The delegates may be there to discuss peace, but the cold war is in full bloom at the UN’s San Francisco Conference.
The San Francisco Conference was a good deal like a tug-of-war, with five great states on one end of the rope and a crowd of small ones on the other. The pattern was not perfect, for certain small clients pulled with their big patrons, and once or twice several big powers, without deserting their end of the rope, either went slack or pulled openly in the other direction. This general pattern was to be expected, since the purpose of the conference was to win the consent of small states to something already decided by the great, and since the small were being asked to give up some portion of a sovereignty which the great retained intact. As was also to be expected, the great states won most of the pulls. At decisive points the issue for the small states was between formal prestige on the one side and substantial security on the other. Substantial security won.
The upshot of the struggle was the definitive design of over-all international collaboration after this world war. It is being greeted with some exuberant praise and some muffled cynicism. It deserves neither the one nor the other. Its merits–which are numerous–are the fruit of hard, patient labor by devoted men. Its defects–which, if it be regarded as a system of world government, are obvious–are mostly the product of forces beyond the control of the representatives who met at San Francisco or even of their governments.
The United Nations’ power for action, such as it is, is concentrated in the Security Council. The General Assembly, unlike the corresponding body in the League of Nations, is confined to a role of discussion and recommendation. Only in the internal economy of the organization–matters of membership, budget, non-permanent representation in the Security Council, composition of the Economic and Social Council and of the International Court–does it make decisions binding on member states. The clear-cut subordination of this body of fifty to the Security Council of eleven is emphasized by the rule that it may not even make a recommendation on its own initiative concerning a dispute or situation which is being dealt with by the Council.
There is, however, no limitation on the General Assembly’s range of discussion so long as it keeps within the scope of the Charter itself. Happily this restriction to the scope of the Charter was all that resulted from the Soviet Union’s protest against unlimited exploration by the Assembly. In so far as it excludes examination of matters “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” (Article 2, Paragraph 7), it will be difficult enough to observe or enforce. But as a forum for the ventilation of most problems arising out of the relations of states, the General Assembly undoubtedly has a very broad and very useful function. Since the equal participation of all members in actual decision-making is politically impossible, there is much to be said for having one fully representative body which, because its deliberations do not result in binding decisions or call imperatively for action, can range over the whole field of the United Nations’ activity. Some will revile it, as they reviled the League of Nations, as a debating society; but a debating society which doesn’t set out to be a parliament or government can render great service.