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The United Nations also has had an active role in promoting human rights around the world. “Stalin could kill eight million peasants in the Ukraine in the 1930s and nobody raised a whisper,” Urquhart recalls. “Nobody had ever heard of human rights on the international stage, and now they have, thanks in large part to the U.N.”

The General Assembly created the Commission on Human Rights in 1946, and two years later adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On a related issue, the assembly in 1960 called for the independence of colonized countries in Africa and Asia. Following the wars of independence of the 1960s, forty-three newly independent countries joined the U.N. (10)

To promote its goals in the economic and social realms, the U.N. set up specialized agencies focusing on the improvement of the agriculture, health care, communications and economic development. In 1964, it established the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development to facilitate trade with developing countries. The following year saw the creation of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) to oversee the growing task of coordinating economic assistance programs carried out in the field by U.N. agencies. The UNDP also became a vehicle for developing countries to press their case in the deepening dispute over the allocation of the world’s resources between the industrialized countries of the Northern Hemisphere and the developing nations, found mostly in the South.


Although the term “peacekeeping” does not appear in the U.N. Charter, the goal it envisions – ensuring collective security – has always been the organization’s main priority. (11) U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjod and Under Secretary-General Ralph Bunche, a U.S. diplomat, introduce the term in the 1950s to describe the activities of the first U.N. observer mission, which was dispatched to the Middle East in 1948. The ongoing operation was created to prevent the spread of hostilities between the newly established state of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

While the charter makes no mention of peacekeeping, it does limit the degree of involvement U.N. forces can undertake to ensure collective security. The organization pledges not to interfere in issues that are “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Based on this premise, certain guidelines have evolved governing the deployment of peacekeepers and rules of engagement. The host government, for example, must consent to any U.N. deployment, as must the countries contributing troops to the mission. Countries with vested political interests in the outcome of a dispute are not allowed to contribute troops to a peacekeeping mission. Finally, U.N. troops may use their weapons only in self-defense and must remain neutral if hostilities break out between the parties to the dispute.

The Security Council deployed the first lightly armed peacekeeping mission in 1956 to create a buffer zone along the Suez Canal and to monitor a cease-fire between Israel and Egypt. That “emergency force” involved as many as six thousand soldiers during its eleven-year mission. During the U.N.’s first forty-five years, thirteen peacekeeping missions were deployed. Only one of these – the 1960-64 mission to the former Belgian Congo, which involved 19,800 troops – approached the size of some present-day missions.


With all the criticism of the United Nations heard today, it is easy to forget that the organization – like the League of Nations before it – was largely a product of American initiative. President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged his wartime allies to support the notion that the only way to stop aggression by individual nation was to authorize an international body to keep the peace.

If anything, argues Urquhart at the Ford Foundation, Americans were overly optimistic about the chances of the U.N.’s success. “The thing that surprised me most about the diplomats, and particularly the Americans, was that they were absolutely convinced that this was going to work absolutely as written in the charter,” he recalls.

When Urquhart, then a six-year veteran of the war in Europe, challenged this view before an American diplomat, he “was absolutely furious, told me it was skeptical young men like me who caused wars and stamped away. That was very much the view in the American delegation,” Urquhart adds. “They believed they had hit upon the secret of international peace. Within about six months, it turned out they hadn’t because we went plunging into the Cold War. There was a huge disillusionment when that happened.”

Despite its leading role in creating the United Nations and high initial expectations for its performance, the United States has always viewed the multilateral organization with ambivalence. Fearful that American troops could be forced into service against the will of the U.S. government, Congress in 1945 strictly circumscribed the Security Council’s reach. The U.N. Participation Act authorized the United States to commit military forces to U.N. mission only when approved by Congress. The law requires the president to return to Congress for authorization of any additional forces to an existing U.N. mission.

Just five years after the law went into effect, however, the U.N. Participation Act was undermined when President Harry S Truman committed American troops to the Korean War without congressional approval. The weight of that law has been in question ever since. (12)


In an effort to define the U.N.’s place in this changing environment, Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali began his tenure in 1992 with a call to redefine U.N. peacekeeping goals to include humanitarian relief, economic assistance, the reconstruction of institutions destroyed by conflict and election oversight.

Among the strategies Boutros-Ghali recommended in his report to the General Assembly for future peacekeeping efforts were: preventive diplomacy, aimed at preventing disputes from erupting into conflict; peacemaking, promoting negotiations between hostile parties as envisioned in Chapter VI of the charter; peacekeeping, the presence of U.N. personnel to oversee cease-fires, help resolve conflicts and provide humanitarian relief; peace enforcement, restoring peace, by armed force if necessary, under Chapter VII of the charter; and peace-building, fostering interaction between former enemies to prevent a relapse of hostilities. (13)

With Russia struggling to enter the world marketplace and the Western powers focused on economic issues at home, it has fallen largely to the United Nations to take the lead in mediating these disputes and trying to keep the peace. In 1990, there were eight peacekeeping missions operating with a total of ten thousand troops. By the end of June 1995, the U.N. was running sixteen peacekeeping missions, manned by more than sixty-seven thousand troops at an annual cost of some $3.1 billion. (14)

Before 1991, the Security Council just twice had authorized the use of force, under Chapter VII of the charter, for any purpose other than self-defense – the U.N. mission to the Congo in the 1960s and the U.S.-led defense of South Korea in the 1950s. Since then, the council has authorized the use of force on five occasions – in the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, And Haiti. (15)

Following the success of the Gulf War, hopes ran high that a more aggressive U.N. could indeed keep the peace. But such optimism was short-lived.

The multi-phase U.N. mission to Somalia (April 1992-March 1995), which at one point included American troops, was aimed at restoring order to an impoverished country devastated by famine and by conflict among Somali warlords. Following a televised nighttime beach invasion by U.S.-led forces, the initiative quickly lost momentum as it became apparent that civil turmoil defied a military solution. Following the killing of eighteen American soldiers in downtown Mogadishu on October 3, 1993, U.S. support for the mission, and for peacekeeping efforts in general plummeted. (16)

Critics of recent U.N. peacekeeping missions cite the events in Somalia to emphasize the need for strong U.S. leadership. “Somalia and Desert Storm are about 180 degrees apart in clarity of definition of both the U.S. role and the function of the United Nations,” says former State Department official Bolton. “Desert Storm was a U.N.-sanctioned but U.S.-commanded military operation. Somalia, by contrast, was not only U.N.-sanctioned, but U.N.-commanded.”

Bolton faults the Clinton administration for failing to adequately define U.S. national interests in participating in the mission to Somalia, which began as a humanitarian gesture (Operation Restore Hope) during the Bush administration but expanded to include “nation-building,” an attempt to restore political institutions in the war torn country. “Somalia demonstrates what happens when there is confusion between a clear direction in U.S. foreign policy on one hand, and mushing it all together with the U.N. on the other,” Bolton says. “A lot of that political confusion was reflected in military confusion on the ground.”

The result of waning American support for the U.N. peacekeeping was painfully evident when violence broke out in Rwanda in 1994 between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi. Although nineteen governments had standby arrangements to provide troops to peacekeeping missions at the time, Urquhart says, none actually provided them in time to prevent the carnage that cost the lives of some 500,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi. “Not one government would send troops until it was much too late,” he says. “Five months after it started they sent some people staggering in, but that was hopeless.”

As it prepared to withdraw from Rwanda in December of 1995, the six thousand strong U.N. peacekeeping mission was the object of little more than hostility by the Rwandan government, which accused the U.N. of enabling the genocide to occur and of violating the country’s sovereignty by its continued presence. (17)

Nowhere have the U.N. member states encountered a greater challenge to their ability to define peacekeeping goals than in the former Yugoslavia. As successive regions of the country broke away and declared their independence from the Serbian-dominated government in Belgrade, Western countries were quick to recognize the nascent governments of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But when fighting broke out, first in Croatia, and then in Bosnia, between government forces and well-armed Serbian minorities, the West got cold feet. Instead of intervening militarily to aid the newly independent countries, they opted for a neutral intervention by U.N. peacekeepers in hope of encouraging a negotiated settlement.

“The first mistake was the premature recognition of Croatia and Bosnia, which had the effect of dropping a lighted match into a can of gasoline,” Urquhart says. “The second mistake was to try to whitewash the thing by putting in a U.N. peacekeeping force when there were no conditions for it to function in.”


Amid the finger pointing and the recent disaster in Bosnia, it is easy to lose sight of the U.N.’s considerable achievements, even in recent years. “Though everybody keeps hanging on about Bosnia, which nobody has managed to resolve for the last five hundred years, if you will look at the operations that the U.N. has undertaken since the end of the Cold War,” Urquhart says, “a large majority of them have been rather surprisingly successful.”

Under U.N. monitoring, combatants in Mozambique’s thirty-year civil war have shifted their skirmishes from the battlefield to the legislature. The U.N. mission oversaw the cease-fire between Frelimo, the ruling party, and Renamo, the formal rebel movement, and monitored the country’s first democratic elections, held in October 1994.

The U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, launched in 1992, helped end hostilities between the government and Khmer Rouge guerrillas in one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern times. Before withdrawing in November 1993, the U.N. mission monitored elections in which ninety percent of the people voted – despite threats by the Khmer Rouge – and handed control over to the elected Cambodian government.

Angola, where a “proxy” civil war between the Soviet-backed government and U.S.-backed UNITA rebels raged for two decades, is the site of another potentially successful U.N. peacekeeping mission. Although UNITA forces, led by Jonas Savimbi, renewed fighting after losing national elections in 1992, they later agreed to a power sharing arrangement with the government that U.N. peacekeeper oversaw.

In July 1994, three years after a military coup in Haiti, the Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary means” to restore democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, paving the way for the U.S. occupation of the Caribbean nation two months later. Aristide subsequently returned, and in early 1995 a multinational U.N. peacekeeping force began replacing American troops in Haiti.




The United Nations has long been criticized for its sprawling bureaucracy and wasteful management practices, generating periodic calls for large-scale reform of the entire system. Since the Cold War’s end, those calls have become more insistent. Without a serious effort to make the U.N. more efficient, reformers say, the organization will be at a loss in the rapidly changing international environment.

Of the seemingly endless list of reform proposals, most fall into one of the following categories:

Security Council

Critics say the five permanent members of the council – the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China – no longer fairly represent the holders of wealth and military power in the world. Japan and Germany are the most obvious candidates for inclusion. Third World states also are pushing for representation on the council. India is the most frequently mentioned candidate. A related reform would dilute the overwhelming dominance of the great powers by eliminating absolute veto power by any of the five members.

Volunteer U.N. Army

Many experts see the impasse in Bosnia as further evidence that the U.N. needs a military force at its disposal that is independent of any member government. Supporters of such a force say it should have a mandate not only to keep the peace but also to intervene militarily to stop the kinds of mass murder and genocide seen in recent conflicts. Where would such forces come from? Some recommend using mercenaries from around the world, trained according to U.N. standards and rapidly deployed as the Security Council saw fit.

“The difficulty with the volunteer force is that it changes the nature of the game, because it gives the U.N. for the first time capacity of its own,” says Urquhart, a leading reform proponent. “It will not always be dependent on governments, most of whom chicken out at the last minute, and therefore it will become a different kind of organization with some very minor trappings of sovereign power. But if the U.N. is going to start to try to deal with civil wars and major disturbances of that kind, it’s going to have to have the capacity to do it.”


Because they may now serve two five-year terms, critics say that secretaries-general tend to spend too much time campaigning for reappointment instead of doing their job. The solution, many reformers suggest, is a single, seven-year term. Urquhart also would like to see an improved selection process that opens up the field to a broader range of talented individuals, especially women, rather than simply settling for someone whose political views do not offend any of the 185 member governments.

“The way they appoint the secretary-general is absolutely ludicrous,” he says. “What’s the point of having a seventy-two year-old Coptic professor of international law as the secretary-general?” he asks, referring to Boutros-Ghali. “He’s a nice guy, but he’s hopeless, a zero leader with no charisma. There’s no organization in the private sector that would dream of appointing its chief executive this way.” More appropriate, Urquhart suggests, would be a leader like Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland. “She’s easily Europe’s best human rights lawyer, she’s been an enormous success as president, she has great charisma, and she’s a bright, tough lady.” (18)

Better Management

Reform advocates say the secretary-general’s diplomatic duties are too demanding to expect him, or her, to also be responsible for managing the vast U.N. system. The solution, says Luck of the United Nations Association, is to appoint someone, second in command only to the secretary-general, to manage the U.N. “We need to have a deputy secretary-general who is the chief operating officer of the system,” Luck says, “and let the secretary-general be the global troubleshooter and the voice of the international community and the peacemaker.”


A related issue involves hiring and firing practices at the U.N. In 1992, just after taking office, Boutros-Ghali instituted a hiring freeze and suggested a number of steps to downsize the organization. But Thornburgh, who served in the U.N. Department of Administration and Management in 1992-93, thought the reform process was slow to get off the ground. In a 1993 report to the secretary-general, he listed a number of obstacles to improving the U.N.’s work force, including a glass ceiling preventing the promotion of women, a lengthy appeals process preventing the demotion or firing of non-productive employees and insufficient training.

Thornburgh sees little improvement in the past two years. “There’s just a lot of deadwood there, people who in more placid times might be acceptable,” he says. “The biggest deficiency is that the place is replete with expert diplomats and politicians but very thin in management talent, particularly at the middle-management level.”

Unitary U.N.

This concept, defined by Bolton and promoted by the Bush administration, would encourage member governments to consider the U.N. as a whole, rather than as a conglomerate of separate agencies. Such an approach, Bolton says, would make it easier to eliminate duplication and make the organization work more efficiently.

“If you look at the U.N. as an entire system and not just as a cluster of individual agencies you can assess where there is duplication and overlap,” Bolton says. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, both address the related issues of nutrition and health. “Under a unitary U.N. approach we would have tried to rationalize their operations to reduce the duplication in the work of the two agencies.” With the election of President Clinton, Bolton says, “this policy of looking at the U.N. as a system has now fallen by the wayside.”


As part of his policy of “assertive multilateralism,” President Clinton supports the goal of reforming the United Nations. “Those of us who most respect the U.N. must lead the charge of reform,” he said at a June 26, 1995, ceremony in San Francisco commemorating the signing of the U.N. Charter. “Over the years it has grown too bloated, too often encouraging duplication and spending resources on meetings rather than results.”

But some reform advocates saw the United States under President Clinton has been no more effective than other member governments in pushing for real change at the U.N. “There is a lack of political will on the part of the member states to actually follow through on reform,” Thornburgh says. “They’re all pretty much the same, and the United States is no different.”

Indeed, lawmakers in Washington seem more interested in reducing U.S. commitments to the United Nations than in strengthening its ability to carry out American foreign policy. This attitude is especially apparent among Republicans, who in 1994 won the majority in Congress for the first time in forty years.

“Peacekeeping cannot solve the world’s problems and should not be expected to,” said then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C. “Some of us have said that all along. American leadership in the world should not be defined by how many U.N. peacekeeping operations we participate in.” (19)

As part of a drive to cut foreign aid spending, Helms has spearheaded proposals to cut U.S. funding if U.N. peacekeeping operations from thirty-two percent to twenty-five percent – the same percentage the United States pays for the rest of the U.N. costs – beginning in fiscal 1994.

Then Sen. Dole introduced a bill that prohibited the participation of U.S. military forces in any U.N. peacekeeping missions that would place them under the command of foreign nationals. The proposed Peace Powers Act not only poses a direct challenge to the president’s authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but also would effectively end U.S. military participation in most U.N. missions, as peacekeeping missions typically come under the military command of more than one country.

Another proposal, the National Security Revitalization Act, part of the House Republicans’ “Contract With America,” also would restrict U.S. peacekeeping missions and would withhold U.S. funding of U.N. agencies pending the enactment of reforms. But with attitudes toward the U.N. at a low point, there is little support for reforming the organization to make it more effective.

The underlying premise in all these proposals is that the United States can conduct its foreign policy more effectively on its own or with carefully chosen allies then it can through a multilateral body such as the United Nations. President Clinton and those who support his policy of strengthening multilateral organizations accuse Republicans of launching the United States into a new era of isolationism, similar to that preceding the outbreak of World War II.

“The United States must be prepared to act alone when necessary, but we dare not ignore the benefits that coalitions bring to this nation,” Clinton said at the San Francisco commemoration of the U.N. Charter. “We dare not reject decades of bipartisan support for international cooperation. Those who would do so, these new isolationists, dismiss fifty years of hard evidence.”

Republicans reject these charges. “Neo-isolationism is a scare word that doesn’t capture even somewhat fairly what we’re talking about, which is trying to analyze what concrete U.S. national interests are and how to advance and defend them,” Bolton says. “Simply to say that not being willing to engage in assertive multilateralism is the same as neo-isolationism reflects a profound misunderstanding of what American foreign policy interests are, as well as the shallowness of their own intellectual thinking.”

“Part of the problem in improving the United Nations’ ability to act now is that the majority in Congress sees undermining the organization as a way of going after the president and his weaknesses in foreign policy,” Luck says. “The United Nations has become a vehicle for that.”


If the United Nations is to continue to play a role in world affairs, it has to take account of the changes that have occurred in the world over the past half-century.

“Fifty years ago, you didn’t see the Rwanda genocide in your living room while you’re having a drink in the evening,” Urquhart says. “Fifty years ago, there wasn’t this sort of global society with global capital markets and instant electronic circulation of money. There are a whole lot of things which didn’t exist in 1945 when the charter was written. Now we’ve got to really face up to them.”

Whatever new peacekeeping roles the United Nations takes on in the near future, they are likely to be less ambitious than envisioned in the heady days after the Cold War’s collapse. Plans to beef up peacekeeping missions, as outlined in the secretary-general’s 1992 report to the General Assembly, have been sidelined. Following setbacks in Somalia and Bosnia, peacekeeping operations already have been scaled back, as the belated and undermanned mission to Rwanda demonstrates.

“Once an organization’s reputation is badly damaged, as the U.N.’s reputation has been in Somalia and now, even worse, in Bosnia, people begin to question everything about it,” says Carpenter at the Cato Institute. “Even the worthwhile functions it has served, the achievements it has had in Namibia, for instance, are going to be far less impressive than they might otherwise have been.”

With the United States especially reluctant to support efforts to strengthen the U.N., some diplomats are prodding Europe and Japan to pick up the slack. “It’s a foolish idea to assume that every time anything happens the only country that can do anything is the United States,” Urquhart says. “It isn’t like 1945, when the United States was the only country still on its feet. There are some nice, big, grownup countries out there, some of which are quite rich. But there remains this hopelessly defeatist attitude that if the United States doesn’t want it, it won’t happen.”

There is another reason, Urquhart says, why the United Nations’ member governments should not allow the confusion over the U.N.’s role as global peacekeeper to undermine its place in world affairs. “In fifty years’ time, the United Nations won’t be judged on having failed in Bosnia,” he says. “It will be judged on whether it did anything about poverty, economic imbalance, and the environment. Those are the forces that are going to shape the future one way or another, not what happens in Bosnia.”


1. Carroll J. Doherty, “Congress’ Foreign Policy Role At Issue in Veto Override,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, August 5, 1995, 2386-2387

2. For background see, “Foreign Policy Burden,” The CQ Researcher,

August 20 1993, 721-744

3. For background see, “A Revitalized United Nations in the 1990s,” Editorial Research Reports, July 27, 1990, 429-444

4. For background on the U.N. budget, see Jeffrey Laurenti, National Taxpayers, International Organizations: Sharing the Burden Of Financing the United Nations, United Nations Association of the United States, 1995, 29

5. Speaking at a June 11, 1995, press conference with President Clinton in Clairmont, N.H.

6. Bob Dole, “Who’s an Isolationist?” The New York Times, June 6, 1995

7. For background, see Carroll J. Doherty, “House Approves Overhaul of

Agencies, Policies,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, January 28, 1995 291-292

8. Speth spoke June 25, 1995, before the United Nations Association of the United States’ National Convention in San Francisco, Calif.

9. For background, see “Non-Proliferation Treaty at 25,” The CQ Researcher, January 27, 1995, 73-96

10. See the United Nations Association of the United States, The United Nations at

40, April 1985

11. Material in this section is based on Sandrine Teyssonneyre, How to Do Business with the United Nations (1995) 7-10

12. See Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., “Back to the Womb? Isolationism’s Renewed Threat,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1995, 2-8

13. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for Peace, June 1992

14. Report of the Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighborhood

(1995), 236-237

15. Ibid., 237

16. For an analysis of the Somalia missions, see Chester A. Crocker, “The Lessons of Somalia,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1995, 2-8

17. See “Short Memories,” The Economist, June 17, 1995, 42-47

18. For a more flattering assessment of Boutros-Ghali’s stewardship, see Stanley

Meisler, “Dateline U.N.: A New Hammar-skjold?” Foreign Policy, spring 1995, 180-197

19. Helms spoke March 21, 1995, at his committee’s hearings on legislation affecting the U.N. and other foreign policy issues.


Boutros-Ghali, Boutros, “A New Departure on Development,” Foreign Policy, spring

1995, 44-49

Childers, Erskine, and Brian Urquhart, Renewing the United Nations System, Dag

Hammarskjold Foundation, 1994

Dole, Bob, “Shaping America’s Global Future,” Foreign Policy, spring 1995, 29-43

Gordon, Wendell, The United Nations At the Crossroads of Reform, M.E. Sharpe, 1994

Hall, Brian, “Blue Helmets, Empty Guns,” The New York Times Magazine, January 2,

1994, 8-25+

Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations, The United Nations in

Its Second Half-Century, The Ford Foundation, 1995

Laurenti, Jeffrey, National Taxpayers, International Organizations: Sharing the Burden of

Financing the United Nations, United Nations Association of the United States,


Meisler, Stanley, United Nations: The First Fifty Years, Grove/Atlantic, 1995

Righter, Rosemary, Utopia Lost: The United Nations and World Order, Twentieth

Century Fund Press, 1995

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., “Back to the Womb? Isolationism’s Renewed Threat,”

Foreign Affairs, July/August 1995, 2-8

Thornburgh, Dick, “Today’s United Nations in a Changing World,” The American

University Journal of International Law and Policy, fall 1993, 215-223

Urquhart, Brian, “Selecting the World’s CEO: Remembering the Secretaries-General,”

Foreign Affairs, May/June 1995, 21-26


Boutros-Ghali, Boutros, “A New Departure on Development,” Foreign Policy, spring

1995, 44-49

Childers, Erskine, and Brian Urquhart, Renewing the United Nations System, Dag

Hammarskjold Foundation, 1994

Dole, Bob, “Shaping America’s Global Future,” Foreign Policy, spring 1995, 29-43

Gordon, Wendell, The United Nations At the Crossroads of Reform, M.E. Sharpe, 1994

Hall, Brian, “Blue Helmets, Empty Guns,” The New York Times Magazine, January 2,

1994, 8-25+

Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations, The United Nations in

Its Second Half-Century, The Ford Foundation, 1995

Laurenti, Jeffrey, National Taxpayers, International Organizations: Sharing the Burden of

Financing the United Nations, United Nations Association of the United States,


Meisler, Stanley, United Nations: The First Fifty Years, Grove/Atlantic, 1995

Righter, Rosemary, Utopia Lost: The United Nations and World Order, Twentieth

Century Fund Press, 1995

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., “Back to the Womb? Isolationism’s Renewed Threat,”

Foreign Affairs, July/August 1995, 2-8

Thornburgh, Dick, “Today’s United Nations in a Changing World,” The American

University Journal of International Law and Policy, fall 1993, 215-223

Urquhart, Brian, “Selecting the World’s CEO: Remembering the Secretaries-General,”

Foreign Affairs, May/June 1995, 21-26

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