Last Best Hope?

The U.N. flag
The U.N. flag (Hermann J. Knippertz / Ap)
Reviewed by Michael Hirsh
Sunday, July 23, 2006


The Past, Present, and Future

of the United Nations

By Paul Kennedy

Random House. 361 pp. $26.95

With Iran and North Korea looming as critical tests for the U.N. Security Council, with peacekeeping missions all over the news and with the failures of go-it-alone foreign policy so obvious, it's difficult to think of another moment in recent history when we've had greater need for a book that will explain the real value of the United Nations in the global system.

This, unfortunately, is not that book.

Perhaps what's most disappointing about The Parliament of Man is that its author, the eminent Yale historian Paul Kennedy, has seized such historical moments before. Two decades ago, Kennedy warned Washington of the dangers of "imperial overstretch" in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), a magisterial book that helped shape the U.S. foreign policy debate (and is now looking prescient again, given the costs of the Iraq war). In 1993, during a time of post-Cold War optimism, Kennedy delivered the grim news (in Preparing for the Twenty-First Century ) that the world would face jarring new challenges over immigration, agricultural trade and the rich/poor divide, among other issues that have since moved to the forefront of the global agenda.

But this time, despite (or perhaps because of) his ambition to produce a definitive history of the United Nations, Kennedy lets the moment pass him by. Instead of a book that cuts through the alphabet soup of U.N. programs to focus on the world body's vital missions -- it is, above all, the main forum for burden-sharing and conflict resolution by the planet's major powers -- he has produced a book that is so bland and cautious that it reads as if it were written by a U.N. committee. This, in fact, may not be far from the truth. As he notes, The Parliament of Man began as an "independent working group" report requested by the distinguished former U.N. official Brian Urquhart, co-chaired by Kennedy and timed around the 50th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. Charter in 1945.

Kennedy starts out well, invoking the eerie foresight of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," from which he takes his title. The poet, writing in 1837, seemed to anticipate the horrors and hopes of a century later, describing a future time in which nations launched "airy navies" that "rain'd a ghastly dew" upon the Earth, then saw the light by creating the "Parliament of man, the Federation of the world" to bind the world "in universal law." Kennedy retraces the long, much-digressed-from road to international governance from Tennyson's time, beginning with the Congress of Vienna. He ably re-diagnoses the failures of Woodrow Wilson's beloved League of Nations, which led to the more realistically designed United Nations produced after World War II, and the chronic conundrum of how to launch robust missions to keep the peace (or enforce it) when U.N. member states won't pony up the troops and funds to let them succeed. Kennedy is also good at analyzing the deep problems blocking Security Council reform -- which he passionately advocates -- with the "permanent five" veto-bearing powers (the World War II victors' club, consisting of the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France) thwarting even modest proposals to let more members, even temporarily, into their powerful group.

But then the book begins to wander as Kennedy takes us, painstakingly, through all the world body's myriad missions -- many of them still wispy, unfulfilled dreams from the founding years. This misguided effort at giving equal time to nearly every major U.N. agency and program leads to some absurdities. Kennedy ends up devoting almost as much space to the postwar U.N. economic agenda, which quickly atrophied after it was taken over by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as he does to peacekeeping and peace enforcement, issues as critical for the United Nations today as they were in 1945. And while he spends many pages trying to breathe life into the mummified ECOSOC (the U.N. Economic and Social Council), he ignores the International Atomic Energy Agency, a key player in the Iran and North Korea dramas and perhaps the single most important organization reporting to the United Nations today.

Kennedy's effort to draw attention to the little-known aspects of the U.N. system is commendable. The United Nations is a many-headed beast, and its numerous critics tend to behave like the proverbial blind man who grasps only part of the elephant, not comprehending the whole. But Kennedy never really gets his arms around the problem of describing the United Nations in totality either. For the most part, he seems to be giving us the view from the U.N. Secretariat, the executive branch of the world body -- too often, it seems, from those 10 floors that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton once suggested should be demolished. For example, reflecting the long-time hopes of some U.N. officials, Kennedy calls for the creation of a U.N. intelligence service and standing army. He dismisses U.S. politicians' fears that such moves would violate national sovereignty as "self-serving and obstructionist" or mere "paranoia." But Kennedy is describing a globalist fantasy here: In fact, no major nation is ever likely to grant such powers to the United Nations, period. The United Nations is a tool for member countries, not an independent body.

Kennedy spills a lot of ink parsing what the fine language of the U.N. Charter means about how the organization should run, even though the real answer was supplied long ago by a Soviet delegate, whom he quotes: "We [the major powers] shall tell you." By acting as a channel for the discontent of U.N. bureaucrats rather than viewing the United Nations as a world historian, Kennedy doesn't do nearly as much as he could have to dispel the misconception -- so popular in Republican Washington -- that the world body is a useless, hopelessly corrupt organization.

Kennedy also fails to capture the human side of the U.N. story, the many tales of high drama and personal courage out in the field. For example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sometimes touts Afghanistan's successful formation of a post-Taliban government as an example of self-reliance. In fact, U.N. agencies played a critical role, almost single-handedly organizing the loya jirga assembly that set Afghanistan on the course to democracy. (Indeed, U.N. officials told me that the transport of 1,500 loya jirga delegates involved the largest airlift in the organization's history.) There are many such stories that could help restore luster to the world body. Telling them -- reminding people how valuable the United Nations really is -- may well be the best way to promote the reforms that Kennedy so avidly supports. ยท

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek and the author of "At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World."

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