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The UN Rises Above Its Origins

by Ian Williams | published August 2010

Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End Of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)

Stephen Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003)

People and nations hold such disparate views of the United Nations that an old allegory from India comes to mind. In John Godfrey Saxe’s nineteenth-century verse rendering, “It was six men of Hindustan, to learning much inclined / Who went to see the elephant, though all of them were blind.” One sage touched only the elephant’s trunk, another the tusks, another the tail, and so on, so that each came back with a very different perspective on the pachyderm.

Two books about the historical roots of the UN illuminate some of the reasons for the confusion about the organization, both in reality and in perception, although the implied irony of the poem does not apply to the authors, whose insight is clear and whose wisdom is genuine. Stephen Schlesinger examines the Act of Creation of the world body through the files in Washington and finds quite correctly that the final draft of the UN Charter was made in the USA. Mark Mazower looks at No Enchanted Palace through the prism of the British liberal internationalists who were closely involved in the founding of the League of Nations, and equally correctly finds their fingerprints all over the establishment of its successor.

In secondary-school history classes, one learns that, whatever it is, the UN is not the League of Nations, which was based on naïve trust in collective moral authority and lacked any means of enforcing its will, when it was able to express one. World War II is usually ascribed to the League’s failure and, of all people, President George W. Bush infamously invoked this specter in a failed attempt to shame the UN into backing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In contradistinction to the received wisdom, Mazower quotes one American drafter of the UN Charter mentioning “the hesitancy in many quarters to call attention to the essential continuity of the Old League and the New United Nations for fear of arousing latent hostilities or creating serious doubts, which might seriously jeopardize the birth and early success of the new organization.”

Indeed, recalling Otto von Bismarck’s comparison between treaties and sausages, one could say that Mazower lays out a list of ingredients that mythmakers of all stripes would find embarrassing. Some of the more interesting pieces of gristle: a racist South African premier (whose thinking also helped inspire the League) and revisionist Zionist demographers engaged in a mysterious study, the M-Project, aiming to redraw the ethnic map of the world. Despite ample grinding, Mazower shows, the League sausage was recycled and stuffed into a new skin -- albeit with some of the best bits left out.

Mazower does not mention it, but though cohorts of Americans dominated the drafting of the charter, the British Empire also struck back in the person of Gladwin Jebb, the first acting secretary-general who brought with him staff from the League. Jebb made British English the official dialect of the UN and it remains so, even if generations of polyglot bureaucrats have pulled it some distance from the language of Shakespeare or indeed of George Orwell, whose essay “Politics and the English Language” could well have been based on a study of UN documents.

Ink Spot

The UN has almost always been a sort of Rorschach test in which observers see the object of their particular desires or fears. This ink-spot quality is in fact one of the organization’s strengths, a collateral benefit of its confusing origins. In the United States, conservatives see the UN as a world conspiracy against US sovereignty and, sometimes, capitalism. Liberals, and never more than in the Bush years, consider it a mechanism for sharing the costs and burdens of superpower status. Europeans and many others think the UN is the best available arbiter of international law and hence the source of legitimacy in global affairs. The Third World, particularly since the Soviet bloc and China ceased to be a reliable countervailing force, sees the UN as an instrument for legitimating US and Western hegemony and laundering the transgressions of US allies like Israel -- but, at the same time, as a bulwark against hegemony. Many Arab nationalists view the organization as a tacit partner of the US and Israel, and of course, to round the circle, Israel and its neoconservative backers perceive it as a anti-Zionist plot.

In the quantum indeterminacy of multilateral diplomacy, all of these differing perceptions are correct, either in part or on occasion, and are sometimes held simultaneously by the same people. Even as countries and political factions revile the organization, they invoke its decisions and precepts. Israel, which has nary a good word to say about the UN, basks in the glory of every minor UN office to which it is elected and cites Security Council resolutions against Lebanon and Syria even as it ignores those against itself.

At the Big Bang of its origin, few observers would guess how the UN would develop and, possibly, few of its creators would approve of how it has. Its survival though the Cold War, the “new world order,” the resurgence of ethnic conflict, globalization and twenty-first-century financial and environmental meltdown has depended on a dialectical dance between the noble aspirations expressed at its founding and the sordid pragmatism underneath. This very ambiguity has helped the UN to live much longer than its greatly maligned predecessor. Despite hand wringing and continuous questioning, the UN remains vital and relevant to the global body politic, in many ways far beyond anything envisaged in the charter.

Countries and people look to the UN for what former Secretary-General Kofi Annan called its “unique” legitimizing power. Indeed, reading Schlesinger’s fascinating account of the debates inside the US delegation and their dialogues with others, it becomes even clearer just how important perceptions are in global diplomacy. The US delegation had to craft a text that would allow the independent-minded Latin Americans, Republicans and liberal Democrats in Congress, and the Soviets all to think they had won a prize, while soothing the bruised imperial pride of the British and French. Concerns for national sovereignty, recognition of regional organizations and effectiveness had to be reconciled, as well as the anti-colonial feelings of the US and others toward the remnants of European empires. And some of the wrangling was based on the dictum, “all politics is local,” since the American delegation had to reconcile its Republican and Democrat components in ways that the rest of the world could tolerate. From its very inception, perceptions were all for the new organization.

But the UN’s creation was imbued with so much hope on the part of the war-torn “peoples of the world” that they shoved down the memory hole the fact that the body was essentially an amended version of the reviled League, but with less of the idealism that the League displayed in ethos and practice. In fact, in many ways the new organization was a reversion to older, pre-League models. It had some of the characteristics of the traditional concert of great powers, albeit concentrated by the casting call of military victory into more of a chamber trio of the US, Britain and the Soviet Union.

To disguise the concentration of power, China and France were added to the Security Council, and as Schlesinger points out, initially France stood aloof from the proposed permanent seat, acting as spokesnation for the lesser powers before taking the proffered position, to which it has grimly hung on ever since. In Westphalian mode, the UN Charter declared the sovereign equality of all states, but even before Orwell wrote 1984, it had made five of them more equal than others.

That conceit was a necessary concession to reality, however. The organization could not survive without the acquiescence of the great powers, and Mazower notes that even Jawaharlal Nehru, champion of what would now be called the global south, accepted the Permanent Five’s position, while holding out fond hopes for a seat for India on the grounds of its future potential.

Buried Rights

As Mazower points out, the new organization eschewed many of the principles of self-determination and minority protection that the League had espoused and for which League officials had organized plebiscites across war-torn Europe. In contrast to its retrospective reputation for idle fecklessness, the League had been surprisingly busy in conducting referenda and drawing boundary lines across Europe, although at the insistence of the victors in World War I it had refused Germans in Eastern Europe the privilege of self-determination accorded to others.

The UN’s Westphalian emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of nation-states, originally intended for the accepted member states rather than their imperial subjects, was actually reinforced after the big wave of decolonization in the 1960s when the new members zealously defended their newfound sovereignty. Of course, this stance, despite often being a bedrock assumption that what happened inside a state’s borders was nobody else’s business, often took on an anti-imperialist veneer.

In contrast to the League, Mazower points out, the new UN organization took some decades to rediscover self-determination, let alone minority rights. The boundaries of the new Europe were fixed by polls among the leaders in Yalta, Tehran and Potsdam, and by state-sponsored ethnic cleansing on the ground. There were no votes by locals or even in the United Nations. Indeed, the UN stayed silent about the ethnic cleansings that rearranged the boundaries of Eastern and Central Europe, not least since it was generally the defeated who paid the price for ethnically tidy borders and one clause of the Charter actually allowed founder members a free pass to attack former enemy states.

For some observers of human rights, the Genocide Convention of 1948, crafted soon after the UN’s founding, is a huge landmark. But in reality, it is more in the nature of legal memorial than living instrument. The US did not ratify the convention until 1986 and then only with numerous reservations, and it could be argued that logic-chopping over whether various egregious examples of mass murder and deportation constitute genocide have if anything detracted from proper appreciation of the inherent horror of massacring groups of people regardless of what they had in common. Indeed, the Genocide Convention, with its emphasis on collective victimhood, contrasts with the concepts of individual human rights epitomized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed just as “minority rights were being buried, quietly and unobtrusively,” according to Mazower.

In this phrase, he understates the scale of the obsequies, and indeed later he points out that the post-World War II population transfers that the victorious allies oversaw across Eastern Europe were “more sweeping in many ways than [those] the Nazis had themselves perpetrated.” When carried out in the Balkans half a century later, these ethnic cleansings, as the dead euphemism now has it, were themselves deemed acts of genocide under the Convention. What both the Convention and the Declaration shared was that they were honored far more in the breach than the observance in the ensuing decades.

The Question of Palestine

While a cynic could point to the relative stability of European frontiers as a result of these drastic solutions to previous minority problems, the Middle East suggests otherwise. Mazower looks at the Palestine partition resolution in the context of the time and the pious declarations of the UN. As Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist current now represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, mused earlier when he saw what the Nazis were up to, “If it is possible to move the Baltic peoples it is possible to move the Arabs also.” But Franklin D. Roosevelt also talked about “putting up barbed wire around Palestine” or transferring the native Arabs to “some other part of the Middle East,” humanely conditioned on there being enough water to support them.

“The UN Charter made no mention of minorities and the small sub-commission set up was marginalized,” Mazower laconically points out. The Universal Declaration did not mention minority rights and attempts to include them were defeated. The UN’s later adoption of decolonization and the right to self-determination explicitly excluded minorities. The African Union still rigidly sanctifies arbitrary colonial boundaries that make the Austro-Hungarian Empire seem like a platonic ideal of nationhood.

But the exception to the general UN insouciance toward minority rights was the Palestine partition resolution, which, inherited from the original League mandate, provided for protection of minority cultural rights, including the maintenance of Ottoman family and civil law. This measure was only the first of many resolutions on Palestine that contained no adequate means of enforcement, but the fact that there was a resolution that set conditions explains why, to the distress of Israel’s supporters, Palestine remains so prominent on the UN agenda. Indeed, even then the anomaly could be explained by the fact that it was originally majority rights that were being protected as political decisions were to make the Palestinians a minority in their own country.

As Mazower describes, within years of the adoption of the UN Charter, the UN General Assembly’s partition of Palestine took little or no account of the views of the Palestinian Arab majority and refused to allow the International Court of Justice to consider the legalities of the question. “If I have not cited a single Arab voice here, it is because these voices -- which were certainly being raised in protest -- were almost entirely ignored in these discussions,” he says.

Mazower shows how demographer Joseph Schechtman’s work on population transfers in Europe and Asia reinforced the determination of Israel’s founders to transfer the Palestinians and not let them back. This pedigree does raise the question of why the displaced Hungarians, Sudeten Germans, Poles and other victims Schechtman detailed are absent from the UN agenda while the Palestinians have, at least statistically, topped the bill year after year in venue after venue.

One reason is, of course, that it was a UN resolution that set up a Jewish state in mandatory Palestine, and the conditions it laid out have yet to be fulfilled, and although one would never guess from listening to some of the more frenzied discourse from Israeli sources, the Palestinians were never part of the Axis, unlike so many of the deportees of Eastern Europe.

As Westerners condemn the UN Human Rights Commission for its partiality in the cases it picks, Mazower reminds us that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s attempt to draw UN attention to black disenfranchisement in the US was studiously ignored. “The awkward truth was that the UN had abandoned the League’s commitment, however faltering, to protecting minorities, without willing an effective alternative.”

Power and Partiality

The UN was based primarily on power and politics, not on law and justice. Indeed, as the decisions of the International Court of Justice against Libya after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing established, in effect, the Security Council’s decisions are binding under the UN Charter even if they flout previously accepted international law. The US and Britain were determined to blame Libya for the explosion on Pan American Flight 103, in the absence of conclusive evidence, and, freed by the end of the Cold War from an automatic Soviet veto, secured sanctions against Libya in the Security Council. Current sanctions against Iran are similarly based on a politically based referral to the Council from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would not have stood up to impartial legal scrutiny.

Of course, this discrepancy is at the root of Arab problems with the UN. The partition of Palestine was clearly unjust and against customary international law, but as Mazower says, “The world of the UN was very different from that of the League of Nations. International law could no longer claim a position above politics and had lost much of its strength.”

The Palestinian partition, the Lockerbie decision and now the Iranian nuclear file are all episodes in which political considerations have trumped international law or justice, and which necessarily detract from the neutrality of the UN. If Iran is to be punished for seeking the nuclear fuel cycle, then why did India and Pakistan -- or indeed Israel -- escape censure? If North Korea can quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty, then how can Iran be penalized for not doing so? If Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could not flout UN resolutions, then how can Israel?

Yet despite such power-induced partiality, the organization has maintained a surprising moral standing, in part because once the machinery was set up and running, it developed a life of its own, not least because of the General Assembly with its (almost) universal membership. Not all of the Assembly’s decisions were necessarily wise, but the double act, almost good cop-bad cop, of the politically controlled Security Council and its more rambunctious junior partner reinforce each other in a strange dualism of power and the authority of inclusion that each provides to the combined effort.

Indeed, even as the UN’s founders explicitly repudiated concern for minority rights, the seeds of a new globalism grew. Perhaps indicative of the ambiguity of the founding, Mazower considers at length the position of the South African prime minister, Jan Smuts, a member of the British war cabinet and undoubtedly a great statesman, even an idealist, whose ambivalent but sincerely held principles combined eloquent defenses of human rights with the aspiration to construct apartheid in his homeland and an equally strong, but less successful desire to extend white, British control over the continent of Africa. His work was self-defeating, since the “moderate” disenfranchisement of non-whites under his premiership led not only to international opprobrium, but also to the victory of the National Party under a leadership that had been interned during the war for their active pro-Nazi sympathies.

Smuts made a kind of sense -- if, as Humpty Dumpty said, words meant just what he meant them to mean, neither more nor less -- and so it was assumed that when he spoke of humanity and its potentially glorious future, humanity meant white people, and even more particularly, those from the Anglo-Saxon polity.

The Anglo-Saxon polity is a common thread here. World War II had persuaded Smuts and others that the British Empire or Commonwealth and the US together would be the means of defending and advancing civilization as they knew it. It was, of course, an illusion shared by Winston Churchill -- but not by Roosevelt and his administration, whose sentiments about the British Empire had many of the attributes of a vulture protecting its prey from rival predators.

Alfred Zimmern is an even stranger case, a drafter of the League of Nations documents and an Hellenist entranced by the glory of Athens, who jumped from being a devotée of the British Empire and its global civilizing role to a booster of President Harry Truman’s United States. But instead of seeing the US as Rome to Harold Macmillan’s Athens, Zimmern saw the US as a reincarnation of Athens in the great age of Pericles -- a delusion made all the more insupportable by his willful blindness to slavery in one and continuing segregation in the other. He would make an interesting study to parallel Christopher Hitchens’ later conversion to cheerleader for the civilizing mission of Washington.

The US, Zimmern said, could make the UN Charter “as true a constitution for the whole of humanity as the laws of Athens were for the Athenians.” Well, tell it to the enforced tributaries of the Delian league or to the Milesians, if any survived the Athenian genocide against them. Such unreal idealism apart, both Schlesinger and Mazower agree that there was a large amount of realpolitik involved in the formulation of the Charter: The price for great power involvement was the veto and the supremacy of the Security Council and it was a price essential for the success of the venture. But impelled by the type of ideological and philosophical frameworks of internationalism that Mazower discusses, the smaller members were originally willing to accept the price, and then were able to take the General Assembly much farther than the UN’s founders’ envisaged.

Thwarting Empire

A body conceived by many of its founders as the means of perpetuating empire became the forum that catalyzed, encouraged and presided over the independence of scores of colonies and the dismantling of empires and eventually overcame its own inhibitions against interference in sovereign states with the 2000 declaration on the “Responsibility to Protect.” And, of course, it now has whole conventions and conferences on minority and indigenous rights.

Smuts inadvertently provided the opportunity. Discrimination against ethnic Indians in South Africa led to India, anomalously a member even while not independent, raising the issue and successfully putting it on the agenda of the General Assembly, which in some measure anticipated the “Responsibility to Protect” concept. Ironically, of course, India, jealous of its sovereignty, is now one of the strongest opponents of that principle, but its successful raising of the issue did much to begin the decades-long struggle against apartheid, in which the UN played a significant and honorable role, despite the foot dragging of states like the US, Israel, Britain and France, which were prepared to collaborate with apartheid for various reasons of cynical self-interest. One of the fairly barren fruits of the period was the 1973 Apartheid Convention, modeled on the Genocide Convention, and which of course the US never ratified.

In the end, the intertwining of pragmatism and principle inside the UN created its own dynamism. In the face of a world community united in revulsion against apartheid, which reinforced domestic pressure on governments, the Western powers were forced to join the sanctions against the regime in Pretoria. It was only in the UN, through the General Assembly, that the global community could frame and articulate that revulsion. But to be effective, it had to marshal domestic and international pressure to ensure that Security Council members would not veto action. It was, of course, when the US joined in the sanctions that Israel began to scale down its collusion with the apartheid regime, as Sasha Pulakow-Suransky details in his book The Unspoken Alliance (2010).

The immediate parallel is the Middle Eastern situation. In the 1990s the PLO mission at the UN embarked upon a strategy clearly modeled on the anti-apartheid campaign. The Palestinian case, numerically, had been weakened by the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the alliance between the Communist bloc and developing nations on the issue, which had reached its memorable apogee in 1975 with the General Assembly’s “Zionism is racism” resolution, two years after the Apartheid Convention was approved.

The Palestinian strategy entailed reemphasizing and clarifying the various resolutions on the Middle East and extending them to create a legal front against Israeli behavior. Such actions as the reconvening of the state parties to the Geneva Convention to consider the Occupied Territories, the referral of the separation wall in the West Bank to the International Court of Justice, and the Goldstone report on the winter 2008 Gaza war have worried Israel far more than the shrill, intemperate declarations of the Cold War era.

Signifying Something

Of course, all of this is so much sound and fury, signifying nothing, unless it affects Israeli domestic politics, or the policy of the United States. Under the Obama administration, activity on the international legal front lends weight to Washington’s discreet pressure on Israel and would lend even more if President Barack Obama decided to take off his gloves. But a comparison of the State Department’s declared policies on the Middle East, and even more so that of the Canadian Foreign Ministry’s, to US and Canadian actions epitomizes the fissure between a government’s quiet acceptance of legal principles and practical politics when it comes to votes and intervention.

Until the 2003 Iraq war, nothing had done as much to erode Washington’s moral authority as its provision of a get-out-of-jail-free card to Israel with its automatic veto at the Security Council. Inadvertently, however, in the Iraq war era Bush reinforced the UN’s standing. Failing to get clear legal authority for the invasion, the State Department was forced to parse existing resolutions to claim that it had authority from the UN. At the same time, accepting tacitly that this gambit was a stretch, Foggy Bottom tried and failed to construct an alternative legitimization with the “coalition of the willing,” now deservedly forgotten and discarded, almost as big a failure as the war itself. Throughout, even as they invoked the UN’s alleged license of the invasion, American conservatives questioned both the legal authority of the world body and continuing US membership therein. The recess appointment of the odious John Bolton, who wanted to lop ten floors off the UN building, as American ambassador to Turtle Bay was the sort of schoolyard taunt that had the effect of ennobling the UN in the eyes of others.

As Stephen Schlesinger shows, the US cared enough about the UN Charter to spy on the original participants and bring immense diplomatic resources to bear in order to bring it about. Despite the worst efforts of the Boltons and Jesse Helmses, there has never been an American majority for repudiating the UN, although anyone who relied upon the Fox News Channel for information, for example, might not think so.

“Marginality may have brought survival, just as ambiguity within its founding Charter and activism in its organization has brought flexibility and adaptation,” Mazower correctly assesses, as he warns against illusions that “reform” would make the UN more powerful or important. The point is that the organization is not only useful to the countries of the world, as suggested by the fact that only one nation, Indonesia, has ever tried to resign, but that its functions are essentially irreplaceable.

Schlesinger reminds readers in his conclusion that the UN has not, despite a world of mayhem and murder, failed in its primary aim. Inspired by a war of aggression and annexation, the UN has witnessed few more: Since the Charter, in fact, there has only been one attempt to annex a generally accepted sovereign state -- and that, Saddam’s conversion of Kuwait into the nineteenth province of Iraq, was reversed by UN-endorsed action.

Northern Cyprus was occupied by Turkey in 1974, but residual respect for international law has prevented annexation. In East Timor, without UN approval for the annexation, Indonesia eventually relinquished its claim, while in Western Sahara, no country, despite strong French efforts, accepts Morocco’s claim.

Schlesinger does not mention the Occupied Territories, but he should have done. The successful Palestinian effort to reiterate and establish the legal status of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza means that Israel will never have legal title to its conquests, even if it has, apart from Jerusalem, almost established de jure title to its earlier conquests inside the Green Line beyond the partition boundaries. The complete absence of any foreign embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, six decades after Israeli independence and membership in the UN, is eloquent testimony to the negative legitimizing power of the United Nations, which is why Israeli policy, backed by most US administrations, has been to trap the Palestinians in bilateral negotiations where their leaders can be bullied into surrendering their rights, in the unproven, but not unlikely, assumption that the UN would then ratify the deal.

The UN might not be able to enforce its decisions in the face of the superpower veto, but it can, and does, ensure that the conquerors cannot assume title to their spoils. It is not a negligible power, which derives from the serendipitous ambiguity of its origins, detailed so well by Schlesinger and Mazower, whose work puts its present indispensability into perspective.

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