United Nations and the Birth of a New Security System

  July 19, 2021   Read time 5 min
United Nations and the Birth of a New Security System
So a new organization had come into existence. A totally new security system had now been established, very much on the lines the great powers had originally planned.

The system that had been set up appeared in many important ways an advance over that established in the League. It should be far easier for the new organisation to call on the use of force to resist aggression, since all members were now clearly pledged to obey a demand for this made by the Security Council with the necessary majority. The universal veto available within the League, which had weakened its effectiveness in a number of crises (above all in dealing with the Japanese attack on Manchuria), was now replaced by a far more limited veto power, restricted to the permanent members alone, which even in their case allowed them to prevent only positive action, not discussion, by the Council: a restriction which seemed likely to be essential if the organisation was not to be torn apart by conflicts between the great powers themselves.

More varied and more flexible procedures for the discussion of disputes and threats to the peace had been established, less formal and strictly juridical in character than those provided for in the League, and more suitable for the discussion of conflicts that were political rather than legal in nature. The organisation was given powers in a wider range of affairs than the League: it was made capable of at least discussing economic affairs and human rights questions, both of which were believed by some to lie at the root of many important disputes between states. Finally, all the great powers were this time members from the beginning and were pledged to work together in maintaining the peace of the world; this 'great power unity' too, to which all at least paid lip-service, should make it easier for the organisation to fulfil its tasks effectively.

All of these represented significant advantages which the new system held over its predecessor. They were, however, counterbalanced by a number of defects in the system, none of them adequately perceived at the time, which were in practice to prevent the new organisation from working in the way the blueprint laid down in the Charter suggested.

First, that blueprint presupposed that all disputes which arose among states could be neatly subdivided into the minority in which the great powers were 'parties', which the organisation would not be equipped to deal with (or, at least, could not employ enforcement powers to meet), and the great majority effecting the mass of smaller states, over which the organisation could act effectively - led, it was hoped, by the five permanent members, which, having no direct interest in the affair, could agree on the solution required. But no means was laid down for determining whether or not a great power was a 'party' to a dispute in a particular case. In any case, the distinction proposed altogether underestimated the contraction of the world that had taken place over the previous decade or two and the extent to which, therefore, the great powers would normally be parties to all disputes occurring.

The League had been called on to deal with number of 'disputes' between lesser powers - Greece and Bulgaria, Lithuania and Poland, Colombia and Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay - in which the major powers had little interest or influence; and so had been able to act without arousing the concern of those powers for their strategic or political interests. But after the Second World War this was no longer possible. Every dispute that arose, in whatever part of the world, was of direct concern to the great powers and would be judged by them in the light of their own political interests and ideological views. To that extent they were always parties to each dispute. This made a nonsense of the idea suggested in the Charter that the Big Five, while unable to act in disputes among themselves, could easily get together to keep the peace in the wide open spaces beyond their own back doors. From now on the entire world adjoined their own back doors and every issue which arose was of direct concern to them.

Secondly, and for this reason, the idea that the veto power could be carefully restricted, as the Charter proposed, so that great powers would employ it only when their own interests were directly involved, proved equally fallacious. In the new and much smaller world which emerged, the great powers believed that there were no issues which did not affect their interests in some degree; and they thus felt constrained to exercise their veto powers over issues arising far from their own borders which others might well have considered of only marginal interest to them (the fact that it was the Soviet Union which was mainly to use her veto for this purpose was not the effect of a special malevolence or original sin: it was only the Soviet Union which required to use its veto for this purpose, since the other governments were in a majority anyway).

And they proceeded therefore systematically to restrict the category of issues named as 'disputes', where their veto power might be limited. Even in the first two months of the organisation's life, over Azerbaijan and the Levant, the great powers concerned, the Soviet Union, Britain and France, all denied that the cases in question represented 'disputes' to which they were parties. And increasingly, from this point on, the organisation ceased even to attempt to determine whether a particular issue represented a 'dispute', or therefore to apply the provisions of Article 27(3) limiting the veto for parties to a dispute. So the veto became freely available in every case.