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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

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The myth and reality of the United Nations

by John Gray

Harper's Magazine Review (June 2010)

Discussed in this essay:

No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, by Mark Mazower. Princeton University Press. 236 pages. $24.95.

Established by the Allies after the Second World War, the United Nations has acquired much of its legitimacy from the fact that it embodies unrealizable aspirations its founders never endorsed. Liberal idealists, who support the organization as a way of promoting universal human rights and moving toward a global rule of law, have taken too seriously the moralizing rhetoric that surrounded the UN's foundation. With its talk of "reaffirm[ing] faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small", the UN Charter represents the organization as an ethical enterprise that aimed for a break with the power politics of the past. Lord Halifax, Britain's ambassador in Washington and chairman of the British delegation at the UN's founding meeting in San Francisco, expressed a more sober view. In a remark from which Mark Mazower takes his book's title, Halifax observed, "We cannot indeed claim that our work is perfect or that we have created an unbreakable guarantee of peace. For ours is no enchanted palace to 'spring into sight at once', by magic touch or hidden power."

As Mazower recounts, the UN was founded to perpetuate the global dominance of Britain and America while accommodating the unwelcome emergence of the Soviet Union. At the end of the San Francisco meeting, the British diplomat Charles Webster wrote in his diary that the UN Charter established "an Alliance of the Great Powers embedded in a universal organization as [the Covenant of the League of Nations] also was". High-minded talk of national self-determination and human rights served only to conceal this reality. Webster's superior, Gladwyn Jebb, privately expressed his satisfaction that they had been able to "delude" human-rights advocates into believing "that their objectives had been achieved in the present Charter".

Clearly, the diplomats who founded the United Nations did not envision a radical break with power politics. They viewed the UN as an institution whereby power politics could be pursued by other means. The circumstances of the UN's founding seem to confirm the skepticism of such realists as George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, who dismissed as illusive the notion that sovereign states would subordinate their interests to any supranational institution. But, as Mazower points out, the realist view that the UN was "nothing more than (at best) a legitimating organ for great power interests" was itself in some ways illusive. Never entirely in the hands of the states that were instrumental in establishing it, the UN could not hold back the tide of anticolonialism, and newly independent states would soon have an influential voice in its deliberations. Moreover, the wartime alliance between Britain and America on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other, an alliance that had never been without deep fissures, fell apart entirely as the Cold War set in. The UN was an instrument of the great powers only in the sense that each had a veto on what the UN could authorize. The UN could never have been what liberal idealists hoped - a genuine experiment in global governance. But neither could it remain what its founders wanted - a club dominated by Britain and the United States.

Mazower's analysis is level headed and compelling, but it's hardly revelatory. He argues that the United Nations arose out of the great-power relationships that prevailed at the time of its inception. But how could it have arisen in any other way? No institution can avoid being shaped by its historical circumstances, and the realists were right to contend that states that had triumphed in a war of survival against Nazism would never contemplate ceding their sovereignty to a transnational body. The great powers could not be expected to act on the basis of universalistic aspirations their own diplomats dismissed as chimerical. That the UN has always been seen by the great powers as a device for legitimating their interests is not news.

The true originality of Mazower's book lies in the account he presents of the organization's "ideological prehistory". Conventional narratives portray the UN as a quintessentially American enterprise, an embodiment of beliefs about national self-determination deriving from Woodrow Wilson. Without denying the importance of Wilsonian ideas, Mazower argues persuasively that another set of ideas was also formative, a type of "imperial internationalism" reflecting conceptions of global order formulated in the last decades of the British Empire. From this arrestingly unfamiliar perspective, the foundation of the UN was more than an attempt to solidify the power relations that prevailed in the mid-1940s; the UN was an extension of beliefs and values that developed around the start of the twentieth century, when Britain was still the dominant global power.

The strand of thinking that issued from the British imperial experience was highly suspicious of the Wilsonian ideal of national self-determination. In talks and papers given during the First World War and the years that followed, British officials - a group that included such historians as Arnold Toynbee and Lewis Namier - warned that the attempt to build a world of self-governing nation-states could bring conflict rather than peace, particularly in Eastern Europe, where borders tended to be hazy or disputed. These cautionary voices influenced the thinking of Alfred Zimmern, a classicist whom Mazower describes as "perhaps the preeminent theorist of internationalism between the two world wars", and who, in his work for the Foreign Office, helped draft the blueprint for the League of Nations. For Zimmern, internationalism did not mean a world of democratic nation-states as much as it meant an idealized version of the British Empire. The goal of the League of Nations was not a world in which all peoples would enjoy equal standing. National self-determination might be a workable principle in Europe (though there were doubts about that), but it certainly had no application in the colonies. As Mazower puts it, summarizing Zimmern's view, the League's objective was "a liberal world order that would be compatible with empire and Anglo-American hegemony for decades to come".

One might think that such ideas died with the League and that they had little to do with the formation of the UN, which had presented itself as more welcoming of smaller, newly independent states and more committed to the principle of national self-determination. But as Mazower shows, there are important continuities between the two organizations, none more striking than the part played in them by the South African prime minister Jan Smuts, who acted as a conduit between Woodrow Wilson and British officials in London when the League was being formed. Smuts helped draft the preamble to the UN Charter, which preached universal human rights; yet he was, and always remained, an unabashed defender of racial segregation and white rule in Africa.

"Smuts", writes Mazower, "casts an enigmatic shadow over the founding of the new United Nations Organization at the end of the Second World War". How could this believer in white supremacy have helped shape an organization that claimed to be building a world based on human rights? "A trim, upright figure", seventy-five years old when he attended the San Francisco meeting, Smuts had fought the British in the Boer War forty-five years earlier, only to lead his country back into the British fold and become a member of the Imperial War Cabinet in the First World War. He had actively supported the creation of the League of Nations, persuading Wilson that the great powers could effectively run the League's operations. In 1939, Smuts convinced the South African Parliament to join the Second World War on Britain's side.

Despite the fact that his dream of founding a "Pan-African" superstate under white rule was viewed by most people as incredible, Smuts was still a considerable figure at the end of the war, and it isn't surprising that he became closely involved in establishing the League's successor. Smuts's ideas about imperialism were widely accepted in the first half of the twentieth century, even among avowed liberals. The tendency today is to assume that liberal internationalists have always been hostile to empire. Yet in 1902 the radical liberal J A Hobson argued that Britain's imperial system could develop into "a federation of civilised states", and the liberal sociologist L T Hobhouse regarded the British Empire as a model for a federal world government. As Mazower notes, "What is striking is ... the degree to which even the most radical of British internationalists accepted the imperial framework of world politics". In thinking of empire as the model for a new international organization - first the League, then the UN - Smuts was not struggling against the current of enlightened opinion; he was at one with some of the most progressive thinkers of his time.

No Enchanted Palace is essentially an exercise in demystification, which aims to strip the UN of the halo of piety that surrounds it. But it is also a work of historical investigation, and Mazower brings to light many neglected details of the UN's formation and development. He examines, along with Alfred Zimmern, the contributions of two Jewish social scientists - the legal theorist Raphael Lemkin and the demographer Joseph Schechtman - situating their thought in the context of the debates that followed the Holocaust. Not all of those who were active in the early years of the UN believed, with Lemkin, that the best defense against the horrors of Nazism was the development of a body of international law on minority rights. Some favored stronger international laws protecting individual rights, whereas others noted that many countries - including the United States - were reluctant to support any proposal that might entail intervention in domestic politics. A convention against genocide was passed in 1948, but only in 1988 did the United States ratify an international tribunal on state-sponsored violence. Great powers have remained no less jealous of their sovereignty than when the UN was established.

In the decades after its founding, the UN was nevertheless changing. Jawaharlal Nehru became independent India's first premier in 1947, and the country's emergence as a world power under his leadership encapsulates the process by which the UN ceased to be the organization set up in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Like Smuts, Nehru was a leading statesman during the last years of the British Empire, and he marked the end for Smuts's imperialist vision. "When India defeated the Portuguese and annexed Goa [in 1961]", Mazower writes, "the General Assembly's approval showed how far internationalism had come from the heyday of empire: at the start of the twentieth century, it had been the colonial powers that would determine and recognize sovereignty; now their very status as colonial powers rendered these claims suspect". Newly emerging states used the UN's universalist rhetoric, which its founders had regarded with contempt, to advance their international standing. In so doing, these states brought into being the diverse global organization we know today.

As the United Nations has evolved, turning into what Mazower aptly calls a "global club of nation-states", new ironies have emerged. It is not only great powers that resent interference in their affairs; small countries have resisted attempts by larger countries to use the organization to legitimize military action.

Rather than evolving into a supranational government, the UN has become a forum for nationalism. As a result, the UN has attracted criticism from a new generation of internationalists. Liberal interventionists, who maintain the right of international organizations to use military force in order to prevent human-rights violations, have often been sharply critical of the UN, and they have been joined in their hostility by neoconservatives. Liberal interventionists find fault with the organization because they think it has failed to live up to what they imagine were its original aspirations, and neoconservatives disparage it on the grounds that it has not promoted the cause of global democracy. Despite their differences, the two groups share a delusion. Like the UN's founders, they believe that Western powers can shape the world in their own image, whereas it is evident that these powers no longer have the ability to do so (if they ever did). At the end of the Second World War, there was no prospect of Britain retaining its imperial role. Britain was practically bankrupt, and the United States and the Soviet Union were primed to become the world's great powers in the half century that followed.

History has since moved on, again. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and American power is in rapid decline. The UN can be an instrument of American policy in the early twenty-first century no more than it could be an instrument of colonialism sixty years before. By any standard, America remains the world's preeminent military power. Yet the country is withdrawing from a still highly unstable Iraq and plans to start removing its forces from Afghanistan in 2011; and it can only be a matter of time before America's worldwide military commitments cease to be financially viable. The United States is the world's largest debtor state, reliant on China to finance the federal deficit; and economic power is shifting from west to east and north to south. The world's emerging democracies have likely noted the fact that although authoritarian China and Russia have not weathered the financial crisis unscathed, neither have they suffered the systemic breakdown that has occurred in the United States. When economic power is lost, military power is not long in following. Well understood by the world's advancing states, this fact is shaping their policies in regard to the United States and its rivals. Liberals and neoconservatives share the faith that there is only one path to modernity and prosperity, and that it leads westward. They attack the UN because it does not serve as a means of promoting this faith. But the idea that history ends with the triumph of Anglo-American "democratic capitalism" has been demolished by events, whereas the UN mirrors the world as it actually is. Despite a change of administration, American policy continues to be based on denying this evident reality. Mazower observes that "the political scientist recently appointed director of policy planning in the Obama administration State Department has suggested that transnational contacts across governments and NGOs - not the UN - constitute the real 'new world order', and she even looks forward to a 'global rule of law without centralized global institutions' ". The implication is clear: for the Obama White House as for its predecessor, the UN does not matter. Unless it can be used to rubber-stamp American policies, the organization can be safely ignored.

The reason the UN is written off in this way is not that it lacks power. It has never had power. Rather, the reason is that the UN reveals Western power to be in retreat. Its formal structure may embody the global settlement that prevailed after the Second World War, with Britain and France still wielding a veto along with China, Russia, and the United States in the Security Council. But the Security Council does not represent the nearly two hundred sovereign states in the General Assembly, which shapes opinion in the organization as a whole. Various proposals have been made to remedy this situation, "Some want [the UN] to be streamlined to allow fast military action against rogue states and other international outlaws", writes Mazower. "Others feel it should move more toughly against human rights offenders among its own members and do more to stamp certain values - freedom, for instance, and democracy - on the world before it is too late (and, though the fear is rarely voiced, before the Chinese takeover)".

Rightly, it seems to me, Mazower has little interest in these reformist schemes. If the UN has a useful part to play in the world today it is precisely because it does not serve as the instrument of any political project. The UN has taken on many tasks, including a peacekeeping role that was not foreseen by its founders, and developed capacities to deal with natural disasters, famines, and refugees. It has had its share of failures, not least in the Nineties, when it was unable to prevent mass killing in Somalia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica. It no more determines the course of world affairs than it ever did. NATO, the G20, the IMF, and the European Union are far more important in shaping events, whereas major geostrategic decisions continue to be made by sovereign states. No program of reform could alter these facts.

Realists were correct in thinking the UN was set up as a device to protect the position of the great powers. They were mistaken in believing that the great powers would succeed in bending the organization to their purposes. Liberal and neoconservative critics are also mistaken. The very features these critics fasten on - such as the fact that the UN includes tyrannies as well as democracies - are part of what makes the UN useful. Some regimes are humanly intolerable; the Nazi regime, whose destruction made possible the UN's founding, is a prime example. But there will never be only one type of government in the world, nor one that is everywhere desirable.

Just as it stands, the result of unplanned evolution rather than of its founders' design or the Utopian hopes of idealists, the UN does what no other international organization can do. It faithfully represents the heterogeneous and intractable world with which every state, no matter how powerful, must finally come to terms.


John Gray is emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and the author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which was awarded the Lannan Foundation Notable Book Award in 2008.

Bill Totten


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