For a year and a half, President Barack Obama wooed his fellow Presidents, Hu Jintao of China and Dmitri Medvedev of Russia. He soothed them with encouraging words and warm gestures. They shared meals and long talks.
Obama's goal was to persuade the two nations to join him at the United Nations in trying to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Finally, this past June, he appeared to have won their hearts. China and Russia joined the United States and a majority of others on the U.N. Security Council in passing tough new sanctions to restrict Iran's ability to conduct business with the rest of the world unless it halts its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Then, before even a month had passed, both China and Russia broke Obama's heartsymbolically speakingwhen they announced new or continued trade deals with the Iranians.
It was a familiar story in the history of the United Nations, the international body that the worldand America in particularboth loves and hates. Supporters say the U.N. can make the world a better place; skeptics argue that it's so big, bureaucratic, and political that it can never live up to its goals.
Yet for all its flaws and failures, the U.N. endures, and when international disputes arise, it's a place to which nations can turn, just as Obama and much of the rest of the world did in hopes of stifling Iran's nuclear ambitions. The outcome of that effort illustrates both the power and the limitations of the U.N.
The League of Nations
Founded 65 years ago this fall, the United Nations has a primary goal of fostering world peaceessentially to make war obsolete.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-60) said in 1953 that the U.N. "represents man's best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield."
That, of course, has not happened.
But the U.N.'s founders had other aspirations as well: feeding the hungry, combating disease, ensuring human rights, regulating commerce, promoting and providing education. In those fields, the U.N. has become one of the most important organizations in the world.
The term "united nations" was first used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) to refer to the countries allied against Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II. The name was adopted by world leaders during the closing months of the war as they planned a new organization to succeed the League of Nations, which had been founded at the end of World War I with the similar goal of fostering peace.
The League failed at least in part because the U.S. Congress refused to approve American membership, despite President Woodrow Wilson's pleas. After it was unable to halt Nazi Germany's march across Europe in the 1930s, the League stopped holding meetings in 1940, although it wasn't formally dissolved until 1946, a few months after the U.N. began.
The U.N.'s planners faced the challenge of trying to repair the weaknesses of the League while preserving its noble ideals. So while the League required unanimous agreement to take any action (a stipulation that was almost never met), the U.N. Charterratified on Oct. 24, 1945concentrated power in a handful of countries.
The U.N. body that encompasses the full 192-nation membership, the General Assembly, has no real power to act. It votes on memberships and budgets, and it passes recommendations and resolutions, but these have no force. (It's here that Presidents and other high-ranking officials go to make splashy speeches.)
The power to take action resides with the Security Council. The Council has five permanent members, which were the most powerful countries at the end of World War II: the United States, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), Britain, France, and China; and 10 rotating members, which are elected to two-year terms by the General Assembly.
The five permanent members hold veto power, meaning each can prevent any Council action by voting no. The Council's mission is to keep peace in the world. Its tools range from imposing economic and diplomatic punishmentscalled sanctionsagainst misbehaving nations, all the way to using military force to quell conflicts and keep the peace (see map). U.N. military units are drawn from member countries, who agree as a condition of their membership to contribute such assistance when asked.
Yet as in most matters of politicsespecially international politicsit's never that simple. Almost immediately after World War II ended, the Cold War began, pitting the United States and its democratic allies against Communist nations led by the Soviet Union. From that point on, the world's two superpowers could agree on almost nothing.
Soon the U.S. and the Soviets were routinely vetoing any action they thought helped the other. This had the effect of paralyzing the Counciland hampering the U.N. as a wholefor the next 45 years.
There were, however, some notable exceptions. The state of Israel was created by U.N. action in 1947 on part of British-occupied territory in Palestine.
In 1950, the Security Council authorized a U.N. military action, led by the U.S., to repel North Korea's invasion of South Korea. The Soviets at that point were boycotting the Council, so the intervention passed with the agreement of the other four permanent members. (The Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953, after 37,000 American combat deaths.)
In 1962, the Council served as a forum for the U.S. to confront the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis and avert a nuclear war. By exposing Moscow's lies about its nuclear missiles in Cuba, the U.S. was able to humiliate the Soviets into removing them, after a 13-day standoff that terrified the world.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the U.N. was instrumental in achieving independence for the African and Asian countries that had been colonies of European nations; and through the 1980s, it led the world in bringing ever greater pressure to bear on South Africa and helping force an end, in 1990, to the apartheid system of rule by a white minority. So when the Cold War ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was renewed optimism that the U.N. might at last fully live up to its founders' hopes.
'There Is No United Nations'
But the optimism was short-lived. World alignments shifted and new alliances and antagonisms based on regional, economic, or religious factors, rose to the surface.
Thus, when civil wars broke out in the early 1990s in former republics of Yugoslavia like Bosnia, the U.N. was unable to agree on forceful responses, and its peacekeeping troops were ineffectual in preventing the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians and refugees. And in the mid-'90s, in one of the most shameful episodes in the U.N.'s history, its members dithered and debated while some 800,000 people were slaughtered in a mad rampage of ethnic violence in the African nation of Rwanda.
By the turn of the 21st century, disillusionment about the U.N. had become widespread.
John Bolton, America's U.N. ambassador during President George W. Bush's administration, once said: "There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power in the world, and that's the United States. . . . The [U.N.'s] Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
Some American critics of the U.N. believe involvement in a global body limits America's ability to act in its own best interests.
They also say it's unfair that with dues based on the size of each nation's economy, the U.S. pays nearly one fourth of the U.N. budget (see pie chart)yet the U.S. has no more voting power in the General Assembly than other nations that pay only a fraction as much.
Reflecting such views, in the late 1980s and much of the 1990s, Congress frequently refused to approve payments of large portions of America's U.N. dues.
In 1999, the U.S. began gradually paying what it owed in return for the U.N.'s adopting some changes, such as reducing the U.S. share of dues.
Under President Obama, America's relationship with the U.N. has improved. "We have re-engaged the United Nations," he said in his speech to the General Assembly in 2009. "We have paid our bills."
While he was seeking U.N. support for sanctions on Iran, he sat in as visiting chairman for a day at the Security Council. This not only showed China, Russia, and other nations how sincere he was, but also symbolized his commitment to mending relations with the U.N.
An Updated Security Council?
Plenty of other nations also have issues with the U.N. Many point to the makeup of the Security Council as woefully out of date and unbalanced, reflecting the global power relationships of 65 years ago.
Why, critics ask, are France and Britain permanent Council members with veto powers, while Japan and Germanynow among the top four economic powers in the world (along with the U.S. and China)are not? What about India, the second-most-populous country on the globe? And why no permanent members from the Southern Hemisphere, when countries like Brazil and South Africa are growing in power and influence in their regions?
The current Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, has pledged, like some of his predecessors, to make reform a priority. As Secretary General, Ban serves as chief executive of the U.N. He's in charge of a vast bureaucracy called the Secretariat, which administers a worldwide network of offices, councils, commissions, and courts, and 60,000 employees that grapple with social problems and disease, provide education, ensure human rights and justice, protect refugees, and deliver financial aid.
The World Food Program feeds 90 million people a year in 73 countries. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has reduced child mortality significantly, and the World Health Organization has orchestrated campaigns that have virtually rid the world of diseases like smallpox, while turning attention to newer scourges like H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. The names of other agencies signify their work: the International Atomic Energy Agency; the World Bank; the High Commission on Refugees; the U.N. Environmental Program.
There are many more. Through them, the United Nations has accomplished a great deal. (Emblematic of its achievements are the seven Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to U.N. efforts over the years.)
Still, the U.N. hasn't solved its biggest problem: the inability to find consensus and act effectively to stop war and violence. Recent examples are the killings, mutilations, rapes, and starvation resulting from rebellions and ethnic conflicts in Darfur, Congo, and Somalia.
"Things come to the United Nations that cannot be solved elsewhere. People say, 'Let the U.N. solve it,' " says Warren Hoge of the International Peace Institute in New York. "Just think of how difficult it is to get agreement among a group of friends . . . Try that with 192 countries with vastly different cultures and languages, and you can imagine the problem achieving anything."
But Hoge adds that while the U.N. is far from perfect, "no one has thought up a better alternative."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 20, 2010)