Pespectives on the Path to Peace


Robert Muller, 1986

Robert Muller is Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. He was a member of the French Resistance in World War II, and for the last 37 years has devoted his life to international service through the United Nations. He is the author of A Planet of Hope, What War Taught Me about Peace, and Most of All They Taught Me Happiness. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Over a century ago Alexis DeToqueville talked about the competition HE foresaw between the United States and the Soviet Union, and yet at this time we have no common borders, we have no interest in a nuclear war - it will serve no one’s purpose. Why are the relations bad and what can be done about it?

Muller: Well I think that at the time when United Nations was created in 1945 the foundation of the United Nations was that the two big powers would cooperate. And then the Cold War came, the relations became pretty bad, and as a result one of the main foundations of the U.N. crumbled, and this is why ever since we have had these conflicts from East and West Germany to Korea, all along the area where the borders touch. It is true that their physical borders are not in East Germany, in Berlin, and in Korea. But today they have allies on both sides, so that for all practical purposes you have a kind of territorial border between the zones of influence of the two big powers. And of course the new borders are outer space; they’re the seas and the oceans, they’re science and technology. So the whole political concept of what borders are on this planet has changed very fundamentally in the last forty years.

Whiteley: In a career in the United Nations which parallels that forty years you’ve just mentioned you’ve had a chance to watch that relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union change and evolve. What have you learned from observing it?

Muller: Well, that the time will come when this will disappear too. Because in the first place it is awfully costly for the planet. I think it is becoming so costly that I have the impression that the big powers are going to ruin themselves. Something is going to happen. Big powers have never existed forever; they’ve all disappeared in one form or another, and usually they disappear because they do not adapt themselves to the new requirements of the times and of evolution. The trouble is that when you’re a big power you are so contained in your power thinking that you cannot accept the idea that maybe the future could be different from the way in which you envisioned. So that therefore, I think that both the United States and the Soviet Union will come to the realization that there has to be a change because other alliances will take place around the world. You’ll see the emergence of Japan; you’ll see the emergence of China. Power is never completely stable. And I think we have come after forty years, it’s about time for these two powers to sit down and begin to talk as to how this planet could be better managed. Now people will tell you this will never come, but I’ve heard the same thing, being from Alsace Lorraine, where in my family I was always told the French and the Germans will never be friends; they’re going to have war as long as the world exists. And in my grandfather’s time they had indeed three wars; but today France and Germany are friends. They have created a common market, and I think the Soviet Union and the United States they could create common mechanisms, common endeavors for the planet, and then begin to reduce these wasteful expenditures on armaments and put it into very concrete things for humanity as a whole. This will be a beautiful adventure. As a matter of fact, you see, if from today on both sides they begin to think in these positive terms they would become very excited about it.

Whiteley: You wrote a book once about what you learned about peace from spending World War II in the middle of a lot of conflict. In writing that book, what were you trying to share?

Muller: Yes. Well, primarily that conflict has to be replaced by cooperation. Nations are here to stay, they have their borders, they have their territories, but at the present moment we know our planet as being one unit, for one human family. And this is the new age of cooperation that has to be started. And the same way as France and Germany buried their war hatchet and began to work together for the common of all Europe, and even extra Europe, I think the same way the Soviet Union and United States are very intelligent countries; they could begin to cooperate. It would be beautiful.

Whiteley: What are the areas that the United States and the Soviet Union could cooperate on that would be easy to do so?

Muller: Well, for example, to look at the planet from an engineering point of view to begin with. There are pipelines to build from Siberia to the United States via Alaska. That is one of the great projects which had been considered between the United States and the Soviet Union. Would create a certain interdependence. You can build canals, you can build new ports, you can exploit the hydroelectricity in the poor countries which have never been touched. In other words, to do things together instead of only putting this money into armaments, and increase as a result of this the common interest they have, one with the other.

Whiteley: What are the areas that will be the most difficult?

Muller: Well the most difficult is, as usual, the field of the military; the military need to have someone to be suspicious of in order to justify their continuation. But even there I believe that the proposal which was made by McCloy and Zorin years ago at the time of John Kennedy - if the military began to work together as is provided for in the Charter; there was a military staff committee that was suppose to organize a world security system and then disarm. But with The Cold War that was stopped. Now if you would put the military again together in the World Disarmament Agency under the U.N., which was the proposal of McCloy and Zorin, the military would be quite excited. They could work together to protect this planet from an outside invasion, to protect the planet from violence of any sorts, to protect the planet from terrorist groups, or little splinter groups who begin to fabricate atomic bombs. For the military it would be absolutely wonderful. As a matter of fact, in the Law of the Sea at the U.N. we have the Admirals work together, and to the great surprise of the diplomats, it was found that the Admirals agreed much more readily with each other than the politicians. It is their profession, and once you get the professionals together they find many ways of working together.

Whiteley: You’ve emphasized communications in an increasingly interdependent world. Where would you have the United States and the Soviet Union increase communications?

Muller: In my opinion, absolutely at the Head of State level. You see, there are many problems in the world that say that you clean a staircase from the top to the bottom, the water doesn’t flow uphill; in China they say that the problem always starts with the head - the fish begins to stink from the head. It is very essential that the heads get together, and I think that it is indispensable that when you have leaders like those of the United States and the Soviet Union, that before they criticize each other, before they slash at each other, they should at least know each other and visit each other’s country.

Whiteley: You also believe the United Nations can play an important role in that in getting them together in the context of the normal work of the U.N.

Muller: Yes, you see, because here you don’t need an agenda. You come for the General Assembly; that is the occasion. You don’t have to prenegotiate what you’re going to discuss. You come to New York as most of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs do already, you stay here for a week, and then privately you see the other parties and you discuss a lot. The U.N. has done this for Ministers of Foreign Affairs, and on the 40th anniversary of the U.N. we did it also for the Heads of States. Plenty of them came, and I think the Heads of States who are in charge of managing the planet, they should know each other, know their reactions; they should telephone each other - why do you send always an ambassador? You have the telephone today.

We could have video systems in the President’s room in Washington and in the Kremlin, and if he has a problem developing that’s in Thailand or Afghanistan he just switches on and says ‘look Mr. Gorbachev, what’s happening over there?’ Probably Gorbachev will say ‘I have no idea; let me try to find out.’ I think this - it is indispensable. Dialogue, knowing each other at the Head of State level is in my opinion one of the most important steps to promote world peace.

Whiteley: You also believe that there’s provision for the Security Council to involve the Heads of State. What kind of agenda would they have?

Muller: Well, for example, what I would envisage is that the Security Council, which is really the world’s most important body for security, that instead of meeting only at the Ambassadorial level, and sometimes at the Minister of Foreign Affairs level, that a Security Council should go and have a meeting let’s say in Moscow; have a meeting in Washington; have a meeting in Beijing. And have the Heads of States come together on that occasion, know each other, and also be much closer to the public. I think The Security Council is too far removed from the public. If we were in Moscow or in those places you would be closer to the public. We have done it on a number of occasions. For the Panama Canal Treaty the Security Council met in Panama City and really put the final touch to the solution between the United States and the Panamanians on the Canal.

Whiteley: As you look over the forty year history of the United Nations, what has it been able to accomplish in reducing the risks of war, and seven wars that were going on?

Muller: Well it has done enormously, but it has not done quite sufficiently either, because the world is in such a dangerous situation because we emerged from our long history with 5000 religions, with many many languages (close to 5000 also), 150 nation states with big territories, with small territories; people who believed that that system of living is better, other livings are better, the races (the black and the white), the rich and the poor. All these that lived a little bit in isolation from each other, all these came together very quickly after the Second World War with science and technology promoting this, and this gave the possibility of dozens of world wars. Fifty years ago any category of this would have created a war. So that we have lived one of the most incredibly explosive periods in human history. And I think what United Nations has helped to do, and the historians will recognize this some day, is that it has facilitated this transition to a point where now we can look at a better future. It has definitely helped avoid another world war.

You see here at least you have constant communications; at any moment of the day or the night the Secretary General, the Security Council can get the parties together. Usually when they have a problem they throw each other’s Ambassador out and don’t recognize each other anymore. No talk; of course then you have war. Here there’s always talk. Here we are a world telecommunication center day and night to get the opinions of every country on earth by very fast telecommunication centers on any country that breaks up. And out of the about 200 conflicts which we had in the world since 1945, well United Nations has solved over 100. And for those which still remain at the present time, they are all contained; each one is under surveillance. Iraq and Iran - they might not want to make peace today, but the U.N. made sure that it doesn’t spill over into other territories, and that is important in itself at the moment when you have all these dangers.

Whiteley: What distinguishes those countries that are not involved in conflict from those that are?

Muller: Well I think it has a lot to do about good economic conditions, a long history of civilization. I think the richer and more cultivated the country becomes, the less it is interested in war. This is one of the reasons why many of the conflicts are breaking out between very poor countries. They do not have as yet this maturity; they are at the state at which United States was in its own independence and had its own war between the South and the North. They require a little bit more time, but it’s important for the U.N. then to make sure that this doesn’t spill out into something bigger.

Whiteley: What role will economic development in the world have in the longterm search for an enduring peace?

Muller: Oh definitely, definitely. Because very often in these countries they resort to conflict out of despair.

Whiteley: Another area you singled out is population, that the projections for the year 2000 have gone from over seven billion to over six billion now. What role does population have in peace?

Muller: Yeah. Well, you see one of the very interesting roles of the U.N. is that we didn’t have any statistics about the world. We didn’t even know how many people lived on this planet until the U.N., the Economic and Social Council asked for this to be done. So we found out that in 1951, for the first time, we gave the world the population figure which was 2.5 billion people. But then since the children didn’t die so quickly anymore because of health and hygiene, then the population explosion became apparent which was detected only in about the years 1960. So the U.N. made long-term projection, and said to the world ‘look you are going to be in deep trouble if you continue.’ So we had world population conferences that are big drums telling the people to take it easy, and as a result of this now, the estimates of the world population for the year 2000 have gone down from 7.3 billion to 6.1 billion. That’s one of the great successes of the U.N. Now population is something which we have to be very careful of at this stage of human evolution because the mushrooming of a population in countries where they cannot respond to this increase of population, is going to create such poverty, that out of poverty you’re going to have revolution and again war.

Whiteley: As you think ahead to what role that the United Nations can play and what role individual nation states can play in creating a peaceful world, I’d like you to share your insights. First, what can nations do individually to create peace?

Muller: Well I think that nations are now the territorial subdivisions of the planet. And I think that any nation that lives in peace with its neighbors, any nation that has good economic conditions, that has a good social justice, that has a good health for its people, that has a good educational system, that has minimal unemployment, that nation is contributing to the total health of the planet; to the total happiness of the planet and of humanity. So that this is the greatest contribution a nation can do, and therefore, it should also cooperate with the others and not create problem with the others. So that the nation is a coparticipant in the total peace of the planet, but it brings to the international community the peace and the happiness and the well-being and the justice and the kindness of its people.

Whiteley: When there’s conflict between states what role can the Rule of Law play?

Muller: Well, the Rule of Law is all in the United Nations Charter. You ought to resort to peaceful means of resolving your conflict. The Charter is a very perfect document from that point of view. The only problem is that once in a while a nation breaks the Charter and takes its armies, invades the neighbor, and therefore does not accept the rules which it had solemnly pledged to obey when they became a member of United Nations. That is the problem.

Whiteley: The United States is one of the countries that has, from time to time, decided that it won’t submit certain conflicts to the world Rule of Law.

Muller: Yes, United States has done it, the Soviet Union has done it; the major powers have been pretty good at doing it.

Whiteley: What has to happen to get more confidence that the Rule of Law, which serves so well internally, is a basis for some fair adjudication externally.

Muller: Well I think that every Head of State, as a matter of fact, when he swears to the Bible that he’s going to uphold the law of the country, should be reminded that the Charter of United Nations is part of the law of the country. From the moment the United Nations Charter was ratified by United States it became part of the statutes and laws of the United States. But many Presidents they do not even know that; they should be reminded. Maybe when the President takes an oath next to the Bible there should also be a Charter of United Nations so that he is reminded that he is entrusted with the faithful fulfillment of the obligations which the country has taken.

Whiteley: Forty years into its history, the United Nations has been a significant force for peace. As you pointed out roughly half of the conflicts that developed in that time were settled. How do you want to see the U.N. grow and evolve as a force for peace in the world?

Muller: I think the U.N. is here to stay. It will be more and more resorted to for the solution of conflicts. The only field in which it cannot say and do much is the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union; and since these relationships are pretty bad at the moment, then United Nations declines a little bit in its importance. So that as I said before the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are really the key. But for the rest (United Nations is now practically universal), it is dealing with practically every problem under the sun, including solar energy itself. It has thirty-two specialized agencies; it gives the world surveys on anything you can imagine, on children, on drugs, on deserts, on the ozonosphere, on the pollution of these oceans. I think this is the great role of the United Nations, and in my opinion, people should take a greater interest in it. There ought to be more education about United Nations and its specialized agencies because they belong to the people; they’re here to serve all the people of the world.

Whiteley: The United Nations doesn’t have a direct role in the regulation of nuclear weapons. Is that a possible accomplishment?

Muller: Well, you see the U.N. has gathered practically every peace program and regulatory program in the nuclear field you can imagine. We have, as you know the International Atomic Energy Agency which is entrusted with inspection and control of production and transport of nuclear material. The U.N. has made a proposal, for example, of satellite of the U.N. that would control disarmament; you can picture everything on earth. So we have magnificent proposal put forth by the French, and accepted by other nations, but unfortunately so the United States and the Soviet Union have not approved it. So the U.N. is trying its best, but once you have big powers not accepting what the U.N. proposes, there’s very little you can do. Because the U.N. is powerless; it has none of the sovereignty’s of nations at all.

Whiteley: But it represents the common interest of humanity.

Muller: Yes it is very - I would say that it is a very influential organization because it expresses what is important for humanity as a whole, and not only for individual nations. It’s a new ethical form of saying humanity is important, the planet is important; let us work for a better humanity on a well-managed planet.

Whiteley: I’d like you to address your hopes for a U.N. disarmament agency.

Muller: Yes, I think that this could do enormously, because what I’ve observed in the U.N. is that from the moment you bring people together to work in the new agencies everything changes. From the moment you’ve got the Ministers of Health to work in the World Health Organization, and at the beginning they didn’t want to hear of it; now you couldn’t suppress the organization. They have their common health policies, they’ve decided to irradicate smallpox which has been done, which saves governments two-billion dollars a year, which reduces the number of blind people in India by 50%. It is so beautiful what you can do when you get people in the same profession to come together. So in all these agencies in food, in agriculture, in education, they come together and are quite excited about it. Because beyond their own nations they can do something as Ministers of Health for the entire world. If we did this for the military it would be as exciting.

From the moment they would be sitting in certain committees, for example to study the first thing which I would ask them to study, is to really - before anything else - to reduce the risk of nuclear accidents to as little as possible. Because the more we have missiles, the more we are in the hands of the computers, if one of these things gets off it is not a telephone call between Moscow and the United States that’s going to solve the problem; we’ll be too late. We will become the slaves of the computers; the computers they will continue, noone will be able to stop it.

So that if we could only get the military to sit down and say, well how can we reduce, as a first step, the danger of a nuclear war by accident, by computer error? If we could do this, they would do it. And then you can expand it on the control of the seas and the oceans, disarmament. But you’d have to have them sit together in an agency - to have the Admirals and the Generals see troubled Chiefs of Staff; and as they would be together they would find it very exciting to begin to control the world military, rather than to sit in the Pentagon or in the Kremlin, be suspicious of each other and invent all kinds of dangers which in reality do not exist.

Whiteley: I’d like to close by asking you to return to a theme that runs throughout your writings, and that is that of hope, and ask you to share your vision for the world as the 21st Century begins.

Muller: I think that we will enter the next century, the next Millennium, as we have into the earlier Millennium, in other words always a great mixture of hope and despair. You remember that we entered the year 1000 there was a pest all over the world, the people were dying in the churches, and everybody thought it would be the end of the world. It wasn’t the end of the world, and then they built the beautiful cathedrals as a gesture of thanks to God. This time we will still have many scares; I think it’s mostly the scare of a nuclear holocaust which is the scare of the human species. But on the other hand there is so much hope around, there are so many people working at it around the world, that in my opinion we will succeed. And now we have to sit down and to work harder on making it possible. I can tell you very frankly that when I came after the Second World War as a young man to the United Nations I had very little hope in the future. I said to myself at the age of 27, if France and Germany had three wars during my grandfather’s lifetime, if my father was once a German and a French soldier, if my cousins were in German uniforms and others were in French uniforms, if these two nations couldn’t make it how can I expect the world to make it. Impossible. I thought that within 20 years we would have another World War. And strangely enough it’s not true. Because in the meantime I have seen humanity take conscious of its future. Peace today is the rule. It is no longer war that is the rule; war is the exception. The discussion already is going from peace to disarmament. It is armaments which are the most frightful thing. It is not so much war anymore; the risks of war are pretty limited at the present moment. So that I think that we - hope, as a matter of fact, is very essential because we are a very complex species and a complex planet, and in order to solve our problems we have to hope. I think all life is hope; without hope life is meaningless.

Whiteley: Dr. Muller, thank you for sharing with us today your hope for a world at peace in the 21st Century.