As you speed down the freeway from JFK towards the Manhattan skyline, it is easy to overlook a long, low, neoclassical building that stands by the lake in Flushing Meadow. Built for the 1939 World’s Fair as the New York City Building, it was turned into a wartime ice rink before becoming the first home of the United Nations. The skaters were banished, the decorators cleaned the place up, and in October 1946 President Truman delivered the opening address to the new General Assembly. Soon afterwards, the Rockefellers bought a substantial chunk of lower Manhattan and donated it to the UN, which abandoned Queens for its present location in Turtle Bay. Today the air of neglect that surrounds the old building, forlorn in its suburban parkland, seems to reflect the collapse of its founders’ ideals and the erosion of American internationalism.
As the US administration tried to browbeat a reluctant UN into giving the green light for the invasion of Iraq, President Bush warned the General Assembly that it ‘faced a difficult and defining moment’. The alternatives were to back the war or become as ‘irrelevant’ as the League of Nations. A week later, a gung-ho Donald Rumsfeld said that an unsupportive UN might ‘fall into the dustbin of history, as did the League of Nations’. For the next six or seven months, the administration and its cheerleaders gleefully stuck the boot in, time after time. Why give the UN any say in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq – as Tony Blair and Joschka Fischer were insisting – when it had been so unhelpful beforehand? Why, in fact, have anything more to do with it? Better ignore it, let it quietly wither away, and make do in future with ad hoc military alliances.
It is possible that a more successful American performance in postwar Iraq would indeed have left the UN out in the cold. Instead the opposite occurred: the disaster of American policy in the Middle East since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime has highlighted the UN’s importance and the peculiar nature of its power. It may be a talking-shop, but it is also the repository of a legitimacy that no single nation can claim. Without this legitimacy, brute force finds it difficult to accomplish anything that is lasting. It was because the UN’s founders understood this, from their own experience, that the institution they established has proved so durable. The League of Nations lasted little more than two decades; its successor has already been in existence three times as long. Moreover, it has proved itself far more adaptable and has grown in ways its founders could not have predicted.
The League of Nations suffered from several grievous handicaps. In the first place, its base of support was too narrow, too closely aligned with the victors of the First World War. It was hard for the British and the French to pose as heralds of a brave new order for mankind when the League was handing them new colonial possessions in the shape of mandates in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, thereby creating powerful new enmities. When it became clear that the League would not allow any revision of the postwar settlement in Eastern Europe, German nationalists lost interest and the Nazis pulled out. The Americans never joined at all, and the USSR did so only late in the day as an anti-German move. In other words, the League was inextricably associated with the European balance of power at the time of Versailles, and its backers were not strong enough, by themselves, to withstand the forces for revision. When those forces triumphed, the League fell.
A creature of European imperialism, the League talked a little too easily about ‘civilisation’ and ‘backwardness’ for an organisation with universal pretensions. And it had little respect for the principle of national sovereignty: interwar minority treaties allowed it to monitor the observance of minority rights in the newly independent states of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This international oversight of the way states behaved at home was what the US Congress was most determined to avoid. Paternalistic and intrusive, the League was not designed to win many friends.
Widely and unfairly blamed for the collapse of the European peace, the League was left on the sidelines in the 1930s. While its technical and specialist officials continued their work, and indeed often moved smoothly into their successor departments in the UN, its core political and security architecture was dismantled. During the war, impassioned idealists generated endless blueprints for the better world to come. Hitler thought all this was just hot air. But to most of his opponents the idea of a new world organisation went to the heart of what they were fighting for: a world made for peace, banishing poverty and precluding the possibility of another devastating war. And with what in retrospect seems astonishing speed and efficiency – not least when compared with the shambles the Bush team made of the much smaller job of planning for Iraq – the Allies set up the first UN agencies to administer postwar relief, and negotiated the basic principles of the new permanent organisation.
What emerged after 1945 was a partly calculated, partly accidental blend of idealism and realpolitik. The idealism shone through in the language of the UN’s founding charter and such later documents as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The beginnings of a new global consciousness – and ambition – were implicit in its deliberate repudiation of the Victorian language of ‘civilisation’; and from the start the UN was a far less Eurocentric body than its predecessor. Europe itself was now divided, no longer the centre of world affairs, and Cold War politics were turning global: the new organisation was built for this. On the other hand, there was a healthy dose of realism in the granting of vetoes to the permanent members of the Security Council, which ensured both American and Soviet participation. Without that, little could have stopped the UN going the way of the League. Equally hard-nosed – though scarcely noticed amid the euphoria of the time – was the decision that the UN should sanction far less interference in the internal affairs of its member states than the League had done. The minority treaties were quietly allowed to die, and in this sense the UN represented a major retreat from the League: it called loudly for human rights observance, but could do little to enforce it. All of this made for flexibility and inclusiveness. It also fed the complaint, still current, that the UN is merely a mouthpiece for the world’s great powers. Yet the likely alternative – then and now – is not a more genuinely equitable UN, but no UN at all.
Today’s critics also ignore the consistency with which the UN has adapted to situations unforeseen by its founders, and overcome crises at least as difficult as the one it faced in 2002-3. It is striking, with hindsight, how little the divisive politics of the Cold War hindered the progress of the new world body. American support was central to that progress – there was no US veto cast before 1970 – but the USSR, though it used the veto far more in the early years, also lent its backing. With both powers seeking a substantial extension of membership, several years of tough negotiations before and during the Korean War culminated in the accession of new members from across the ideological spectrum: from Franco’s Spain to Communist Hungary and Romania. By the mid-1950s, all of Europe (barring the two Germanies) was represented, and much of Asia and the Americas. Africa, gradually emancipated from imperial rule, followed during the 1960s.
The expansion of membership from 51 states in 1945 to 110 in 1962, 152 in 1979 and 192 today turned the General Assembly into a voice for what was known during the Cold War as the Third World. If the assembly was the closest approximation to a global parliament, it was also the arena least controllable by the great powers on the Security Council, and so the most suspect to them. If it has been the site of political theatrics rather than of real political power, theatre has proved to have its power too, especially in an era of growing media influence, as Arafat among others well understood. The powers may have wished the assembly away, but they know they cannot do without it, since that would leave the UN stripped of all pretensions to embody that elusive but hallowed entity – ‘the international community’.
And in the hands of a skilful secretary general, the General Assembly has been able to pull its weight. Its founders, as Paul Kennedy observes in The Parliament of Man, had envisaged the UN being run by a glorified international civil servant, much as the League was. They weren’t disappointed in the heavy-set Norwegian installed as its first head, Trygve Lie. As minister of justice in Norway in the late 1930s, with the Third Reich breathing down his neck, Lie had acquired valuable experience in learning how to mollify more powerful neighbours; this stood him in good stead with Cold War America. But his successor, Dag Hammarskjöld, was cut from a different cloth. During his long tenure, from 1953 until his death in an aircrash in 1961, Hammarskjöld turned the post of secretary general into a high-profile role in international peacemaking. Asserting from the start his independence from any single power, he involved the UN in crisis prevention and peacekeeping across the Middle East, South-East Asia and Africa. The General Assembly was essential to his strategy of keeping his distance from the permanent members of the Security Council; and, at the height of the Suez Crisis, when the Security Council was paralysed, it was the assembly that enabled him to establish an emergency UN peacekeeping force in the area. Between them, Hammarskjöld and the General Assembly ushered in the era of the blue helmets.
Only fifty years later, the cost and range of UN peacekeeping has grown far beyond what even Hammarskjöld envisaged. In the 1950s, just two peacekeeping operations were initiated, both in the Middle East; there were three in the 1970s; and five the following decade. The end of the Cold War, however, changed all that and since 1990 there have been 45. Today, the peacekeeping budget – roughly $5 billion annually – is three times the UN’s core expenditure, and there are approximately 85,000 peacekeepers under its command across the world. These are big numbers, but they are a lot more modest than the comparable US figures (last year spending for the Department of Defense was set at $420 billion, not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). And a lot more cost-effective, too, as recent US government studies comparing US and UN peacekeeping efforts have indicated.In little more than a decade, the UN has acquired an unprecedented global prominence.
Kofi Annan’s career, as described by James Traub in The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power, illustrates the possibilities and the pitfalls of this new world role. Having risen through the ranks to become under-secretary general for peacekeeping, Annan made a timely intervention in the Bosnian conflict that finally broke the deadlock there, allowing Nato to intervene. This persuaded the Clinton administration that he should replace Boutros Boutros-Ghali as secretary general. But Annan’s tenure in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations also coincided with an even more striking failure of international will than Bosnia – the Rwandan genocide. Boutros-Ghali himself was slow to act, and acted clumsily when he did. But as with the Srebrenica massacre the following year, there was very little the UN could do when its members refused their support. Sometimes the ‘international community’ expresses its will through doing nothing.
Historians of the League still talk like accountants, drawing up the balance-sheet of its successes and (more frequent) failures; contemporary analysts of the UN do much the same thing. This may be a defensive reaction to the kind of criticism that culminated in the ferocious rhetorical battering from George Bush and Co. Or it may reflect frustration with the mix of idealism and realpolitik that has existed in the UN from the start. Yet we could be more sanguine. After all, if a deeply hostile US administration, enjoying a position of unparalleled dominance in the international system, finds it cannot live without the UN, then the organisation is likely to be with us for a good while yet. As Kennedy remarks, too many have invested too much in it to see it vanish with equanimity.
The real reason to think seriously about reform is not to ward off the UN’s descent into ‘the dustbin of history’ but rather to ensure it retains the resilience that has allowed it to do so much good in the world. Today, international security is as much a matter of responding to acute environmental change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of fighting disease and coping with mass immiseration as it is about averting conventional wars. The UN will not always manage to prevent wars or always be allowed to move rapidly to curtail them, as we were shamefully reminded once again last summer in Lebanon. But it has done, and can do, a lot to improve international security in these broader and more collaborative senses.
Reform, in other words, should not be designed to get the UN to do everything, but rather to help it do more effectively what it does best. This means, for example, finding ways of regularising the subcontracting of underemployed national armies to the UN for peacekeeping and crisis intervention – something that already happens on a small scale. It means – as Churchill envisaged – tightening up the relations between the UN and existing regional organisations like the EU or the African Union, so that it conserves its strength for the tasks they are unable to perform. And, most contentious, it means some reform of the Security Council so that its composition reflects something more up-to-date than a line-up of the victors (real and imagined) of 1945. Kennedy has some good suggestions to make, along these lines, but he is not optimistic. It seems obvious that those ageing prizefighters, the British and the French, should bow out gracefully, or at least allow others in; that India should be admitted; and that more seats should be assigned to countries from specific regions. Yet the likelihood of this happening any time soon seems negligible.