Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

So far, we have reviewed the formation and functions of three branches of the world organization set up by the San Francisco Conference: the “legislative,” administrative, and judicial. Each of the agencies established in these three fields contributes to making peace more secure by providing machinery for dealing with long-range problems.

Peoples bent on war or the use of force to coerce other countries do not, however, wait for long-range solutions of their grievances. This we learned all too clearly from World War II. What we need, therefore, is a system of insurance against war that will work just as fast as—in fact, faster than—any future act of aggression.

This is why in the United Nations Organization, as in every national government, it is important to create an effective executive agency to carry out decisions. The executive is most capable of quick action with the necessary force and therefore of serving as the police arm of government. In our own Constitution, for instance, the president is charged with seeing that “the laws are faithfully executed.” Does the Charter provide an executive strong enough to see that United Nations purposes and principles are faithfully executed, to provide us with insurance against war?


How is the Security Council organized?

The Security Council is based on the principle that power and responsibility go hand in hand. In order to act quickly and effectively, it is small in number and organized to give primary authority to the nations with the largest resources at their command.

The actual concentration of power in the hands of the Big Five (China, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States) is recognized by giving them permanent seats. In selecting the six nonpermanent members of the Council, the General Assembly is required to give “due regard” to the contributions which these states may make to the maintenance of international peace and security. “Equitable geographical distribution” must also be considered. This means, in effect, that the capacity of states in different parts of the world to give effective aid, including military aid, in keeping the peace must be taken into account in their selection.

What are the Security Council’s functions?

This group of eleven states is, then, the executive of the United Nations. The Security Council is to remain in continuous session—to be available at all times to take whatever action it considers necessary to maintain international peace. The Council is given “primary responsibility” to this end. As we have seen, however, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and its subordinate agencies, and the Trusteeship Council all have important functions in creating the conditions in which peace can be effectively maintained.

First, economic, social, educational, and cultural standards are to be raised by international cooperative action.

Second, disputes of a legal nature are to be settled by referring them to the International Court of Justice. Third, states are required to adjust their disputes through one of several means of peaceful settlement-and the Security Council can recommend the most suitable method or even the terms of settlement. Finally, the Security Council can call on some or all of the United Nations to cooperate in applying economic or military sanctions to an aggressor. In this latter instance, all members of the United Nations are required by the Charter to “accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.”

One of the Council’s principal functions is to prepare plans for regulating armaments. This responsibility is obviously one in which the Great Powers have a primary interest and responsibility. If they agree on a plan for limiting armaments other members of the United Nations are not likely to disagree.

What machinery is there for peaceful settlement?

The Charter does not outline in detail what procedures for peaceful settlement of disputes between states should be followed by the United Nations. It does note the great variety of peaceful means of settlement open to all states. It declares that the parties to any dispute that endangers peace and security “shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” Without analyzing each of these methods in detail, it is obvious that, if the parties to a dispute want to find a peaceful solution, there are ample means at their disposal.

In addition, the Security Council has very broad powers in curbing disputes. Any member or nonmember of the United Nations may refer to the Security Council a dispute or “any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute.” The General Assembly may do the same in “situations likely to endanger international peace and security.” Finally, the Security Council may itself intervene at any stage of a dispute or “situation,” or investigate it from the beginning on its own initiative. The Council may recommend either the “appropriate procedures or methods of adjustment” or “such terms of settlement as it may consider appropriate.”

How will this machinery work?

The Security Council is, of course, a political agency. It is, however, precisely because states tend to view all disputes as political, whatever their origin or cause, that a frankly political and strong executive agency like the Council is needed to insure peaceful settlement. Such an agency can neutralize political disputes more easily and effectively than agencies of any other kind-legislative, administrative, or judicial.

Moreover, because the Council has other agencies at its disposal, as well as the various peaceful procedures noted above, it can work more effectively to bring together the parties to a dispute.

The Charter declares that “legal disputes should, as a general rule, be referred by the parties to the Court of International Justice.” But if the parties fail to reach a ,peaceful settlement by judicial or other means, they must refer their dispute to the Security Council. Failure to do so would automatically become a breach of obligation under the Charter. If one of the parties to the dispute goes to war or uses force against the other, the Security Council is charged with putting down the violence.

The Council would seek to do so, using all the economic and military resources at its command. Thus, its police powers—always an executive function—are the ultimate system of insurance under the Charter against another world war. How will these police functions or “sanctions” operate?

What if war threatens?

The Charter, like the League of Nations Covenant, provides two forms of sanctions against war-one economic, the other military. Both, however, are more effectively organized under the Charter. First, the Security Council’s powers are broader than those of the League Council. Second, the member states are bound to apply the military as well as the economic sanctions which the Security Council considers necessary.

We had only one experience with the actual use of economic sanctions under the League of Nations Covenant when Italy invaded Ethiopia. The members of the League were likewise bound to apply economic sanctions automatically in case one member went to war against another. It took several months, however, to work out a plan on which all nations would agree. Even when agreed on, it was only partial in scope and partially successful. Certainly, the application of sanctions against Italy was not automatic even on the outbreak of actual war.

Under the Charter, the Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are necessary to give effect to its decisions. It may then call upon the members of the United Nations to apply the measures.

These sanctions may include “interruptions of economic relations, and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”

Thus, an aggressor state will be as completely isolated from all contacts with the rest of the world as the Council may decide is necessary to obtain compliance with its decisions.

How will economic sanctions be applied?

The Charter leaves a great deal of discretion to the Security Council in applying economic sanctions. It may call for “complete” or “partial” sanctions. This flexibility is probably a sound formula since the Council is a political agency created to carry out executive functions of the United Nations Organization. Its decisions must necessarily be based upon the facts in any given situation. By granting a wide discretion to the Security Council, its influence is strengthened in seeking to avoid the breakdown of peaceful methods of settlement.

Under the Covenant, economic sanctions were to come into effect only upon the actual outbreak of war. Under the Charter, the Security Council may call for their full or partial application at any time during the course of a dispute. The Council can, therefore, act to apply economic pressure long before armed conflict occurs—at the very moment when the pressure may have the greatest effect.

The use of economic sanctions does not, of course, insure that a potential aggressor will not go to war. A state may build up stock piles of critical war materials or coerce weaker states into supplying them. Although there is no absolute assurance that a state bent on making war might not at least begin it with saved-up resources, the practical chances of continuing it without access to new sources are dubious.

If the Security Council’s power to intervene at an early stage in a dispute does not seem sufficient to prevent an aggressor’s preparing for war, other facts should not be ignored. Only the United States, Russia, and perhaps the British Commonwealth possess both the essential raw materials and the necessary manpower to carry on extended mechanized warfare solely with their own resources.

If, therefore, the Big Three hang together as to their common interest to prevent future wars, there seems to be some assurance that, economic pressure will prove to be an effective sanction against any other nation.

If economic sanctions are not enough, the Charter provides also for military sanctions-the final insurance for making the peace secure. We may well, therefore, review the machinery created by the Charter for military action to keep the peace. This brings us to the other aspect of the Security Council’s executive function—the police power to maintain law and order in the family of nations. What are military sanctions and how will they be applied?

Military sanctions—what are they?

Here also, the Charter is far more specific and effective than the League of Nations Covenant. The League Council could recommend that military sanctions be applied by the members of the League. Each was free to cooperate in military action against an aggressor—to the extent that it saw fit, or not at all.

Under the Charter, the United Nations are bound to “make available,” in accordance with special agreements, armed forces and other facilities to carry out whatever military sanctions the Security Council considers necessary. These forces will become part of general military operation organized by the Council to prevent or stop an aggressor state—in the name and under the direction of the United Nations.

The forces will be of two kinds. For “urgent military measures”—to meet an emergency where an aggressor has already started its attack—the Charter creates a special obligation. The members of the United Nations agree to “hold immediately available national air force contingents for combined international enforcement action.”

These air force contingents might be located at certain “strategic bases” which, as we have seen, may be under the supervision of the Security Council instead of the Trusteeship Council. In any case, they will utilize these bases in an emergency.

The Charter also indicates what types of military sanctions may be applied. Before offensive military action is taken, the Security Council may order “demonstrations, and blockade.” These actions are, under international law, not war in the legal sense. An aggressor cannot, therefore, make them a legal pretext for continuing its own use of force as a matter of self-defense.

All the United Nations have agreed not to use force or the threat of force against other states. The very fact, therefore, that the Security Council invokes military sanctions against any state will define it as the aggressor. Thus, the use of police power by the Council can never become a justifiable cause of warlike actions by an aggressor.

How will military sanctions be applied?

The Security Council is a political, not a military body. To advise and assist it in organizing and carrying out military sanctions, therefore, the Charter creates a Military Staff Committee. This committee is to include the chiefs of staff of the permanent members of the Security Council the Big Five. It will be responsible for the “strategic direction” of any United Nations armed forces placed at the disposal of the Security Council. It will also advise and assist the Council as to the “employment and command” of these forces and as to the regulation of armaments and disarmament.

Whether this system for applying military sanctions will work when it is most needed is a question for the future. Like the Charter as a whole, the effectiveness of the police function will depend on the will of the peoples of the United Nations.

One of the crucial issues here involves the authority of the various national representatives on the Security Council to act on behalf of their home governments. Since trouble often arrives very suddenly, action to avert war may need to be taken by the Security Council almost instantaneously. It becomes important, therefore, that the members of the Council be able to act without having to refer each question back to their own governments and wait for a decision.

This is not a matter for the United Nations to decide. It is a question for each member nation to answer for itself. For the United States the decision was made when Congress by overwhelming majorities approved the United Nations Organization Participation Act in December 1945. The president thereby received wide authority to order American contingents into action on the call of the Security Council and without consulting Congress.

In addition, of course, there are many technical questions involved. Some of the problems of organizing a cooperative air, land, and sea force and creating a joint staff under the Military Staff Committee are discussed in EM 12, Can We Prevent Future Wars? Experience in World War II offers ample evidence of our ability to cooperate effectively in military affairs. Allied staffs functioned smoothly. Allied operations were carried out with brilliant success. The experience of the United Nations not only demonstrates that the Charter’s sanctions procedure can be made effective but provides us with the blueprint for its operation.

Next section: How Do Regional Systems Fit into the Charter?