Beyond the twin white towers of the United Nations, along the bank of Manhattan's East River, the crude bronze
sculpture depicts St. George slaying a twoheaded dragon. The monster’s scaled and writhing body, made up of dismembered olivegreen American Pershing and Soviet SS-20 missiles, symbolizes the defeat of the spectre of nuclear war. The Soviet delegation to the United Nations officially unveiled the statue last week as its gift to mark the end of the Cold War between the superpowers. In addition to last week’s historic arms agreement between Washington and Moscow, the new era was evident at the United Nations, where, 45 years after its birth, the crisis in the Persian Gulf has propelled the organization to new prominence—and finally allowed it to play its intended role as the world’s peace broker. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, reading a prepared statement from President Mikhail Gorbachev at the statue’s official unveiling
last week, said that the sculpture is a “symbol of the new Soviet-U.S. relationship and the coming of peace in the life of mankind.” Added Shevardnadze: “The United Nations, which is now assuming the role intended for it by its founders, is an indispensable factor in this process.”
Emboldened by the new and startling bond between the Soviet Union and the United States, the United Nations has exerted a growing role in world events over the past 2lh years. It helped to negotiate the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February, 1989, and the 1988 ceasefire in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Said Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations: “All of those things conferred on the UN a renewed legitimacy. There is no question that the UN has come into its own.” With that new legitimacy, however, many UN diplomats warned that the organization will now be expected to address a host of other regional disputes.
Ironically, it took the prospect of war in the Middle East to cement the United Nations’ powerful new role as an arbiter of international security. Since Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2, the UN Security Council has passed nine resolutions condemning the invasion and annexation of the independent Gulf state. It has demanded that Iraq, immediately and unconditionally, withdraw its invasion force. And it has called upon Iraq and Kuwait to start negotiations to resolve their outstanding differences. Further, it has organized an economic boy-
cotí of all trade with Iraq, except humanitarian shipments of food and medicine, and sanctioned a minimum use of military might to enforce a naval blockade in the Gulf. That unanimity has led to an unprecedented military buildup in the Gulf region of a force of about 300,000 from at least 26 countries, including Canada.
In his speech at the opening session of the 45th annual General Assembly, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark called the Iraqi invasion a “litmus test for what the United Nations can now become.” Added Clark: “If we succeed here, the United Nations will send a clear and unambiguous signal to others that the world is now different—that it will not tolerate aggression and that international law is to be obeyed and not ignored.” Added President George Bush: “We’ve shown that the United Nations can count on the collective strength of the international community. The UN is now fulfilling its promise as the world’s parliament of peace.”
Such high praise marked a dramatic departure from former president Ronald Reagan’s open disdain of the organization in the 1980s. Created in 1945 out of the ashes of the Second World War, the United Nations soon became mired in Cold War politics. The United States and the Soviet Union, embroiled in a series of proxy wars from Vietnam to Nicaragua, exchanged ideological taunts across the Security Council table. The debates were sterile, and significant UN resolutions were stymied by vetoes from one or the other superpower. Said Yves Fortier, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations: “I saw it as a debating society with lots of rhetoric, very little action.”
In 1982, Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar reported a dramatic slide towards irrelevancy. “The Security Council all too often finds itself unable to take decisive action,” de Cuéllar said, “and its resolutions are increasingly defied or ignored by those that feel themselves strong enough to do so.” He lamented the United Nations’ inability to coax Israel out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, or to achieve any resolution to a host of civil wars that had left thousands of people dead in Central America. He concluded on a stark note: “We are perilously close to a new international anarchy.”
That grim forecast coincided with strong anti-UN sentiment among American conservatives. In a searing attack on the world body in 1983, the conservative, Washington-based Heritage Foundation slammed the United Nations as a threat to American national interests. Criticizing what it said was the United Nations’ “inefficiency, cronyism, high pay and lavish expense accounts,” the foundation urged the U.S. government to abandon the organization. And even Reagan’s appointee as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, argued that “instead of being an effective instrument for conflict resolution, the UN serves as an arena in which conflict is polarized, extended and exacerbated.” During the Reagan era, the administration withdrew from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and withheld hundreds of millions of
dollars in annual dues from UN agencies.
By 1990, Washington owed the United Nations more than $500 million in scheduled payments. That proved embarrassing to President Bush at a time when he was looking for UN approval to legitimize the U.S. military deployment in the Persian Gulf. Last month, a Senate subcommittee voted to begin paying Washington’s past debts, and the House has passed a similar measure. But the debt repayment may yet stall over disagreements between U.S. and UN officials over how to spend those funds. And some UN delegates expressed concern that Washington’s sudden support for the organization—and the remarkable degree of SovietU.S. co-operation over the Gulf crisis—reflected little more than a coincidental convergence of superpower interests. Said Jordanian Ambassador Abdullah Salah: “There is the fear that the venom with which the big powers acted will not be used in the same manner elsewhere.” He added, “It is a new era in the history of the UN, and we will put the United States to the test.”
In fact, despite the United Nations’ best efforts, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has maintained an unshaken grip on Kuwait. And there were signs last week that the organization’s solidarity was beginning to crack. Already, in the cluttered corridors of the glass skyscrapers that house the permanent missions of the 160 UN member states, there were rumblings that Washington was flexing its military might too quickly and not allowing diplomatic sanctions to squeeze Iraq into compliance. And some UN ambassadors warned that, if Western states lead a military assault against Iraq, they could further radicalize those Arabs who support Hussein as a strong leader willing to stand up for Arab interests. Said one senior Western diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous: “There is a growing realization within the UN of the enormity of a military conflict, not just in military and economic terms, but in social terms, the effect [it would have] on the radicalization of the Arab world.” He added, “There has to be muscle to the UN action, but that has to be tempered by a realization that military confrontation is very difficult and very dangerous.”
The ability of the United Nations to maintain its unprecedented unity will be tested in the next decade, several UN ambassadors said, by how well it addresses the enormous economic chasm between the Third World and industrialized nations and by how it copes with major environmental issues. “If it cannot address these problems by the year 2000,” said Lewis, “the UN will be seen to be fatally flawed.” Added Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson: “In all the euphoria over the Gulf, we have seen very little progress in the UN’s role in the social and economic field. There is a very real danger that we could move from an East-West war to a North-South war.” Despite those warnings, the Gulf crisis has clearly offered the United Nations dramatic new opportunities to work towards a more peaceful world order.
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