Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 407-409
National Council for the Social Studies
The United States and the UN- A Historical Perspective
While many people in the United States greeted the UN with high expectations fed by idealism and a major public relations campaign by the Truman Administration, the euphoria was hardly universal. The Senate engaged in a lively debate about the merits of the new organization, and a number of seasoned State Department officials had serious doubts. While the war had given isolationism a bad name domestically, the habit of international cooperation still lacked deep roots in the political soil of the United States. The increase in East-West tensions within months of the signing of the Charter made the new organization's limitations and shortcomings painfully apparent, as the great power consensus required for Security Council action became unattainable in crisis after crisis as the Soviet-American split widened. The onset of McCarthyism, moreover, led to growing suspicions of the UN and the people who staffed it. Paradoxically, when a Soviet boycott of the Council permitted the UN to resist aggression in Korea, the world organization became associated with an unpopular war. Given these factors, it is understandable that the UN received some of its lowest approval numbers in U.S. polls of the late 1940s and early 1950s (Foster 1981), despite U.S. hegemony and Soviet isolation in the General Assembly. Clearly, these were not the "salad days" in U.S.-UN relations that many have assumed they were.
From 1948 until the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy was oriented around one all-encompassing principle: the containment of the Soviet Union and global communism. Multilateralism-based on common interests and cooperative efforts -was rarely an option for Moscow and Washington policymakers who believed that they were locked in a zero-sum competition with their adversary, where their losses were inevitably the other's gain. Under these conditions, the Security Council was frustrated by repeated vetoes-mostly Soviet-and the General Assembly became an ideological and strategic battleground. While the United States won its share of "victories" on UN votes, the organization was unable to play the central role in political and security affairs that the founders had envisioned.
Blocked in the security arena, the UN's efforts flowed into other areas where political conditions were more propitious. When the Council could not agree on taking coercive military enforcement measures, the concept of non-offensive peacekeeping with the consent of the parties to a conflict was developed. An impressive array of functional, humanitarian, and development agencies was established, and the international financial institutions flourished, turning the UN into a global family of organizations with specialized tasks. With the support of the United States, the UN undertook major efforts to promote social, environmental, and economic development on a global scale. The United States also backed UN efforts to facilitate the decolonization process in Africa and Asia, bringing dozens of newly independent nations to life and swelling the ranks of UN member states. With the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, a series of landmark human rights covenants and norms were codified into international law.
While these undertakings by the UN were not always appreciated by a public in the United States focused on East-West security issues, they reflected the fundamental values and principles of this country. Over the long term, they also advanced important U.S. foreign policy goals and interests. In subtle ways, these activities--to an extent unforeseen by the UN's founders--helped to lay the foundation for a gradual transformation of the international system and of the politics of the UN itself.
With the influx of scores of newly independent member states, the UN began to assume a new look in the 1960s. These developing countries of the southern hemisphere had their own problems and agendas distinct from the East-West politics of the Cold War struggle. They saw the UN as a forum to voice their economic needs and security concerns, and to legitimize their struggle for independence. With their numbers, they sought, often successfully, to dominate the one-nation, one-vote deliberative bodies such as the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Gone were the automatic majorities enjoyed by the United States during the UN's first decade.
For almost two generations, the East-West and then North- South struggles played out in the UN sapped public enthusiasm for the world organization. The UN seemed anything but united. The vision of U.S. founders had to compete with other agendas and other interests in an increasingly complex world forum. U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan summed up the feeling when he dubbed the UN "a dangerous place." This is not to say, however, that people in the United States completely abandoned their internationalist sentiments. Public opinion polls showed a solid minority of 30 to 40 percent of Americans keeping faith in the UN in the worst of times and voicing sympathy for the struggles of the poorer countries (Foster 1981). Calls for giving up the U.S. seat in the UN, moreover, never were supported by more than 15 percent of the public (Gallup Poll 1985), as the prevailing attitude seemed to be "fix it, don't leave it."
The UN Reborn in the Eyes of the United States
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the playing field upon which the UN operates has changed dramatically. The Security Council is no longer paralyzed into inaction, and U.S. foreign policy is no longer oriented around one single unifying theme. The public finds it increasingly difficult to rally around a foreign policy defined by relative and variable interests rather than absolutes, and some politicians seem to be calling for a reemphasis on domestic issues and a disengagement from the world at large. However, public opinion polls indicate that, to the contrary, people in the United States remain as internationalist as ever, recognizing the linkages between domestic and foreign policy in an increasingly interdependent world. A recent survey by the University of Maryland (1994) indicated that 84 percent of the public support the idea of UN peacekeeping operations, while in a New York Times poll 89 percent said that the UN had made a real contribution to world peace over the past fifty years (Greenhouse).
Complete non-involvement in regional crises is simply not a realistic policy option for the United States. The political, economic, and military reach of this country is now so great that its citizens, firms, diplomats, soldiers, and investments are a presence throughout the world. Its veto in the Security Council and the weighted voting formulas in international financial institutions give the United States enormous influence over how and when the UN will respond to a crisis situation. Isolationism is a historic relic, not a policy option for the United States, although the nature of U.S. interests and the terms of U.S. engagement with the world are still the subject of considerable debate.
The U.S. Influence at the UN
The United States cannot, and should not, bear alone the burden of being the world's policeman. The UN provides a means of getting other countries to share the expenses, with the United States paying 25 percent of the regular budget and 30 percent of peacekeeping costs. Although the United States continues to play a leadership role at the UN, it has also accumulated massive arrears in its payments to the UN, owing the world organization approximately $1 billion, far more than any other member state. Despite those critics who charge that the UN is attempting to dictate U.S. foreign policy, acting within the UN system can often be a highly cost-effective way of advancing U.S. interests abroad. This country can use its influence and veto in the Security Council to guide the UN in building international coalitions and in choosing how and when to intervene without having to be solely responsible for carrying out the Council's mandates. Acting multilaterally and acting unilaterally, of course, are by no means mutually exclusive. The United States can choose to act alone when that is the only way to protect its national interests.
Reflecting on the Accomplishments of the UN
For all of the controversy it has generated, the UN has in many ways been an extraordinary success in its first fifty years. A third world war has been averted, while the majority of UN member states have not experienced war over the past five decades, and almost all of them have experienced rising standards of living. In Cambodia, El Salvador, Namibia, Nicaragua, Eritrea, Mozambique, and South Africa, the UN has helped give common people a voice in their own affairs-in some cases, for the first time in their nation's history. By helping write democratic constitutions, developing educational programs and literacy, resettling refugees, promoting fair labor standards, controlling population growth, providing emergency food relief, bringing health care to mothers and children, helping to protect the global environment, negotiating peace settlements, and monitoring human rights conditions worldwide, the UN and regional organizations are giving pluralism and democracy a chance in places that have previously known only repression and tyranny. The UN has its problems, but they are not unsurmountable. During the next fifty years, the commitment and leadership of the world's most powerful nation will be essential in helping to solve these problems and in working with the UN to fulfill the role envisioned by its founders.
Foster, H. Schuyler. Activism Replaces Isolation: U.S. Attitudes 1940-1975. New York: 1981.
Gallup Poll. November 1985.
Greenhouse, Steven. "Poll Shows 4 Nations Differ On the Main Threat to Peace." The New York Times, 3 April, 1994.
Program on International Policy Attitudes. "U.S. Public Attitudes on U.N. Peacekeeping. Part One: Funding." University of Maryland, February, 1994.
Edward C. Luck is former President of the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA), the nation's leading center for public education and policy research on the United Nations. Nick Birnback is UNA-USA's Public Affairs Coordinator.