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 office, Dean Acheson was a far more solemn analyst, and his words from 1951 compel sober attention. If the United Nations became a success, he said in a speech to magazine and book publishers, it would be because of "the strength of the United States, its economic strength, its military strength." As with NATO, "there is no substitute for the strength of the United States at the heart." Though earlier he had looked for more initiative from Britain or France, his comfort with the fact of America's power and growing faith in its leadership expanded into an unabashed belief in its necessity, as the Cold War exposed the comparative weakness of Washington's partners.

Ultimately, he thought, "the United States was the locomotive at the head of mankind, and the rest of the world was the caboose." Though he was not a unilateralist and spent hundreds of hours nurturing the Western alliance and massaging Washington's partners, a "world" body--a so-called "universal" organization--was quite another matter, intrinsically inhospitable to great power leadership. The U.N.'s champions lauded it as a forum for weak nations and powerless peoples, serving as a safety valve for venting accumulated injustices. Acheson would have observed that letting off steam might scald those nearby and was not a form of diplomacy in any case.

Even U.N. admirers who were uneasy with how the Security Council enshrined the great powers praised the General Assembly for its echo of the principle of one-man, one-vote. Acheson sneered at the illusion of national equality in international affairs. If its defenders thought the U.N. opened the way for a more virtuous diplomacy than traditionally practiced behind foreign ministries' closed doors, he might have laughed and pointed to the General Assembly itself, with its rife and cynical trading of votes from one regional bloc to another.

Finally, its advocates might insist that whatever its shortcomings, the U.N.'s special agencies on hunger, women, children, drug addiction, and other worthy issues do neglected and invaluable work. A disbelieving Acheson would have poured cold water on this tribute, just as he did in 1949 when Canada's Lester Pearson insisted on inserting Article 2 into the North Atlantic Treaty, emphasizing the alliance's social, economic, and cultural objectives. Acheson parodied Article 2 as embodying "every worthy aspiration that ever occurred to any human being."

Today, the Bush administration at times seems to consider the U.N. almost a foreign body somehow loosed in the bloodstream of world politics. When it was established nearly sixty years ago, President Truman proudly claimed it as an American creation. Bush occasionally sounds like Truman, but his judgment is probably closer to that of Truman's great secretary of state, who worked with the U.N. because he had to, but was not its friend.

Robert L. Beisner, editor of "American Foreign Relations since 1600: A Guide to the Literature" (forthcoming), is writing a book about Dean Acheson.