Document of the Week: The Mighty U.N. Fighting Force That Never Was

After World War II, the United States envisioned the creation of a big-power fighting force to keep world peace. But the ambitious plan foundered amid bickering between Washington and Moscow.

United Nations peacekeepers in the Middle East circa 1955.
United Nations peacekeepers in the Middle East circa 1955. MPI/Getty Images

It has been years since the United States deployed troops in U.N. peacekeeping missions, leaving it mostly to developing countries—including Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, and Rwanda—to keep the peace for the United Nations in conflict areas around the world.

But that wasn’t always the case.

At the bloc’s founding in 1945, the United States envisioned the U.N.’s five great powers committing huge numbers of ground, sea, and air forces to enforce world peace following the end of World War II. The fledgling organization established a Military Staff Committee to coordinate joint military activities. It was mandated to meet every 14 days. The idea was not to establish a stand-alone military force under the command of the United Nations but to set up standby military arrangements that would be coordinated by military advisors from the key veto-wielding powers.

“Today the U.N. tends to focus on soft issues like development and cooperation,” recalled Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group. “It is easy to forget that the organization was originally meant to rest on hard power. The vision of the U.N. as a war-fighting or war-directing body has only flickered to life occasionally, as in Korea and the first Gulf War.”

As part of Foreign Policy’s Document of the Week series, we are highlighting a staff committee document that estimates how many forces the big powers were expected to supply. The United States, for instance, would supply the largest military contingent, including 1,250 bombers, 2,250 fighters, 20 ground divisions, 84 destroyers, and 90 submarines. Britain, the Republic of China (later ousted by the Communists and driven to Taiwan), France, and the Soviet Union each were to provide significant forces.

In her book The U.N. Military Staff Committee: Recreating a Missing Capacity, Alexandra Novosseloff recalled that the United States and other victors of the war envisioned the U.N. as an extension of the military alliance (called the “United Nations” during the war) that defeated the Axis Powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan. Their ambition was to institutionalize a military alliance that could be called on to confront a future military challenge that threatened international peace and security. The reference point, Novosseloff said, was World War II.

“They didn’t have in mind the kind of [peacekeeping] operations we are now accustomed to,” she said. But due to differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, which disagreed over the scope of the forces mandate, the standby force never came into existence. The Military Staff Committee continued to hold its biweekly meeting, but its role in enforcing global peace and security became largely irrelevant.

“Ultimately, the U.N.’s political credibility still rests on its ability to prevent major conflict. It’s struggling with that now,” Gowan said. “But I’m not sure anyone is going to be painting submarines light blue and offering them to Antonio Gutérres!”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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