Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks via remote feed during a meeting of the UN Security Council, Tuesday, April 5, 2022, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

On April 5, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared before the United Nations over video, and questioned the organization’s very existence.

After listing Russian atrocities committed against his people, Zelensky said, “How is this different from what the ISIS terrorists were doing … except that it is done by a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council?” Russia’s privileged status on the Security Council gives it veto power over global security decisions, and Zelensky wants that power stripped. 

He proposed a choice: “Remove Russia as an aggressor and a source of war from blocking decisions about its own aggression,” or “dissolve yourself altogether.”

There is a wee problem with this choice: There is no provision in the United Nations Charter for removing permanent members from the Security Council. Some observers have argued that Russia is illegally serving as a permanent member of the council because the charter only recognizes the now-defunct “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” and should be booted. But the international affairs professor James R. Stocker has countered that no nation challenged Russia’s assumption of the Soviet seat—not to mention Soviet treaty obligations—and “the tacit acceptance of the decision carries legal weight.”

The current system sounds nuts, effectively giving any permanent Security Council member a free pass to invade other countries and trample on human rights without UN sanction. Yet this is not some accidental design flaw in the UN Charter. Broad veto power for Russia and the other permanent members was a deliberate decision, the product of delicate negotiations in the charter drafting process 77 years ago.

The story of how the United Nations was built begins, in a sense, with a sex scandal. In 1940, the U.S. State Department’s number two man, Sumner Welles, was on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s train, returning late at night from the funeral of the recently deceased speaker of the house, when he became blackout drunk and sexually propositioned several male rail car porters, a scene depicted in Sumner Welles: FDR’s Global Strategist, written by Welles’s son Benjamin. 

Gossip of the episode reached Welles’s superior, Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The two were already jostling for FDR’s ear. During the president’s third term, as the State Department deliberated over how an international peacekeeping institution should be structured, Welles and Hull were on opposite sides of a core debate. Welles idealistically wanted power distributed among regional blocs; Hull believed that centralized power held by the “Big Four”—the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union—would be more effective at containing conflicts. 

Hull spread tales of Welles’s sexual peccadilloes and pressured FDR to fire him. (“Get rid of this degenerate,” Hull demanded at one point, according to Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War by Frank Costigliola.) In 1943, amid the possibility that the incident could finally end up in print, Hull issued an ultimatum to FDR: Either Welles goes, or I quit. FDR, who had known Welles since childhood, had long tried to cover for him, but he felt cornered. He tried to salvage Welles’s career and reassign him to another position. Still, Welles opted to resign and was replaced by Edward Stettinius, the former chair of U.S. Steel who was administering the Lend-Lease program. As Stettinius had no diplomatic experience and no long-held strong views, Hull had a freer hand in the UN Charter drafting process. But details still needed to be agreed upon by the great powers, and the veto question loomed large. The scope of veto power determined how much power the Big Four would have over the world.  (You can hear my telling of Stettinius’ singular role in the creation of the U.N. in the inaugural episode of my “When America Worked” podcast.)

A powerful aide of Hull’s, Leo Pasvolsky, a refugee from Russia, initially led the effort to define veto powers. Staunchly anti-Communist, Pasvolsky shared Hull’s vision for a UN with centralized power but worried about giving free rein to the Soviets. He helped draft a provision that denied the veto to the permanent Security Council members for resolutions involving disputes in which they were involved. That did not fly with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who feared being outflanked on the Security Council by the capitalist nations.

The veto debate was the stickiest sticking point at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944, which featured top diplomats from the Big Four. The chronically sick Hull delegated the job of running the conference to Stettinius. Faced with Soviet resistance to the Americans’ position on the veto, Pasvolsky came up with a compromise: The major powers would not retain the veto for disputes of a pacific nature but would for disputes involving military force. Pasvolsky recognized that such a system would also appeal to members of Congress who wanted to protect America’s sovereign right to decide on the use of force. Still, agreement was not reached at Dumbarton Oaks. 

Instead, the matter was saved for the February 1945 Yalta Conference, at which Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Stalin would be in attendance. Stettinius grasped that only the leaders themselves could settle the veto question. And once he carefully explained to the heads of state exactly when the veto power would be available and when it would not—making clear that each nation would retain its sovereign right to use force—Stalin accepted the arrangement. 

With the veto question and other thorny subjects ostensibly resolved, the leaders at Yalta decided to hold a conference in San Francisco 10 weeks later, where delegations from all participating nations would hammer out a final UN Charter.

But soon after the Yalta handshakes, the hope that the Soviet Union would work cooperatively alongside the United States and the other major powers was severely tested. 

The Yalta agreement included a pledge by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin to help European nations “create democratic institutions of their own choice.” The agreement explicitly instructed that Poland—where the Soviets had already set up an undemocratic Communist government—should be “reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad.” 

But three weeks after Yalta, Stalin imposed a Communist regime in Romania. The following month, he signed a treaty with the nascent Communist government in Poland. He decided not to send his highest-ranking diplomat to San Francisco to express his anger that the two nations we now call Belarus and Ukraine would not have seats at the beginning of the conference (and provide the Soviets with two extra votes). The brazen flouting of Yalta and the San Francisco snub rattled the Roosevelt administration, according to Masquerade Peace: America’s UN Policy 1944–1945 by Thomas Campbell,prompting internal discussion of canceling the conference and indefinitely delaying the creation of the UN.

Yet the conference went ahead on schedule. In fact, on April 12, 1945, the day Roosevelt died, keeping the San Francisco date of April 25 was the first decision President Harry Truman made, at Stettinius’s urging. Stalin relented and sent his top diplomat. While the negotiations with the Soviets continued to be challenging until the very end of the process—the San Francisco conference was dragged out for two months—a final charter was written, enshrining the principle that the Big Five (France belatedly accepted an invitation to be the fifth permanent Security Council member) would seek to maintain global security through consensus with each other. 

Nevertheless, from the very beginning of the United Nations, the original concept of security by superpower consensus collided with the reality that two of those superpowers were locked in a cold war. The Korean War broke out four years after the United Nations first met. Other proxy wars flared up over several decades—such as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. The immediate inability of the UN to prevent the two biggest nuclear-armed nations from being on the opposite sides of a shooting war quickly fed the impression that it was a useless debating society.

That’s an unfair knock for three reasons. First, a cold war beats a world war, and we haven’t had any of those since the United Nations was established. As the 2013 edition of the Human Security Report concluded, “The popular revulsion generated by the mass slaughters of World War II had also strengthened the emergent norm that proscribed the resort to war except in self-defence [sic] or with the imprimatur of the UN (United Nations) Security Council.”

Second, once the Cold War ended, the UN could do even more to suppress conflict. “No longer paralyzed by the rivalries of the Cold War, the organization spearheaded an extraordinary upsurge of international activism directed at peacemaking—i.e., stopping ongoing wars—and post-conflict peacebuilding—i.e., preventing those that had stopped from starting again,” according to the 2009/2010 Human Security Report, which tabulated a “fivefold increase in the number of diplomatic interventions intended to bring armed conflicts to a negotiated settlement in the 1990s relative to the 1980s.” Overall, the UN contributed to a massive reduction in global war-related deaths, from 240 per million in 1950 to less than 10 in 2007.

Third, another element of the UN Charter is proving relevant today: Article 51, which reads, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” This careful sentence was the by-product of resistance at the San Francisco conference by Latin American countries to the “regional veto,” the Security Council power to veto actions by regional organizations. As the historian Stephen C. Schlesinger explained in the book Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, three Latin American foreign ministers expressed the worry to the U.S. that “a predatory foreign nation might attack the Americas by colluding with one of the Big Five to secure a veto against a collective Hemisphere response.” Schlesinger noted, “The unspoken concern was apparently communism” and “Soviet machinations.”

But without such a veto, regional organizations would hold more power than the Security Council—inverting the intended UN framework. That would have made Sumner Welles happy, but not the major powers.

The Latin American leaders were egged on by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nelson Rockefeller. He wasn’t invited to San Francisco, but he showed up anyway and effectively functioned as a lobbyist for the Latin American delegation, driving Stettinius up the wall. To keep tabs on Rockefeller’s maneuverings, Stettinius asked a member of the U.S. delegation, former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, to have dinner with Rockefeller. At the dinner, Stassen shared an idea to skirt the regional veto issue: Codify the right to self-defense, which could be done without directly challenging the existence of the regional veto. Rockefeller quickly agreed, and Stettinius leaned on the Soviets to accept it. 

Article 51 soon fueled the forging of regional security pacts. Another member of the U.S. delegation, John Foster Dulles, initially was not in the regionalist camp. But years later, he told Rockefeller, “I owe you an apology. If you fellows hadn’t done it, we might never have had NATO.”

As the history of the charter shows, the UN was built to maintain global security with consensus among the major powers. It was not built to resolve conflict between the major powers. At best, through Article 51, the charter recognizes the right of regional organizations to defend themselves from belligerents, including superpowers. And that article is doing the work today through NATO’s aid to Ukraine.

“Where is the peace that the United Nations was created to guarantee?” scolded Zelensky on the video screen hovering over the UN General Assembly. “It is obvious that the key institution of the world, which must ensure the coercion of any aggressors to peace, simply cannot work effectively.” At the risk of understatement, Zelensky has every reason to be aggrieved. But he is holding the UN to an unfair standard. 

The UN survived one extremely long cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and unless Russia dramatically changes course, we appear to be in the middle of another one. That will limit the UN’s effectiveness, especially when one of its permanent members violates the body’s purpose of maintaining “international peace and security.” But that’s not a reason to turn the clock back more than 100 years and live in a world without the UN—a world that was far bloodier, more chaotic, and less free. 

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.