The United Nations system provides the basic legal structures and fundamental substantive rules for international law. The world faces many threats: pandemic, climate change, hunger and the risk of war. Recently, the U.N. opened its 78th session. President Joe Biden spoke and interacted with world leaders. Although several great-power leaders were absent, lower-level officials interacted. For example, our Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, met with China’s vice president, Han Zheng. Blinken said: “I think it’s a good thing that we have the opportunity to build on the recent high-level engagements that our countries have had…” (Matthew Lee, Associated Press, Sept. 19, 2023).
Yet, many complain that the U.N. does not solve the world’s problems, such as the Ukraine War. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke and condemned the Russian veto in the Security Council. Also, he said that problems are dealt with by “rhetoric rather than real solutions, with aspirations to compromise with killers, rather than to protect lives.” (Michael Birnbaum and John Hudson, The Washington Post, Sept. 20, 2023). An editorial in the Wall Street Journal stated: “Multilateralism as practiced by the U.N. is increasingly irrelevant as China, Russia, Iran and other rogues assert their power.” (Sept. 20, 2023). I believe these negative views are naïve regarding the function of the U.N.
The U.N. Charter and subsequent enactments have provided the legal structures and substance within which nations politically operate. As President Harry S. Truman stated in a speech on June 26, 1945, to the conference which produced the charter: “The world must now use it!” Biden stated in his speech before the U.N. on Sept. 21: “As a global community, we’re challenged by urgent and looming crises wherein lie enormous opportunities if — if we can summon the will and resolve to seize these opportunities.”
It takes political will to use the U.N. structures and substantive law for the U.N. to work.
At the beginning of World War II, in the fall of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started a secret program to lead to a post-war universal organization to replace the failed League of Nations. Secretary of State Cordell Hull chose Leo Pasvolsky to direct the program to create, in Hull’s words, “a future world order.” (Stephen C. Schlesinger, “Act of Creation,” 2003). Some preferred a regional, as opposed to a universal, approach. Pasvolsky and Hull stuck with the universal organizational concept, with power at the center in a Security Council.
FDR developed the “four policemen” theory: he “adhered unswervingly to one central realpolitik tenant derived from his disillusion with the League’s enforcement operations, that the four major powers — China, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States — should act as policemen and provide the security for any world organization.” (Schlesinger, Ibid.). Each would have the veto, so that the organization would not be used against one of them, creating a major war. They became, with the addition of France, permanent members of the said Security Council, the P-5.
Another word for veto is “consensus.” There must be consensus among the P-5 for the Security Council to act. An abstention is not a veto. Other members of the 15-member Security Council are elected by the General Assembly for 2-year terms. Nine of 15 are required for decision.
It is not the U.N.’s fault if it does not solve a problem, like the Ukraine War. It is an issue of world politics, especially among the great powers. Just as we do not blame our Constitution when our government does not solve a problem, such as urban crime or the border, we cannot blame the U.N. Charter for the failures of the world’s political systems. A charter or constitution provides the structures for political action and some substantive law. Sufficient political consensus is required for results in law and policy, as is the case in domestic political systems.
In the 78 years since its founding in 1945, the members of the U.N. system have avoided a major war. The few wars that occurred have been limited in weapons, area and objectives. With 193 member states, there will be conflicts, some severe, but those conflicts have been, for the most part, managed. I think the U.N. has had something to do with that stability.
James W. Pfister, J.D. University of Toledo, Ph.D. University of Michigan (political science), retired after 46 years in the Political Science Department at Eastern Michigan University. He lives at Devils Lake and can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: James Pfister: United Nations: Basis of International Law