When I heard Ukraine’s President Zelensky arguing for a fundamental overhaul of the United Nations, and especially of the Security Council, I recalled our greatest New Zealand Prime Minister and World War Two leader, Peter Fraser. He envisaged just the sort of issue we face today with Russia’s war on Ukraine. Old Peter, a wily, highly intelligent Scotsman, was one of the world’s few prime ministers to attend the San Francisco conference in 1945 that set up the rules for a postwar body to monitor the peace. With support from nearly all the smaller countries represented at the conference, Fraser objected strenuously to the great power veto that enabled any of the five victorious powers – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – to block any substantive move the Security Council might want to take in the event of a breach of the UN Charter, even if all other countries favoured action. Peter Fraser pointed out that by allowing a veto, one of the five might behave as it pleased, and then act as judge and jury in its own cause. He was right. That’s exactly what has happened several times since 1945. The US has done it and Russia much more often. The veto is why today the United Nations is such a toothless tiger. It is unable to protect Ukraine, one of its member states, from the ruthless onslaught from neighboring Russia. The recent motion to condemn Russia passed the Security Council with a significant majority. Several Security Council members abstained from voting or absented themselves, but Russia exercised its veto, thereby preventing what should have resulted in international punishment, with Russia having to pay reparations for the damage it has done.
Peter Fraser would have backed President Zelensky when he asked whether the UN was any use to anyone when Russia’s blatant breach of world order could occur without any penalty inflicted on the offender because of the veto. Fraser told the San Francisco delegates that vetoes could “legalise defiance” of the Security Council and reduce the UN’s work to “complete futility”. And they did. Since 1945 the UN has been able to act decisively only when an offending permanent member with a veto was absent from the Security Council. That was how a resolution to establish a UN force in 1950 passed, and North Korea was pushed back from its invasion of the south. Russia’s deliberate absence from the Security Council on that occasion has seldom recurred, and therefore getting rid of the veto seems even more urgent.
Peter Fraser and his supporters amongst the smaller nations envisaged that the UN would maintain a standing army or police force that could be used by the Secretary-General of the UN once he/she had approval from the Security Council. However, Fraser’s idealism was all very well in early 1945. Neither he, nor the other delegates, knew of nuclear weapons which were first dropped on Hiroshima several months later. Nobody envisaged a situation that occurred recently when Vladimir Putin as he invaded Ukraine, announced that he was putting his nuclear weaponry on alert. In effect, he told the world that he would use his veto to block any UN retaliation, and threaten nuclear war against any countries that might seek to enter the war militarily on Ukraine’s side.
Fraser and his fellow delegates never envisaged nuclear blackmail. That threat has restrained Ukraine’s friends in this war. Clearly the United States and Britain are ready to assist in some way, and a lot of military kit is going to Zelensky. But the sort of swift military action needed to check Russian aggression hasn’t occurred, and the offender has suffered no more than sanctions and a degree of humiliation because Ukraine has proved such a tough nut to crack. Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed and five million are refugees.
Wise heads are needed to work out some way of dealing with nuclear blackmail. Over Cuba in 1962 the United States stared Russia down and Nikita Khruschev blinked rather than take responsibility for blowing up the world. This time the US couldn’t be sufficiently sure that Putin wouldn’t push the nuclear button and blow everything up. The problem with high level threats is that one has to presume that both the offenders and the victims are capable of making rational decisions. With modern Russia, this has always been in doubt. Putin has never produced any rational explanation for the invasion he kept denying he intended, and then suddenly launched. There is considerable speculation that after 22 years in office he’s been removed from reality for too long. In his search for some kind of legitimacy for the corruption and looting that he and his oligarch mates have undertaken within Russia he’s become obsessed with Russian Orthodox Christianity which so far has placed a firm stamp of approval on his years in office. Put simply, he seems to have lost it, and to be beyond reason.
If this is so, it raises a further issue that Peter Fraser and the founders of the United Nations hoped they wouldn’t face again once that Adolf Hitler was dead: how to deal with a madman possessed of the wherewithal to blow up the world. In the meantime, a concerted effort to reform the Security Council and remove the veto powers has become urgent. President Zelensky is right.