Brian Urqhart

Peace, War, and the United Nations

VTR Date: October 22, 1982

Guest: Urqhart, Brian


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Brian Urquhart
Title: “Peace, War, and the United Nations”
VTR: 10/22/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Earlier today I was reading through a transcript of an OPEN MIND program that we produced in July 1958. Among my guests then were Mr. Ali, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, and then its United Nations ambassador, and Sir Leslie Monroe of New Zealand, then President of the UN’s General Assembly. Our subject, one that now, as then, lies not far beneath the surface in any consideration of war and peace: the possibility or impossibility of avoiding world catastrophe without subordinating national sovereignty to an international organization like the UN. The question seems to remain the same. The threats that cause us to pose it so desperately, however, seem to mount constantly. And I thought that today it would be constructive and informative to discuss the United Nations from the perspective of one who was there at the beginning. Brian Urquhart is Undersecretary General of the United Nations for Special Political Affairs. An Englishman, he has been in the UN secretariat, closely involved with the office of the Secretary General since 1945.

Thanks for joining me today, Mr. Urquhart. I hope you won’t consider me impolite if I ask a question that has to do with the level of unpopularity of the UN in this country, and ask whether the UN suffers similarly in other countries around the world.

URQUHART: Well, I don’t think, in the first place, that an organization like the United Nations is likely to be endearingly popular, any more than the government is likely to be endearingly popular. And we’ve been around for 37 years, which is longer than most governments. But apart from that, I think it is true that in this country, for various reasons, the level of, let’s say, unpopularity, or plain ignorance, is extremely high.

HEFFNER: Do you equate the two?

URQUHART: Well, I think a lot of it has got to do with that. I think that the reason for that is fairly clear. This organization was oversold at the beginning as the panacea to all the ills of World War II. It was invested with all sorts of magical powers which it never had. And what everybody failed to notice was that the great split in the world, which is the split between East and West, was built into the very center of our organization by the founders, in the institution of the permanent members of the Security council will include the United Sates and the Soviet Union. And it is therefore, the organization from the very beginning has been built on a, if you might call it, a geopolitical fault. And when that fault shows signs of opening, the whole organization trembles. But I don’t think that’s the reason either for the, what you call unpopularity. I think that the organization itself has not lived up to its advance billing. It has not lived up to the charter. The Secretary General this year has made a very terse analysis of the underlying deficiencies of the United Nations in the hope that governments will really take another look at the way they use the organization or fail to use it. And I think we have to be very honest with ourselves. It’s taken most democratic countries something like three or four hundred years to emerge into what they are today, and that’s imperfect. It is unlikely that you can build them an effective world order, therefore, in 37 years. We’re just at the beginning. And we must see it in that way. And to use another analogy, the crime rate in this and many other cities in the world is very high, but that does not lead to a demand for the abolition of the police force. On the contrary, it leads to a demand for the improvement of it. And I think we’re in the same position as that. I think we have to look at ourselves critically. We have to be very clear why it doesn’t work. We have to be very clear when it does work, because it does work quite often…And we have to be very clear who it’s valuable to and who it isn’t. And I think we can develop some of these questions when we’re talking.

HEFFNER: Well, first of all, you use an interesting metaphor, the question of a police force in a major city such as the one we’re sitting in, in New York. We don’t demand its disbandment because it hasn’t succeeded in protecting us totally from crime. Are you, by that token, referring to the United Nations’ capacity to use police power?

URQUHART: No, I’m referring to it more as in its primary role, which is an organization which is supposed to keep the peace, and to prevent war. That was its initial main function. And I think it has been more successful in that role than people are prepared to admit. But in stopping smaller wars, of which there are a number going on at the moment, it has been far less successful than it should have been. And I think that the reason for that is that people, as they draw away from the shadow of World War II, forget that really large wars come very often out of the clear blue sky, with very little warning. And the object of the United Nations was to protect the world against a recurrence of that disaster, this time with nuclear weapons. And I think in that way it has…the organization has performed a good deal better than people think. It’s often said that the organization is really just for the protection of the small and the weak, and that the great powers, especially the nuclear powers, don’t need it. I think this is the opposite of the truth. I think that when the nuclear powers need the United Nations, they need it more than anybody else does, because they need it when they get on a collision course and are faced with the real possibility of having to use nuclear weapons. And they come remarkably quickly to the United Nations, which is common ground, where you don’t lose face by changing a policy, which belongs to everybody and nobody. And you can there achieve some kind of stepping back from the abyss with reasonable dignity. And it’s been done a great number of times. And I would submit that if the organization had never done anything else but provide that public service, it would still be worth having. And of course, it’s done a great deal more than that.

HEFFNER: Mr. Urquhart, however, the UN has been described by the big nations and the public, by the major powers and the public, do you have reason to believe that they have perceived its usefulness as you have just described it?

URQUHART: Oh, I don’t have any doubt of it. I mean, where did the United States go, for example, when the Soviet Union went into Hungary in 1956? It didn’t go into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, which was the other alternative. It came to the United Nations Security Council, and passed the responsibility for the Hungarian situation to the United Nations, which finally passed it to the Secretary General, one individual, incidentally. Now, I don’t say this was necessarily the most glorious moment in history, but that is what happened. And if you read President Eisenhower’s memoirs, you will find them extremely truthful and accurate description of the high policy thinking which let to that course of action.

HEFFNER: Is that why you said before that, and you used the terms, talking about unpopularity, you connected it with ignorance. Is it because of the ignorance on the part of, let’s say, the American people in this instance of usefulness, the use that literally has been made by their government?

URQUHART: I think that’s part of it. I think there is also a very strong feeling in this country which has been encouraged by the present administration that in some extraordinary way the United States has been victimized by the members of the United Nations and there is some kind of moralist left-wing conspiracy to do the United States down. Of course, people who say that forget that the automatic majority in the United Nations which they now complain of – which incidentally does not exist, because everybody in the United Nations votes very differently according to the subject matter. There was an automatic majority for the West in the old days. It was built into the structure, until the membership expanded. But now the so-called Third World, that rather curious phrase which encompasses enormous diversity of nations, votes its conscience on a lot of things. It votes against the Soviet Union on a number of issues. It votes against the United States on some issues. And it’s very unpredictable. But I think there is a perception that the United States somehow pays for it all as the host country and really doesn’t get any credit for it. Actually, it does not pay for it all. It gets a good deal back, and in my view gets a great deal out of it, provided. But the trick in the United Nations is to, is the way you conduct your national policy within it. And Mrs. Kirkpatrick gave a very interesting lecture on this subject to the Heritage Foundation the other day, in which, I must say, showing great, if not even self-destructive honesty. She said that she felt that a great deal of the time amateurism was the problem, and not necessarily the United Nations. And she quoted another representative of another nation as knowing how to use the United Nations in a crisis affecting their country, notably the British representative of the Falklands, and drew a very unflattering comparison between the performance of the United States delegation and the British delegation. Personally, I think this was rather unfair, because the United States had a lot of concerns and responsibilities and problems the British don’t have. But nonetheless it was a striking piece of rankness in an often rather fuzzy debate.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that the frankness related most accurately to the present administration’s policies at the UN, or totally to our policy, America’s policy toward or in the UN over the years?

URQUHART: Well, I think that fact is that the United States was very much the leading nation in the post-war years. It was the main sponsor of the United Nations. It had an absolutely unfailing majority in the United Nations. And life has become very much more complicated since by the advent of a hundred more members, or 107 more member states. And I might say that, when I first joined the United Nations I had never really met any civilians in my life before. I had been in the British Army for six years. And I must say I was not surprised at my first experience with civilians, because they seem to me to have a lot of beliefs which didn’t necessarily hold water.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

URQUHART: Well, there was a very high state of motivated idealism by the United Nations, assuming among other things that the wartime alliance would hold together to supervise the peace, which never seemed to me it would, and hence the institution of the permanent members of the Security Council, who are nothing more than the leaders of the wartime alliance. And I always thought that was an overoptimistic notion. But the main argument, when I first got into the United Nations, was not between East and west; it was between the United States and the European colonial powers. The United States maintained that decolonization was an urgent and essential matter the Europeans indignantly saying that this would cause the most tremendous confusion and couldn’t be done. And a lot of what is complained of now in the Untied Nations is the result of that enormous expansion of membership which came from the drive sponsored by the United States for decolonization. Personally, I think the Untied States were absolutely right. I think the world has changed very much for the better through containing more independent states. I think decolonization was a very good idea. But there are a great number of rough patches and difficulties and confusions which have to be ironed out. And that is what most of the work of the United Nations is involved in, and it’s the work that does not get publicized. Something like 80 or 85 percent of the effort to the United Nations in terms of time and manpower and money is spent on economic and social subjects, development, this kind of thing. Which really isn’t, doesn’t provide very dramatic news stories very often. But I think it’s a measure of the problems that we’ve tried to face that that is the case. The rest of it, 15 percent, goes on international peace and security, which gets all, or most of the headlines.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you about an interview on, again, a program you appeared in when you were interviewed by representatives, newspaper reports form the Soviet Union, the United States, and France. And it was our friend from Tass in the Soviet Union who said, “The slamming of the United Nations”, as you put it, as you had put it, “is fashionable in the United States, in the Western countries, but it is certainly not fashionable in the Soviet Union and the socialist countries, and, I believe, in the Third-World countries also. Do you not agree, Mr. Urquhart, that this fact of disappointment with the United Nations in the United States has something to do with the loss of influence in this country in this organization? I believe, of course, that the Americans were much more happy in the early days of this organization when they were actually able to get everything from the UN that they wanted. Not always, of course, but mostly”. If this is true, this observation is correct, that the United States was able largely to get what it wanted. Is there any reason, and it cannot today, is there any reason for it to continue to support an organization such as the UN?

URQUHART: Well, I think this is another, this remark of the Tass correspondent was in response to something that I had said. And it’s a rather two-dimensional remark. It’s an oversimplification. There are a great number of reasons why the United Nations is unpopular. And let’s be very frank: One of them is the Middle East situation. It’s no mystery. Why shouldn’t we say it? People should not be embarrassed to discuss things like that. The fact of the matter is that the United Nations tends to vote by very large majorities against Israel on a number of subjects, including most recently the operation in Lebanon. And this does give rise to very major criticism in Israel itself and in a number of countries, and especially in the United States, that the organization has become biased, that it had a Third World decolonizing, even moralist, leftist bias, and that it is being used and manipulated to exaggerate matters. Now, I don’t want to comment on the substance of that charge. But I think it’s very clear to see that there will very frequently be times when this organization will be unpopular in one country or another. It was extremely unpopular in the Soviet Union during the Korean War, for example. I think that it was not regarded with great equanimity there then. And it was very unpopular in England at the time of Suez, and in France, when the organization did virtually help to stop the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, and was instrumental in getting the armies of those two countries disentangled from that disastrous expedition. We went, sank to a tremendous period of unpopularity in both those countries.

HEFFNER: It strikes me as passing strange though that you say, “Let’s be frank, let’s raise the question”, and then you say, “However, I don’t want to answer the question or comment on it”.

URQUHART: No, I don’t particularly wish to take sides. I’m perfectly prepared to discuss the Middle East problem for hours since I’ve done practically nothing else. But I think if we get into that we can’t have time to talk about anything else. All I’m saying is, without at this moment going into the substance of the problem, I think that one has to see that it is a major factor.

HEFFNER: But if one were to take simply the overall question, the overall criticism that the United States position is opposed by a vast union of underdeveloped countries or developing countries or Third-World countries, do you think there’s justice to the charge that the United States…

URQUHART: Well, I don’t think that’s true on most, in most cases.


URQUHART: I think that tends to be true on the Middle East. I think that it can be true on some economic matters where it is very clear that the United States, as the leading industrial country, is likely to have a different series of interests from a very poor Third-World country or a group of Third-World countries and so on. But I don’t think it’s, there is no monolithic voting block in the United Nations. I mean, for example, I mean, there was a vote on Puerto Rico the other day in which the United States got a very, very high majority, which people didn’t expect as a matter of fact. Certainly, I think the United States didn’t expect it. But the majority thought that it was a foolish move, and therefore they voted for the United States. And I think that one has to see it as a democratic organization on an international level, where the voting is unpredictable. Of course it is. I mean, it’s like the voting in any deliberative body. It’s extremely likely to be, except now we’re talking about representatives of governments voting rather than the elected representatives voting in a congress or a parliament.

HEFFNER: Are you literally saying then that if one analyzed the votes over the past several years of Third-World countries, you would not find a semblance of a bloc?

URQUHART: They acted as a bloc on all decolonization matters. That is perfectly true, because that is where the thing really started. And I think that’s not surprising. This was an overall objective on decolonization. They tend to vote as a bloc on subjects like what is called the new international economic order, which is at the moment a rather theoretical objective to try to reshape the world economy. And God knows, I don’t know whether it’s the right word to reshape it, but it certainly needs reshaping in one way or another. But I don’t think that, they don’t vote as a bloc on a whole lot of other subjects. They don’t vote as a bloc, for example, on Cambodia. They don’t vote as a bloc on Afghanistan. They don’t vote as a bloc on a whole series of African matters.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you this question then. You’ve written a magnificent biography of Dag Hammershold. And in foreign affairs in the fall of 1981, your article on the question of your thoughts about international peace and security on the twentieth anniversary of his death, you quoted him, as you had before. You said, “Three months before his death, he said, ‘I would rather say that I see the future of this organization very much as one of an organ which primarily serves the interests of smaller countries which otherwise would not have a platform in world affairs’. And to be fair, ‘These smaller countries’, he went on, ‘however, within the organization, intimately cooperating with the big powers’”. And I wonder whether you agree with that statement of Hammershold’s.

URQUHART: Well, you must remember that Hammershold was writing at the very peak of the wave of decolonization. This was the decade in which, I forget how many states became independent. But it was the peak of it. And it was very much on his mind. And there were countries at that time very much without a place in the world. I mean, a lot of them had never even been heard of. And they needed the place to come, to become members of the community and to discover what the world was all about. And I think the UN has served in an extraordinary way that purpose. I think what he meant to say was that it should be a place where both great powers and small powers would get their interests together in such a way that they’d all make progress. I had mentioned at the beginning that I happened to think that nuclear powers in particular need a shelter of this kind, because when they get onto a collision course they really are in a very dangerous state indeed, and so are the rest of them. But I think that what Hammershold was referring to there was the idea that you could have all these new countries, and that they could cooperate in a reasonable manner wit the established countries and the great powers, whoever they may be, and that this would be the advantage of all of them. And I think it sometimes turns out to be the case. I mean, I don’t think, I think the notion which is fostered by some of the extreme groups that there is a kind of mad, destructive, left-wing majority in the world is nonsense. Most governments want to get their economy going. They want to be able to feed their people. And they want to be given a reasonable share of the goods of this earth. It’s not a very elaborate program really, but it’s very difficult to do. And that is why it sometimes seems that they’re anti-Western, or that they are opposing the aims of the big Western industrial countries. And I think what Hammershold was saying was that it will be better if you’ve got them all together to try to discuss these problems as common problems instead of confrontational ones.

HEFFNER: Mr. Urquhart, if we could turn the hands of the clock back, and of course you were just a slip of a boy at the time of the founding of the UN, though you were there.

URQUHART: Well, actually I wasn’t. I was…

HEFFNER: At its beginning?

URQUHART: I was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, as a matter of fact, at the time.

HEFFNER: Well, when the UN began at the end of the war, though.

URQUHART: That’s right.

HEFFNER: All right. Now, question: Would you choose to abolish or never have the veto power in the Security Council?

URQUHART: Well, I think the organization would never have gotten started if there hadn’t been a veto. Certainly the United States Congress would not have ratified the charter, and I think it’s extremely unlikely that the Soviet Union would have joined. I don’t know about the other permanent members.

HEFFNER: How great a stumbling block has it been?

URQUHART: Well, I don’t think…I think you have to see the veto power in all its proportions. It has become in some ways a stumbling block. But it is designed to prevent, under the charter, the Security Council from committing the whole membership to a war against one great military power, because that power can be so…Because obviously that would be a disaster, especially now that we have nuclear weapons. But of course the people didn’t know about that when they drafted that part of the charter. Therefore, it is to some extent a protection of small countries as well, because it means they can’t be dragged, because they theoretically generate the decisions of the Security Council under chapter seven, which is the ones which mobilizes military force are mandatory. That is to say, you are obliged under international law…if the council says you bring along three battalions and go and fight so and so, you’re supposed to do it. And I think one has to see it in that way. I think one also has to see the veto as to some extent balancing the General Assembly, where everybody has exactly the same voting rights and voting power, and a lot has been made of that, that the Komodo Islands or the Seychelles have the same voting power as the United States. In the Security Council, which deals with the primary matter of peace and security, there is a form of weighted voting. And quite apart from the fact that the two major most powerful countries in the world wouldn’t have joined without it, I thin it is to some extent a guarantee that the council does not get run away with and commit the whole membership to a course which would be a disaster. At the same time, there’s no question about it that an excessive use of the veto has held a lot of things up in the past, and it has come under great criticism. But I’m not at all sure that if you removed it things will be any better. I don’t think they would.

HEFFNER: Looking back at that transcript from 1958, I realize that what was under discussion then was to large measure, the question of the UN peace force. How successful have your endeavors in that area been? By “you”, I mean the UN.

URQUHART: Well, as I remember it, I think that discussion must have taken place at the time when we had just had a year’s experience with the first United Nations peacekeeping force, which was the UN force in Sinai, the United Nations Emergency Force. And everybody had been extremely skeptical when we set that up, including the Israelis. And then they had discovered that it was extremely effective and very useful. And everybody became extremely over-enthusiastic to a point which was quite dangerous. As I remember it, the two Houses of Congress passed unanimous resolution asking that a permanent international force be set up in 1958. And certainly Mr. Beddes, who wasn’t by nature a very enthusiastic man, had been, very much encouraged the notion that we should have a standing force. There are a great number of reasons why we haven’t. But I think the peacekeeping experiment – we’ve now done I think 15 peacekeeping operations of one sort and another – has shown that there is a different way of using soldiers, that you can use them for conflict control where they don’t use force, that if you have a situation where two countries are in conflict but don’t really want to continue the war because they can’t afford it, it’s a very useful device to put in a peacekeeping force to provide them with the opportunity to maintain an aggressive stance without actually losing any blood or money. And that happens all over the place. I don’t really need to even spell it out. It’s a very useful device. It’s a very limited device because anybody who wants to make war will not be stopped by a UN peacekeeping force. We saw that in Lebanon this June. And it’s happened elsewhere as well. But it’s an innovation. It’s not in the charter. And it’s a device which I think can – and again, the Secretary General has suggested various ways in which we can improve upon it in his report this year.

HEFFNER: Mr. Urquhart, thank you for being quite so frank with us about your views on the UN. I appreciate your joining us here today.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.