Realism on the U.N.

Print edition : September 20, 2013

At a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 1946, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who headed India's first delegation to the U.N., and Justice M.C. Chagla, a member. Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to Chagla, said he wanted them to make a splash in that forum. Photo: AP/THE HINDU ARCHIVES

After the Korean War broke out, Nehru expressed the fear that the U.N. was heading towards suicide. Here, in April 1954, he meets Korean and Chinese ex-prisoners of war who had opted to stay in India. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The author traces the death of many an illusion about the U.N. in a study that is one of the best on the fractured organisation.

THE great merit of this stimulating book is that it eschews both cynicism about and idealistic expectations of the United Nations. Prof. Mark Mazower of Columbia University traces the U.N.’s roots and establishes very clearly that none of the architects of the world organisation suffered unduly from idealism. They were fully aware of the fault lines.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) bombed Kosovo without U.N. Security Council approval. George W. Bush’s national security doctrine of pre-emptive war marked the repudiation of the basic principles on which the U.N. had been founded. Under Ronald Reagan, the United States weakened its ties with the International Court of Justice; later it also turned its back on the new International Criminal Court, and undermined international arms control regimes as well as efforts to reach a legally binding agreement for biological weapons.

“For much of the rest of the world, overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of invasion of Iraq, the U.N. failed too—to defend the principles of multilateralism and collective security. One thing was clear: the high hopes invested briefly in it as the centre of a new global order had completely vanished.”

Walter Lippman warned as far back as in 1947, in his critique of George F. Kennan’s espousal of containment, that if the United States used the U.N. as an instrument of its policy, that would be the end of the institution as a worthwhile body. This came to pass when the U.S. used its majority in the General Assembly to override the Soviet veto in the Security Council.

Sir Charles Webster, the British historian who also served in the Foreign Office and was involved in the drafting of the U.N.’s charter, called it “an Alliance of the Great Powers embedded in a universal organisation”. That alliance fell apart within a year of the Second World War, and the U.N. has been drifting along since like a ship that has lost its anchor.

Prof. Mazower traces the U.N.’s roots to its predecessor, the League of Nations. “When we remember that it was Jan Smuts, the South African premier and architect of white settler nationalism, who did more than anyone to argue for, and help draft, the U.N.’s stirring preamble, it is surely necessary to be cautious about making our own hopes and dreams too dependent on the stories we tell about the past.”

In the U.S., opinion was divided between the realists led by Lippman and the idealists who outnumbered them. While discussing their views, the author does not ignore others. Jawaharlal Nehru receives considerable attention.

In 1946, in a letter to M.C. Chagla, a member of India’s delegation to the General Assembly, Nehru said he wanted them to make a splash in that forum.

After the Korean War broke out, he expressed the fear that the U.N. was heading towards suicide. Even though the proposed new United Nations, as it emerged from the Big Four conversations at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, was significantly different from what he was aiming at, Nehru could see its value.

“Contemplating whether or not to demand a place in its Security Council, Nehru noted that India was ‘potentially a Great Power’ —the centre of a future security system in Asia and in the Indian Ocean; ‘it is absurd for India to be treated like any small power’. Whatever happened with the Security Council, India’s ‘natural position’ was as a leader of ‘all the smaller countries of Asia’. Thus when an astonishingly ill-timed new piece of South African anti-Indian Representation Act galvanised Indian sentiment by its proposals to restrict their voting and residence rights —Nehru seized on the issue to push his wider agenda. It would put India in the vanguard of the movement to challenge colonial domination, and it would increase the pressure to stop applying different principles to different parts of the world. Above all, ‘there is no reason why Europe and the Americans should be considered the pivots of the modern world and Asia should be ignored. Asia is inevitably going to be one of the big centres of international affairs in future and the sooner this is recognised and given effect, the better.’” This stance helped him to promote purely national interests. The dreams were forgotten.

The recent shift towards the East is less a result of India’s rise than of China’s. India’s victory in the Assembly on the South African issue was impressive by any standard (32 to 15 with seven abstentions). Nehru enthused that the General Assembly “not only vindicated India’s honour but has shown itself a guardian of human rights. This is full of hope for the future of the United Nations Organisation and for civilisation.”

The author traces the death of this and other illusions in a study which is one of the best on the fractured organisation. “The Cold War offered an alibi for impotence. But once it came to an end, and the spotlight was trained on the U.N. once more, the resuscitation of the old ideals soon exposed them for what they were—dreams of a past that had never existed and a poor guide to what might lie ahead.”

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