At the conclusion of the 1945 San Francisco Conference that established the United Nations, President Harry Truman delivered a cautionary exhortation to his fellow Americans “to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.”
“This is the price which each nation will have to pay for world peace,” he said. “Unless we pay that price, no organization for world peace can accomplish its purpose. And what a reasonable price that is.”
Truman understood from the start what the Bush administration today seems unwilling to concede: that the benefits of international cooperation are well worth the cost. Indeed, by joining the U.N. -- the first worldwide security organization in which the United States had ever enlisted -- Truman helped the U.S. overcome a history of stubborn insularity. George Washington once warned his fledgling nation to “steer clear of permanent alliances.” For most of the 19th century, the United States had conducted its foreign policy on a unilateral basis. In the first part of the 20th century, the country briefly dallied with the League of Nations, but then eschewed participating in it.
Now, in the final days of World War II, the U.S. was suddenly seated in the U.N., violating its own most hoary and cherished precepts of independence.
The Senate vote in July 1945 was overwhelmingly in favor of U.N. ratification -- 89 to 2. Two world wars within three decades in which more than 100 million people lost their lives had convinced political leaders from both parties that we could neither afford another planetwide conflagration nor prevent a new one alone.
Of course, no one really believed that the U.S. would have to give up all the prerogatives of its position. With the U.S. the richest, most powerful nation on Earth and the driving force behind the creation of the U.N., most American officials believed we would have little difficulty setting the general direction for the organization. To the extent we were not able to get our own way within the organization, we would have our Security Council veto power to fall back on.
By and large, this turned out to be right. We have gotten our wishes in the U.N. for most of its almost 60 years of existence. For example, the U.N. backed our dispatch of forces to Korea in 1950 to stop a communist attack, into Kuwait in 1991 to turn back Saddam Hussein, into Haiti in 1994 to reinstall Jean-Bertrand Aristide and into Afghanistan in 2001 to toss out the Taliban. It helped us settle the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It has even periodically reformed itself at our urging. When the U.S. has made up its mind at the U.N., it usually has called the tune.
But, for many Americans, the fear of having U.S. sovereignty compromised by the organization has always lurked in the background. In the 1950s, for example, a U.S. senator convened hearings and a federal grand jury sought testimony that questioned the loyalty of U.S. citizens who worked for the body. In later years, as resolutions cropped up in the General Assembly criticizing Washington’s embargo on Cuba, and equating Zionism with racism, Congress threatened to withhold our dues. The atmosphere further soured as many newly established Third World nations denounced Western values. Most recently, of course, the Security Council withheld U.N. backing for the invasion of Iraq.
Nevertheless, despite these ongoing disputes, the United States has never been willing to risk a real rift with the U.N. Every administration in Washington gradually realizes that, without it, the U.S. could well drift alone in a Hobbesian universe of temporary alliances that could vanish at any time.
For that reason, even President Bush -- whose disagreements with the U.N. are legion, and who likes to say that if the U.N. doesn’t show more “backbone” it could go the way of the League of Nations -- this year returned to the U.N. to ask its support for reconstruction and elections in Iraq. He understood that the endorsement of the Security Council automatically gives global legitimacy to our occupation.
Indeed, most presidents sooner or later begin to understand that the U.N., for all its flaws, advances rather than diminishes U.S. national security objectives. The U.N. serves as a round-the-clock diplomatic forum to stave off conflicts the U.S. desires to avoid. It handles transnational issues that Washington would prefer to duck, like environmental degradation, sexual trafficking, drug smuggling, nuclear proliferation and AIDS. Its influence around the world is enormous.
It is true that the U.S. cannot always get its own way at the U.N. But as the only superpower on the planet, as the organization’s biggest donor, as the sole nation that can project power worldwide, we retain enormous influence there. So although concerns over our sovereignty may never fully abate, the record proves we have already gotten far more out of the U.N. than we have lost.