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The Erosion of Standards
The United Nations was really an American idea. Indeed, as one former U.S. ambassador to the UN put it in the 1970s, "At first the UN was seen as the instrument of American ideologues."1 The UN's founders established the organization to promote American values and principles on a global scale.
Created in the aftermath of the Allied victory in World War II, the world body had actually been conceived well before the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had shown his enthusiasm for an international organization as early as the 1930s. The United States had never joined the League of Nations, which had been created after the First World War, but Roosevelt became the first president to send American observers to Geneva to sit in on League sessions. Roosevelt was not naïve, however. He saw the League's flaws. The organization failed to counter the rise of the Axis powers in the 1930s, the invasions of Ethiopia, Manchuria, and the Rhineland, and ultimately the outbreak of the Second World War. Thus, when Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill drew up the Atlantic Charter in August 1941-even before the United States had entered the war-they called for "a wider and permanent system of general security." It was in fact FDR who first used the term "United Nations." On January 1, 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, the countries allied against the Axis powers signed the "Declaration by United Nations," a title that Roosevelt proposed. Churchill had preferred the name "Allied Nations."2
Months later, according to the notes of his trusted aide Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt explained to British foreign secretary Anthony Eden that the new international body he envisioned "should be world-wide in scope . . . but, finally, that the real decisions should be made by the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and China, who would be the powers for many years to come that would have to police the world."3
At 1944's Dumbarton Oaks Conference outside of Washington, FDR reiterated his conception of the new international body. Specifically he described an organization that would enforce peace through the world's "four policemen": the United States, Great Britain, China, and the USSR.4 If an aggressor "started to run amok and seeks to grab territory or invade its neighbors," FDR explained to reporters at the time of Dumbarton Oaks, the UN would "stop them before they got started."5 This was precisely the model the great powers drew up for the UN at the conference. As such, the UN was designed first and foremost to avoid the failures that had plagued the League of Nations. FDR was a realist, a point he drove home in an October 1944 campaign address in New York City in which, when he spoke about the UN, he reminded his listeners, "We are not fighting for, and we shall not attain a utopia."6 For Roosevelt, the engagement of the United States and the other great powers was vital to give teeth to the organization's international security measures.
Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, but the plan for the UN survived. In fact, within two weeks of Roosevelt's death, the UN's founding conference would convene in San Francisco, where the UN Charter would ultimately be drafted and signed. The four policemen, along with France, became the permanent members of the UN Security Council, which would eventually include ten additional rotating members. It would be responsible for safeguarding international peace and security. Yet the UN that emerged also reflected the more idealistic notions of the State Department planners who wanted the United Nations to be a community of equals that included all countries. They stressed that the new world body would be a universal organization, for they did not want to repeat one of the key mistakes of the League of Nations, which had never included the United States and from which Germany, Italy, and Japan had withdrawn. The UN General Assembly, separate from the Security Council, would eventually include all of the world community. While the Security Council would be the body that intervened militarily to preserve world order, the General Assembly would give voice to the values on which that order was based. It would set international standards for the future. It would also be empowered to deal with decolonization, disarmament, economics, and even development of international law.7
Although the UN's architects created a clear division of labor between the Security Council and the General Assembly, there was a certain built-in tension between Roosevelt's earlier idea of an exclusive great-power club and the all-inclusive international body that eventually emerged. FDR had maintained a strong conviction that small nations not be allowed to complicate the great powers' task of keeping the peace.8 But as the Second World War had drawn to a close, wild utopian proposals were coming out of America, as many called for "world government" or a "federation of democracies."9
Like Roosevelt, the American commentator Walter Lippmann recognized that the United States could not rely on a broad global organization to establish peace. Near the end of World War II he had warned that the victorious powers must not delegate the responsibility for world order "to a world society which does not yet exist or has just barely been organized."10 He had made an important point. The problem with a "world society which does not yet exist or has just barely been organized" is that it can share no common values. What joint interests would bring the diverse countries of the new UN together? What common principles would bond the UN together as its membership expanded? What would be their agenda for a better world?
Walter Lippmann had identified what would become the Achilles' heel of the United Nations and why it was bound to fail despite the high ideals of its architects.
All the original UN members in 1945 shared one characteristic that might have offset the Lippmann critique: In order to be invited to the UN's founding conference in San Francisco, a state had to have declared war on at least one of the Axis powers and to have adhered to the "Declaration by United Nations" that was originally announced in January 1942. The UN's founding members, in other words, had to make choices and take a stand. The UN might have been a universal organization, but at the time of its creation it was also a military alliance, united by a common strategic purpose and by declared commitment to certain common values.
The UN's American founders assumed that it would be possible to freeze the wartime alliance of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and France. Further, they believed that it could become an alliance around certain principles. Political commentators called the idea collective security. Henry Kissinger has articulated this point well: "Alliances always presume a specific adversary; collective security defends international law in the abstract."11 For the UN's proposed notion of collective security to work, the organization would have to undertake two actions. First, the UN would have to identify that an act of aggression had indeed occurred and that some state had violated the world organization's founding principles. Second, once it determined that aggression had occurred, the UN would have to mobilize a determined response; that is, its member states would have to act as though their own vital national interests had been threatened. This revival in the Wilsonian belief that collective security around principles of world order could replace the old European balance of power, with its secret alliances, was able to come about only because of the postwar circumstances in which the UN was born.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this historical context. The UN was created in a moment of extraordinary moral clarity, in which its founding members could distinguish between the aggression of the Axis powers and their own role as liberators-indeed, between evil and good. After all, the Nazis, against whom they had fought, had committed acts of mass murder unprecedented in recorded history. As the UN held its first meetings in 1946, the Nuremberg trials against Nazi war criminals were well under way. The Second World War cast a long shadow over the UN and its first covenants. Consider, for example, the UN Charter, which begins by making reference "to the need to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and reaffirms "fundamental human rights," something the Covenant of the League of Nations had made no reference to. Moreover, in December 1946 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning genocide and tasked a UN committee to draft a genocide convention.
One of the flaws of the early UN was that because of Stalin's wartime cooperation with Roosevelt, the organization's architects had an excessively benign, if not naïve, view of the USSR. One commentator has written of "starry-eyed Rooseveltian illusions about Great Power Unity."12 This might be somewhat overstated, but the signing of the UN Charter did create a short-term period of euphoria that affected judgments about the USSR. Excusing Soviet behavior became common. For example, in November 1945, Secretary of State James Byrnes compared what he revealingly called the "effort of the Soviet Union to draw into closer and more friendly relations with her central and eastern European neighbors" to inter-American organizations in the Western Hemisphere.13 This put the Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe on the same plane as the American-led Rio Treaty. The Soviets took advantage of their position to corrupt some important early UN documents. Most notably, they carved out a dangerous loophole in the Genocide Convention of 1948; the convention did not outlaw mass murder against political opponents, as distinct from religious or ethnic groups. It should also be noted that the acting secretary-general at the UN's 1945 founding conference, Alger Hiss, was probably a Soviet spy (although there is little evidence that he used his position at the conference to lobby extensively on Moscow's behalf).14
In those early days, the Soviet Union could not stand in the way of every important measure the UN tried to pass.15 The USSR and its Communist allies had minimal influence because most of the UN's founding members still spoke a similar political language as allies emerging from the Second World War, and the minority of states that did not accept the prevalent values of the time were reluctant to challenge the postwar ethos. For example, one of the General Assembly's earliest acts was to adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in December 1948. The Soviets were hardly enthusiastic about the defense of personal liberties at the expense of the state, and they had sent their prosecutor from Stalin's purge trials, Andrei Vyshinsky, to the UN to argue against the declaration. But they recognized that the overwhelming majority of UN members, mostly democracies still tied together with a common sense of political purpose, supported this moral statement. The Soviets could not even bring themselves to vote against the resolution; they abstained, as did other Eastern bloc nations. The declaration passed by a vote of 48-0.
Those drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights understood that the General Assembly was not a "world parliament" and thus could not create binding international laws. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights, referred to the declaration as a "common standard." But this common standard could be powerful in the future: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could provide guidelines for international conventions, or for the constitutions of newly independent states.16 And by outlining a code of behavior expected from members of the world community, the UN General Assembly might be able to constrain the behavior of states.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers a striking example of the overwhelming political agreement among the early UN member states. Some critics have condemned the UN in this era for its clarity of purpose, arguing that the original UN reflected only Western standards and was not a truly universal organization. Yet among the original UN members were states such as Egypt, Turkey, Ethiopia, and India-Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. Besides Eleanor Roosevelt, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included René Cassin, a French Jew with Orthodox Jewish training; Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian; and P. C. Chang, a Chinese intellectual who had lectured on Confucianism and Islam. Islamic scholars had also been consulted. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, which abstained, all UN member states with large Muslim populations voted for the Universal Declaration, including Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey. The Saudis' chief concern was that the declaration allowed for a Muslim to change his religion.17 By 1994, Hassan al-Turabi's militant Islamist regime would argue that the UN Human Rights Commission had no standing to criticize Sudan's right to enact punishments like amputation, crucifixion, stoning, or flogging.18
What was the difference between the UN of 1948, in which Saudi Arabia merely abstained from voting for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN of 1994, in which Sudan thundered about the right to behead prisoners? The fact is that the UN had become a totally different organization by the 1990s. From the original 51 member states, its membership jumped to 83 in 1959, up to 132 states in 1972, with the dissolution of European colonial empires, and to 184 by 1993. The addition of the new states posed a problem not because of race, religion, or nationality. Nor were the new Third World members added from the 1970s through the 1990s a problem because of their cultural background. Rather, the trouble related to their political systems. They were for the most part completely new states that had emerged after some struggle with former imperial powers. Many were the authoritarian offspring of the Soviet Union or the Communist Chinese. They were joined by totalitarian Islamist regimes such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or Sudan. What was emerging was a clash of ideologies, not a clash of civilizations. Many of these new states wanted international rules that would suit the needs of dictatorships rather than democracies. Even after the breakup of the Soviet bloc, only a minority of UN member states-75 out of 184-were free democracies, according to Freedom House.
Moreover, the new members had power disproportional to their actual population. Many were tiny states. By 2003, the 114 Third World states that made up the Nonaligned Movement, which voted as a bloc in the UN, at best represented a little more than a half the world's population, but it could claim nearly two-thirds of the 191 UN member states.19 The UN had gerrymandered itself to give dozens of these authoritarian regimes a greater voice in the shape of world affairs than they deserved.
In the beginning, authoritarian regimes could not exert much influence on the machinery of the UN secretariat. Had that political configuration survived into the 1990s, the UN could have made a considerable contribution to international security. But the states who gained so much authority in the 1990s looked at the world very differently from the way the United States did. Support for U.S. positions in the UN General Assembly continued to decline during the 1990s, despite the Clinton administration's declared support for multilateralism. In 1995 members of the General Assembly voted along with Washington 50.6 percent of the time, but by 1999 that number had dropped to 41.8 percent.20 The United States was motivated by different political values and interests-values and interests that had helped define the UN at the outset.