As the sixty-first annual session of the United Nations General Assembly gets under way, and especially in light of the UN’s complex relationship to the recent war in Lebanon, it’s a good time to take stock of how the organization is doing. In a strange turn of events, it was Israel and the United States that turned to the UN to bail them out of their horrific failure in Lebanon. It was in the UN Security Council that the language and arrangements for a cease-fire were finally worked out. And it was the UN that was entrusted with composing and managing the peacekeeping force that is supposed to protect the Israeli border from Hezbollah violence. Also, it was Kofi Annan’s diplomacy that finally induced Israel to lift its blockade of Lebanon. From these perspectives the UN seems like an indispensable part of the frayed fabric of world order in the early part of the twenty-first century.

But a deeper look is not so reassuring. Action in the UN Security Council was stalled for thirty-four days by geopolitics while the bombs were falling on Lebanese villages and cities. The United States was able to use its commanding influence at the UN to prevent even an urgent call for a cease-fire. And the Security Council failed in its core mission of protecting a country that is a victim of aggression–in this case, Lebanon. No matter how much international law is stretched to deal with the challenges to territorial security posed by violent nonstate actors, there was no legal or moral basis for Israel to launch a full-scale war that extended the field of combat to the whole of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s July 12 cross-border raid and capture of two Israeli soldiers, used by Israel as a pretext for its response, justified proportionate retaliation but not war. Israel’s response, which included demolishing villages and large residential sections of Beirut, amounts to a repudiation of the core restraint on the use of force in the UN Charter. For the United States to encourage this was a further blow to UN authority.

For the Security Council to be silent in the face of such a flagrant violation of the UN Charter is one more indication that law takes a back seat to power at the UN. And when the cease-fire resolution finally was agreed upon, it was one-sided in favor of Israel. Beyond this, denying Hezbollah any opportunity to participate in the UN discussion underscores the anachronistic insistence that only states can be full participants in international life. For one thing, Israel insists that its war was waged exclusively against Hezbollah, overlooking the devastation to Lebanon and its people; at the same time, only the government of Lebanon is allowed to represent the people of the country affected by the conflict at meetings of the Security Council.

In a sense, this tension between power and law was what was expected of the UN from the beginning. Otherwise, the veto makes no sense. Giving the five permanent members of the Security Council a veto grants these countries an exemption from accountability for their wrongs and those of their friends and allies, however grievous. This exemption was viewed back in 1945 as necessary; it was hoped that the destructiveness of war, dramatized by the advent of atomic bombs, would induce large countries to abandon war as a means of realizing their ambitions. At the time, American leaders, especially FDR, encouraged this optimism, believing in the possibility that the victors in World War II could cooperate to sustain peace as well as they had collaborated in war. The success of deterrence can be attributed largely to this partial learning experience–this realization that a third world war would end in mutual catastrophe.

But in the post-9/11 world a new kind of “unlearning” has been taking place. This shift preceded 9/11 and the Bush presidency but has been accentuated by the new realities. The 9/11 events posed challenges that US leaders believed could not be met either by a traditional war against a state or by robust law enforcement against perpetrators of terrorist crimes. The US government chose the war option and appeared to be following the basic Israeli approach taken for years against its nonstate enemies. This US/Israel response has been based on a reversal of the logic of proxy wars. Instead of using nonstate actors to pursue the goals of states, states are made to bear full responsibility for the wrongs done by nonstates that use the state as a base for operations or that might transfer deadly weapons to enemy nonstate actors. Applying this logic to Afghanistan, but especially to Iraq and Lebanon, makes it more and more clear that this approach fails to achieve its goals and relies on collective punishment, the result of which has been to magnify the problem rather than overcome it and to bring devastation to those societies.

Taking stock of the UN after the Lebanon war leads to two observations. First, it is important to lower our expectations about what the UN can do to uphold the promise of the charter to protect victims of war. But it is equally important to recognize the significant role the UN plays in moderating the edges of warfare and facilitating the transition from war to peace. Second, although it is unrealistic to expect the UN to live up to its charter, this effort to curtail war as an instrument of statecraft is vitally necessary. But real progress will depend on civil society activism.

The UN has adapted to many changes during the sixty-one years of its existence, including the struggle against colonialism, the rise of the South, the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It has held together to a remarkable degree, with virtually every country maintaining and valuing its membership. Outside the war/peace area its contributions to human well-being are impressive. The development of an architecture for the protection of human rights was only possible because of UN initiatives. The UN has led the way in promoting awareness of environmental concerns and global warming, giving issues of health and poverty global status, contributing to a stable public order for the oceans and providing a framework for transnational trade and investments. The UN disappoints its followers less because of its deficiencies and more because of the agendas of its most influential members. Until these states, above all the United States, begin to act like law-abiding members of the world community, the sort of mixed record the UN displayed during the Lebanon war is the best we can expect.