WASHINGTON -- Once upon a time, there was an organization that was determined to bring peace to the whole world. Not only Europe, not only the Caribbean, not only Asia, but even the South Sea Islands! It was a big job, but the delegates, who came from all over the world themselves, did not intend for a moment to shirk their responsibility.
So, in 1945, they gathered and formed the United Nations, which was going to meet at a beautiful spot along the East River in New York, and by 1947, after a good deal of shouting and scheming, after enough writing of resolutions to circle the globe, the U.N. attempted to form Jewish and Arab states out of the British Mandate.
That it didn't work then -- Israel was formed as the Jewish state, but the Arabs could never get together to form a new Arab Palestine -- is obvious, but what is not obvious is what I think is a new mood at the United Nations as it convenes this week. First, let's look at the bigger picture.
I have been going to the U.N. opening meetings since 1960. You remember what happened that year. As a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, I was sitting in the balcony when, to my amazement, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stood up and pounded his shoe on the back of the seat ahead of him. I was surprised -- I hadn't seen him take the shoe off. But I sure got the overall picture.
He was mad, particularly at the United States, and this was the Soviet peasants' way of illustrating their pique.
During the "off" hours, I heard that a new young black leader who called himself "Malcolm X" was in town for the meetings. Someone mentioned he was connected with the Black Muslim movement, so I called their office in a restaurant in Harlem, got Malcolm right away, and was invited to come to the restaurant. I remember a charming dinner with a serious man who could not have been nicer. Wish I could remember exactly what he said.
That was the way the United Nations was for us back then. By strolling through the members' lounge, you could find the British ambassador, or some Third World leader in colorful national dress, or members of one of the new guerrilla groups like, then, the Palestine Liberation Organization, looking hostile.
It didn't take long for the developed and industrialized world to figure out that all those original hopes for a peaceful world, a "world without war" and nations without hunger or ignorance, would sink into the quicksands of disappointment. The U.N., after all, by its founding documents, was proudly, theatrically "neutral" -- it could not use force, nor even use its member nations to enforce a policy.
There were times when the organization effectively said to hell with neutrality, as in the Congo in the 1960s when it faced a decade of massacres, but in general, the U.N. has been woefully ineffective in the power business.
Once in the 1990s, in a talk with the Egyptian Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he explained the U.N.'s outlook. "The whole philosophy of the U.N. is based on talk, negotiate and then talk again," he told me, sitting in his beautiful townhouse on the East River. "Once we are using force, that is an expression of failure. Our strength is diplomacy, and the peaceful resolution of problems. Dissuasion is more important than the use of force, because using force means that you have not been successful. It is like someone who does therapy suddenly deciding to do brain surgery."
Still, when the Cold War ended (formally, in 1991), the U.N.'s ambitions once again burst forward in songs of hope. The corridors of the organization, now filled with beautiful art from the member countries, were also filled with proposals to have the U.N. supply "peacekeeping" forces after a nasty war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. Soon, forces from Europe, Africa and Asia were present in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, but "neutralism" was again the order of the day and the outcome was horrific. With foreign troops only looking on, some 800,000 innocent people were killed by the Serbs until, in 1995, the Americans stepped in and bombed Serbia into acquiescence.
Now we approach the smaller picture, to one extent or another. And it is the continuation of the story of Israel and the Arab state-that-isn't.
President Barack Obama came to New York Wednesday, saying, "Peace is difficult." He should know. Despite America's power, it has been unable to even start peace between Israel and the Arabs. In fact, the situation has grown worse since the U.S. began directing the negotiations with the 1991 Madrid conference. The Palestinians are under a more complete occupation by the Israelis, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories has tripled to about 600,000, and nothing has come out of the so-called negotiations.
While other parts of the world have seen their problems solved, often with U.N. help (see South Africa, Namibia, East Timor, El Salvador, Kosovo and Libya), the question of Palestine remains at the head of the list. That original resolution of 1947 has been followed by hundreds of resolutions, none of them ever enforced.
There are essentially two reasons for this: the lack of capable Palestinian leadership and diplomacy, and the American support for Israel, no matter what, because of its political campaign contributions.
Now the Palestinians, backed by their many supporters in the General Assembly, say they will declare their own state, no matter Washington's veto in the Security Council.
Why, then, should anyone be optimistic? Despite all of these disappointments, I feel a change at the U.N. Few, for instance, criticize it the way they used to. They see now its use in the world, whether in food aid, earthquake and hurricane aid, and even in the small wars that bedevil us. The U.N. is not so much about ending wars, as it is calling our wandering attention to them. Perhaps it is because we no longer expect perfection.
The U.N. has become something lasting, something vital, a meeting place that we would need badly were it not there. Think of a world without it, without the reports on all of mankind that it regularly issues, without its food aid, without UNICEF or other related organizations. Somehow it doesn't seem like such a foolish extravagance, as the far right in America has always made it out to be, but instead a practical investment in moderate human change.