Sir Brian Urquhart Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The United Nations After 9/11: Conversation with Sir Brian Urquhart, Former Under Secretary General of the United Nations; February 23, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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The United Nations

Let's talk about the UN itself and where it has gone wrong and things that it's done right. But first I want to ask you, is it fair to say that the world community confuses what the UN can do with what it should do? Isn't that a continuing problem?

Yes, I think so. It's a problem for governments, too; but this is swept under the rug when we're discussing the UN. If you look at the platform of any incoming leader in any democratic country, and you compare what comes out after five years, you will see that the government hasn't usually lived up to the platform, and probably never will. But in the UN that's considered a failure. I say this not defensively; it's just a fact.

Having said that, the UN is based on several false assumptions. The most serious one is that the great powers, the five permanent members of the UN (which are no longer the five most powerful countries in the world, but never mind that for the time being) would get together and keep the peace and, if necessary, enforce it. That's the basis of the Security Council in the UN Charter. Of course, the truth is that very powerful countries don't always agree with each other. In fact, the five permanent members during the Cold War were the main threat to world peace, because with the East-West [division], the Cold War, you had the permanent members completely split, and the Council was pretty well paralyzed. The UN has to live with that, because, unfortunately, the veto in the Security Council was the indispensable thing for both the United States and the Soviet Union. They would have not joined the UN if they had not had a veto in the Security Council.

The Security Council has another problem now, which is that it's a museum piece. It represents the geopolitical balance in the world in 1945. France and the United Kingdom -- I'm British, but I have to say it -- are not by any standard ranking world powers anymore. One has to look at the UN, therefore, as a flawed organization, but one which is still immensely important because it represents legitimacy and international law, without which we'll all eventually go into the ditch. It represents a place where in emergencies you can actually do something, and that something will be accepted even by people outside, even those who would not accept an intervention by the United States or any other a single country.

Also, of course, it has the Secretary-General, who is potentially a very important player, because he's a person who is endlessly engaged -- due to the difference in international time zones, I would say twenty-four hours a day engaged -- in what is called "quiet diplomacy," which is seeing something that is likely to blow up and trying to avert it, and trying to figure a way we can avoid explosions which will probably spread to something else. That is not often appreciated, that the international diplomacy part of the UN is often effective and very inexpensive.

It could be said that the architects and designers didn't anticipate a lot that the UN was going to confront. You've made the point of the Security Council being based on the balance of power at the end of World War II. Decolonization was something that was anticipated to take maybe twenty-five or fifty years, but it happened right away, which then increased the membership in the General Assembly quite a bit.

A lot of things went unforeseen. Nobody who wrote the Charter, with the possible exception of President Truman, knew of the existence of nuclear weapons. I don't know whether Truman even knew; he'd just become president. Nuclear weapons, to put it mildly, changed the way the world runs. It's going to change it even more in the future, because now you have the devastating prospect of proliferating nuclear weapons, sometimes not even in the hands of governments. If that happens, it will be a terrible new problem.

The Charter was written for a very different world. In 1945 I was told by a very pompous so-called mandarin in the British Foreign Office, who -- people like that are usually wrong -- said, "Don't worry about decolonization. It'll take at least a hundred years." Well, thanks a lot; it took twenty years. That trebled the membership of the UN. A whole new group of countries whom nobody had ever heard of in 1945 -- the so-called Third World -- had a majority except in the Security Council, and had new and different concerns. They were concerned with poverty and development. They weren't concerned with peace and security and disarmament, like the original signers of the Charter were.

I don't think that anybody had any idea in 1945 that the world's population was going to increase the way it did. Nobody foresaw the information revolution, which is an enormous change in the way everybody leads their lives and the way governments operate or don't operate, and in what people actually think about things. When the Charter was signed, it took nearly a week to get from Europe to the United States. Words like "environmentalism" and "globalization" had not yet been coined.

These are huge changes, and governments are slow to adapt to these changes. Big corporations and businesses are very quick to adapt to them, because it's a better way to make money, but governments don't think like that.

[The attack of] 9/11 was something inconceivable. It was a monstrous attack on people in this country, and it completely shook everybody in Washington up. As a result, they are very concerned about a number of things. They're concerned about the speed with which a horrendously destructive act can take place; they are rightly concerned with the new terrorism; and they believe that the UN is not up to these new dangers. Therefore, they believe that they have to do it themselves. It is now clear that this doesn't work, either.

But the UN has got to shape up, and has got to get to the point where it can respond quickly and responsibly when there is genuinely a major threat. I don't think Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a horrible man, but there were lots of other threats much more dangerous. Pakistan was much more dangerous, and still is, than Iraq; we mustn't say so, of course, because it's an ally. But the truth is, this is a country which may become an Islamic fundamentalist state which has nuclear weapons. Incidentally, it turns out to have been peddling nuclear weapons all around the world, so that's another dangerous situation.

I believe that many of Washington's policies are misguided. But it is also true that the current international instruments were designed for a totally different world -- a slower, far less destructive world -- so they, too, must change and develop.

In looking at the history of the UN, aren't its failures often related to the problem of its dependence on sovereign states? The UN is an inter-governmental organization; it's an organization that brings together governments who want to protect their sovereignty, but on the other hand, when they perceive a threat, they feel that the UN is the only one who can [help them].

Let me say a word in favor of national sovereignty. It is the only building block we now have on which to build an international organization. I don't think we're going to see the end of sovereignty very soon for all sorts of reasons. But while international sovereignty is politically very important, there are other realms of human activity which are totally internationalized. Knowledge, information, science, corporate industry, and trade are very international and don't pay too much attention to sovereignty, but governments do. And for various reasons, good or bad, I don't think they're going to stop doing so.

What is important here is the enormous growth in the last thirty years of nongovernmental organizations, which have become an extremely important part of the world, and without which countries don't develop very well. Iraq, for example: if it's going to get some kind of democratic form, it will desperately need civil society. It needs nongovernmental organizations, which we take absolutely for granted. Nongovernmental organizations are important in most human activities; they complement the national organizations.

The environmental movement, for example: the idea was conceived in the United Nations; the actual execution of that idea, getting it out to the people and getting people's minds around it, mostly was done by nongovernmental organizations. The same with human rights: the human rights idea, thanks to Mrs. Roosevelt, originated in the UN with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; but the real legwork on it, making it into something real, with surprising success considering what a difficult subject it is, has been mostly done by nongovernmental organizations. There should be a partnership. Government can do one bit of it and the nongovernmental organizations do the rest.

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