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"Atomic War or Peace?"
"I do not hide from myself the great difficulties of establishing a world government.... But I believe that world government is certain to come in time." By Albert Einstein
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "Nations of the World, Unite!"
(August 21, 1997)
The League of Nations fell victim to America's aloofness. Does the United Nations face the same fate? A collection of early twentieth-century articles debated the role of a League of Nations.
The Atlantic Monthly | October 1947
Peace Is Still Possible
"If the UN is not strengthened in time to avert war, a long night of ignorance and brutality will descend upon our ingenious species. Neither we nor our children's children will live to see the faint light of a new dawn"
by Cord Meyer Jr.
ow that the United Nations has been in operation for some time, the optimism which it originally inspired has been dispelled by events as unhappy as they were predictable. The United States and Russia have displayed their lack of confidence in the organization by engaging in preparations for a war which they evidently believe the UN is incapable of preventing. The meetings of the Security Council have been used as a sounding board for the dissemination of propaganda or as the means of mustering a majority bloc of votes to defeat proposals without regard to the merits of the case. Far from seeking agreement within the organization, the diplomatic representatives of the member nations appear more interested in employing it to prove the malevolence of each other's intentions. As crisis succeeds crisis, there is a growing danger that faith will be lost not only in the UN as it now stands but also in the possibility of any successful international order.
The UN's limitations are evident in the rules governing the operation of the Security Council, which bears the whole responsibility for detecting threats to the peace and for punishing aggression. Under the unanimity rule, the permanent members, the Big Five, reserve the right to veto any attempt by the Council to determine whether an act of aggression has actually occurred, what nation is the aggressor, and whether collective economic or military sanctions should be employed.
Under what conditions is it conceivable that enforcement action could be taken by the UN against an aggressor? It would be possible only in the event that the parties to the dispute were small nations without the support of any of the five permanent members. When it is understood that all decisions to apply economic or military sanctions are subject to the great-power veto, the provisions for enforcement action appear to be an elaborate fraud, rather than evidence of the Charter's strength.
Even if a case can be imagined where the UN was permitted by all the permanent members to enforce a settlement on a small country, such action would hardly demonstrate the organization's ability to preserve world peace. Border disputes between Peru and Ecuador are not the occasion for major wars. The ponderous enforcement machinery of the Charter can operate only in the one situation where there is no real danger of world conflict. The air forces and armies that the members have agreed to make available can be flung only against the weakest and most remote states. It is as if a special police force had been organized with much publicity to fight a crime wave and had then been ordered to restrict itself to preventing fist-fights between ten-year-old children, while murder, arson, and rape flourished.
The Charter creates a double standard of international morality. The weak country without an ally among the permanent members is to be swiftly punished for its transgressions. The strong are to enjoy unfettered license. Despite its solemn expressions of high purpose, the Charter actually confirms the anarchic right of the powerful states to rule by force. In pretentious legal terminology, it formally ratifies the law of the jungle that the strong shall take what they can and the weak grant what they must.
These consequences of the unanimity rule have been revealed in a long series of bitter disputes, in which the permanent members have used the veto or the threat of a veto to obstruct and prevent decision whenever it was to their advantage to do so. As a result, a widespread demand has arisen for an elimination of the veto power. This raises the whole question of the efficiency of the collective security system as a means of preventing war.
Let us suppose that the Charter is modified by abolishing the veto. The Security Council would then be theoretically capable of employing military measures against a great power that had committed aggression. The result, however, would be a world war. The only way in which aggression can be dealt with under the collective security system is by a war waged by other nations against the aggressor. The system rests on the joint action of heavily armed national governments each of which retains, through its own military establishment, the means of resisting any coercion with major warfare.
Every nation would be forced to continue adding to its armed strength, even if the veto were removed. If one state remained heavily armed, while the others disarmed in their reliance on collective action for protection, the strong nation could not be checked if it attacked. So, in fear that one government might establish sufficient force to challenge successfully the collective power of the rest, all the members of the system would have no choice but to build up their respective armies, and the arms race would continue.
The present division of the world into two opposing blocs destroys whatever significance a majority vote in the Security Council might have. Just as the successful practice of the balance-of-power theory depended on the existence of many states of comparatively equal strength, so collective security presumes for its operation that there is no one nation capable of opposing the joint forces of the others, Now that only the United States and Russia appear to have a chance of victory in another war, neither of them could be persuaded that it was protected against the possibility of attack by the other merely because the Council could vote for military measures against the aggressor. They are both so powerful that the support of such lesser nations as are not already their satellites would offer little additional protection. A mere change in the voting rules of the Council could not remove their mutual fears or check their rivalry.
Atomic and biological weapons have made nonsense of any agreement by separate armed states to act together to protect a nation that has been attacked. Since a country may lose a large part of its industry and urban population in the first moments of attack, the Council would be faced with its completed conquest by the time it had met to consider the case. A system that cannot prevent the use of modern weapons, but can only deal with aggression after it occurs, promises as little protection as would a fire department that could not be called until after one's house had burned down. The defenders of the veto are correct when they point out that any failure of the militarily powerful to cooperate voluntarily means world war.
However, when the unanimity rule was inserted in the Charter, the defects of the collective security system were not remedied. Rather the experiment begun with the League of Nations was abandoned and a return was made to total anarchy. The great-power veto may have been a master stroke of political realism in one sense, but it was unbelievably naive in another. For collective security, the framers of the Charter substituted the veto and the hope of voluntary cooperation between armed and sovereign states. One unworkable system was replaced by another which is, if anything, even more impractical.
Those who believe in the possibility of friendly cooperation between independent nations forget that each must strive for military supremacy to assure its own safety. Do we not see the result in the desperate struggle for arms and bases in which the United States and Russia are already engaged?
The discovery and use of the atomic bomb emphasized the structural weakness of the UN. The pretense of cooperative unanimity between nations competing in the production of such weapons was a farce that could not be maintained for long; and yet to give the bomb to a United Nations that was obviously incapable of controlling it would merely hasten the development of atomic explosives by potentially hostile governments. To meet this dilemma, our government, after ten critical months of delay, finally proposed what has become known as the Baruch Plan. It is widely believed that in offering this scheme we have done all within our power to end the arms race. Whether this is true or not can only be shown by a critical analysis of the Plan.
To summarize, the Plan calls for an abolition of atomic weapons. We have agreed to discontinue the manufacture of bombs and to dispose of existing bombs, on condition that all nations accept international inspection and agree to control, by an international authority, of the potentially dangerous peacetime uses of atomic energy. With these control measures in effect, it would be impossible for any nation to construct bombs secretly. Only by expropriating the atomic power plants of the authority and openly defying the international inspectors would a government be able to manufacture atomic explosives. With the Plan in operation, the danger of a surprise atomic attack would be removed. Any interference with the inspectors would be immediately evident to the world, and other nations acting through the Security Council are then to join forces against the violator. No government that seizes the atomic plants of the international authority is to retain the right to veto collective enforcement action.
Since the Plan contemplates only the elimination of atomic bombs from national arsenals, the separate nations would be free to compete for every other weapon of modern warfare. If the United States or the Soviet Union armed with conventional weapons chose to defy the inspectors, the result would be World War III. No majority vote in the Security Council could disguise that reality or provide protection. The seizure of the internationally operated atomic power plants, which could be converted to bomb production within a few months, would be such a clear indication of intent to commit aggression that it would only be attempted in coordination with a general assault launched with rockets, blockbusters, bacteria, and mechanized armies. Mr. Baruch was correct in insisting that the United States should give up its bombs only in return for a system that promised "swift and certain punishment" for violators, but he underestimated the price of such a system. Changes more fundamental than a juggling of voting rules in the Security Council are necessary.
Since, veto or no veto, war would result from the first interference with the inspection system, the Plan calls for a strategic balance of atomic plants among the nations in order to equalize their bomb-making capacity. The number and size of atomic Plants for the peaceful production of electric power that the authority maintains in each country will be an essential factor in its national security. If one nation seizes the plants within its territory, the others will be forced to seize theirs, and the side that has the largest atomic industry will enjoy a considerable advantage in the resulting war. In view of this fact, how can the nations possibly reach the agreement on plant distribution, which must precede acceptance of the Plan?
If the Soviet government believed, as it has some reason to believe, that the United States and the British Commonwealth would be allied against it in any future war, it could hardly agree to an equal division of atomic power facilities among the three. Nor can one imagine either the United States or Great Britain consenting to an allocation of plants which would give the Soviet Union as large an atomic industry as they owned together. One cannot slice a pie into three pieces so that each piece will be bigger than either of the other two.
The difficulty of agreeing on a particular distribution of atomic industry is further complicated by the impossibility of equalizing all the factors that condition the speed with which the various nations can convert to bomb production. The high level of industrialization, the technological skill, and the special experience of the United States with atomic energy combine to give this country a distinct advantage in any sudden attempt to construct bombs. The Soviet leaders might well hesitate to agree to a plan which, upon the first violation, would commit them to an atomic armament race which they would have little hope of winning against the technological superiority of the United States.
If accepted, the Baruch Plan would not remove the fear of aggression. It would merely prevent atomic bombs from being used in the first months of the war. Military power would have to remain the first and overriding objective of every government, and so long as this is true it is difficult to believe that so important an element of armed strength as atomic industry could be distributed according to any prearranged scheme. The Soviet government can reasonably refuse either to permit inspection or to discontinue its efforts to produce its own bombs so long as there is no assurance that the United States has ceased to build the long-range rockets and biological weapons with which the urban population of Russia can be annihilated. The United States Senate might well be justified in refusing to destroy our atomic bombs except in conjunction with the demobilization of the Red Army and in return for material evidence that Russia was not preparing for other types of specialized warfare.
Atomic bombs cannot be successfully prohibited while aggression in all its other forms remains possible. Security is indivisible and cannot be realized by attempting to ban one particular weapon. Another war cannot be prevented or even delayed by futile attempts to draft a set of Marquis of Queensberry rules that will be ignored the moment the conflict occurs. Unless the nations are willing to join in erecting reliable safeguards against war itself and all attempts to prepare for it, the rivalry for atomic bombs and for every other element of military power will continue to its disastrous conclusion.
We are led inescapably to the conclusion that changes in the UN more fundamental than the Baruch proposals must be advanced by our government if we are to have any chance of avoiding the approaching conflict. These necessary changes are logical developments of the existing structure. They can be accomplished by basic amendment of the Charter. The objective is a UN that has sufficient legal authority and material power to prevent the ownership or use by any nation of the means of organized warfare. It must be capable of apprehending potential aggressors before they have acquired enough armed strength to be dangerous. National preparation for war must be made not only unnecessary but impossible. Until these minimum requirements are fulfilled by workable World institutions, peace between the nations can be no more than the temporary and suspicious truce that it now is.
In defining this structure of security, two ideas are indispensable. The first is the concept of an enforceable law that binds individuals. The incredible destructiveness of modern weapons makes it essential that security rest on a legal system of effective prevention and individual penalization rather than on collective measures that are merely another name for war. The UN must be given the constitutional authority to maintain the peace through laws that call for obedience from the individual inhabitants of the world as their first duty and which no national government may override. By thus establishing individual responsibility, it will become possible for the first time to arrest and try the instigators of aggression as criminals before they have had the opportunity to plunge their country into war.
National governments will never submit themselves and their citizens to the rule of law unless there is a federal division of authority. Only those functions of government that are determined to be indispensable to the prevention of war need be transferred to the UN, while the member states retain their independence of action in all other matters. Those who oppose the strengthening of the UN by raising fears of a tyrannical superstate grossly exaggerate the kind of change that is being proposed. No responsible advocate of world law has ever suggested that the national governments should be made subordinate to an all-powerful central government.
Since there must be a federal division of authority, the problem is to define how the line can be drawn so that national governments are asked to give up no more of their independence than is absolutely essential to the preservation of peace. The first clear necessity is the limitation of armed forces. National governments can be allowed to retain only the weapons needed for the maintenance of domestic order. The revised Charter will have to list those arms which it will be a punishable crime for any national official or citizen to plan, produce, or posess. It is essential that all the major weapons be prohibited, not just atomic bombs. These would include biological and chemical weapons, tanks, warships, and the like; in fact, the whole range of heavy armament designed for the mass slaughter of international war. Similarly, a limit must be set on the number of troops that any government can be allowed to retain. So long as the nations posess any of the means of indiscriminate destruction, they are a continuous threat to each other and have the strength to oppose with large-scale war any attempt by the UN to enforce its regulations.
In order to ensure obedience to the rules regulating national armament, the UN must have the right to maintain an international inspection system with free access into all nations. Recruited from the able scientists and technicians of every country, these international inspectors must conduct a continuous world-wide search for all attempts to produce illegal armament. Through aerial and ground surveys and through inspection of mines and industries, efforts to prepare for aggression can be detected before a dangerous number of the prohibited weapons have been secretly amassed. The technical problems involved in this inspection are great but they are not insoluble, provided that the inspectors enjoy freedom of movement.
As the Lilienthal Report indicated, inspection alone is not sufficient protection in the atomic energy industry. An international authority established under the revised Charter must manage and control those aspects of the peaceful development of atomic energy that can be diverted with dangerous ease to the secret production of bombs. Similar measures of positive international control may perhaps prove to be necessary in other fields.
In addition to the constitutional authority to prohibit certain weapons, to limit the size of national armed forces, and to establish preventive measure of inspection and control, the UN must have the right to prohibit all use of force in the settlement of international disputes. Once the responsibility for defending nations from attack has been shifted from the many national governments to the UN, all attempts by a nation to organize for war can be clearly identified as aggressive in purpose. If the principle that aggression is a crime, under which the Nazi leaders were sentenced at Nuremberg, is to have any meaning in the future, it must find expression in specific and enforceable legislation binding on the citizens of all nations. Until national governments are no longer dependent on their separate armies for defense against each other, outlawry of aggression will be a futile gesture, because defensive and aggressive preparations are indistinguishable up to the moment when an attack is launched.
The UN must be given not only the right to prohibit war and to prevent preparations for war but the armed power to enforce that authority. A revised Charter must empower the UN to raise, train, and support under its own command individuals owing exclusive allegiance to it and sufficiently heavily armed to ensure prompt execution of the world laws. It is not enough that governments should agree to hold available contingents of their national armies for use by the UN. The world police must be responsible to the UN alone and must be entirely distinct from such form as the national governments are allowed to retain for the maintenance of order among their own citizens. This central security force must be strong enough to be dependable, but safeguards against its misuse must also be found.
The nature of its armament would be determined by the two distinct functions it should be prepared to perform. Its usual task would be comparable to that of the FBI in the United States. Working in conjunction with the international inspectors and the world courts, it would have the responsibility of arresting such individuals or small criminal groups as might attempt to evade the laws regulating the manufacture of weapons and the production of atomic energy. In the performance of this duty, the members of the UN police would have the support of all national governments and would need only small arms for their own protection.
They would also have to be prepared to deal with revolt by an entire nation against the UN. For this purpose, the UN police must have those modern weapons which the national governments would be prohibited from owning. The very fact that the UN would have a monopoly on this heavy armament would reduce to the vanishing point attempts at national revolt. They could be quickly suppressed before the nationalists had the opportunity to produce a significant amount of war machinery.
Whether atomic bombs should be included among the weapons at the disposal of the world police is a debatable question. It can be argued that the atomic bomb is so inhuman a device, and the slaughter it causes so indiscriminate, that all those in existence should be destroyed and none ever again constructed. On the other hand, the temptation to evade the inspection system might be increased if the UN police force did not have its own supply of atomic bombs. A very few clandestinely produced bombs in the hands of hysterical nationalists would constitute a real challenge to the power of the police. But if the police itself had bombs in addition to its other armament, successful revolt would be out of the question.
The distribution of the UN police contingents in various strategic areas throughout the world is necessary both to ensure swift action and as a safeguard against a coup d'etat. The concentration of the entire armament of the UN in one locality would create the danger of its seizure by conspirators. If a network of UN bases were established, each manned by an armed unit of the police, the seizure of any one base could be met by the joint action of the rest, and the chances of conspiracy by personnel of the police would be greatly reduced.
The arms of this world guard could be supplied originally from those weapons now in the possession of national governments. Since the police would not have to compete with armed opponents, it could afford to destroy most of this armament, maintaining only enough to guarantee its superiority over the disarmed national governments.
Finally, there is the problem of nationalistic loyalties and prejudices. A limit must be set on the number of volunteers that can enlist from each nation, and a similar quota should be observed in the selection of commanding officers. In the unlikely event of national revolt, there would still be the possibility that those members of the police who were citizens of the rebellious state might refuse to act against their countrymen or might even take up arms in their defense.
To meet this danger, only the smallest units—platoons or companies—should be permitted to contain men of a single nationality, so that no concerted action by large numbers belonging to one country would be possible. Good pay, high standards of enlistment, and a sense of the transcendent importance of their responsibility would help to attract the kind of men required. Many veterans of the last war who could be persuaded only with the greatest difficulty to fight in another nationalistic conflict can be counted on to volunteer for service in an international force whose duty will not be to fight wars but to prevent them from occurring. Full national disarmament and the creation of a preponderantly powerful UN guard are the two fundamental and indespensible requisites of a workable system of security. Disarmament of the nations will never become a fact unless it is accompanied by the armament of the UN, so that there may be the certainty of swift and sure punishment for any who attempt aggression.
A strong UN must have an assured and adequate source of funds. Yet to allow it the broad authority to levy taxes that is possessed, for example, by the Federal government of the United States would give it the power to change the internal social and economic structure of every nation. A state cannot control the nature of its economy unless it controls the distribution of taxation. To demand that the national governments give up this right would surely prevent their entrance into the security system. A compromise is necessary, and several have been proposed. One suggestion has been that the UN be allowed to tax only international trade. It has also been pointed out that through its control of atomic energy a strengthened UN would be able eventually to support itself by sale of atomically generated power to governments and private companies.
In comparison with the astronomical sums that nations now expend in futile efforts to surpass each other in the armament competition, the amount each would have to contribute to maintain an effective UN would be insignificant. The fear of atomic destruction is not the only universal sentiment that can unite all states under a world law. Common to all nations is the desire to throw off the growing burden of armaments and to turn their factories and skills to the production of the moans of sustaining life rather than of destroying it.
The amended Charter should deny the right to secede. If it is to guarantee protection, the UN cannot allow its members the right to withdraw when they see fit. A nation must not be able to free itself from international supervision, forcing a renewal of the arms race and certain war. In view of the nature of the new weapons, secession would be synonymous with aggression.
Finally, the Charter must reserve to the member nations all powers not specifically transferred to the UN. In agreeing to this amended Charter, national governments would be giving up only the right and means of annihilating each other. Each nation would remain free to practice whatever form of economy its people desired.
The fear that a broad interpretation of the new Charter might enable the UN to overstep its authority can be greatly reduced if the basic world law is written in detail into the original amendments. The more specific the Charter is in its definition of the security code regulating disarmament and prohibiting inter-nation war, the less each government will fear being outvoted and coerced on matters it deems of exclusively national concern. Acceptance by all nations of the necessary restrictions is more likely if they are presented for ratification as constitutional legislation rather than as broad grants of authority to the UN to make laws at a later date.
If the nations are to agree on transferring the functions of government here outlined to the UN, it is clear that they will also be compelled to change its internal structure. This reorganization will be the result of compromise, and it would be foolish to advocate one particular governmental structure as superior to all possible alternatives. However, investigation of some of the problems will help to show how the security system would operate.
The power to legislate should be given to the General Assembly, but its legislative functions should be severely restricted by requiring that any basic change in the code written into the revised Charter should be subject to the veto of the great powers. Therefore the Assembly would be limited to the passing of administrative rules to guide the executive and judicial branches of the UN in their implementation of the security regulations.
In order to protect the great powers from being outvoted on these administrative decisions by a combination of the more numerous smaller states, some modification of simple majority vote rule would have to be adopted. It would be advisable to require that Assembly decisions be taken by a two-thirds majority and it might even be necessary to stipulate that this two-thirds majority should include the concurring votes of any three of the five large nations which are now permanent members of the Security Council. It would be possible under this arrangement for either the United States or the Soviet Union to be outvoted, but only on matters connected with the administration of the laws essential to the common safety of all nations.
Unless the American and Russian governments are willing to give up the right to veto the procedural legislation indispensable to the sustained operation of the inspection and control system, there is danger that a single negative vote on a matter such as the allocation of funds might jeopardize the whole structure. Once the decision is taken to establish methods of enforcing laws prohibiting national armament and aggression, it follows that no country can insist on a unanimity rule that would render this control unworkable.
Under the Charter as it stands, the Security Council has a monopoly on the effective power of the UN. The Council is a drumhead court with the authority to declare arbitrarily what the law is in each dispute that comes before it and to apply against entire nations whatever penalty suits its pleasure. It is not surprising that only those large nations which have an assured majority in the Council have been willing to surrender any part of their veto power. No powerful government can be expected to submit itself and its citizens to the arbitrary judgment of the diplomatic agents of heavily armed and potentially hostile sovereign states. The composition and function of the Council mist be radically altered before the unanimity rule as it applies to enforcement action can be modified.
When the basic law has been agreed upon, world courts erected, and the Assembly reconstituted as a legislative body, the Council will have lost its present function of determining when and if aggression has occurred. The laws regulating disarmament and prohibiting war would then supply on objective standard for the UN tribunals to apply. Once the facts had been proved against individual violators, the penalties would be enforced as provided in the established criminal code. There would be no place then for the Security Council in its present form.
The Council must be reconstructed as an executive commission or cabinet, responsible to the Assembly for the execution of the world laws. Its individual members might be chosen by the Assembly. In order to prevent domination of the executive by any one nationality, provision might be made for the rotation of the most important administrative posts among those nominated by flip great powers, or a committee system might be devised to ensure the international character of the administrative departments. The main task of the executive branch would be the direction of the UN Inspectors and police and the operation of the atomic development authority.
In this executive branch there is no place for the veto. If an official of the UN could, through a single negative vote, invalidate the judgment of the courts and suspend the action of the world police in order to protect citizens of his own nation from the consequences of their guilt, the security system would be a farce.
When the league structure of the UN has been replaced by a legal order, the reasons that force the major nations to cling to their veto rights in the Council will be less compelling. The Council would then no longer have the authority to pronounce arbitrary sentence on entire nations. It would be limited to ensuring the prompt execution of the judgments of the world courts against those who violated the regulations recognized as essential to the maintenance of peace and security. Many critics of the veto power have failed to see that their agitation for change in the voting rules of the present Security Council only tends to confirm the Russians in their suspicion that all attempts to amend the Charter are a conspiracy against them. Elimination of the unanimity rule as it applies to enforcement action is necessary, but it involves a fundamental revision of the Charter.
In addition, there is need for a system of UN courts with compulsory jurisdiction in all cases arising under the world laws. Trials of those apprehended by the inspectors for attempting to manufacture the prohibited weapons would be held in these courts. A Bill of Rights should be included in the Charter, guaranteeing a fair trial to those accused of violating the security code. This Bill of Rights would be binding only on the UN and its officials. It should not apply to the operation of national governments and could not be employed by the UN to interfere in the internal affairs of any nation.
These then are the changes in the structure of the UN which appear to be necessary if the familiar cycle of fear, competitive arming, and war is to be broken. They are admittedly radical changes and they involve a profound adjustment in traditional institutions and ways of thinking. It is quite possible, even probable, that national leaders both in this country and in Russia will refuse to face these realities until it is too late to draw back from the disaster to which propaganda and preparedness will have committed them.
The vast majority of the American people do not want another war, with all its incredible horrors of atomic and biological attack. Neither do the Russian people, who have already endured so much. But corrupted by power or blinded by national pride and doctrinaire beliefs, our leaders and theirs may refuse to make those sacrifices of national independence and armed strength that are the true cost of pence. Of one thing, we can be sure. If the UN is not strengthened in time to avert war, a long night of ignorance and brutality will descend upon our ingenious species. Neither we nor our children's children will live to see the faint light of a new dawn.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.
Copyright © 1947 by Cord Meyer Jr. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1947; Vol. 170, No. 4; pages 33-39.