11 NOVEMBER 1995, Page 43


Nation shall speak unto nation

John Grigg

THE ULTIMATE CRIME by Linda Melvern Allison & Busby, £20, pp. 442

inda Melvern's contribution to the United Nations' 50th anniversary literature is subtitled 'who betrayed the UN and why' (no question mark). She has no doubt that the guilty parties are the world's great powers, more especially those that are permanent members of the Security Council. In her view, they have used the UN as a cover for their own 'schemes and interests'.

Her book begins with a lurid account of events in Rwanda last year, and ends with a chapter on Somalia and Bosnia. These episodes certainly show that thoughts of a New World Order when the Cold War ended were as premature and illusory as those inspired by the birth of the UN in 1945. They also show that there has been much hypocrisy, as well as genuine self-deception, in the attitude of the great powers, and more especially the United States, to the world institutions that have been created in the present century.

The UN, like the League of Nations before it, was the pet scheme of an American president. Franklin D. Roosevelt followed Woodrow Wilson in being a one- world idealist who also exerted American national power to the full, and would have given priority to American interests even if the US Constitution had permitted him to do otherwise (which, of course, it did not). One-world idealism could not, in practice, go beyond the enlightened self-interest of his own country. Moreover, in the nature of things, under him and his successors the pursuit of American interests has not always been enlightened, and even when enlightened has often conflicted with the interests of other member-states, great and small.

A disastrous mistake was made at the outset in placing the UN in New York. Roosevelt would have preferred Hawaii American territory, but removed from the American heartland — and Churchill (it is interesting to learn) thought the right place would be Morocco. Probably he was influ- enced by memories of the Casablanca con- ference, and painting at Marrakesh, but there was indeed much to be said for Morocco — a country in what would come to be known as the Third World, but close to Europe and looking to the Atlantic. To place the UN in the most famous Ameri- can city was symbolically wrong, suggesting that the new world organisation was owned by the United States; while New York's high cost of living ensured that the UN Secretariat's and UN missions' expenses would be unnecessarily high. Another disadvantage was that, as the Cold War developed and McCarthyite fever gripped the United States, American politicians were soon regarding the UN as a facility for espionage in their country; and it was an additional misfortune that Alger Hiss had been the official most concerned in launching the institution. Thus began the process of alienation that has made many Americans almost paranoid about the UN, and caused the United States to become a huge defaulter in contributions to the UN budget.

Since the League of Nations was thought to have failed not only because of the absence of the United States, which aban- doned its creature at birth, but also because there was no machinery enabling the great powers to take joint action, the Security Council was brought into being in 1945, with the USA, USSR, (Nationalist) China, France and Britain as permanent members. As an ultimate safeguard for their vital interests, they were given the right of veto. In 1971 China's seat was taken by the People's Republic — another blow to American opinion. The Security Council was gridlocked by the Cold War, and even now can work only when the national interests of its members happen to coincide. The UN's successes, such as Namibia, have occurred when it has acted as camouflage for bargaining between rival powers.

The system of permanent Security Coun- cil membership, with the veto, is likely to be retained for the indefinite future, but clearly there should be at least three new permanent members, Germany, India and Japan. A case could also be made, if only for the sake of regional balance, for South Africa and/or Nigeria, Indonesia and Brazil. There would, however, be strong objections to all these countries, and to other possible candidates. Reform of the Security Council will be extremely hard to bring about.

At all levels the UN is based upon the principle of nationality. Membership is by nation-states (now more than 150 in number), and the people of the world are represented only through their rulers, most of whom are not democratically elected, and many of whom are tyrants. Idealism about the UN must be tempered by recog- nition of this essential fact.

One can sympathise with Linda Melvern's frustration and sense of betrayal, but she and others like her expected too much of the UN. The fault lies not in the institution, but in the world that it reflects. Despite all its failures and scandals, the UN has done some good work and justified its existence. In presenting Javier Perez de Cuellar as its most effective secretary- general the author shows that she unwillingly accepts its limitations; for Perez de Cuellar brought to the job the old- fashioned arts of diplomacy which, in theory, she finds so deplorable. (Her description of his elaborate campaign to secure the post, and his subsequent denial that he had sought it at all, is an amusing feature of the book).

The Charter of the UN is printed as an appendix, but it would have been more helpful to be given statistics, from 1945 to the present day, of the numbers employed by the UN, the ethnic and regional compo- sition of its bureaucracy, and the costs of the organisation, showing the breakdown as between its various agencies. Figures are thrown in here and there, and cost-cutting exercises mentioned, but the reader lacks the detailed evidence on which to form a clear view.

The author was once a member of the Sunday Times Insight team, and her style of writing has the merits and defects associat- ed with that school of journalism. Factual exposition and analysis are apt to be sacri- ficed to colour and effect. Nevertheless or perhaps for that very reason — the book is thoroughly readable.