What the founders of the UN intended

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Sep 21 18:05:17 MDT 1999

Phyllis Bennis, "Calling the Shots", (Olive Branch, 1996):


The UN Charter is filled with stirring rhetoric that seizes the heart and
captures the imagination. Written for a world so recently threatened by the
slaughter of fascism, it called for countries to come together in a new
organization. Nations would unite to "prevent the scourge of war to
reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the
human person, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large
and small ... to promote social progress and better standards of life in
larger freedom."

But the founding of the United Nations wasn’t only a victory of moral
principles and the triumph of democratic values. Behind the high-minded
phrasing was the hardball world of diplomatic power-plays and forced,
reluctant compromises. While the drafters of that remarkable document
included some of the best democracy- and justice-oriented minds of the
Western world, some of their governments in Washington, London, Moscow, and
Paris had goals in mind far more primitive than world peace and shared
equal development. For the Allied powers, the goal was to insure, through
diplomatic means, that the governments that had won the war would continue
to rule the post-war peace.

The founders were a strange blend. The official U.S. delegation, and its
parallel advisory team, included political analyst-activists and diplomats
of various stripes, most of whom shared a commitment to internationalism,
as well as academics and intellectuals seeking a form for a new
peace-oriented global body whose mandate would be to prevent future wars,
insure economic development, and create some modicum of social justice.
They included brilliant minds and committed people. Many of them believed
that the UN would truly represent a step to- wards a one-world government,
an agency that could, if not challenge directly, at least provide an
alternative to the continuation of economic, political, and strategic
domination by any one power. The UN, they hoped, like no organization
before it, would project the derivative power of joint U.S., European, and
Soviet backing while simultaneously upholding the world’s collective
interests. It would enjoy the unassailable credential of internationalism
and provide an independent voice in global affairs.

But the democratic-minded activists and academics were the Third Deputy
Secretaries and the Staff Assistants and the behind-the-scenes grunt
workers, who toiled over successive drafts without fancy titles or job
descriptions. They weren’t the ones making the final decisions. The U.S.
government controlled the bottom line, and its representatives, headed by
Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, had not traveled to Dumbarton
Oaks, and later to San Francisco, only to talk about peace and justice and
internationalism; Washington’s agenda was power.


The 1945 San Francisco meeting, officially known as the Conference on
International Organization, had learned a number of lessons from the UN’s
predecessor, the League of Nations. Founded after World War I, the League
had failed to create a more harmonious world, and, most crucially, had
failed to prevent the rise of fascism and the outbreak of another world
war. The U.S., then emerging as a global super-power, had refused to join
the League.

There was a strong isolationist current in U.S. political culture, and it
was dominant after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson, while a strong
supporter of the League’s stated goals, was unable to win Senate
endorsement for U.S. membership. In the Congress, and through- out the
political echelons of U.S. policy-making, League membership was suspect.
Rejection of League membership, corresponding to popular opinion, was
couched in the more diplomatic language of a threat to U.S. sovereignty.

But for Washington, beyond electoral concerns mandating isolationist
rhetoric, the real fear was that joining the League would somehow result in
a significant loss of international power and influence. There were no
sufficient protective guarantees, Washington policy-makers believed, to
insure that League decisions would always be taken in accord with U.S.
policy and interests.

The League’s claims to represent a truly global organization faced a number
of daunting contradictions. First and foremost, for all its high ideals,
the League was a creature of, by, and for Europe and, to a lesser degree,
Europe’s Western allies. Its concerns regarding Europe’s colonies, the rich
lands and impoverished populations of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and
Latin America, primarily focused on keeping then that way. The League’s
leadership by the colonial powers also helped institutionalize the
conflicts and competition between them.

The absence of the U.S. further undermined any chance the League might have
had to operate in a broader multilateral fashion. Ultimately, colonial
rivalries and competition among the European power set the stage for World
War II. The League of Nations was powerless to stop the Nazi juggernaut. It
soon faded into irrelevance, and its pro forma dissolution in 1946 was
almost forgotten in the excitement surrounding the new United Nations.

But years before the San Francisco conference that brought the United
Nations to life, the League’s limitations and the need for a true empowered
global organization were already clear. Throughout the horrifying years of
World War II, efforts towards creating a new multilateral body were
underway. The 1941 Inter-Allied Declaration issued a resounding, if vague,
call for international cooperation after the war Roosevelt’s and
Churchill’s Atlantic Charter, that same year, provided the first sign of
U.S.-British intentions to establish a replacement for the failed League.
The Washington Declaration of January 1, 1942 first used the term "united
nations," and included 26 countries as signatories. Allied conferences in
Moscow and Tehran, in late 1943, actually began to lay the political
foundations for a new organization, and the Dumbarton Oaks conference in
mid-1944 was finally assigned the task of crafting a structure.

It was in Dumbarton Oaks, outside of Washington, D.C., that the Proposals
for the Establishment of a General International Organization were adopted
by four of what became the Permanent Five members of the Security Council:
the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain, an China. A few months later, in
February 1945, after the end-of-the-war Yalta Conference, de Gaulle’s Free
French government joined in and the Five worked out a conflict-resolution
formula; it was the first step towards the creation of the Security
Council. Only weeks later, the San Francisco conference would be convened.


The San Francisco meeting brought together representatives of 50 nations —
primarily the industrialized countries of the North, mostly European and
North American. The cornerstone was the five-power alliance of the U.S.,
the Soviets, the French, the British, and the Chinese — the victors of the
war, with their allies. There were a few U.S.- dominated Latin American
states, plus still-colonized India, Egypt, Iran, French-controlled Lebanon,
Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the U.S.- dependent Philippines. (Poland was a
signatory, bringing the number of original signers to 51, but did not have
a representative to the San Francisco conference.) The overall balance was
at least 35 countries closely allied to the U.S., five close to the Soviet
Union, and only ten non-aligned.

The drafting of the Charter in San Francisco posed numerous vexing
questions. Most of them were shaped by the constant tension between
democracy and power. How could an organization be created that would end
war, protect the smaller and weaker countries, encourage egalitarian access
to resources and development, improve human rights and standards of living
— all while quietly insuring that the richest and most powerful countries
remained in control?

For the U.S., there was no question whether power or democracy would carry
the day. And there would be no taking chances on decision-making. Recently
released intelligence documents clearly demonstrate that for months prior
to, as well as during, the San Francisco founding conference, U.S.
intelligence agencies were bugging the offices and rooms of the other
delegations, and intercepting and breaking coded diplomatic messages —
including those of Washington’s closest allies — in an operation known as
"Ultra." The intercepts allowed the U.S. team to know ahead of time what
were the positions, special concerns or interests, potential pressure
points and vulnerabilities of competitors and allies alike. The spying
worked. By the end of the conference, the U.S. delegation had won support
for structural, economic, and mandate decisions that effectively guaranteed
Washington’s domination of the UN for years to come.

According to historian Stephen Schlesinger, who has analyzed the
long-classified files, the secret information allowed the U.S. team to
indulge "not only in altruism but also in national self-interest .... The
U.S. apparently used its surveillance reports to set the agenda of the UN,
to control the debate, to pressure nations to agree to its positions and to
write the UN Charter mostly according to its own blueprint.

The U.S. organizational blueprint, among other things, included special
privileges for itself and its powerful allies. Specifically, this meant
permanent seats on the Security Council; Security Council control over all
vital issues of international peace and security; and, of enormous tactical
significance, a veto over any proposed Council action by any of the five
permanent members. The veto was of special concern to President Roosevelt,
who feared he would be unable to win congressional support, and crucial
ratification from a Senate still influenced by isolationism, without it.

The Soviet Union was committed to a veto as well. There were few illusions
on either side about the tenuousness of the wartime anti-Hitler alliance,
and Stalin was convinced that without the veto, his anti-communist
adversaries would carry the day unconditionally. His fears were not
entirely groundless; the overwhelming numerical advantage of the U.S. and
its allies first gave rise to the Soviet demand for additional General
Assembly votes for its constituent republics and later efforts to veto the
membership applications of some new U.S.- backed members.

So the veto rationales for the U.S. and the Soviet Union were slightly
different. Moscow wanted to insure that it had some sort of weapon to
compensate for its numerical disadvantage; its goal was to prevent the U.S.
and its allies from gaining complete control over Council decisions.
Washington’s motivation was simpler: it wanted to insure its own power to
do just that. But both agreed the veto was required.

According to Australia’s foreign minister, Gareth Evans, the creation of
the veto "was justified largely on the grounds that it saved the Security
Council from voting for commitments it was incapable of fulfilling, namely
enforcement action against one of the five permanent members or the
imposition of sanctions against the will of one of those states. In other
words, to convince the permanent members that they should adhere to the
Charter and the collective security framework embodied therein, a
deliberate decision was taken to establish a collective security system
which could not be applied to the permanent members themselves."2

Eventually, all of the major powers agreed on the necessity of the veto. It
was part of the viewpoint of the U.S. and its World War II allies that they
alone would determine the nature of the post-war peace. There was no
illusion that smaller countries, let alone nations still colonized by the
great powers, would have an equal voice. According to UN historian Innis
Claude, "all of the sponsoring powers — meaning the big five, essentially —
insisted on the veto and made it very clear that they were going to have a
veto or there wouldn’t be an organization. In fact there were some cases of
something very much like diplomatic blackmail at the conference, when an
occasional small state would be fussy about the veto, when a spokesman of
the great powers would say ‘you either take the veto, or we’ll dissolve the
conference right now.’

Under Roosevelt’s prodding, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China had
agreed at Dumbarton Oaks to accept the U.S.-initiated and U.S.-defined
veto-power into the UN structure. As Schlesinger describes it, the veto
decision "reflected F.D.R.’s belief that the Security Council would
actually run the United Nations, and that, since these five nations were
the only ones that possessed the forces to police the world, this
prerogative was required. Extending the veto to all nations (as had been
done for the Executive Council of the League of Nations) would invite
gridlock and inaction. Four months later, at Yalta, Chur- chill and Stalin,
at FD.R.’s insistence, completed voting procedures reflecting this veto
system for the United Nations."4

The Ultra documents also expose some of Washington’s own thinking about the
significance or merits of decolonization. France worried that the U.S.
effort to establish a Trusteeship Council within the UN, couched as it was
in rhetorical commitments to the colonies’ evolution towards autonomy or
even independence, threatened Paris’s post-war control of its own "overseas
departments." While the British government, who hoped to rely on its own
colonies for a return to economic power after the war, initially shared
those concerns, London was quickly reassured by the U.S. Then, seeking to
persuade the French that Washington had no real anti-colonial intentions,
British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden reminded France’s provisional
foreign minister, Georges Bidault, that although the trusteeship plan was
an American one, it was not really designed to challenge colonialism at
all, but in fact to "permit the United States to lay hands chastely on the
Japanese islands in the Pacific. The system is not to be applied to any
region in Europe nor to any colonies belonging to the Allied countries.

(In fact, the European concerns were right. Soon it became clear that the
efforts of the new, rising superpower U.S. to open up all the world’s
markets were coming into conflict with British and French attempts to keep
some control of their dwindling colonial empires. When decolonization began
to take hold throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, U.S. control of
ostensibly "independent" post-colonial governments gave Washington
important new leverage over its old-fashioned colonial allies.)

Thus encouraged that Washington had no greater commitment to decolonization
than its colony-holding allies, and in fact intended to establish its own
quasi-colonial control over former Japanese-controlled territories, France
relaxed and accepted the creation of the Trusteeship Council. A concomitant
result was the French backing away from their chosen role of champion of
the smaller (European) powers against the Big Four. Once Paris was induced
to accept its own veto-wielding permanent seat on the Council, its
opposition to the veto, and to the concentrating of UN power within the
Council, collapsed. A Turkish warning to French diplomats, also revealed
through Ultra interceptions, that "the small states are inevitably going to
be reduced to the status of satellites of the great," proved prescient.6

For Washington, the triumphal founding of the United Nations was made
possible thanks to a mixed bag of tricks, including honest diplomacy,
cloak-and-dagger codebreaking, and when necessary, the crude assertion of
virtually untrammeled power.

But a triumph it was. And from that moment in 1945, one historical reality
has remained unchanged: the United Nations was created, and continues to
exist half a century or more later, in order to consolidate and strengthen
— not to challenge — the global reach of its most pow- erful member-states,
most especially that of the U.S.


But however narrow the power-limned goals of the U.S. and its allies
throughout 1945, the stated aims for the new United Nations organization
were wide-ranging and socially ambitious. The Charter declared the
organization and its constituent institutions were to become a "center for
harmonizing the actions of nations" in achieving international peace.
Perhaps even more significantly, the founding document acknowledged the
integral links between the political, socio-economic, and military aspects
of peace, recognizing "conditions of stability and well-being [as]
necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations."

That meant creating a complex system responsive to a wide variety of
political, economic, cultural, and human needs. On paper, the new UN system
did just that. As noted UN scholar Erskine Childers de- scribes it:

"Taken together, the constitutions of the System gave humanity a
comprehensive international social contract for the first time. The
constitution of the new Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations (FAO) committed governments "to contribute to the expansion of the
world economy and to liberate humanity from hunger." That of the World
Health Organization (WHO) declared that "the health of all peoples is
fundamental to the attainment of peace and security." Approaching the same
web of problems with another causal insight, the constitution of the UN
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) avowed that
"since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the
defenses of peace must be constructed."7

(Childers goes on to note that the UNESCO reference is "one occasion in a
UN document when the word men is entirely apposite.")

But despite the lofty words, that social contract was far from universal in
its application. Like the fraying social contracts of liberalized and
globalized corporate economies of the mid-1990s, entire populations were
written out of the social equation, marginalized or deemed fully
expendable. In 1945 that meant, largely, the populations of the
still-colonized nations of the global South. Their representatives were
not, in the main, present among those united nations who together created
the UN; neither did they form a collective eminence grise to hover over the
consciousness of the founders.

What those founders built was a global structure responsible not only for
maintaining international peace and security (as defined by the Northern
powers), but for implementing a broadly formulated worldwide political and
economic system that would be imposed, oper- ated, and controlled by the
victors of World War II. "Worldwide," in this context, referred to the
decision-making capitals of the North — the world of the industrial and
military powers.

Decolonization, as an inevitable historical impulse, was not on the
founders’ agenda, except for the tactical concerns of the major powers
about protecting their existing or future colonial holdings. The United
Nations of 1945, made up of only 51 countries, dominated by the U.S. and
Europe, was overwhelmingly white and virtually all male. The founders,
giving instructions to the architects drafting plans for the new UN
headquarters on New York’s East River, knew that other countries would some
day join the organization. They had the magnanimity to order the architects
to build an Assembly hall big enough to hold, eventually, a total of 70
delegations (not even close to the 185 missions crowding the hall in
1995).8 It was anticipated that the rest of Europe, Scandinavia,
Switzerland, maybe even the Vatican would sign up. It apparently didn’t
occur to anyone that the rest of the world might also want to join the party.


With the Security Council largely paralyzed by Cold War and colonial
interests, the General Assembly was Washington’s agency of choice in 1950
in obtaining the UN’s credential of multilateralism to go to war in Korea.
Following the attack on South Korea by the North, the U.S. took the
initiative to bring the question to the UN. Under the terms of Chapter VII
of the Charter, the Security Council holds the ultimate power of deploying
UN military force. But the Council, by this time, was already locked in a
paralysis born of Cold War and colonial interests’ conflicts, so it was
deemed an unlikely agency to provide Washington with the desperately sought
international endorsement. In fact, luck, in the form of fortuitous timing,
was on the Americans’ side. At the moment the U.S. tabled a resolution in
front of the Council, its Soviet nemesis was temporarily boycotting Council
meetings, in protest over Washington’s refusal to accept the People’s
Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China, ousting the
Nationalist government on Taiwan.

U.S. diplomats grabbed the chance to gain the Council’s imprimatur. The
result was that all countries sending troops to support South Korea were
asked to put them under a unified command under the United States — but all
those troops would fight under the UN flag. When the Soviets returned to
the Council a few weeks later, Washing- ton turned to the Assembly,
introducing the Uniting for Peace resolution authorizing the GA to meet on
short notice in an emergency in which the Security Council could not act,
and to recommend collective measures including the use of armed force.
Inevitably, the pliant, pre- decolonization Assembly passed the
U.S.-sponsored resolution. The result was that, despite the Soviet position
that the Council’s action was illegal, and the active Soviet opposition
that followed in the Council, the U.S. relied on the Assembly resolution to
legitimate its claim that its own involvement in the Korean War was somehow
mandated by the international community.


Along with the Charter and the broad issues of war and peace, the genesis
of the UN in San Francisco had included the creation of a set of agencies
designed to reshape the economic order of the post-World War II Western
world, in the image and interests of Washington, Lon- don, and Paris. The
main economic organs established were the World Bank Group, the
International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and
Trade (GATT), which in the mid-1990s was to become the World Trade
Organization (WTO). Known as the Bretton Woods institutions from the site
of the 1944 New Hampshire con- ference that gave them life, they were
officially supposed to be, and to function as, part of the UN system — they
were designated specialized agencies accountable, ultimately, to the
General Assembly.

But from the beginning they operated separately from, and without oversight
by, the UN organization. The ostensible mandate of the IMF, for example,
was truly global, designed to cover all countries, rich and poor. On paper
it was clear: "To carry out surveillance of the member states, to ensure
that they maintained stable exchange rates and to provide a temporary
facility that could enable a member state to overcome cyclical balance of
payment deficits." But in fact the Bretton Woods group never represented or
served the interests of the whole world — it responded to the imperatives
and demands of its powerful members.

The result was an extraordinary myopia in Washington, in which a narrowly
defined interest in controlling local markets dominated U.S. strategy in
the South, and the State Department showed little interest in serious study
of the causes of economic underdevelopment:

"The U.S. and U.K., the two dominant powers in the immediate aftermath of
the war, went about conceiving and putting in place institutions that were
aimed at reconstructing war-devastated market  economies of the North ....
The spirit of free enterprise giving full play  to market forces had to be
preserved .... Two individuals close to their  respective establishments,
social scientists and thinker economists in  their own right — Dexter White
for the U.S. and John Maynard  Keynes representing the U.K. — were to lead
negotiations as discreetly as possible, with the purpose of constructing
the post-war edifice to promote common perceived interests .... It is quite
clear that  the Bretton Woods institutions were never equipped to
understand  the deep-rooted causes of underdevelopment, let alone to
examine  them closely enough to realize the Herculean tasks that faced
human-  kind. The assumption that membership of these institutions will
make up for lost time can charitably be described as myopic. The
equilibrium of asymmetry based on power play is here to stay."

Voting systems within these institutions, weighted according to financial
shares held by member states, are explicitly anti-democratic, consciously
aimed at insuring control by the wealthiest states. Those states are then
in a position to dictate terms to impoverished developing countries.

 So the Bretton Woods group never functioned as truly multilateral UN
agencies through which the interests of all countries could be mediated.
Instead, they remained functionally outside the UN system and UN oversight,
and the General Assembly emerged as the central organ for discussion and
often heated debate over the direction of international economic and social
policies. This was in an historical period in which, despite the
devastation of Europe and especially of the Soviet Union caused by World
War II, the inequitable division of wealth between the industrialized and
the once-colonized developing countries was profound.

Louis Proyect

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