Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 19: Building a Workable Peace (1946)

At each stage in the effort to maintain international peace and security created by the Charter, the Security Council is given important functions. In reaching a decision, however, a vital question arises: Must the Security Council, as the executive of the United Nations, act unanimously? Or may it exercise even its police functions on less than a unanimous vote?

No question is of greater importance-or difficulty. The delegates at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference were unable to agree on a workable formula. At Yalta, the Big Three reached a tentative agreement which became, in fact, the basis of the procedure laid down in the Charter.

Briefly stated, the formula is as follows: Each state has one vote. Questions of procedure in the operation of the United Nations Organization may be decided by a vote of any seven members of the Council. On other questions, the majority of seven must include all the Big Five-except that when a dispute involving any member, including one of the Big Five, is being considered by the Security Council that state may not vote on the question of recommending a peaceful method of settlement. It may, .however, vote on the question of applying economic or military sanctions to itself.

The formula creates what some have called a “veto” by any one of the Big Five on the use of the police power to maintain international peace. If, they say, one of the Big Five can prevent the use of economic or military sanctions against itself, or against a smaller nation which it favors, then the whole structure of peace created by the Charter is an illusion.


Is the veto a necessary part of the charter?

The argument against the veto power rests on the assumption that a world organization can be created today in the image of a national government. In every stable national government, the executive has a monopoly of all the police power of the state. No other agency of government—nor any private group—commands force adequate to defy the executive. The same monopoly of force—and discretion in its use—should, it is contended, be granted to the new world government and its executive agency, the Security Council.

The same centralization of authority is not yet true of the organized family of nations. Every national state possesses sovereignty—that is, freedom of decision in its domestic and international policies. The United Nations organization rests, in fact, on the principle of equal sovereignty of all its members. As long as this principle rules international relations, no world government can be set up with the same degree of centralized executive power as is found in the national governments of the various United Nations.

The framers of the Charter did not attempt the impossible. Suppose the Security Council had been given the power to override the will of one of the Big Five as to applying economic or military sanctions to itself. Would any of them have been willing—in the present state of national thinking about sovereignty—to ratify the Charter? It seems doubtful, for instance, that American opinion would have supported ratification if this country did not retain some authority over the use of economic and military sanctions against itself. Similar reluctance was shown by the governments and peoples of the other Big Five powers.

Strictly on grounds of political expediency, therefore; though certainly not on the principle of the sovereign equality of all states, the veto power of the Big Five can be justified.

Does the veto power make the Charter ineffective?

Regardless of all this, it would not be correct to say that the veto power makes the Charter ineffective. First, the whole structure for maintaining international peace and security is carefully worked out to hang together. Each part meshes into every other part to insure that persuasion toward peaceful settlement will be progressively effective. Each of the stages already noted will operate to reduce not only the causes of dispute but the desire of any people to act as aggressors against others.

Second, all members of the United Nations have agreed to settle their disputes only by peaceful means and not to wage war or use force or the threat of force against other states. Here is a standard of action by which all states have voluntarily bound themselves. If one nation—even one of the Big Five—breaks its agreement, world opinion will be mobilized against it. United opinion will be focused on the aggressor through the General Assembly as well as the Security Council.

Will mobilized world opinion be effective?

In the last analysis, peaceful international no less than peaceful national government depends on the will of the people. If the will of the people of any country to maintain order through government disappears, domestic anarchy and violence result. If that will is maintained, then “domestic tranquillity,” as our Constitution puts it, is “insured.” The same is true of international order-or anarchy.

The united force of world opinion is the ultimate “sanction” for keeping the peace and settling all disputes peacefully. If that opinion is united, then there is every reason to expect that the necessary force, economic or military, will be applied to any aggressor to maintain international peace and security. Is this mobilized opinion likely to result from the Charter?

The strongest force impelling the people of the world to unite against an aggressor is self-interest. The human suffering and the social and economic costs of this war are beyond calculation. If we take into account only material losses-the bombed cities and the ravaged countrysides-years of work on the part of whole peoples will be necessary to restore even the conditions of 1939.

But these are not the only losses which must go into the balance sheet of modern war. Time out from productive work for millions of men and women, casualties that must be cared for, higher disease and death rates and lower birth rates, depressed national morale and moral standards—these are all a part of the account. Even the advances in science and medicine, which war often brings, do not balance it. Every one of the advances could be made as rapidly in peace as in wartime, if we wished to make them for “the general welfare.”

If the people of the world add up the cost of war as against the cost of maintaining a stable security organization, the ledger gives only one answer.

This is why, perhaps, the mobilized opinion of the peoples of the United Nations can be expected to support the peace system established by the Charter. It is to their own self-interest-in the long no less than in the short run. If they see the problem in some such terms as these, and continue to see it that way, then the Charter gives them the framework for a lasting peace. Their mobilized opinion will back up the use of their mobilized police power to stop aggression—if need be with force.

Next section: What Is America’s Stake in the Charter?