World organization and organizing the world: what the UN’s founding fathers wanted

What I’m reading: Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, 2009

In a recent post I wondered about where the limits to the UN’s modern-day influence lay, but whether one sees such limits in positive or negative terms depends on preconceptions about what the ‘true’ purpose of such an international organisation should be. Mark Mazower, in his history of the United Nations’ founding, notes:

“The intensity of present disillusionment is closely linked to a sense of despair at how far it has fallen short of the standard supposedly set by its founders…

“Drawing worthy lessons for the present has thus involved highlighting a contrast between the blinkered unilateralists of the early twenty-first century and the wise and prudent internationalists of 1945. Soon the protagonists of these accounts turn into visionaries and heroes – inspirations for our drabber and less strenuous times.

This, Mazower argues, “generates expectations that its founders were never intended to be met. The result is, if anything, to deepen the crisis facing the world organization and to obscure rather than illuminate its real achievements and potential.” (4-7)

What did the UN’s founders want? The most interesting aspect of Mazower’s argument, consequently, is in finding the UN’s intellectual genesis in British imperial thinking in the early 20th century – and how efforts to perpetuate imperial rule in the League of Nations, and then the UN, by midcentury had morphed into a vehicle for anticolonial and national liberation efforts. This is a compelling read, which upends the conventional narrative of the UN as a radical enterprise emerging out of the ashes of World War II, and that its driving force was the United States.

‘Internationalism’ is often contrasted with isolationism, frequently with regard to American foreign policy. But Mazower’s study reminds us that internationalism, rather than being of the necessarily liberal form that it is today, can also (as it did in the British empire) have an imperial character. The Commonwealth began in such a way – propounded by South African General Jan Smuts as an association of the white English-speaking nations, epitomizing the transformation of the British empire into a permanent league of democracies that would bolster each other.

Thinking about the League of Nations followed this path, in the belief that empire could be enlightened, and that a civilizing mission remained to be undertaken across much of the world, hence only a limited sanction of self-determination. Through international collaboration (and the post-World War I imperial mandate system), peace and harmony would be brought to the world. The mission of the League was practically as ‘deux ex machina’ of the British Empire – but for its advocates, morally, unmistakably for the greater good of humanity.

World organization for the purposes of imperial continuity – in the United Nations, Smuts saw the cooperation of the United States which had been so absent in the League as the key piece of the puzzle. What was clear, for Smuts as for British civil servant Alfred Zimmern (the focus of chapter two), was the moral imperative of this project: ensuring peace and a hospitable environment for the values of European civilization to be globalized.

Other fascinating themes are drawn out in the other chapters (which focus on two Jewish emigres to the United States, Raphael Lemkin and Joseph Schechtman, and Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru) – the shift from the protection of minority rights to that of state sovereignty; the serious contemplation and planning of mass population transfers in order to facilitate self-determination; the rise of the General Assembly as a leading platform for decolonization campaigns; and the UN’s marginalization as a central forum of world affairs with the Cold War.

But in this historical process where the membership of this world organization became globalized is a relevant question about what international ‘community’ or ‘society’ really means. For in the choice of an international organization – forgoing other possibilities of organizing the world, whether as a concert of great powers echoing 19th century rule, or attempts at actual world government – is a notion of who the appropriate members of such an organization are. Who counts as a member of the ‘international’? The standards of civilization at the beginning of the 20th century were racial; today, they are arguably ones of liberal democracy and economic openness, expressed in the hoops that WTO or EU aspirants have to jump through to qualify for membership. This story of the UN’s founding inspirations is attentive to the fact that standards of appropriate conduct – i.e. civilization – exist in every age. If truly global, heterogeneous membership lies behind great power disengagement – are exclusive clubs, with more circumscribed notions of community, the only ways of running the world?

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One thought on “World organization and organizing the world: what the UN’s founding fathers wanted

  1. in rethinking the U.N., how about putting aside questions of whether we want world government (whatever that might be) and asking ourselves about the larger picture and our true interests. What we really need at this juncture is:

    1) a world organization designed to prevent WWIII & nuclear holocaust;

    2) an organization that eliminates abject poverty and improves the spiritual and material status quo for people everywhere;

    3) an organization that preserves and equitably distributes the world’s resources;

    4) an organization that responds to people’s needs and legitimate desires without being a slave to our whims and destructive impulses.


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