U.N. Growing Muscle in a Multipolar World

<i> Richard C. Hottelet is a former network correspondent who writes about foreign policy issues</i>

Early in April, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar will make a routine appointment. A Canadian will take command of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Cyprus, UNFICYP.

Two years ago, unthinkable. Soviet opposition would have prevented an officer of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization from taking such a post. Today, not a murmur. Another sign that decades of Cold War have faded. Perhaps this time for good, or perhaps only for the moment, as in previous thaws.

The victims and survivors of World War II--the United States chief among them--created the United Nations as their agency to keep the peace and promote orderly change for a better life. But Josef Stalin had his own agenda. He and his successors, Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev were determined to use the United Nations where it could help advance Soviet interests, but in those cases where the U.N. would not help, they tried to ensure that it would not get in their way.

Iran, of all places, was very first problem brought to the Security Council in 1946. The country complained that Soviet troops had not withdrawn from northern provinces where they had been stationed to secure wartime supply lines to the Soviet Union. When the council sat to discussion, Ambassador Andrei Gromyko got up and walked out.

But the Soviets had reason to return because they were receiving American food relief through the United Nations. So they pulled out the troops and returned to the council. In the years that followed, the Soviet Union used its veto more than 100 times to kill unwelcome Security Council resolutions, blackball new members and prevent consideration of items they did not want discussed.


The biggest U.N. peacekeeping project, in the former Belgian Congo, epitomized Moscow’s attitude. When the newly independent colony rose against the remaining Belgians and asked the United Nations for help, the Soviet Union joined in quickly giving Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold the mandate to provide it.

Before turning to the United Nations, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of what would become Zaire had asked the United States to send him troops. President Dwight D. Eisenhower replied that American help would come only through the United Nations, but Khrushchev had his own plans. Outraging Eisenhower, he sent Soviet planes, trucks and technicians to Lumumba. Khrushchev even hinted at sending in “volunteers” and the Soviet Union vetoed the Security Council reaffirmation of the U.N. secretary general’s mandate.

Hammarskjold and the United States found support in the General Assembly. There, in the fall of 1960, a furious Khrushchev attacked Hammarskjold as an imperialist stooge. “No man is impartial,” he cried, and demanded that the secretary general be replaced by a committee of three, representing the communist bloc, nonaligned nations and the West.

The historic Congo confrontation frustrated Kremlin plans to gain a foothold in the heart of Africa and the Soviet Union refused to pay for the U.N. peacekeeping force (as it had not paid for U.N. forces in the Middle East). This provoked a constitutional crisis that four years later paralyzed the United Nations--and could have destroyed it had not the members agreed to set aside the Soviet debt.

Khrushchev had other business at that General Assembly; 17 newly independent states had joined the United Nations, giving what was coming to be known as the Third World great numerical and atmospheric influence. Khrushchev made himself the spokesman of “decolonization,” railing against “Western imperialism.” His tactics to gain psychological ascendancy in the General Assembly included planned pandemonium, hammering his desk with his fists and even with his old brown shoe. For years thereafter, the Soviet Union used “anti- colonialist” demagoguery to rally assembly majorities against the West and especially the United States.

In 1987, things began changing. Two years into perestroika and “new thinking,” Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev was advocating “a greater role and efficiency of the United Nations,” particularly in nonviolent conflict resolution. Later in 1987, he spoke of the U.N. secretary general as an “authoritative figure enjoying universal trust who must be encouraged in his missions of mediation, conciliation and good offices.” That was the way the United States used to talk about the United Nations.

Gorbachev urged wider use of military observers and U.N. peacekeeping forces. He proposed a U.N. tribunal to investigate and help eradicate international terrorism. And he put his money where his mouth was. The Soviet Union started paying its immense arrears--while the United States became the United Nation’s biggest deadbeat, failing to pay even for Middle East peacekeeping forces it had originally sponsored.

The tone of debate in U.N. bodies has in recent years grown much more sober. Class war has dropped from Soviet discourse. Security seen in purely military terms is obsolete. Emphasis is on environmental protection, economic development and disarmament. No longer does the Soviet Union shrill against “Western imperialism.”

Moscow has, in fact, worked closely with Western powers to achieve reform of the U.N. budget and administrative practices in the face of Third World misgivings about the loss of aid or jobs, including cutbacks in the size and expense of the new U.N. peacekeeping operation to assist Namibia’s independence.

Moscow has supported U.N. verification of the 50,000 Cuban troops leaving Angola. Moscow joined in drafting the Security Council resolution that helped end the war between Iran and Iraq. And there are signs of Moscow cooperating with the effort to bring Cambodia back to independence with U.N.-supervised elections.

Skeptics may ask whether this is a Potemkin village--a change of face, not heart. Yet it does reflect reality, the collapse of two pillars of communism: ideology and military power. Communist doctrine is dead at home and unattractive in the rest of the world, while Afghanistan was a measure of military impotence.

The cost of power projection--with subsidies, help to client states and to so-called national liberation movements-- has become unbearable. Not only has it failed to pay off, it has complicated relations with the West, the source of technology and credit for Soviet economic recovery.

The central fact is that unilateralism has reached the end of its rope--and not only for the Soviets. The world economy, far ahead of politics, has accepted the reality of a single global marketplace, interconnected and interdependent. The bipolar Cold War pattern is out of date. The United States and the Soviet Union have hit the limits of their powers.

The great success of American postwar policy has been to encourage the growth of Europe and the Pacific Rim, in prosperity and political stature. Those regions are ready to play major roles in a new world configuration.

Then, as the multipolar political system emerges, the time will be ripe for a largely American idea, the United Nations, finally to come into its own.