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Parliaments, Priests and Prophets

Parliaments, Priests and Prophets

"I wish you wouldn't squeeze so," said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. "I can hardly breathe." "I can't help it," said Alice very meekly. "I'm growing."

-Alice in Wonderland

It is by now a commonplace to say that the increase in the membership of the United Nations from sixty to eighty has been a long step towards universality. Speaking quantitatively, this is a geographical fact. But it has brought about qualitative changes - or, rather, by enlarging the mirror has expanded the view of the world and changed our perspective. This has other significances than a mere increase in size.

Of the three arms of the United Nations, the judicial is the weakest because the least exercised. In spite of a considerable body of international law available and in operation, major disputes still tend to be regarded as political situations amenable to political remedies rather than legal situations which need to be submitted to judicial scrutiny. Nevertheless, the existence of the judicial arm is important, as without it the full concept of international organization based on the ideas of peace, order and justice cannot take shape.

The other two functions, namely, parliamentary - I advisedly do not say legislative - and executive, are respectively exercised by the General Assembly and the Secretariat. The Security Council is in the middle; for it was designed to discharge both functions: to suggest methods for the settlement of disputes as well as take speedy action required for the implementation of its (parliamentary) suggestions or decisions. In the structure of the United Nations, the Security Council was assigned a pivotal position.

But the Security Council failed to live up to its promise. It could hardly have been otherwise, for it was constructed on two assumptions which only naive optimism could have upheld and which history has, in any case, falsified: namely, that after the war the Big Five would continue to be friendly to each other, and that whatever tensions and upheavals might trouble the world they would not be the source. In other words, they assumed a kind of apostolic status whereby they would look after the morals of the world, themselves having achieved perpetual purity.

Very soon, however, the Big Five ceased to act in unison and became merely co-belligerents of the past rather than allies in the great human adventures that lay ahead. Also, it was, alas, found that, whatever the motives for war, no nation was quite free from them. Indeed, it was not long before the gravest danger seemed to come, not from the smaller nations, but from a possible conflict between those that were elevated in the structure of the United Nations to be custodians and the guarantors of peace. The situation today, therefore, is that the Security Council can assume a monitory role when smaller nations are concerned, but built-in provision protects the bigger nations from their own admonitions. Had this been clearly foreseen by the smaller nations or had the United Nations Organization been constructed in an epoch of calm rather than in a period when enthusiasm ran high and trust was deep, it is doubtful whether the bigger nations of the world would have got away with a privilege which can be used to save themselves from their own castigation.

If the Security Council fails to act in a major crisis, how can the United Nations continue to function? The response to this question was passage of the "Uniting for Peace" Resolution: a constitutional device designed to allow the responsibilities of the Security Council to pass as far as possible to the General Assembly in case the Council were paralyzed. Of course, none of the major Powers foresaw that this instrument would be used in hitherto unsuspected situations, although almost everybody else did. And so it is that in recent crises the paralysis of the Security Council has led to the emergency sessions of the General Assembly in a manner which postwar complacency could hardly have foreseen.

Thus the General Assembly has acquired great power. But it is not in a position to use that power to give itself great strength. It can make unprecedented decisions, momentous and even revolutionary in character, yet its strength is no greater than it used to be. It. can recommend, request, threaten, but it cannot order, nor has it a standing police force, nor the prestige to commandeer the help of the major Powers to provide it with the machinery for action in the field. At any rate, not yet. Consequently, the more single-minded and determined the General Assembly, the more it will have to rely on the executive for the implementation of its decisions and even the finer interpretation of its intentions.

This has enhanced the role of the Secretariat in an unprecedented manner. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that it has highlighted the most dynamic function of the executive which had rusted unused. For, to say that the Secretariat has acquired a new role would be to imply that its functions were ever meticulously defined or fixed and that it has now burst its bounds. The United Nations is a unique organization in that it came into existence with a future which could only be dimly described. What form, what function, what shape its various organs were to acquire was left to history and evolution. The Secretariat was perhaps conceived, albeit not labelled, primarily as a "servicing" organization a glorified kind of indentured labour. That conception still persists here and there. Yet the Secretariat is constitutionally equal in independence and in stature to every other principal organ of the United Nations and there is nothing in the Charter to imply that it is to serve as the United Nations' pantry. True, it must perform some tasks of a purely utilitarian nature, but those are its minimum not its maximum functions. Recent events have brought this home to everyone. The office of Secretary-General, when it was created under the Charter, was like a new body thrown into the universe. Whether it would be a planet or a star or a meteor, whether it would have an elliptical or a circular orbit, what its speed would be, whether it would be a satellite or the centre of a new solar system - was left to time and space. To time and space and to the person. It is fortunate that the present Secretary-General has the instincts of a diplomat, a detached view of national involvements, a high sense of mission and a sensitive touch when dealing with persons and moments. But it might have been otherwise and somewhere between him and the parliament the initiative might have been lost.

The Secretariat, having been regarded for ten years or so as a conglomeration of round-shouldered, self-denying clerks, no doubt found itself faced with tasks for which its muscles had not been exercised. Having been geared in the past to mere "servicing" operations, the Secretariat was, as it stood, unprepared for its new responsibilities, but given the will and drive, it was found to be capable of quick and efficient improvisations which enabled it to meet all emergencies in a surprisingly efficient manner.

The present situation, therefore, may be summed up as a vitalization of the parliament for policy-making in close coordination with the Secretary-General, frequently under his leadership, and a vitalization of the Secretariat for action.

It may be expected that during the next phase of the United Nations the' Secretariat will continue to maintain and probably enhance its stature as an instrument of the United Nations for combining the three difficult functions diplomatic, executive and administrative - in descending order of emphasis. It may also now be taken for granted that the concept of the Secretary-General as mainly an administrator who should merely keep the "servicing" operations of the Secretariat in an efficient state has been outdated.

Side by side with this development, anxious thought will probably also continue to be given to the future of the Security Council and to various methods for giving it soul and muscle. It is doubtful, however, whether there is much prospect of success along conservative lines. To make a certain number of major Powers responsible for the peace of the world, and at the same time place them in a privileged position in which they themselves are protected from their own admonitions, seems to be an outmoded idea. Also, with the increase in the membership of the General Assembly and the shift in centres of world power, the 1945 Security Council, with its big five, the small six and the total eleven, might well begin to look like a museum piece.

More likely is the development that the General Assembly, for each of its decisions requiring major action, will create ad hoc supervisory or advisory bodies working in close cooperation with the Secretary-General. The recent crises have demonstrated the potentialities of this way of international life. Of course, age has not withered nor custom stalled the infinite variety of strain and harmony between any parliament and its executive, and the growth of the relationship between these two in the United Nations will not be without its anxieties and excitements. But, although the parliament will continue to be the constitutional source of policy, it will have to lean heavily on the Secretariat for exploration, advice and guidance. In other words, apart from anything else, there will be a greater sharing of policy-making between the parliament and the executive. Indeed, any executive with vitality and initiative is bound to step into this role. The Secretariat should not refrain from undertaking the mission which history seems, growingly, to assign to it, if only because, by virtue of its position, it is able to deliberate more calmly and at a healthy remove from day-to-day national conflicts. The world should welcome this shift, for great changes are afoot. We are on the threshold of a phase in which old contours are beginning to dissolve and power maps of the first half of this century are becoming out of date. In such a period of flux, it is useful to have some sort of lighthouse on some sort of a rock which is reasonably above the storm.

Thus, if one's logic is not too exacting, there are links to be discerned even between the emergent role of the Secretariat and the increase in membership. The larger picture of the world as now reflected in the United Nations has yet to find a frame within which the newly discovered masses and colours should be meaningful and harmoniously .arranged. At the same time, it could, without belittling any statesman's stature, be said that world leadership, which should perform this task, seems for the present to be too widely scattered to be widely acknowledged as resting in any nation or consortium. It should therefore be regarded as the happiest of developments that the executive of the United Nations should take the initiative and should do so not by evolving a new philosophy but by offering that initiative as a natural part of its dutiful service and pledge of office.

A closer look at the new world picture would be useful. The increase in membership is distributed amongst the three older continents as follows: Europe, 10; Asia, 6; Africa, 4; whose previous membership was 16, 15, and 4, respectively. Looking at these figures alone, one would expect that the United Nations, which had hitherto been largely Europe-minded and Europe-centred, would become more so. The actual effect has, however, been in a different direction altogether, for the expansion seems actually to have led to a weakening of the European (or, if you like, Western) fibre in the United Nations and has given almost corresponding strength to the Asian-African strands in it. The reasons for this are various: the loss of empires and of political power that flowed from them; the lack of unity in Europe; and the rise of vigorous nationalism in Asia and Africa. It is true that neither Asia nor the Western countries can be regarded as a single political entity. But, whereas amongst the Asian and African nations there is, in spite of the diversity of governments, religions and races, a remarkable degree of unity on certain global issues, political and economic, the Western nations, in spite of their common legacies, are split or are out of step with each other on almost all issues of world importance. The strong note of nationalism, therefore, heard in the United Nations heralds a new phase. Nationalism, which led to the independence of many Asian and African nations, generated for that purpose a momentum which can hardly be halted on the first day of freedom. Indeed, the tendency is to preserve and develop it further in order to use it as a reservoir of energy needed for raising the standard of life of peoples whose very numbers might fill one with despair. There might have been other ways of creating enthusiasms, and after the experience of Europe the emergent nations of the East might have found a short cut to internationalism. This might still happen if ways could be found to dispel suspicions and if liberalism chose to regard unilateral internationalism as the supreme test of its vitality. But one must record facts as they are.

One must be content to observe, therefore, that the geopolitical centres of the world, which were so strongly associated with Western nations, have begun to shift. Where they will finally rest it is difficult to say, for that would depend on a number of factors - on Soviet-American relations, the final balance in the Middle East, the relations between India, China and Japan, the future of the "white" races in Africa - about which one could only speculate. And, as the United Nations expands further, it will, within its walls, register more and more accurately the political health of the world which to a student of international affairs of an earlier era would not have been visible at all. What it does register at the moment is a great deal of new blood, a restless search for new arteries and - if one may say so - a longing for new hearts.

Liberal political thought has been Europe's greatest gift to the new nations, most of whom have adopted liberal democratic governments, in the Western sense of the term, as their ultimate goal. Nevertheless, the major leaders of public opinion in Asia and Africa can hardly be regarded as unreservedly pro-Western. In fact, the expanded perspective that is now vouchsafed to us seems to underline more heavily the differences. Indeed, the gap seems to be increasing. Below every political tussle there seems to be a lurking sense of geography or colour or race adding to the temperature of the conflict. Such collisions can mean nothing but loss to the world heritage. In order to forge a new synthesis - something that emergent peoples have been attempting on their own for many decades the United Nations can and must provide the great alchemy. This requires a still further enlargement of our concept of the world organization; regarding it, to put it in other words, not merely as a step forward in our political thinking but as a step forward in the great human adventure of which politics, even international politics, is but a part. It is by no means rare to find people in the United Nations who carry this concept with them and evaluate their own labours and the achievement of others by this touchstone. It is fortunate that the most responsible international civil servants of the world should also have this vision which, though not written into the Charter as such, alone makes the Charter a coherent and sacred covenant.

First published in Foreign Affairs, April 1957, pp. 405-411. Reprinted by special permission from FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1957.