The Location of the Newborn United Nations: Conflicting Views and Paradoxes

  July 19, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Location of the Newborn United Nations: Conflicting Views and Paradoxes
By far the most controversial question discussed at the Assembly's first session was the question of a site for the permanent headquarters of the organisation. This was not to be decided until many months later.

The matter was first discussed in the Preparatory Commission and its executive committee. From the beginning there were strongly conflicting views on the point. Many were influenced by traditional loyalties. Thus most Europeans demanded a site in Europe, either in Geneva, like the League, or in some other suitable spot, away from the territory of a great power: possibly the Hague, Vienna or Prague.

These countries argued that Europe was the centre and source of many of the world's political problems and disputes; it was therefore necessary to site the new organisation near to the troubles with which it would be dealing. They pointed out that a considerable number of existing members of the organisation were either European, or had close traditional ties with Europe. Europe was a natural centre of communications and the cultural centre of much of the world. It was held that the Soviet Union and other communist states would more easily be induced to play an active and positive part in the new organisation if it was based close at hand. For all these rationalisations, the prime, though unspoken, motive was no doubt the desire to keep Europe's century-old position as the political centre of the world.

Against this, many others believed that there was a strong case for a change. The failure of the League made necessary a new start in some other centre, remote not only from Geneva but from the world's traditional trouble-spot in Europe. The new organisation should be a worldwide body, as the League had never been, and should thus no longer be dominated by the old powers of Europe. Above all, to succeed it was essential that the new organisation should secure the wholehearted support of the United States, to prevent her from relapsing into isolationism. The best way to assure this was to set up the organisation within her own borders. As Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general, was to put it later, "It was of paramount importance that the nerve-centre be located as close as possible to the new economic and political centre .... The challenging question of the future was how to secure the fullest possible US participation in whatever international organisations might emerge. A repitition of the tragedy of the League of Nations, stemming not least from the US's refusal to join, could not be permitted."

A US site would be midway between the twenty-odd countries of Latin America and the similar number of European states, between them representing at this time about four-fifths of the membership. These conflicting views were held by people of all states, partly regardless of national interest. Many individual Europeans, like Lie, favoured a US site, while many nonEuropeans favoured a European one. But, among governments, it was mainly the Europeans, led by Britain, France and the Netherlands, which wanted a European headquarters; the non-Europeans which favoured the United States. Paradoxically, the two super-powers adopted opposite positions. The Soviet Union, despite the arguments sometimes put forward on her behalf, almost from the beginning wanted a site in the United States, provided it was on the east coast. The United States, conversely, at no time pushed the claim for a site in North America; indeed, the United States and Canada were the only two countries which abstained on the issuse when a vote was first taken.