Introduction: Fine-Tuning the UN

The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Fine-Tuning the UN


In the warm glow of the peace following World War II, the nations of the world yearned mightily for a global organization that would be a forum for brotherhood, debate, and resolution of all of the problems that plagued the family of man. With the horrible carnage of the war years fresh in all minds, efforts were set in motion to ensure that such a widespread bloodbath would never again occur.

The movement was not a new one. Just after the First World War, with nations steeped in a similar environment of worldwide longing for permanent peace and revulsion for violent conflict, the League of Nations had been hopefully launched. But the League, like a child slowly strangled by cystic fibrosis, gasped for breath throughout all of its years as it was ineluctably smothered by the stubborn selfishness of its members. Set up in January 1920, the apple of President Woodrow Wilson's eye tottered through the twenties and thirties, becoming increasingly irrelevant, until a new world war rendered it altogether supine.

In 1946, the League's few remaining assets were transferred to the newborn United Nations, which had been officially established on October 24, 1945. During its fifty-nine years of existence, the UN, like the League before it, has likewise had to contend with the debilitating self-centeredness of its members, which now number 191. The fortunes of the world body have waxed and waned with the passing of time. Sometimes it was used as a pawn by the world's great powers; at other times it exercised decisive influence on global affairs, as when the UN Security Council in 1950 authorized a multinational, U.S.-led force to counter the bloody invasion of South Korea by the North.

All told, however, the UN has exercised influence in the world far beyond its relatively meager size and budget (its two-year allocation for 2000-2001 was $2.5 billion, with an additional $2 billion for peacekeeping, which pales in comparison with the U.S. defense outlay, which approached $300 billion in 2000). With its Charter heavily inspired by the United States and other Western democracies and woven tightly with the principles of human rights and compassion for the poor and deprived, the world body has acted as a moral mother lode, despite occasional scandals and appearances of political favoritism.

Over the years, it has sought to hew to its original purpose, as set forth in the Charter, of maintaining international peace and security; developing friendly relations among nations; and cooperating in solving international economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

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