UN at 50: Still dominated by the West

[Green Left Weekly, #213, November 28, 1995]

"The dominant impression of the massive international jamboree that marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations", wrote Martin Walker in the November 5 Guardian Weekly, "was the extraordinary degree of resentment that the delegates of most countries now feel for the United States. The clearest display was the speech by Cuba's Fidel Castro, who was cheered to the echo in the longest and most fervent ovation of the three days, even though he did not attack the US by name."

The enthusiasm of the delegates — even in the far from radical forum of the UN — is not so hard to understand. The US, economic colossus and military superpower, is the mainstay of the world capitalist system of inequality, exploitation, militarism and ecological destruction which weighs so heavily on humanity and threatens its very existence. Fidel Castro's address went directly to the heart of the matter in the most eloquent and forceful way.

"Reform or die?" was the heading Time magazine gave its October 23 special issue covering the UN's half-century. This is indeed the question facing the organisation. But what sort of reform? The US wants a body that is even more subordinated to Western interests. The needs of the Third World majority of the UN, however, would clearly be better served by a real democratisation of the organisation.


The United Nations Organisation was set up by the victorious allies at the end of World War II. The founding charter was endorsed by 51 countries. Today 185 states send delegates to the General Assembly.

Right from the start, the Security Council, not the General Assembly, was designed to be the decisive power in the organisation. And even here real power is concentrated not in the full 15-member body but in the five permanent members — the US, Britain, France, Russia and China — who have the power of veto.

The General Assembly elects the Secretary-General, the non-permanent members of the Security Council, members of the International Court of Justice and so on. The General Assembly can pass motions but these have moral authority only; it meets for only one fairly short session each year.

Not only is the idea of permanent members of the Security Council with veto power undemocratic, the composition of the five is now out of alignment with real power relations in today's world. It dates back to the military-political situation confronting the US 50 years ago as the war drew to a close. Then China meant Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist pro-US regime (now Taiwan): it was expelled and replaced by China in 1971. And Russia, now in such obvious and dramatic decline, inherited the seat of the former Soviet Union.

Furthermore, although Britain and France have significant nuclear arsenals, they are today economically second-rank imperialist powers. Along with the US, Germany and Japan are the power houses of world capitalism yet they have no permanent representation on the Security Council. As Time puts it: "Promoters of a fairer system reflecting today's distribution of heft [!] think Germany and Japan deserve permanent seats ... [However] poorer nations would find it hard to stomach a Security Council even more top-heavy with the rich and mighty." Just so.

At a minimum, a progressive reform of the Security Council would involve doing away with the concept of permanent members and the right of veto and radically broadening the Third World representation. Such a reform might at least prevent the US using the UN as a fig leaf to cover its criminal aggression (as it did in Korea in 1950 and in the Gulf War in 1991). However, we would have to assess the likelihood of any such changes being accepted by the permanent five or escaping their veto as extremely remote.


The idea of a world organisation standing above the fray and imposing a just and peaceful order may appeal to some but it can only be a diverting fantasy. Irrespective of the valuable work some of its specialised agencies may do, the UN can never escape being an arena of struggle between contending interests, principally Western imperialism on the one hand and the Third World on the other.

In the early years of the UN, Washington was assured of majority support in the General Assembly because almost the only independent Third World countries were the Latin Americans, who were completely dominated by the US. But as the European colonial empires in Africa and Asia were liquidated in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s, a flood of new members entered the UN and changed the complexion of the General Assembly.

By the mid-seventies the State Department had a lot of trouble getting its way there. The low point for Washington came in 1975 when the Third World-dominated Assembly passed a resolution branding Zionism a racist doctrine. It was revoked in 1991, symbolising the new international balance of forces following the collapse of the USSR.

The undisputed hegemony of the US underlies the big increase in the UN's "peacekeeping" efforts. In its first four decades the UN mounted 13 such operations; since 1988 it has mounted 25. Arguably, the UN-sanctioned operations in the Gulf, in Cambodia and in Croatia-Bosnia had nothing to do with advancing the cause of peace, but a lot to do with promoting Western — essentially US — interests. No wonder Castro's reference to the "new colonialism" in the UN drew such strong applause.

The US trumpets the need for UN "reform" to put an end to the organisation's supposed wastefulness. In an effort to get its way the US is currently withholding US$1.3 billion in UN dues. However, since the US government and its agencies are almost synonymous with waste and corruption, this campaign strikes a rather false note.

Moreover, as Time itself notes: "The harshest critics of UN spending, however, insist that outright fraud is rare, and even extravagance is held back by the simple fact that the UN does not have all that much money to waste. World-wide expenditures of the entire UN system are running about $10.5 billion a year, only slightly more than what the British government alone spends on police."

Undoubtedly, a big part of the UN apparatus lives very well, perhaps too well. But this would seem to be a relatively minor issue compared to the fundamental problem of the West's domination of the organisation through the Security Council — in particular the US which freely wields its tremendous economic and military clout to get its way. It is this reality that any serious reform program must squarely confront.