The war-time origins of the UN

The concept of the United Nations developed by stages after the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Already, however, in the previous August, a meeting had taken place between President Franklin Roosevelt and the British prime minister Winston Churchill on board a warship off the Canadian coast. Here the idea of a collective security system for the future post-war world was resurrected. The ‘Atlantic Charter’ which came out of this insisted that ‘all nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force’. To this end it spoke of ‘the establishment of a . . . permanent system of general security’ [Doc. 3, p. 118]. By the beginning of 1942 the twenty-six anti-Axis powers had committed themselves to this declaration and themselves had begun to describe their military alliance as the ‘United Nations’. During the remaining years of the war, ideas for the new peacetime organization developed. They did so, of course, under difficult circumstances. The overriding priority for the allied states was the pursuit of victory. This was the obvious prerequisite for the implementation of any post-war blueprint. Too much speculation on the nature of the new international system would have been a misuse of political energies. Additionally, Roosevelt, who like his First World War predecessor Woodrow Wilson a quarter of a century earlier was at the forefront of thinking about the new institution, was anxious to avoid a repeat of the isolationist backlash at home which had kept America out of the League by focusing too much on its proposed successor. Nevertheless, ideas began to emerge. Roosevelt’s initial thoughts centered on the management of security by the big allied powers after the end of the war: the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and, perhaps, China (Boyd, 1971). This would be made possible by the generalized disarmament of the other states in the international system which would entrust their national security to the collective. Churchill had a more skeptical European perspective on the feasibility of this plan. He was less confident that the necessary cooperation could be achieved and maintained among the big powers. From a more traditionalist perspective he was convinced that states would continue to define their national interests in the same narrow way that had undermined the League’s attempts to implement the earlier plan for collective security. Certainly, the participation of the United States in the new arrangements would be a positive advance, but it would be unlikely to alter the basic approach to national foreign and defense policies ingrained in the attitudes of national leaders across the world. More positively, Churchill was also anxious to avoid the marginalization of the smaller and middle-sized powers which was implicit in Roosevelt’s proposals. The prime minister’s evolving view was that a strong European dimension should be central to post-war Britain’s external relations. As the two world wars had both begun in the center of Europe, it was not perhaps blindly Eurocentric to seek global solutions in a new system of relationships there. He therefore favored a new organization with a predominantly regional rather than global structure. The new body should, ideally, be one in which loose worldwide arrangements acted as an umbrella for strong local inter-governmental institutions (Luard, 1982).

At the Tehran Conference in November 1943, when the tide of the war was clearly turning in the allies’ favor, the Soviet Union was brought fully into the debate. Joseph Stalin was now presented with the American idea of the ‘four policemen’ (the major allied powers) acting as a global coalition able to deploy military enforcement powers at the head of a world assembly. The Soviet leader, like Churchill, was wary of the concentration of power in so few hands and initially shared the British preference for a strong regional dimension to any new security regime. However, Roosevelt warned Stalin that American public opinion, still touched by isolationist attitudes, might resist US involvement in security commitments determined by local states in other parts of the world. If post-war security was to be regionalized, there was no obvious reason why the United States should concern itself with anything other than the western hemisphere. While such a system might enhance Soviet power in eastern Europe, it would tend to limit it at the global level. In view of this, Stalin moved towards the more centralized conception of the Americans (Luard, 1982).

As in the case of the League, it was the Americans who provided the leadership in the construction of the new organization and who pursued their conception in the face of the doubts of the other key actors. On both occasions this situation was no more than a reflection of the balance of power among the respective sets of allies. There was, of course, an irony in this: while the collective security project was designed to remove dangerous national power competition from international relations, it was reliant on the dominating national power of its architect.

It was therefore largely an American plan that was put forward for discussion when allied representatives met to deal with the specifics of the proposed post-war organization in 1944. Meetings took place in between August and October at Dumbarton Oaks, an estate on the edge of Washington, DC. The key negotiators here were the Soviet and British ambassadors to the United States, Andrei Gromyko and Sir Alexander Cadogan, and the American assistant secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, who acted as chairman. Representatives of Nationalist China were also present, though they had a lesser role in the planning process. The objective of the Dumbarton Oaks talks was to reach a consensus among the four powers and then to present the wider anti-Axis alliance with an agreed blueprint for a new global organization.

Agreement was quickly reached on the basic institutional form of the United Nations, largely because the outline model of the League was available to be exploited. There would be a Security Council of eleven members.

(This would be increased to fifteen in the early 1960s to reflect the changing size and membership profile of the organization.) The Council was to consist of the five big anti-Axis powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China and France (now admitted as a ‘fifth policeman’). These would be permanent members, each with the power of veto over Council decisions. In addition, six (later ten) non-permanent members without power of veto would be appointed on a rolling basis from the various regions of the world represented in the organization. All member states of the United Nations would have a seat in its General Assembly. Both the Council and the Assembly would be serviced by a secretariat of international civil servants.

A nascent system of collective security was also approved at Dumbarton Oaks. In outline this envisaged that disputes between members would in the first instance be settled by processes of negotiation, mediation and conciliation. If these failed, the problem would become the responsibility of the Security Council which would propose its own settlement terms. If this also failed, then the Council could apply economic and other sanctions against the ‘aggressor’ with, in the last resort, recourse to military action. All members of the United Nations would be required to commit themselves legally to undertake such action on the instructions of the Security Council. The Council would itself be advised on the strategic and operational aspects of these measures by a Military Staff Committee (MSC) made up of senior military representatives of its permanent members (Russell, 1958; Yoder, 1997).

Despite these quite wide areas of agreement among the powers, significant points remained at issue after Dumbarton Oaks. Some of these were essentially technical. There was dispute over the extent of the commitments to be required of UN members and the nature of preparedness and earmarking of national forces for UN service. More ominously, a profoundly important issue remained unresolved: the voting system in both General Assembly and Security Council which, by extension, touched on the question of national representation.

In the case of the General Assembly the Soviet Union sought representation for all sixteen of the constituent republics of the USSR. This would obviously have been a misuse of the concept of ‘sovereign equality’ on which the UN was to be based – the principle that all independent states in the international system should have equal rights and powers. The Soviet Union itself and not its component parts was obviously the sovereign power. But the Soviet position was in some ways understandable. Although the world had yet to fall into the extremes of cold war bipolarity between capitalist west and communist east, the rudiments of this global cleavage had been present virtually since the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. It did not take any great prescience on the part of Stalin and his representatives at Dumbarton Oaks to see east–west divisions as a major feature of the post-war international system – and therefore of the new global organization. The Soviet Union was at this time at an obvious disadvantage in terms of simple political arithmetic. The Dumbarton Oaks talks were held before the creation of the so-called ‘people’s democracies’ of eastern Europe and therefore of a communist bloc. The process of European decolonization which would change completely the composition of the United Nations was even further in the future. From the perspective of 1944–45 the USSR would obviously be ideologically isolated in the new organization.

The idea of sovereign equality had a certain moral force in an international system where states were personified as strong and weak individuals. In a world based on collectively secured ‘justice’, the rights of the weak should obviously be as great as those of the strong. But the international system was in reality composed of sovereign states with hugely divergent sizes of population and territory. In this real world, sovereign equality could be seen as fundamentally inequitable and ‘undemocratic’. Why should El Salvador (another founding member of the UN), say, have the same powers in the global polity as the incomparably larger and more populous Soviet Union?

Beyond the General Assembly there were divisions between the Soviet Union and the other big powers over the Security Council veto and the prerogatives of the five permanent members. There was no disagreement on the basic principle. The delegates at Dumbarton Oaks all agreed that the veto was a necessary mechanism. It was in fact an advance on the voting system operated at the League where unanimity was required before any action could be taken. The proposed UN veto was for the permanent members of the Security Council alone and would only be activated by a negative vote, not merely by abstention or absence. The difficulty which emerged at the talks was over restrictions on its use. The British and Americans argued that the veto should not be available to a permanent member when its own behavior was the subject of discussion. Aware of its political vulnerability in an overwhelmingly western institution, the Soviet Union insisted that the veto should be an absolute right of the great powers in all Security Council business other than the purely procedural.

Agreement on both these issues eluded the ambassadors at Dumbarton Oaks. Subsequent attempts to settle them in the remaining months of 1944 were also unsuccessful. The search for an agreement now passed up to the allied foreign ministers and heads of government rather than their ambassadors in Washington. In February 1945 a summit meeting took place at Yalta on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Soviet foreign minister Molotov gave some ground by accepting a restriction on the veto where ‘peaceful settlement’ rather than collective security ‘enforcement’ in issues affecting permanent members were under discussion. With rather more difficulty, a compromise was also reached on the issue of General Assembly representation. It was accepted that the Soviet Union could have two further seats for the republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia. Roosevelt agreed to this only reluctantly, having at one point threatened to demand separate representation for all of the (then) forty-eight states of the United States if Stalin did not give way (Yoder, 1997). These relatively small western concessions, though, were seen as a reasonable price for progress towards the inauguration of the new organization.

This advance on the plans for the new organization was reflected in the final communiqué of the Yalta meeting. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill pronounced that:

We are resolved upon the earliest possible establishment with our allies of a general international organization to maintain peace and security. We believe that this is essential, both to prevent aggression and to remove the political, economic, and social causes of war through the close and continuing collaboration of all peace-loving peoples.

The foundations were laid at Dumbarton Oaks. On the important question of voting procedure, however, agreement was not there reached. The present Conference has been able to resolve this difficulty. We have agreed that a conference of United Nations should be called to meet at San Francisco in the United States on April 25, 1945, to prepare the charter of such an organization, along the lines proposed in the informal conversations at Dumbarton Oaks. (Yalta Agreement)

In preparation for the San Francisco meeting the presumed permanent members of the new Security Council sent out invitations to fifty states who were then anti-Axis belligerents. This was a status acquired only very recently by some of these countries as the outcome of the war had become plain and the prizes that went with being on the winning side beckoned. This swelled the ranks of founding members, bolstering the ideal of universality of membership. The absence of such universality, it will be recalled, had been a major defect of the League system.

Franklin Roosevelt died ten days before the opening of the San Francisco session but his successor, Harry Truman, immediately affirmed his own and America’s commitment to the new organization. This was greeted with relief among many who had feared a repeat of the isolationist spasm which ended American participation at a similar stage in the development of the League. In reality, however, the prevailing trend in American politics in 1944 and 1945 was if anything anti-isolationist. Roosevelt’s Democratic administration had already worked to ensure a bipartisan approach with the Republicans in Congress. Edward Stettinius, who had led the Dumbarton Oaks talks, had been elevated to the post of secretary of state. He now cooperated closely with the Republicans’ principal foreign affairs adviser (and future secretary of state), John Foster Dulles, who accepted an invitation to participate in the San Francisco conference (Divine, 1974).

Driven on by the ‘big five’, whose authority was enhanced by their leadership of the huge military alliance poised on the verge of final victory in mid-1945, the San Francisco conference (held in the city’s Opera House) confirmed the decisions taken at Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta. The structure of the institution, familiar in outline to most of the participants from their League experience, was accepted without dissent. Similarly, the basic constitution of the United Nations, its Charter, was adopted with only marginal and technical modifications. Having been ratified by the five governments of the permanent members, the Charter came into force and the United Nations became a political and legal reality on 24 October 1945.

Atlantic Charter: Anglo- American declaration of August 1941 setting out joint aspirations for the post-war international system including the creation of a new collective security system.

Tehran Conference: Meeting of allied leaders in November 1943 in the capital of Iran, at which early ideas for the creation of a post-war global organization were discussed.

Enforcement measures: Military action designed to secure a predetermined outcome against an aggressor; contrasts with peacekeeping which seeks to manage conflicts rather than force a particular conclusion to them.

Dumbarton Oaks: Washington venue for the planning of the new United Nations by representatives of the major allied powers between August and October 1944.

Veto: The power held by each of the five permanent members in the Security Council individually to prevent action being taken on any non procedural matter with which it might disagree regardless of the position of the majority.

MSC: Military Staff Committee, composed of the chiefs of staff of the five permanent members of the Security Council responsible under article 47 of the UN Charter for control of military enforcement actions; never properly operational.

Bipolarity: The configuration of the international system in two dominant, ideologically opposed blocs (or poles); characteristic of the cold war period.

Yalta Conference: Meeting of allied leaders at the Russian Black Sea resort in February 1945 where, among other postwar plans, the proposals which emerged from the Dumbarton Oaks discussions for the new United Nations were discussed at head of government level.

Universality: The principle of open and comprehensive membership of international organizations (a general characteristic of the United Nations).

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