Temporary Commission to supervise the holding of all-Korean elections functioned solely in South Korea, while the commission that was despatched by the 1951 General Assembly to investigate conditions for the holding of free elections in Germany was predictably refused entrance to East Berlin and East Germany. Latterly, the tendency to fantasy one-worldism to which the Assembly has always been liable has been treated more critically in the West, because with decolonisation and the resulting inflation of the UN’s membership, the values and aspirations of ‘the South’ have become numerically dominant. There have been Commissions on Palestine which have never been allowed to set foot in Israel, and a Council for Namibia supposedly took over the mandate for Southwest Africa in 1966.

This supplies the author with the thesis that is implied by his subtitle. ‘In their decade of supremacy,’ he says, ‘the Western Powers had sown the dragon’s teeth. They then thought little of the wild wind they were to reap in decades to come.’ It is a sentiment that has been shared by many UN observers, particularly Americans such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York in his book about the UN called A Dangerous Place, which followed his short but stormy tenure of the post of US Ambassador there. His sense of outrage was aroused by the lopsided majority which placed the moral force of the UN Assembly behind the proposition that ‘Zionism’ was a hate word of the same order as ‘racism’. Similarly, Britain was much embarrassed, once the Falklands battle was over, by an Assembly resolution urging early negotiation to end a colonial anomaly, since she had been fortified on its eve by a Security Council resolution condemning the Argentines’ use of force and ordering them to withdraw. But there is no reason to believe that it is because the General Assembly in its first decade was used, or usable, for American Cold War purposes that it is now sometimes inhospitable to American interests. Whatever happened before, it would in any case have occurred to a new majority that had nothing going for it except numbers – 108 of the present total of 157 member states contribute 2½ per cent of the UN’s annual budget – to use the Assembly to try to manoeuvre the rich and powerful in directions in which they would not spontaneously go. It is the one body on which numbers speak. ‘We have often behaved like a bunch of amateurs in the UN,’ said the current US Ambassador at the UN, Mrs Jeane Kirkpatrick, recently. Reflecting that the Assembly was a parliamentary body and that Americans were supposed to be good at parliamentary manoeuvring, she went on: ‘Unless or until we approach the UN as professionals we won’t ever know whether the UN could be made a hospitable place for the American national interest.’

The UN has always been engaged in a special kind of dialogue with the American people. The United States is easily the biggest contributor to its funds; above all, it is the host country to the UN’s headquarters. Not nearly enough has been written about the circumstances and consequences of this remarkable fact. The priority given to establishing the organisation before the war was even completely over expressed the sense of urgency felt about the need to anchor the United States in the international system. For many, this was the most important peace aim. Perhaps the Soviet Union also shared it to a certain extent. Luard does not shed any fresh light on the odd line-up over the issue of locating the new organisation. Britain, which was foremost in yearning for American membership of the UN to be signed, sealed, ratified and delivered, favoured Geneva as the base. On the other hand, the Soviet Union supported an American home, provided it was in the Eastern United States. Was this solely on account of Stalin’s detestation of anything connected with the League, in which case one wonders why there wasn’t more support for other European cities that were mentioned, such as Prague? Or were the Russians themselves at that time moved by a desire to capture the American public from isolationism? The presence of the UN in America’s largest city may have contributed to the internationalising of the United States: but it also exposed the world organisation to American domestic pressures. Luard outlines rather summarily the impact of McCarthyism on the UN headquarters, which culminated in what he rightly describes as ‘an abject submission by the Secretary-General to the demands of the US Government as host state’ on matters of internal security. The improvement under his successor, Dag Hammarskjöld, was not very marked, though the pressures were less crude and spectacular. The United States feels that she is in a rather special way the patron of the UN, regarding it as only natural when the UN’s actions or inaction fits in with her convenience and as outrageous when it spits in her face.

In the two most important events of the first decade, the partition of Palestine and the Korean War, the first saw the United States and the Soviet Union on the same side, with the United Nations still unable to impose its will; the second an apparent vindication of UN principles in circumstances that were highly unusual and unlikely to supply an example for the future. Palestine proved admirable matter for an anti-colonialist coalition against the foundering British Empire. In a sullen, resentful mood at finding herself, though a victorious, liberating power, economically at the end of her tether, harassed and pilloried both by her major wartime allies and by maddening small fry at the UN, Britain chucked in her hand over the mandate in the most spectacular possible way. Her policy seemed as if designed to do the utmost damage to the frail, untried machinery of the General Assembly. The only conceivable manner in which the United Nations could have handled the situation with any credit would have been for the Assembly and the Council, working in harmony, to have produced a solution – inevitably involving partition – which the United States and the Soviet Union were prepared jointly to enforce. As it was, with the Soviet Union acting as the Jewish State’s only consistent sponsor, with American policy wobbling like a jelly, and with Britain maliciously refusing all collaboration with the UN’s feeble efforts at implementation, the UN plan was doomed not only to fail but to haunt the world with the consequences of its failure 35 years thereafter.

Korea, on the other hand, displayed on the surface all the appearances, in the weeks immediately following the North’s attack, of a UN success. This, after all, was what had been meant when it was said that the League of Nations’ successor must have ‘teeth’. In a region not geographically distant from that Manchukuo border, where, it was often said, the League of Nations should have put a stop at the outset to a series of aggressions that led up step by step to the Second World War, a frontier was crossed by an invading army. The UN Security Council instantly met, denounced the aggression and sent troops, American as it so happened, to assist the victim and punish the assailant. It was hoped that this action would have exemplary force, and in a sense it probably did (in Europe, more than in Asia). But as a precedent for UN action it was in a number of respects defective. First, the Security Council acted only because the Soviet Union was not there: it was boycotting the sessions because of the absence of Communist China. Once the Russians returned, the opportunity to repeat such an operation vanished. Secondly, despite the small units of other nationalities which joined them, the UN forces involved were very obviously US forces under a borrowed nomenclature. And thirdly, the campaign lacked that record of uniform military success that the ideal ‘international police action’ should enjoy.

It is one of the virtues of Luard’s book that it spells out how the ‘teeth’ with which the United Nations was to be equipped failed to arrive from the supplier. The Charter provided that there should be a Military Staff Committee which, on the authority of the Security Council, would be able to deploy in case of need standby troops from various member states. These would be fighting units drawn mainly from the major powers, not the peace-keeping troops from Finland, Peru and Fiji with which we have become familiar.

The Russians were determined, in the talks that took place immediately after the Korean War, to flesh out the details of the enforcement machinery, to avoid the danger of a UN intervention being dominated by one permanent Security Council member. Luard says he believes the West would probably be prepared today to accept the Soviet view on the actual points of contention. But, he goes on, the original talks did not even reach such issues as the command, control and financing of a Security Council force.

Recently there have been suggestions, particularly in the report of the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues under the chairmanship of the present Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, for at least partial revival of the collective security provisions of the UN Charter. In the Commission’s view, the Secretary-General should be authorised to make regular use of his individual power of initiative in the Security Council under Article 99, and where disputes between countries in the Third World are concerned, the permanent members of the Council should undertake by ‘concordat’ to support collective security action at least to the extent of not voting against it. The Military Staff Committee would be reactivated, standby forces – ‘not recruited exclusively or overwhelmingly from the forces of the permanent members’ – would be created, and a UN rapid-deployment scheme would seek to interpose troops between warring parties. The effort to rescue something of the original UN ‘teeth’ may still be worthwhile. But it will encounter some of the old difficulties. Where the Americans are, there the Russians will wish to be in approximately equal strength. So long, for instance, as the West is determined to keep the Russians out of the Middle East the Security Council will have no significant role and the United Nations will find itself bypassed as peace-keeper by the type of multinational forces at present deployed in Sinai and in Lebanon. Détente is an essential precondition of the efficient operation of the UN.

The UN has always been a political issue in Britain, as the League of Nations was before it. In both cases, support for the organisation has been an instinct of the Left. But the Left is often inclined to pacifism while support for collective security may involve the employment of force even where direct self-interest might not immediately suggest it. Before the war, Churchill, to the bewilderment of such of his patriotic admirers on the right who had no time at all for the League of Nations Covenant, eloquently embraced the cause of ‘Arms and the Covenant’ against Hitler precisely because the ‘Covenant’ idea enabled him to evoke a response far beyond Conservative ranks. Thus, too, Mrs Thatcher’s case for action against the Argentinians was immensely strengthened on the left by the UN Security Council’s vote ordering the invaders out of the Falkland Islands, a vote in which the two permanent members most likely to use a veto, Russia and China, abstained. Unfortunately, collective military action cannot be guaranteed to have the swift, almost clinical, success of the operation in the South Atlantic.

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