ALFRED Tennyson, the English poet, foresaw in his 1837 ‘Locksley Hall’ that nations, realising that they could destroy one another, might mutually agree to form a political federation, ‘the Parliament of Man’, to resolve disputes peacefully.
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be; …
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of men, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.
Seventy-five years ago, humanity achieved something unbelievable in the middle of World War II. On June 26, 1945, 50 nations of the world gathered at San Francisco’s Opera House to sign the Charter of the United Nations ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, … and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to … promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.’
For these ends, the nations pledged ‘to practice tolerance and live together in peace …, and to ensure … that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.’
Although the UN often falls short of its lofty goal as nations find excuses for not adhering to their pledge, the creation of the United Nations was a monumental achievement, providing the foundation for a rules-based international order.
FORTY-SIX Allied countries — including the four sponsors the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and China — were originally invited to the San Francisco conference. The conference invited four other states — the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the newly-liberated Denmark and Argentina. Poland did not send a representative as the composition of its new government was still uncertain.
The San Francisco conference was not only one of the most significant international gatherings in history but, perhaps, the largest and longest ever to take place. The two-month conference was attended by a total of 3,500 people, including 850 delegates, and their advisers and staff, as well as the conference secretariat. There were also more than 2,500 press, radio and newsreel representatives and observers.
The San Francisco conference opened on April 25, 1945 with great fanfare, despite the sudden death of its principal architect, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, just two weeks before on April 12. The task of carrying on Roosevelt’s work fell on his vice-president Harry Truman who became president.
Truman was a fan of Tennyson, and apparently profoundly influenced by ‘Locksley Hall’, for years carried the poem in his wallet. He would often read it to his puzzled colleagues, senators and staffers if they asked him about his commitment to international organisations.
Clashes of opinion and compromises
THERE were many serious clashes of opinion and divergences of outlook, triggering crises even at the preparatory stage. For example, the Soviet Union originally proposed that all Soviet republics should have membership in the United Nations to balance the influence of the US-led countries. The United States launched a counterproposal for all US states’ membership. A compromise was struck to allow the Soviet Republics of Belarus and Ukraine whereby the Soviet Union withdrew its opposition to the participation of Argentina, which supported the Axis Powers.
The most important deliberations concerned the UN Security Council, initially composed of five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China and France) and six elected members. The right of each of the ‘Big Five’ (B-5) to exercise a ‘veto’ provoked long and heated debate, threatening to break up the conference. The smaller countries feared that when one of the B-5 threatened peace, the UN Security Council would be powerless to act while in the event of a clash between two powers that were not permanent members of the Security Council, the B-5 could act arbitrarily. But the B-5 unanimously insisted that the main responsibility for maintaining world peace would fall most heavily on them and, hence, their veto provision was vital.
Australia’s foreign minister Herbert Evatt proposed that no permanent member should be able to veto a Chapter VII resolution when involved in relevant disputes. The US delegation rejected that and blocked a subsequent Soviet proposal for a veto on procedural matters as well, which would allow a permanent member to veto a mere discussion of any dispute in which it was implicated.
The United States insisted that the UN Security Council should have tools to deter and defeat aggressors. Under the League of Nations Covenant, any authorisation of sanctions or military force required unanimity within the League Council, whose decisions were non-binding on other members. By contrast, Chapter VII of the UN Charter would empower the UN Security Council to pass binding resolutions, so long as seven of its 11 members — including all veto-wielding B-5 — agreed.
While the US officials conceived of the UN General Assembly primarily as a talking shop, the USSR sought to prohibit the General Assembly from discussing sensitive political matters. However, recognising its importance for international legitimacy, a compromise was reached, permitting the UN General Assembly to discuss any questions ‘within the scope of the Charter.’
Social and economic development
ALTHOUGH security concerns dominated the debate, the delegates also envisioned the United Nations as a multi-purpose organisation. They were convinced that economic misery, social injustice and political oppression were recurrent root causes of violent conflict and wars.
Thus, the preamble to the Charter declares the intention of the organisation ‘to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’; and for those ends, ‘to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.’ Article 55 reaffirms that the United Nations ‘shall promote higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development’, carrying the message from president Roosevelt’s New Deal.
By Article 56, ‘All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the organisation for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.’ The provisions dealing with social welfare, human rights and self-determination laid the foundation for various specialised UN agencies from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to the UN Commission on Human Rights or UN Women.
Economic and Social Council
CHAPTER X devotes to ECOSOC which has the responsibility, on behalf of the UN General Assembly, for the functions of the United Nations in areas of economic progress and social development as set out in Chapter IX. The 18 members of ECOSOC were to be elected by the UN General Assembly in phases — six members each year for a term of three years, after the initial year.
In sharp contrast to the UN Security Council, none of the members has a veto power — one member, one vote — and decisions are to be made by majority vote. Thus, without being cynical about the motive of the big powers, it is obvious that they did not regard ECOSOC as important as the UN Security Council as far as their vital interests were concerned. Even the language used in matters of economic and social progress are less forceful when it comes to state obligations. For example, while UNSC resolutions are binding and can be enforced, members are only encouraged to cooperate for global prosperity (Articles 1(3); 13(1b); 56).
The nature of ECOSOC’s relationship with various specialised UN agencies, funds and programmes, with their own independent governance structure, is also left somewhat loose and often vague, making it very difficult for the United Nations to coordinate its work in the areas of economic and social development. Existing international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation or the Universal Postal Union were to be ‘brought into relationship’ with the United Nations, but the language for the coordination or oversight of activities by the United Nations of these autonomous organisations was deliberately left ambivalent, preferring ‘distancing’ in governance.
The most profound implication of this ‘relationship distancing’ relate in the case of the powerful Bretton Woods Institutions — the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — formed a year earlier. The IMF and the World Bank are not democratic; being capital share or quota-weighted, they are more like the veto-powered UNSC. This perhaps explains why big powers were not too worried about the democratic governance of ECOSOC. They could see that by controlling the ‘power of the purse’, they could pursue their interests through the Bretton Woods Institutions. Autonomous UN agencies, funds and programmes also allow the big powers to pursue their interest through them without having to deal with the more inclusive UNG General Assembly or ECOSOC where every member has an equal say.
Trusteeship paving decolonisation
THE conference added a whole new chapter on creating a system for territories placed under UN trusteeship, the subject not covered by the original proposals. However, there was much debate around issues such as ‘independence’ or ‘self-government’ for the peoples of these areas. Questions were also raised about the ability of new small countries (former colonies) to defend themselves, finally recommending the promotion of the progressive development of the peoples of trust territories toward ‘independence or self-government’.
The draft charter also included provisions to fast-track the freedom of European overseas empires. A ‘Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories’, in Chapter XI, committed the imperial powers to encourage progressive colonial self-rule. Chapters XII and XIII created an ‘International Trusteeship System’ to administer former League mandates, colonial territories captured from the axis as well as any colonies placed voluntarily under the system. Many nationalists in colonies around the world were disappointed with such gradualism, but these chapters lent momentum and legitimacy to decolonisation.
The US prevails
DESPITE the compromises, the draft UN charter favoured US views. The challenge for the United States was to create a post-war structure of peace that reconciled the ideal of sovereign equality with the custodial role of the great powers. The charter promised to protect US freedom of action and national sovereignty, but like Article 10 of the League Covenant contained no open-ended commitment to preserve the territorial integrity of other countries. Article 2(7) also promised to appeal to American nationalists, declaring: ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.’
The US interest also came into clash with regard to the treatment of existing ‘regional organisations’, including arrangements for regional defence and mutual assistance. Some US officials worried that the new world body might jeopardise the ‘Monroe doctrine’ of the United States’s privileged position in the western hemisphere while remaining free to intervene in Europe or Asia as warranted. In short, they wanted the United States to ‘have its cake and eat it too’, according to James McCloy, one of the US delegation members.
However, this was a slippery slope as other big powers would follow the United States’s lead in creating their own spheres of influence, turning the world into armed camps. Some clever drafting of Chapter VIII of the charter included a blanket endorsement of regional organisations while Article 51 enshrined the principle of ‘self-defence against armed attack, either individual or collective.’ Although not fully appreciated in 1945, these provisions helped legitimatise the multilateral and bilateral security pacts the US created in Europe, Asia and the Americas against the Soviet Union during the cold war.
From Truman to Trump
PRESIDENT Truman, presiding over the closing ceremony in San Francisco, admonished the countries that the success of the new world body would depend on their collective self-restraint. ‘We all have to recognise — no matter how great our strength — that we must deny ourselves the license to do as we please. This is the price each nation will have to pay for world peace.’
He pointed out that the UN charter would work only if the peoples of the world were determined to make it work, and concluded: ‘If we fail to use it, we shall betray all those who have died so that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we seek to use it selfishly — for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations — we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal.’
Alas, it is not the rogue states that were feared as potential spoilers, but ironically, the UN charter repeatedly came under threat from the United States itself which provided the leadership in its drafting, and its allies.
It seems that the United States’s spoiling is at its historic height under president Trump’s ‘America first’ policy, the very attitude Truman wanted to be purged. Thus, by seeking the ‘licence’ for the United States ‘to do as it pleases’, Trump’s United States must also be prepared to pay the price as warned by Truman.
Anis Chowdhury, adjunct professor at the University of Western Sydney and the University of New South Wales (Australia), held senior United Nations positions in 2008–2015 in New York and Bangkok.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion