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Last Updated: 06/02/2008
What if there was no UN?
Varghese Theckanath s.g

Varghese Theckanath traces the history of the United Nations and briefly reviews its successes. Theckanath argues that these successes outweigh the failures and, ultimately, that the great potential of the UN to promote human development and international understanding makes it an invaluable tool in the effort to build a more peaceful and secure world for everyone.

The United Nations has been berated as ineffective and even superfluous not only by prophets of doom, but even by well meaning and influential world leaders. Nations have ignored it, as did the USSR in 1950, and the United States in 2003.[1] But no one who is concerned about the future of humankind can dismiss it as irrelevant. Not when we assess its achievements in comparison to that of earlier incarnations of international systems. In this essay, we shall run through the earlier systems, especially the League of Nations, and then analyze the UN itself, to understand how in comparison, its achievements in the promotion of peace and security have been phenomenal. The UN has done this in many ways. As Gillian Sorensen, former Under Secretary General to the UN has pointed out, “Though peacekeeping draws the lion’s share of media attention, the greater efforts of the UN go to development, disarmament, democratization, humanitarian and refugee work, environmental action, human rights, health and family planning.”[2] All these together embody the three legs - peace and security, economic development, and understanding among peoples – that the founding fathers of UN meant it to stand on, to prevent war and build peace.

First Half of the Twentieth Century and More

The history of the world has been marked by a series of great bloody wars, with brief interludes of peace. Parallely, there were also dreams of escape from anarchy and conflicts by forging a universal association of humankind. Ancient Chinese philosophers and Greek sages, Catholic theologians in the Middle Ages and philosophers of the Renaissance, political stalwarts and statesmen, kept this dream alive. [3] But it could not become a tangible reality until the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) laid the basis for the sovereign state system in Europe.  This gradually became a pattern throughout the world. But it is in the Vienna Congress (1814-15) that we had a mutual promise among nations to “concert together” against any future threat to the system. It agreed that states shall meet in times of peace rather than after war, to prevent conflicts. It is true that the intervening years saw a gradual collapse of the congress system. At the same time there were efforts by governments to initiate organized approaches to address the problems of peace and security.  This period also saw the internationalization of the system by the inclusion of the United States, the Latin American states, Japan and others.

 The Hague conferences gave a further boost to the efforts to institutionalize organized international relations. Even though the achievements of the two conferences were modest, they were nevertheless significant. The establishment of a panel of arbitrators for settlement of disputes, and the adoption of a Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes were steps that will have a long term impact. It is another matter that such efforts at settling disputes among nations peacefully did not prevent the catastrophe of World War I. As Inis Claude, the renowned historian of the UN has pointed out, “the Hague called attention to the emerging reality of a global, rather than a merely European, state system, the demands of small states for participation in the management of that system and the need for institutionalized procedures as well as improvised settlements, in the conduct of international relations.”[4]      

The League of Nations was a great leap forward in international relations. “The participants at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 had the dual task of making a settlement of victor over vanquished and of establishing a functioning international system after the disturbances created by a world war.”[5]  The statesmen gathered to mold the League heavily relied on the past experience of attempts to forge a community of nations. The congress and concert systems, the Hague meetings, the public international unions and the experiences of the war itself shaped the spirit and nature of the Organization.

Promotion of international cooperation, peace and security were the chief objectives of the League. The reduction of armaments (Art. 8), respect for the “territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League” (Art. 10), how states in dispute should conduct their relations (Art. 12-16), and the establishment of a Permanent Court of International Justice, were all aimed at realizing these objectives.

In spite of the dream of an international system, the League remained an exclusive club that did not include the vast colonized peoples of the Global South. All that they received from the formation of the League was the mandates system (Art.22), and a promise that the League Members would ‘undertake to secure just treatment of the native inhabitants of territories under their control’ (Art.23). History tells us that these promises made little difference to the people in the colonized countries struggling for their freedom.[6] 

The Covenant of the League also addressed economic and social questions. Fair and humane conditions of labor, control of traffic in women, children and drugs, ensuring the freedom of commerce and communications, and steps necessary to internationally control disease, found a place in the Covenant.

It is true that the League of Nations was open to the participation of all nations through the League Assembly. But it is the League Council that was the favored body in decision making. At the same time, mandates of the two bodies remained confusing. The grandiose plans for the League suffered a severe jolt when USA did not join it. The credibility of the League was to further suffer by its actions, or rather inaction, in the years that followed.

The League had much to boast about especially in the first decade of its life. Its meetings and proceedings generated a great deal of excitement. Because, “Here, for the first time in the history of humankind, there existed an international organization, with headquarters in a settled neutral state, which was committed to ways of solving problems through peaceful means and thus avoiding recourse to war.”[7]

Progress in international cooperation advanced through four parallel streams during the 1920s.[8]  The first was at the technical level through organizations such as the ILO, which gained immense credibility for their work. The second was political, which was a more difficult front. But even here, League had some achievements. It successfully brokered the Finnish-Swedish dispute over the Aaland Islands in 1920. It also settled the Turkish-Iraq dispute over Mosul in 1924. Protection of ethnic rights of minorities, inspection of “mandated” territories, and other sticky political issues were also successfully negotiated by the League. A third area in which advances occurred in the international arena, but outside the League, was through the treaties signed by the Great Powers regarding arms negotiations, and the famous Treaties of Locarno. The optimism and good will generated by these steps were further enhanced by a fourth step: the remarkable even if short-lived economic recovery.

But for all the hopes placed in the League, and its many achievements, the system collapsed within two decades of its founding! Reasons were many. First of all, the League was never a world organization. Half of the world was in colonial bondage, and were not represented. Germany was allowed membership only in 1926, and marched out in 1933. The Soviet Union had kept out of the League until the mid-1930s. Japan never took its commitments seriously. The US had not joined at all. Besides, the two Great Powers that remained in the League had different ideas on the role of the League. While France was concerned about collective security, England was unwilling to go along with the idea. The failure of the League to prevent the advances of Japan in Manchuria, and Italy in Ethiopia made a severe dent in its credibility. The German invasion of Poland was the last nail in its coffin, a great dream gone savor. It was put into a sort of “receivership” as WW II raged, until it was formally wound up on April 18, 1946.

It is true that the League system did not live up to its profound goals. It was a victim of its own inner contradictions. But it was a great experiment that linked the experiences of the pre-1914 international systems to what would emerge as an enduring organization after the cataclysm of World War II – The United Nations.

The United Nations

The UN is in many ways the child of World War II. The war-time cooperation among the Allies was crucial to its formation. The war-time summit conferences and the diplomatic activity between Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, together with China helped finalize the basic structure of the United Nations at the Dumbarton Oaks meeting in 1944 and the Yalta Summit in 1945.[9]  There was a general agreement among the negotiators that the organization would be a three-legged stool.[10]  Leg one involved securing international security through cooperative diplomacy and arbitration, backed up by shared military force. Leg two rested on the belief that military security without economic improvement will only be a transitory solution.  Leg three argued that peace can ultimately be built only by improving political and cultural understandings among nations. These principles enshrined in the UN Charter are more enduring terms than those of the League.

The UN Charter is a remarkable document that avoids the many ‘mistakes’ of the League of Nations – the confusion of responsibility for peace and security between Council and Assembly; a rigid and legalistic approach to peace and security; and the restrictions of all members having a veto.[11] The Charter begins with a lofty Preamble, after which Chapter I reminds the members of the purpose and principles of the Charter (Art. 2). Membership criteria are found in the second chapter, and the third chapter identifies the six principal organs of the UN – the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Secretariat. The most important sections of the Charter come in Chapter IV on the General Assembly, Chapter V on the composition, powers, and procedures of the Security Council, Chapter VI on the pacific settlement of disputes, and Chapter VII on “Actions with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.” Chapter VIII on regional arrangements, Chapters IX-X on the Economic and Social Council, Chapters XI-XIII on trusteeship, Chapter XIV on the International Court of Justice, and Chapter XV on the Secretariat, were considered by the framers of the Charter to be important to live in peace. These made the Charter more inclusive than the League.

Revisiting the core of the Charter,  articles relating to the General Assembly recognizes equality of all members. But it has a very limited role in comparison to the Security Council. To take one instance,  resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding, where as Security Council resolutions are binding on all members. The frequency and competence of meetings of the Assembly and the Council is another indicator of the inequality of the two bodies. This partly helped overcome the confusion of competences that the League faced.

The negotiators of the Charter ensured that the Security Council will consist of the five great victor powers as permanent members (P5). It also has six  (now ten) non- permanent members. All members of the UN had to agree to the supreme role of the Security Council regarding peace and security, and had to “accept and agree to carry out” its decisions. The power to veto given to the P5 on all matters other than procedural, without spelling out what is procedural, gives enormous powers to these states. The provision was made to overcome the pitfalls of the League that kept away the US and the USSR, by ensuring protection of interests of the Great Powers unambiguously. However, we experienced the adverse impact of this provision on the international community during the Cold War.  Chapter VII concerning enforcement of the peace gives the Security Council the complete authority to assess situations of conflict, recommend provisional measures to solve them, take note of failure to comply, and decide on instruments to ensure that its decisions are carried out by an aggressor or threatening state. The final article in the chapter ensures the inherent right of states for self defense in case of armed attack. But the second part of the article regarding “the authority and responsibility of the Security Council,” and interpretation of “self defense” in this light, has created much controversy. The latest was in the run up to the second Iraq war.

The UN Charter was a creation of the differing needs, powers and contradictions of the victors of the Great War. Yet it has served a vastly changed world in its needs of security and peace. The three legs of the Charter, international security, economic improvement and political and cultural understanding among peoples, have served UN well in this tryst. As Gillian Sorensen quoted above has testified, the Organization has done this in  myriad ways.

The drive for disarmament which was more a wishful thinking for the League, has been a high priority issue for the UN.[12] The very first resolution of the 1946 General Assembly called for setting up of a UN Arms Control and Disarmament Commission. In spite of great limitations imposed by  Cold War, the UN was able to negotiate treaties of immense importance such as Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) and Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (1996). Other treaties have also been successfully negotiated such as the one on chemical weapons (1992), bacteriological weapons (1972), landmines (2005), and others. Negotiations to eradicate illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, these being weapons of choice in most conflicts today, remain one of the great challenges before the Organization.  Increasing military expenditures of growing economies is another challenge.

The initiatives of the UN in peacemaking and humanitarian assistance have produced some dramatic results. Its role in defusing the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Middle East crisis in 1973, the peace settlement that ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, and East-Timor’s transition to independence, are among its major achievements. War in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the changing debate on peace and security after 9/11 are among the challenges before the UN today.

Peacekeeping has been the most visible of all UN activities. Since the UN first deployed peacekeepers in 1948, they have served in some 60 peacekeeping operations.[13] Working under the Security Council in a climate of Cold War, the 13 peacekeeping operations undertaken before 1988 had to do with monitoring cease-fires. After the thawing of the Cold War, the UN has been able to better respond to needs of peacekeeping with more effective mandates.[14] But the avoidable genocide in Rwanda and other instances in the recent past remain a blot on the international community. Besides, the “UN practice still, too much, works on the premise that international security is predominantly a military affair, with little recognition of the idea of peace as a process which requires an ‘army’ of many and varied civilian professionals deployed over time to heal human beings and entire societies.”[15]

Battle against poverty, the second leg of the UN mandate, has as equal importance as the prevention of war, in building peace. As the Fiftieth Anniversary Volume of the UN comments, “While some of the UN’s failures may be in politics and peacekeeping, its significant achievements are primarily in the field of social and economic development.”[16] As much as 70 per cent of the work of the UN system is committed to accomplish this mandate.[17] Since 1960, the General Assembly has focused on issues of concern through a 10-year period. The Millennium Summit of 2000 adopted a set of Millennium Development Goals with specific targets. The UNDP is actively involved in achieving these goals. The UN is also increasingly pooling efforts to tackle complex problems that require expertise across sectors. The Joint UN Program on AIDS is one such. But Challenges remain. The greatest of them all is the paucity of funds. The target set by the General Assembly in 1970, and reaffirmed unanimously in 1992 by world leaders at the Earth Summit, to provide 0.7 per cent of GNP as Official Development Assistance from industrial countries to developing countries, remains unmet by most countries.  The environmental crisis that has overtaken the world is another challenge before the World Body.

A globalized world provides the best opportunity to achieve the third leg of the UN System: political and cultural understanding among peoples and nations. The UN helped overcome great barriers of the past such as colonization and apartheid. There is today a much more wholesome exchange of peoples and ideas than ever before. But cultural and racial barriers, often unspoken, remain. This is a challenge that nations and peoples all over the world have to deal with sagaciously.  UN has to continue to play the midwifery role in this process.


The United Nations as an organization has surmounted great challenges during the course of its sixty odd years of life. As we have seen in this essay, it has numerous outstanding achievements to its credit in ensuring peace and security, development and human rights. These are achievements that would not have been possible without a credible organization such as the UN. But great challenges remain. Progress towards a world culture of human rights, environment and climate change, and development of all peoples everywhere are but the most important among them. Reforms that reflect the world today is another priority before the World Body. These require unreserved commitment of all nations. Because, in the words of the first UN Secretary General, Trygve Lie, “The UN is no stronger than the collective will of the nations that support it. Of itself it can do nothing. It is a machinery through which the nations can cooperate. It can be used and developed…or it can be discarded and broken.”[18] This is a challenge, and a promise.

[1] See, Paul Kennedy,  The Parliament of Man, (New York: Random House),  p. xiv

[2]  Jonathan Power (ed.),  A Vision of Hope, The Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations, (London: The Regency Corporation Ltd),  1995,  p 7.

[3]  Paul Kennedy,  ibid.,  p.3

[4] Inis L. Claude, Swords into Ploughshares, (London: University of London Press), 3rd edn., 1964, p 28

[5] Clive Archer, International Organizations,  (New York: Routledge) , 2001, p.14.  Clive Archer and Paul Kennedy have  analyzed  the different forces and complex relations that led to the formation of the League of Nations in their works quoted here.

[6]  The atrocities committed on people in countries like India struggling for their freedom (the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre for example) is typical  of the tokenism of the League towards colonized countries.

[7] See Paul Kennedy, ibid, p 10

[8] Ibid., p 10-14

[9] See Clive Archer, ibid., p 21

[10] See, Paul Kennedy, ibid., p 31

[11] See, Clive Archer, ibid., p 22

[12] Jonathan Power (ed.), ibid., p 75-93

[13] See,

[14] See Jonathan Power (ed.), ibid., p 55

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p 100

[17] See,

[18] Quoted in Jonathan Power, ibid., p 68

Varghese Theckanath s.g. is a Master's degree candidate from the UN University for Peace.