On the one hand, observers have expressed fond remembrance of its birth and hope for its future, as Pope John Paul II did in his address to the UN General Assembly earlier this month when he urged its members to make it "a moral center." Such optimism has been offset by dispiriting experiences in Somalia and Bosnia, leading other observers to wonder whether the UN will survive much beyond its first half-century.
But the UN reflects its membership, say several Boston College faculty with expertise in international issues, and that is at the heart of its difficulties. Conceived during World War II, its formative years shaped by the Cold War, they say, the UN finds itself in a world radically different from that in which it originated. Only when its major players find their own post-Cold War identities can the UN's role - paradoxical in some ways at the outset - be established.
"The UN is nothing more or less than what its principal members allow it to be," said Assoc. Prof. David Deese (Political Science). "The key members, however, have not given that much for the UN to live up to. I don't think the UN has lived up to the US's expectations, but then the US has not given it the resources, support or the moral and political authority necessary to do that."
"I don't want to cast the UN as a failure," said Black Studies Program Chairman Assoc. Prof. Frank Taylor (History). "The forum it provides is so valuable, where even if you're a small, weak country, you can bring your case to the world. The thing about the UN is its built-in contradictions: It looks like a one-nation, one-vote democracy, but it is fundamentally an oligarchy, with a few states - those in the Security Council - holding veto powers."
A look at its membership, in fact, suggests the vast changes the UN has undergone in 50 years. On V-J Day 1945, it consisted of only 51 member states, many of them under the influence of European powers or the US. There are now 185 member states, a great many of them former colonies who only gained independence within the UN's first few decades.
The influence of these post-colonial members, however, was overshadowed at first by East-West tensions, faculty say. But even though US-Soviet imbroglio colored many aspects of the UN's life, gradually the younger, under-developed nations from Africa, Central America and other regions began to make their presence felt - a circumstance for which the major UN members, especially the US, were unprepared.
"The former colonies entering made it a noisy classroom," said part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology). "The US began to discount the General Assembly and focused more on the Security Council to do its work."
This de facto separation, along with America's long-standing wariness of foreign entanglements, faculty say, has undoubtedly contributed to confusion and uncertainty about what the UN can and cannot accomplish.
"The issue is one of consensus," said Assoc. Prof. Robert Ross (Political Science). "Where the UN has been successful, such as overseeing the elections in Cambodia recently, it has done so with the consensus of major and local powers. In that case, to a considerable extent, the UN 'backed the winners' - the side which enjoyed widespread support. In Bosnia, however, the more powerful side is not widely supported."
"There are occasions when the UN has been used as an instrument for waging political conflict," said Prof. William Gamson (Sociology). "On other occasions, it is a forum where conflicts are brokered in true diplomatic fashion, and still others when it is employed as a peace-keeper. Those roles can and do conflict."
It is the latter, more military role, which tends to draw the most attention to the UN and its difficulties, such as in Somalia or Bosnia. But the other UN functions, in areas like agriculture, technology and health, also deserve notice, the faculty say, especially as the Cold War recedes further into memory and other crises come to the fore.
"Traditionally, people have thought of 'security' in terms of war, but now we must conceive of it in other ways," Taylor said. "Look at the problems posed by, for example, the Ebola crisis in Zaire, the movement of dislocated populations in African countries, and even the xenophobia that has been evident in reunited Germany and other nations. That is where the attention of the UN and its members should focus."
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