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The Future of the United Nations: Implications for Peace Operations

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | October 1993

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The roundtable examined grand strategic issues such as the nature of the future international system and the evolving role of the United Nations. Discussion was organized around a series of topics:

The Future of the International System. The participants generally agreed that the future international system would be two tiered with most conflict occurring in the second tier. This will include the emergence of "failed states." They disagreed on:

  • The degree of stability and cooperation within the first tier;
  • The extent to which instability and violence in the second tier can threaten first tier states, especially the United States;
  • The importance of non-state actors in the system;
  • The wisdom or feasibility of attempts to reconstruct failed states.

On the very vital question of when the United States should become involved in second tier conflicts, a majority of the participants supported U.S. involvement in second tier conflict-- preferably in preemptive, coalition efforts. They did not agree on coherent strategic criteria for engagement.

The Role of the United Nations. Most participants were skeptical of expanded U.N. activities. There was a feeling that the U.N. does traditional peacekeeping activities fairly well, but would meet with much less success if it attempted to undertake operations requiring a robust military capability.

Strengthening the U.N.? The roundtable participants offered a number of suggestions for strengthening the United Nations. It should focus on the minimum necessary structural, political, and economic changes to deal effectively and in a timely fashion with traditional peacekeeping. This would include improvements in force recruitment, supply of fielded forces, and transportation. The U.N. should also seek to enhance its "peace building" capabilities by developing better methods to recruit, train, and field competent electoral observers, civil administrators, and civilian police. There should also be a limited planning and support staff within the U.N. Secretariat and better coordination between the military and civilian components of peace support operations. The participants did not favor giving the U.N. control of large-scale military missions.

The United States and the United Nations. The roundtable participants generally anticipated a fair degree of compatibilitybetween U.S. and U.N. objectives, and felt that the U.N. could play an important role in American national security strategy as we attempt to avoid a strategic ends/means mismatch. They agreed that gauging the extent to which we wanted to strengthen the U.N. was a vital foreign policy decision, but one on which no clear consensus currently exists. In the future, the United States will be forced to choose between a U.N. with limited utility which we control, or a more influential but autonomous organization.


The U.N. After the Cold War: Renaissance or Indian Summer?

Philosophers, statesmen, and victims of conflict have long dreamed of a world expunged of war. But so long as the international system was one where power--especially military power--was decentralized and the constituent units of the system varied by values, cultures, and perceptions, violence was endemic. The ultimate solution was obvious but unattainable: centralize power, delegitimize military force, homogenize values, and find methods to eradicate misperception. To many, this implied that peace would only come with world government. Somewhat less idealistic was what came to be called the liberal internationalist perspective. First given coherent form in the essay "On Eternal Peace" by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, this sought disarmament, greater reliance on international law, and an international system composed of constitutional republics.1 Just as civil society emerged out of anarchy, so too, liberal internationalists hoped, would a more peaceful and organized international system.

However rational the objectives of the liberal internationalists were, violence remained a common technique for adjusting the international power balance and resolving conflicts between and within states. War was seen as natural, instinctive, and even noble. Machiavelli and Hobbes rather than Kant were the patron saints of international politics. But the 20th century challenged this attitude. Two things in particular gave rise to the idea that there were alternatives to the war-torn balance of power. First was the emergence of a vigorous advocate for liberal internationalism as the United States became a world power. Woodrow Wilson was a particularly articulate and influential proponent of the spread of democracy, self-determination, free trade, and collective security against aggression. Eventually, American influence and enthusiasm forced even the most jaded European power to take these alternative ideas seriously. The second challenge to the traditional balance of power was the growing destructiveness of war. The Marne, Verdun, Somme, Tannenberg, Masurian Lakes, and a thousand other battles of World War I shattered the glory of war and spurred the search for alternative methods of ordering the international system.

Most leaders recognized that world government was infeasible or undesirable and favored some less drastic way to homogenize international values, provide a forum for the peaceful resolution of conflict, and organize collective security. This notion spawned the first global international organization designed explicitly to do these things--the League of Nations. But despite expectations that the League would revolutionize international politics, it quickly proved impotent. The Senate refused to allow the United States to join, so the organization lost its most fervent patron. With the rise of Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism, and German Nazism, all hope for the homogenization of values among the great powers collapsed. This, in combination with the League's lack of an effective enforcement mechanism, doomed it. As the world slipped back into global war, the League of Nations was extant, but useless.

The League's failure to prevent World War II could have been the death blow of liberal internationalism, but instead, it emerged from the conflict with new life. Rather than concluding that the concept of collective security through international organization was flawed, key world leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt blamed structural defects in the League of Nations for its inability to prevent global war. In addition, proponents of international organization believed that any lingering resistance was certainly shattered by the horrors of World War II. So, like the League, the United Nations was designed to provide a forum for the peaceful resolution of conflict, develop international law, and, when necessary, implement collective security against aggression. But in a departure from the structure of the League, the heart of the U.N. was a Security Council dominated by the five major wartime allies. This, it was thought, would more realistically reflect the concentration of power in the international system while still allowing for an egalitarian forum in the General Assembly.

In a melancholy repetition of the experience of the League of Nations, the U.N. very quickly foundered on the hard realities of global politics. Since it was never intended as a world government with power greater than its member states, the U.N. could be no stronger than the willingness of its members to pursue the peaceful resolution of conflict and collective security. As the international system was riven by the cold war and, later, by the series of disagreements between the developed nations and the Third World known as the "North-South conflict," the U.N. weakened. The expectations of liberal internationalists again remained unfulfilled. The organization's inherent conceptual weaknesses also became clear. Formed at the end of World War II, it was designed to deal with traditional inter-state aggression rather than the type of internal conflict that dominated the cold war international system. With the Security Council paralyzed by the cold war and the General Assembly dominated by what the United States saw as the radical and unrealistic agenda of the Third World, the U.N. had, by the 1980s, sunk to near impotence. That it played any role at all in the peaceful resolution of conflict and collective security was due to extra-Charter innovations by visionaries such as Dag Hammarskjold and Brian Urquhart. Foremost among these innovations was peacekeeping.

In the early 1990s, the rapid and unexpected demise of the Soviet Union appeared to open the way for a renaissance of the United Nations. The ideological paralysis of the cold war lifted and, in a wonderful coincidence, the North-South conflict abated as many Third World nations abandoned authoritarianism and statism for greater political openness, market economies and, in some places, elected democracies. The U.N. itself found a talented and visionary leader in Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Suddenly, the U.N. became the centerpiece or broker for resolution of a bevy of global conflicts; the blue flag of the organization had never been more conspicuous. For a brief period, all obstacles to attainment of the dream that drove the U.N.'s founders seemed surmountable.

Today, the heady euphoria that accompanied the end of the cold war has faded. Despite Boutros-Ghali's attempts to invigorate the U.N., it is still more a reflection of the international system than a force which shapes it. The U.N. is no stronger than its members will allow, and the end of the cold war did not eradicate value conflicts, misperceptions, and suspicion among the nations of the world. In addition, the Charter still seems inadequate for dealing with the type of internal conflict that dominated the post-cold war international system. While the potential of the U.N. seems more attainable than it did 5 years ago, it is still potential rather than reality. Even the United States is torn. The fact that the U.N. was created at all and sustained through the dark days of the cold war was due, in part, to the U.S.' lingering isolationism. We wanted something other than ourselves to promote the liberal internationalist vision of the world, and hoped that the United Nations would do this. But the traumas of the 1970s and 1980s made many Americans see the U.N. as a colossal mistake, a Frankenstein's monster turning on its creator.

Today, the U.N. stands at a crossroad. It is not clear whether the end of the cold war opened the way for the organization to finally meet the expectations of its founders, or whether it is simply dying a loud and demonstrative death. For the historians of the future, the early 1990s may be seen as either the renaissance of the United Nations or its Indian Summer.

Conclusion: Issues and Questions.

Since the founding of the United Nations, Americans have viewed it in many ways. On one end of the spectrum were the skeptics who saw the organization as useless at best and, at worst, an outright threat pushing toward world government. This position was most common on the right side of the political spectrum and given its most coherent expression by scholars associated with the Heritage Foundation. The other pole was populated by those who considered the U.N. a panacea for international conflict. These thinkers, who usually came from the left side of the political spectrum, agreed that the U.N. was the first step toward world government, but considered that a beneficial thing.

All of the participants at our roundtable were moderates who fell somewhere between these extremes. All saw at least some degree of utility in the United Nations, but none considered it a panacea. Some were fairly skeptical of the U.N.'s utility, others more optimistic. In this the participants probably reflected the American public as a whole. The U.N., as the participants continually reiterated, is a microcosm of the international system and thus can be no stronger than the broader techniques for the resolution of conflict and the values that undergird them. There was deep agreement that most efforts of the U.N. in the promotion of peace and security would continue to take place in the second tier of the international system or, to use more traditional terminology, in the Third World.

Three "mission types" emerged from the discussion, each with its own problems and prospects. First were what can be called traditional U.N. peacekeeping which usually entailed monitoring a cease-fire or implementing a negotiated settlement. This occurs with the consent of the antagonists, and the actual peacekeeping operation is secondary to the diplomatic and political processes that led toward resolution of the conflict. This mission type first coalesced in the Middle East and was largely the creation of Dag Hammarskjold and Brian Urquhart. The participants at the roundtable generally agreed that the U.N. was fairly good at this. There are problems with overextension and funding as well as the need for some structural reforms in pursuit of greater efficiency, but the prospects for success are good and the United States should support this type of activity.

The second mission type entailed guardianship of a nascent state as in the Congo operation or reconstruction of a failed or destroyed state as in Somalia. In such efforts, there are major problems including the difficulty of coordinating diverse organizations, expense, a lack of patience and persistence, and, most of all, the absolute magnitude of the task, especially when the process of reconstruction was imposed. There is no good historical precedent for the imposed reconstruction of a failed or destroyed state. Furthermore, the fact that reconstruction of a failed or destroyed state smacks of Western colonialism can generate resistance within the target state and in the Third World in general. Thus the prospects for U.N. success at reconstruction are not good.

The third mission type includes enforcement actions such as Korea or the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. The recent literature on the U.N. has dealt extensively with peace-enforcement and has resulted in a number of plans for a standing U.N. military force or, at a minimum, substantial improvements in the ability of the Secretary General to command and control large military forces. It is likely that the participants at the roundtable considered these passing fads, and would have concluded that future large-scale enforcement actions will follow the Desert Storm model where U.N. political approval adds legitimacy to military actions taken by the United States or a coalition led by the United States or the other first tier nations.

What emerged from the roundtable, then, was a series of strategic issues and unanswered questions that will shape future U.S. support for U.N. operations. When should we care enough about second tier conflict to put ourselves at risk? How much should we empower the U.N.? And, is it possible to impose reconstruction on a society in deep conflict? Clear answers to these questions would simplify the task of making the U.S. Army a more effective tool for the support of U.N. operations. Unfortunately, the Army will likely be called on to assist the U.N. even before the American public and policymakers frame coherent answers to these vital questions.

The Army will face at least two major dilemmas as it attempts to increase its proficiency at peace operations. The first is assuring that this increased proficiency does not come at the cost of decreased proficiency in other vital areas such as conventional land warfare. New missions or, at least, new emphases in a time of declining resources can generate great dangers. The second dilemma is one that has run throughout what was once called low-intensity conflict for several decades. The military in general and the Army in particular have devoted far and away the most effort to attempting to understand this sort of conflict and craft coherent responses. Yet the military is, by definition, a secondary actor standing in support of civilian agencies. The problem then, is finding ways to share the Army's accumulated knowledge with the key civilian agencies without militarizing the problem. Specific solutions to these two key dilemmas await discovery.


1. This essay is reprinted in Carl Joachim Friedrich, Inevitable Peace, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948, pp. 245-281. The title of the essay is sometimes translated as "On Perpetual Peace."