At the United Nations

A Dangerous Place.
by Daniel Patrick Moynihan with Suzanne Weaver.
Atlantic-Little, Brown. 297 pp. $12.50.

For a few months in 1975 and 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was United States Ambassador to the United Nations. His brief tenure, which forms the theme of this book, attracted to the proceedings of the United Nations a degree of attention which they have not often received before or since. At that time, I had as temporary neighbor a distinguished social scientist from the West Indies, and, as a chorus of condemnation began to gather strength and volume, denouncing Ambassador Moyhnihan for what was described as his offensive and insulting demeanor toward Third World countries, my neighbor took a diametrically opposite point of view. Far from being offended by Ambassador Moynihan’s remarks, he was delighted with them. “For the first time,” he said, “an American politician is treating us as responsible adults.” This, he said, made a welcome change from the normal tendency to treat Third World nations and their representatives as neurotic children or, at best, retarded adolescents to be humored and cared for but not taken seriously.

The prevailing attitude was well-illustrated in the affair of the Spanish terrorists to which Moynihan devotes a few pages in this account of his mission. In mid-September 1975, the Spanish government announced that five terrorists convicted of murdering policemen would be executed. This was routinely denounced by the Soviets and their clients, and received with genuine outrage by liberal opinion in Europe and America, which tried to influence the Spanish government with pleas and protests and appeals. An attempt to use this as a means to maneuver the United States into defending Franco was adroitly foiled by Moynihan, who by joining Franco’s accusers was able to score some telling points against them. This was a normal example of the double standard which had been institutionalized at the United Nations—the denunciation and condemnation of offenses against human rights by a right-wing government while offenses by left-wing dictatorships pass unnoticed.

But there is another aspect of the matter besides the double standard between Right and Left. There is also the double standard between black and white. While General Franco was being condemned for his executions, President Amin in Uganda was killing black Ugandans in numbers and by methods which made Francoist Spain look like a family Christmas party. Liberal opinion, however, though outraged by events in Spain, remained unmoved by what was happening in Uganda. There are two possible explanations of this silence. One is that white victims are so much more important than black victims that five Spaniards count for more than thousands of Ugandans. The other is that higher standards of behavior are expected from a European, even a Spanish fascist government, than from an African ruler. Either of these explanations would indicate a profoundly racist attitude.

But in the surrealist politics of the United Nations, none of this mattered. True or false, right or wrong, just or unjust—all such questions were irrelevant to the battle of the blocs. When the organization was founded there were two main groups—the West and the Soviet Union. Given the predominance of the West at that time, special arrangements were made to redress the balance in favor of the Soviet Union, which was allowed two additional votes for two of its component republics, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. These possessed far less independence than the states of, say, Delaware or Rhode Island, but probably not much less than Bulgaria or Czechoslovakia. Since the foundation of the organization, the balance of forces has changed greatly to the advantage of the Soviets. This is due not so much to the increase in the number of Communist states, though here too there has been some erosion, as to the emergence of two new blocs. One of these is the Arab bloc, which has increased its voting strength from the original five to the present twenty-one and, in addition, gained enormous financial resources. Another is the so-called nonaligned bloc consisting predominantly of Third World nations.

Of these four blocs, Western, Soviet. Arab, and nonaligned, only two, the Soviets and the Arabs, have enjoyed any unity of purpose and policy. The West has been deeply divided by rivalries among the states composing it and by irresolution and uncertainty within the leadership of its most important nation, the United States. The Soviet bloc, being centrally directed and commanded, operates like a well-drilled phalanx in all agencies of the United Nations. The Arab bloc, though split by serious conflicts within itself, was until recently completely unanimous in its policy on the struggle against Israel, which for most of the Arab states has constituted the be-all and end-all of their international relations. The nonaligned states have negative rather than positive features in common, and tend to gravitate toward one or another of the most important blocs. The Arab carrot and the Russian stick have proved a powerful combination.



There is in the Euphrates area where Syria and Iraq meet, near the Turkish frontier, a little-known Kurdish sect called the Yazidis, an aberrant offshoot separated from Islam at an early date. They are described by their neighbors as devil worshippers. This is a slander. The Yazidis are in fact dualists, surviving holders of a religious belief, once widespread in the Middle East, that there is not one but two eternal spirits, one of good, the other of evil, contending for the domination of the universe. Since the good spirit is by definition good and will remain so, the Yazidis devote most of their worship to propitiating the spirit of evil. Given their assumptions, this makes good sense. It is, thus, unfair to call their beliefs devil worship; they might more appropriately be described as theological nonalignment.

Similar considerations affect the policies of many countries at the United Nations. To attract or offend the Soviet Union can be dangerous; to differ from the Arabs, costly and perhaps also hazardous. To attack the United States and its policies, on the other hand, brings no penalties. On the contrary, in addition to gratifying the Soviet bloc and its allies, attacking the United States wins acclaim and respect from large segments of American opinion, including many policy-makers and, above all, the media. In these circumstances, the choice is not difficult, and it is not surprising that before very long the United States found itself in a permanent minority, where the best it could hope for was abstentions by its more devoted and loyal friends.

Many observers, and even participants, have come to take this as a normal state of affairs and, when challenged, dismiss what happens at the United Nations as being in any case unimportant and without effect. Many, but not all. In February 1974, Moynihan, at that time American Ambassador in India, delivered an address on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Woodrow Wilson, an expanded version of which appeared in COMMENTARY in May of the same year (“Was Woodrow Wilson Right?”) . In this article, Moyhihan set forth a strategy “for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty.” In the following year, these ideas were modified and developed in a further article, “The United States in Opposition,” also published in COMMENTARY, arguing that the United States must recognize that it was now a minority and an opposition, and conduct itself accordingly. The move from apology to opposition, he said, “would be painful to American spokesmen but it could be liberating also. It is past time we cease to apologize for an imperfect democracy. Find its equal. It is time we grew out of our initial—not a little condescending—super-sensitivity about the feelings of new nations. It is time we commenced to treat them as equals, a respect to which they are entitled.”

The article attracted considerable attention at the time, not least from Secretary of State Kissinger, who called Moynihan “to say that he had read it through at one sitting and had to tell me straight off that he found it ‘staggeringly good.’ ” Not long after, Moynihan was offered the post of Ambassador to the United Nations and given an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. This book is an account of his mission, written with the wit and fire for which he has been both praised and blamed, and with a devastating frankness in exposing errors and failures, his own not excluded.



Almost from the start he was impeded by strong opposition, more effectively from his own side than from his opponents. Powerful arguments were adduced against the case which he presented—that he was flamboyant, discourteous, self-seeking, needlessly offensive. Even if these accusations were well founded, they would in no sense constitute a reply to the well-reasoned case which Moynihan made in his articles, his speeches, and now in this book. His real offense was that he did not share the fashionable feeling of guilt, with its arrogant assumption of ultimate responsibility for all that goes wrong as well as right, and its patronizing tendency to treat smaller and weaker nations as smaller and weaker beings. A second and almost equally important offense was that he refused to wrap his meaning in layers of verbiage, but insisted on making speeches which were frank, direct, and, greatest crime of all, easily understandable.

It could not last, and after a tenure of only eight months he was placed in a situation where there was nothing for him to do but offer his resignation. This, it would appear, was gratefully accepted.

Nevertheless, those eight months were rich in accomplishment. It is true that in the battlefield of the General Assembly there was a sequence of defeats, notable among them the passage of the famous anti-Zionist resolution and the ignominious withdrawal of the American proposal for a universal amnesty for political prisoners. It is significant, however, that the majorities cast against American proposals, or in favor of anti-American proposals, were during this period, on the whole, smaller, not greater, than had become and has since remained the norm. This would seem to dispose of the accusation that Moynihan by needless aggressiveness antagonized Third World nations which might otherwise have supported the American line. Their anti-colonial fervor against the American presence in Puerto Rico and Saint Thomas as contrasted with their extremely cautious responses to Russo-Cuban activities in Africa or Vietnamese expansion in Indochina would seem to suggest otherwise.

Moynihan’s policy, carried through logically, might have injected some reality into the debates of the United Nations and given it a positive role in international politics. But this did not happen. Instead, the corruption of the United Nations has continued and has been greatly worsened by the normalization of falsehood and intimidation, now essential features of the procedures of the United Nations as of the majority of the regimes which constitute its membership.



There was a time when high hopes were placed in the United Nations, which was to succeed where its predecessor, the League of Nations, had failed, and truly become the parliament of mankind. This particular aspiration was impossible from the start and arose from a confusion between diplomatic and parliamentary relationships and processes. The United Nations may be a Reichstag or a Soviet; it can never be a parliament. It might well, however, have served some other useful functions, notably in the cause of peace and human decency. Instead, it has become, in the words of the late Tibor Szamuely, an organization for the conservation of conflict, so that when, after thirty years, a first attempt was made to negotiate an Arab-Israel peace, all parties agreed on one thing if nothing else—that to give their negotiation any chance of success, it must be kept away from the explosive and contaminating influence of the United Nations. It is indeed “a dangerous place,” and Senator Moynihan’s lively, detailed, and remarkably outspoken account of his own term of service may help to warn us against some of its dangers.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link