In the aftermath of the Second World War, vast swathes of Europe and Asia lay devastated. Some seventy million people – soldiers and civilians – had died in the conflict. Twenty seven million of the dead had been Soviet citizens, mostly killed in the war against Nazi Germany. American, British, and French policymakers, seeking to build a stable world order as the war came to a conclusion, assumed that their allies in the Soviet Union Soviet government would join them in seeking peace and stability.
They were wrong. Even as the war concluded, Soviet behavior proved aggressive and threatening. In late 1944, without notifying his allies, Stalin invaded Bulgaria, a state that had never declared war on the Soviet Union; Soviet forces soon established a puppet state there. In November 1945, Stalin declared an independent Soviet satellite in northwestern Iran in violation of international agreements. At the same time, he amassed forces along Turkey’s borders, threatening to invade a state which had joined the Allies before the end of the war. Simultaneously, disconcerting signals from across Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe suggested Stalin would not honor agreements made at Yalta about the holding of free elections.
Even before the war had ended, Western leaders had begun to think about what the postwar world should look like. The war had been fought, President Truman would later declare, to create conditions “in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.” To that end, he sought to develop an international infrastructure that could deliver peace, prosperity, and stability.
The first step was the formation of the United Nations Organization, which Roosevelt and Truman had foreseen as a place where all states could seek common ground and solve problems peacefully. To account for the realities of power politics, however, the United Nations was to be dominated by the Security Council, a body controlled by the “Big Five”: the US, the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, and China. Their commitment to the principles of peaceful conflict resolution, and willingness to act as global policemen if circumstances required it, were crucial for the UN’s success.
Stalin, however, did not share the UN Charter’s grand ideals. From the UN’s beginning in 1945, the Soviets sought to undermine the new body from inside, issuing the first 57 vetoes in the UN Security Council and actively undermining negotiations within the new organization at every turn. Stalin defied the UN’s ideals as he ruthlessly subjugated the states of Central and Eastern Europe and openly challenged the UN to intervene as he made territorial demands on his neighbors, such as Turkey.
Throughout this period, the Soviets aimed to weaken civil society in neighboring states, increase instability in regions of the world they did not control, and undermine the prospects of a permanent peace. American diplomat George Kennan wrote in 1946 that “World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue… Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.” Stalin’s efforts to undermine the prospects of a stable, prosperous world order marked the beginning of 45 years of cold war conflict between the free world and the communist bloc.
After 1989, many advocates of the liberal international order saw in the end of the Cold War a chance to revive the United Nations. China was integrating into the global markets under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping; the Russian Federation had begun a transition to democracy. The new situation spurred hopes that the UN could now promote international stability and security as originally envisioned. In 1991, policymakers ranging from Senator Joe Biden to UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali even suggested reviving the long-dismissed idea of a UN army. That did not occur, but UN peacekeeping activities did expand enormously: while only 18 peacekeeping missions were authorized before 1991, since then, there have been more than fifty.
Recently, however, the increasingly illiberal states of Russia and China have rediscovered their ability to hamstring the international organization from within. From 1991 to 2001, excluding resolutions against Israel, there were only four vetoes cast in the UNSC: two by China, and two by Russia. Since 2001, the same figure is 26: 17 by Russia, eight by China, and one by the United States. The UN debate over Iraq in 2003 and the following US intervention did little to help the legitimacy of the UN Security Council, but anti-liberal states had already begun to undermine the role of that body, drawing on lessons from the Cold War.
The most egregious example has been the Russian Federation’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. This act violated the United Nations Charter’s central defining provisions: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Under the original vision of the UN, it is likely the Russian Federation would have been expelled. While interventionism was common enough throughout the Cold War, no European power since the defeat of Adolf Hitler had openly annexed neighboring territory.
But the reaction from the UN was muted, highlighting its continuing inability to fulfill the mission described in its charter. Communism was the greatest opponent of a strong United Nations in the 20th Century. An alliance of communists, autocrats and anti-liberals—inside and outside the West—may play the same role in the 21st Century.