A lot of Americans don’t seem to like the United Nations all that much. According to a February 2020 Gallup poll, 54 percent of the US population thought the UN was doing a “poor job” in solving global problems. That’s actually down from a decade ago, when nearly two-thirds of Americans had the same negative view, but it’s still too high, in my opinion.
If you’ve lived long enough in America, you’ve heard the litany of anti-UN complaints: the organization is too expensive. America hosts it (on hyper-expensive New York real estate, no less) and winds up footing most of the bill. We’d be better off going it alone, etc.
All valid criticisms, as far as they go. And yet, there is still a case to be made for the UN, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the signing of the organizational charter. And we can only make that case by going back to the history of World War II—the origins, course, and legacy of the war.
As Americans, we sometimes forget who invented the UN: none other than our great wartime president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. To FDR and his advisors, the outbreak of World War II—the years of letting dictators like Hitler and Mussolini run wild with their aggressive schemes—was directly attributable to the lack of any international organization that could block them. Oh sure, there was a League of Nations, but it lacked any real enforcement mechanisms. It could cajole and criticize, but it could not really compel anyone to do anything. If the League criticized your behavior, you could simply walk out of it without any negative consequences. Just ask the Japanese and the Germans: they both left (in 1931 and 1933, respectively.) They thumbed their noses at the world community, in other words, and paid no price whatsoever.
What Roosevelt had in mind was a new, reformed League of Nations, but with teeth: the ability not only to condemn aggression with words, but to punish it with actions. Roosevelt initially envisioned a system in which “four policemen” were to be responsible for keeping the global peace: the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of China. Like a cop walking a beat, they would sniff out trouble in their neighborhood, identify would-be aggressors, and use the billy club if things got rough. Roosevelt also coined the term “United Nations,” a moniker that became synonymous in wartime with “the Allies;” and indeed, even today, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the four policemen, plus France—represent the victorious powers of World War II.
It hasn’t worked perfectly. The UN protects Great Power interests more than the small powers. Each of those five permanent members of the Security Council has a veto over action by the organization, so response to global problems happens slowly, if it all. During the Cold War, if the United States was in favor of something, the Soviet Union was probably against it, and vice versa. Deadlock was the order of the day. Decolonization after 1960 added dozens of new African and Asian states to the General Assembly, and many of them were opponents of US foreign policy in their regions. The expulsion of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the admission of Communist China to the Security Council in 1971 was a recognition that times had changed in East Asia, but also a blow to US policy in the region.
Likewise, punishing aggressors proved to be harder than it seemed when FDR was formulating the idea. Proving aggression isn’t easy. States who go to war can almost always present some reasonable justification for doing so. As a result, clear-cut cases suitable for UN intervention have been relatively scarce, and the UN’s standard posture vis à vis an international crisis is to talk it to death or smother it in printed resolutions.
While the UN has not abolished aggression or international conflict, however, it has proven remarkably robust and successful in one area: peacekeeping missions. Inserted into the Middle East in 1957 (after the second of the Arab-Israeli Wars), the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) patrolled in Sinai, in Gaza, and in Sharm el-Sheikh on the Straits of Tiran. Consisting originally of 6,000 men from 10 nations (Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, India, Indonesia, Norway, Sweden, and Yugoslavia), UNEF marked the debut of a force that has since become ubiquitous on the world scene: the Blue Helmets.
Today, Blue Helmets stand watch in hotspots in every region of the globe. Even a partial list is impressive. They are in the Western Sahara (under the acronym MINURSO, for UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara); in Mali (MINUSMA, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), and in Cyprus (UNFICYP, the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.) They are in Jammu and Kashmir, keeping the peace between India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP, UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan). And of course, they’re still in the Middle East, as UNTSO (the UN Truce Supervision Organization in Jerusalem) and UNDOF (the UN Disengagement Observer Force in Golan.) They’re standing guard in a bunch of places, in other words, that you don’t want to be. They deserve more respect than they usually get.
As frustrating as the UN can be at times, the world is a better place with it than without it. Like so many of the decisions he made during World War II, FDR was right about this one, too.
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.