A Revitalized United Nations in the 1990s

July 27, 1990

Report Outline
Special Focus


Discredited by the Reagan administration for most of the 1980s, the United Nations appears ready to embark on a new era. The easing of Cold War tensions has led to growing support from the superpowers for regional U.N. peacekeeping missions. And many non-security problems, such as those facing the environment, beg for a concerted worldwide effort. But before the United Nations can undertake these ambitious initiatives, it may need to undergo fundamental change in the way it is structured.

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The United Nations is emerging once again as a viable instrument for maintaining world peace and security. Long the scene of bitter exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union, and often the focus of heated criticism for its inefficiency and waste, the 160-member body is enjoying a quiet revival on its 45th birthday.

The revival is possible because of the easing of tensions between the superpowers. “The Cold War [was] probably the major impediment to a realization of the U.N. as people thought about it in 1944–45,” says Donald F. McHenry, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration and now a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. When the organization was founded, he says, people believed that countries would cooperate in peace as they had cooperated in war. “Of course, they did not. They immediately started fighting. Now, with the Cold War practically over and countries having exhausted themselves in regional conflicts, there is once again a [useful role for] the U.N. to get people out of the problems they are in.”

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