The Magazine

Wrong from the Beginning

From the March 17, 2003 issue: America might have created the U.N., said Dean Acheson, but "I personally am free of the slightest suspicion of paternity."

Mar 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 26 • By ROBERT L. BEISNER
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IN AN ADMINISTRATION full of "unilateralists," many observers expected Secretary of State Colin Powell to be the most reliable friend of the United Nations--and perhaps he was, until French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin sandbagged him on Iraq at a meeting Powell thought had been called to discuss terrorism. Since then, Powell has almost daily told the U.N. and its admirers they should quickly get serious if they want the organization to avoid the fate of the League of Nations, ruined by its failure to face up to Italian, German, and Japanese aggression.

Regardless of how the Iraqi situation finally plays out, Powell should steel himself against feeling guilty for entertaining negative thoughts about the U.N., for he is in excellent company. Dean Acheson, who became secretary of state four years after the U.N.'s founding in 1945 and who was arguably the 20th century's greatest secretary of state, was contemptuous of the organization and hardly cared who knew it.

His contempt did not come from the U.N.'s failure to live up to expectations, for he never had any for it. From the first, he said it was an intellectual error to think of the organization as an independent entity, a freestanding body. As he told a National War College audience in 1951, the U.N. was "not something apart from its members. Its strength has no sources independent of the strength supplied by those who belong to it and are willing to back it up." Acheson would use the U.N. when there were political rewards for doing so--as when General Douglas MacArthur was the U.N. commander in the Korean War. But whenever he considered its potential intrusion a nuisance, as he did in the 1947 Greek crisis leading to the Truman Doctrine, he spared no efforts in pushing it to the sidelines. He snorted at the very idea of a body in which, as in the General Assembly, each member had an equal, non-weighted vote; this only verified the U.N.'s lack of seriousness.

Acheson believed strongly in the role of reason in human affairs and therefore in reasoned debate, but not between states hostile in belief and system. Where debate was vital and valuable was within the United States, among its leaders, and between allies who already agreed on fundamentals. Debates did not settle major international disputes--certainly not debates in an open forum, where those with a negligible stake in the question (like Cameroon and Chile on today's Security Council) could weigh in and orate with as much claim to attention as those with a large stake. The nearest one could approach the solution of international problems was through vigilant statecraft, buttressed and advanced by economic, political, and military power.

Nothing in Acheson's own experience gave the lie to this. The marshalling of such power conquered the Axis in World War II. American economic strength and political leadership quelled the crisis in Greece and charted the path to European recovery through the Marshall Plan. A politico-military alliance, NATO, reinforced that recovery and gave Soviet leaders reason to act prudently. Swift use of American military power averted a ruinous loss of repute in Korea in 1950. The most intractable world problems of Acheson's time arose where the United States and its allies were unable to apply such strength--in China, Indochina, and parts of the Middle East.

As secretary of state, Acheson had his most miserable spell at the U.N. in 1951 and 1952 when a rising Arab-Asian bloc forced lengthy discussions and debates over French rule in Tunisia and Morocco. Acheson was compelled to take public stances on issues neither the bloc nor the U.N. itself had any chance to affect. He fumed for the rest of his life about the artificial power given miniature states and diminutive duchies, whenever they fancied, to compel the United States "to vote on every resolution, however theoretical, however hostile to one of its allies, which any country may regard as useful in a propaganda campaign."

The error, as he saw it, of putting U.N. headquarters in Manhattan cast an especially glaring spotlight on the United States in such cases. It was simply intolerable that irresponsible people like India's Jawaharlal Nehru could "make us discuss and vote on any question at all," even though it accomplished "nothing." He was scornful of those enthusiasts--he knew many--whose hearts fluttered at the thought of universal harmony and the U.N.'s promise to eliminate war and conflict to the end of time. He believed, in the words of historian David S. McLellan, that "people who could not face the truth about human nature were for the U.N.; people who fairly squished with the juice of human kindness but who had a pretty soggy brain were also for the U.N.; people who preferred to preserve their illusions intact favored the U.N."