Sun, Aug 20, 2006 - Page 19 News List

The UN isn't perfect, but it's the best there is

Paul Kennedy trawls through the annals of UN hisotry, from its founding to the present day, and argues that despite many faults it is as relevant as ever

By Stephen Schlesinger  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations
By Paul Kennedy
361 pages
Random House

The UN has traversed some rough waters over the last half-decade. It has dealt with unrelenting abuse from American right-wingers; the unilateralism of its largest donor, the US; an abortive internal reform movement; sexual and financial scandals; restlessness among Third World nations; a chronic lack of resources; the incurable poverty of some 2 billion inhabitants of Earth; and other ills. Given this distressing record, what could possibly be its value today? Now comes a retelling of the UN story to remind us why it remains a necessary organization.

Paul Kennedy, Yale's eminent historian, author of the acclaimed work The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, has compiled an artful study of the UN from its birth to the present day that helps to set the record straight.

Kennedy's reach is considerable. In an authoritative style he examines the evolution of the variegated missions of the organization over the last 60 years, including its charter, the Security Council, the secretary-general, peacekeeping and war making, as well as the body's economic and social roles, its involvement in human rights, proposals for reform and its future.

Kennedy reminds us that the organization had its beginnings with two presidents of the US, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. As World War II was winding down, these two men sought to invent a security body based not on “coalitions of the willing” but on the credo of “collective security” to guarantee peace around the planet. Learning from the failures of the League of Nations, but equally concerned with national sovereignty, they admixed idealism and realism in drafting the UN Charter.

In San Francisco in the spring of 1945, together with leaders from 49 other nations, the Americans established a General Assembly where every state has an equal vote: a tip toward idealism. They also set up a Security Council, whose edicts on war and peace are obligatory for all members and on which sit five permanent members, the nations considered the most powerful in 1945 (the US, China, Russia, Britain and France), as the sole holders of the veto: a reflection of realism.

But as the postwar years unfolded, the UN's central task, to stymie aggression, quickly withered as a consequence of the Cold War stalemate between the US and the Soviet Union on the Security Council. Still, as Kennedy points out, “there are in practice many United Nations.” And in fact, during this period, many others did come to the fore.

There was, for example, the UN of the secretaries-general, who soon achieved fame for settling disputes as neutral mediators. There was the UN of peacekeeping, often a messy and expensive process, but one that has since proven indispensable to world security and has broadened to encompass nation building, election monitoring and constitution writing. There was the UN of poverty alleviation — still a responsibility. There was the UN of “soft power,” dealing with women, children, the environment, health, refugees, human rights, culture and law. And subsequently, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was the re-emergence of the Security Council. All these mini-United Nations have had mixed records, as Kennedy admits. But his point is, consider the alternative.

There are some weaknesses in Kennedy's argument. The very title of his book, The Parliament of Man — a line borrowed from a poem by Tennyson, Locksley Hall — gives a false impression of the organization. As a metaphor for worldwide community, it may be apt. But the UN is neither a legislature nor a world government nor even a democratic organization, which Kennedy concedes. It is a collection of states, some with freely elected rulers, some authoritarian, who appoint

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