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."

As President Bush and his aides have learned, however, such people are numerous throughout the world, and since the president's speech of September 12, 2002, Secretary Powell has loyally toiled to convert those of them who sit on the Security Council. Acheson at times had the greater problem of holding his own people in line. Though he had little trouble from U.N. ambassador Warren Austin, whom he noted for his "hyperbolic sincerity" and did not take into his confidence, he had to lecture other members of the delegation, including liberalism's grande dame, Eleanor Roosevelt, about letting their notion of the General Assembly as "the Town Meeting of the World" blind them to Washington's own interests.

On ceremonial occasions, Acheson forced himself to mouth idealistic and hypocritical sentiments about the United Nations. Alert to the organization's uses, he always countered congressional demands for expulsion of the USSR. That, he rejoined, would free the Soviet Union from obligations to the Charter and eliminate "almost the only remaining forum in which the free world can negotiate with the Soviets." None of this, however, diluted his censorious outlook, especially his loathing of the power of petty states to embarrass the United States in front of a world audience.

As a lame duck, he told the Canadian cabinet on a visit to Ottawa in November 1952 that Arabs and Latin Americans in the General Assembly had not only "contributed little or nothing" to collective security; their effort to realize social and economic goals through the U.N. had been "in the precise meaning of the word . . . irresponsible," to wit, they "advocated action, the consequences of which did not fall upon the group but fell upon others." While "they would not be responsible for what they did, . . . others would be." Nor did he ever agree that diplomacy performed before the world's millions was more honorable than behind-the-scenes talks in out-of-the-way places. On television in 1965 he snapped that "debates in the United Nations really amount to very little," were "usually rude," and too often led to exchanges of insults rather than settlements.

One of the U.N.'s largest defects, he told a gathering of old State Department friends in 1954, was its built-in dedication to the status quo and opposition to all wars on the grounds that, while "change might be desirable," it "leads to instabilities." This is a "very dangerous" position, Acheson argued: "If, say, the world had been frozen at any given period in the past, a great deal of the progress which has been made . . . would not be possible. If, for example, we had never been able to revolt against the British, or various other wars had never been fought to a conclusion, a great deal of progress would have been denied the world. And in a sense one of the great problems of the U.N.--I don't know whether it's generally recognized--is to prevent wars from being fought out. It's very dangerous to stop a war from being fought out, because no one is willing to act like a loser. And there's no proof yet that wars which are not fought out can ever really be resolved by peaceful methods."

Usually in going after the U.N., Acheson drew on rapiers of derision and sarcasm, as when he referred to FDR's enthusiasm for "that delusive phrase 'the United Nations'" and to the U.N. as "that legacy of the nineteenth century." Dean Rusk, noting that wartime Britons had dubbed India's parliament "the monkey house," believed Acheson had a kindred view of the U.N. When State Department veteran Ernest Gross told him the job of deputy in the U.S. mission attracted him for its "potentialities," Acheson "practically ordered me to go to a psychiatrist, in friendly fashion. He thought I ought to have my head examined." George Ball became U.N. ambassador in the 1960s, prompting a letter from Acheson saying, "I always thought you were one of the brightest guys in town, but now I'm reserving a room for you at St. Elizabeth's." The U.N., he told friends, was "certainly an American contribution to a troubled world, [but] I personally am free of the slightest suspicion of paternity." In a swipe at one of the wartime State Department advocates for a new world order, Acheson, who in his seventies often went out of his way to shock, in 1967 wrote former Foggy Bottom colleague Charles Burton Marshall that the United States had corrupted "international behavior with [its] damned moralism, beginning with Woodrow Wilson's self-determination and ending with that little rat Leo Pasvolsky's United Nations."

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.

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