This month marks the seventieth anniversary of the “United Nations.” Not as a formal organization—that would occur in San Francisco in 1945—but as a wartime alliance. After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was anxious to define a common set of war aims and a joint vision of postwar order that could unify allied nations. The fruit of that effort was a “Joint Declaration of the United Nations.” Released on January 1, 1942, that document bound twenty-six allied nations to the principles of the Atlantic Charter that the United States and Great Britain had issued the previous summer. These principles envisioned an open postwar world, based on self-determination, freedom of the seas, multilateral trade, and collective security. During the war, another twenty-one nations endorsed the declaration, each pledging to “employ its full resources, military or economic” against the Axis powers.
The “Joint Declaration” committed its signatories to promote human liberty and embrace multilateral cooperation. At the time, the U.S. Office of War Information released a poster to inspire confidence in the new alliance. Emblazoned with the word “UNITED,” it displays a riot of allied flags breaking through the fire and fog of war, above allied ships and tanks speeding to victory. The subtitle proclaims: “The United Nations Fight for Freedom.” A copy hangs on my wall.
It’s an inspiring symbol of unity. But the number of flags highlights just how heterogeneous these “united” nations were—and how difficult it would be for the alliance to endure. Alongside the Stars and Stripes, there flies the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, the Union Jack of Imperial Britain, the colors of Britain’s overseas dominions (including anti-imperialist India), the standard of Nationalist China, and the flags of Latin American countries from Brazil to Nicaragua. How could the United States hope to forge a functioning structure of postwar peace, where the League of Nations had failed?
FDR’s approach was to create a two-tiered United Nations Organization. A universal forum based on the principle of sovereign equality would provide “a meeting place of all nations,” in the form of a General Assembly. But Roosevelt insisted that real authority to guarantee international security be vested in the “Four Policemen”—the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and China. (By late 1944, France had been added as a fifth permanent member of the proposed Security Council). Each policeman would be endowed with a veto over proposed enforcement action—an essential requirement for great power support. Indeed, as Secretary of State Cordell Hull told a group of congressmen in May 1944, “Our government would not remain there for a day without retaining its veto power.”
FDR’s vision was a sober synthesis of Wilsonian universalism and power politics. But it came with a caveat. The Security Council could function only if its permanent members agreed on the desirable shape of world order and proved willing to defend it. Left unanswered was who would police the policemen, if one or more declined to discharge its responsibilities or abused its position. More fundamentally, FDR’s plan presumed a basic normative consensus among the great powers that would falter after the war, when the alliance’s common enemies had been vanquished.
Soon after the Axis fell, Soviet and Western values collided. As Moscow sought to impose its own system on states on its periphery, the fundamental incompatibility between U.S. and Soviet world order visions became apparent. The outbreak of the Cold War prevented the Security Council from functioning as a great power concert, leaving it paralyzed and often irrelevant for much of the next four decades.
The sudden end of the bipolar confrontation and collapse of the Soviet Union launched a historic era in Security Council activism, making the past two decades the most productive in the Council’s history. Of the 2034 UNSC resolutions since 1945, a full 1351 of them have been passed since 1991, and use of the veto has declined precipitously. Yet the veto remains always in the background—as Russia has reminded the world in threatening to block an Arab League-sponsored resolution calling for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down in favor of a transitional government.
This historical perspective should temper our expectations for the Security Council and tame some of our frustrations with its current, mixed performance. The Council remains a powerful instrument, capable of delivering, as in the case of North Korea and Iran, crippling sanctions. But the Council’s work has become increasingly controversial, as it is asked not only to address matters of interstate conflict but also to redress massive human rights violations within states. With the veto built into the structure of the UN Charter, we cannot expect the Council to function smoothly at times of great power friction, especially when one of the P5—Russia in this case—declares a vested national interest in an issue under debate. If in the case of Syria Washington ultimately deems decisive action imperative, it may need to act outside the United Nations, as it did in Kosovo and Iraq. But it must weigh the costs prudently, since foregoing UNSC authorization will undermine the Council’s credibility and alienate influential nations, including emerging powers it seeks to cultivate as partners, like India and Brazil.