I just call the United Nations a problem? I suppose
I did. Long ago and far away – back in the 1960s actually
– the John Birch Society used to put up billboards
calling for the US to get out of the UN and the UN
out of the US.
understand the sentiment, but as a libertarian friend
of mine said around 1971, the UN may indeed be a mere
"debating society," but if nations are debating
at least they are not shooting. I understand this
second sentiment, too. So as a practical matter, the
UN, or certain parties associated with it, may do
some real good once in a while.
other parts of the UN are doing real harm. Still,
if the UN can contribute to slowing or stopping the
current drive to war, that would be a good thing.
It would not, however, show that the UN is a good
idea as such, or that the world would be a better
place if the UN worked as planned.
the contrary, the world might be a worse place if
the UN worked as planned.
LAW, THE LEAGUE, AND THE U.N.
discussion of the U.N. must mention its loveable ideological
forerunner the League of Nations. Indeed, one hardly
need look any farther to see an array of problems
inherent in the whole notion of a league for "enforce
peace" by making war. The distinguished diplomatic
historian Roland N. Stromberg(1)
may be called as our chief witness. He notes that
the usual reading of the history of the League of
Nations is that there were a number of suggestions
from 1915 forward, which all amounted to the same
idealistic package to which the statesmen of the day
were unable fully to commit themselves. This is said
to have been tragic.
Stromberg disagrees, saying that there were many plans
precisely because the whole idea was so half-baked
(my term) and riddled with inner contradictions.
great ideal of a league to enforce peace had grown
up in reformist circles well placed at the top of
the British Empire. After all, if a league could actually
work, it would help preserve the British and other
European Empires more cheaply than resorting to general
war as in August 1914. These reformers (among them
Robert Cecil of the very, very important Tory Cecils)
passed the idea along to the cousins in Washington.
Wilson, the greatest Anglophile of them all, was smitten,
as were his associates like Colonel House and a number
of his partisan Republican enemies. All could agree
it was a jolly good idea. Then they all drew up wildly
divergent plans to be put into operation as soon as
the terrible Germans were beaten. So far this is my
EMBARRASSMENT OF UNWORKABLE NOTIONS
fundamental question was "whether the League
would be in the nature of a world state, or an old-fashioned
alliance, or whether there was anything in between."(2)
The New Republic opined on March 30, 1915 that
"The League of Peace would either be the old
imperialistic alliance under a dishonest name, or
else it would be a highly conservative federation
which would keep its members in a very straight pacifist
jacket.... There is no stopping point at a league
to prevent war. Such a league would either grow to
a world federalism, or it would break up in civil
much for the "Left" position of the day.
the right end of the pro-league spectrum were those
like Nicholas Murray Butler and Elihu Root, who "put
their trust in international law and a world court
as the slow but sure path toward eventual world government"
by the path of "organic growth."(4)
Others, less patient, demanded action and plans spelling
out the brave, new world in detail. In practice, their
plans took shape in a kind of muddled middle ground.
war was allegedly being fought on the part of the
allies for high ideals. After US entry even more was
heard of high ideals, since that is an inseparable
feature of US wars. But, alas, the war was being waged
for the "national self-determination" of
captive peoples – specifically, those held captive
by the German, Austrian, and Ottoman empires. Not
so much was heard of those held captive by the British,
the French, the Dutch, and other worthy empires.
self-determination for even this self-serving shortlist
of potential new nations would create more national
sovereignties in the world; while the league idea
necessarily required renunciation of sovereignty to
some unknown degree. How to sort that out? Was the
war being fought, at the same time, for and against
nationalism and self-determination? This was a contradiction
the league planners and theorists could never overcome.
matter of quaint dispute was whether or not the league
should be formed before German defeat so as to wage
the war better. This was the model adopted in World
War II. In that war, the Big Three took to referring
to their side as "the United Nations" in
a kind of prelude to the organization they cobbled
together in San Francisco.
the event, the League of Nations had to await the
end of World War I. The various Anglo-American drafts
of its Charter left the ambiguities in place. Article
X spelled out "collective guarantees of the independence
and existing boundaries of all states. Yet Wilson
himself took back this inelastic guarantee, by saying
that it did not rule out boundary changes or constitute
a status quo imprisonment."(5)
the existing boundaries themselves rested on successful
warfare and the League looked more and more like an
agreement among the victors to hold onto what they
had grabbed. The Treaty of Versailles, of which the
League formed a part, created enough new grievances
for a series of new wars. Given all this, it was a
quite mad to think that the League could be a force
for "peace" – even a peace to be enforced
by "sanctions," or a blockade, as
more honest generations put it (and itself an act
of war), or full-scale war.
ENGENDERS CONFUSION WHILE SUPPLYING FIG-LEAVES
most the League accomplished was to give the appearance
of international cooperation – the cause of all mankind
– to some policies adopted by certain powers against
other powers in the aftermath of the unfinished disaster
we call World War I. Where the League could not be
used, it was largely ignored. The United Nations plays
a similar role in world affairs.
are of course enthusiasts for world government who
spy in the UN the germ of a new world order. Their
time has not come and I hope it never will, for as
the New Republic said in 1915, "such
a league would either grow to a world federalism,
or it would break up in civil war." Actually,
we may remove the "or": a league, world
federalism, whatever we may call it, would necessarily
be oppressive and lead to the result mentioned.
worst part is that under such an arrangement, enemies
who would otherwise be foreign powers with some rights
under the laws of war become "rebels" with
no rights at all. I doubt it will ever quite come
to that. In the meantime, the US has stepped into
the breach to provide an imperial substitute for world
government. To the extent the present rulers can use
the UN as a fig-leaf, they will do so. Their dizzying
changes of tune – "We will consult the UN"
one week, "We don't need to consult the UN,"
the next week – only add to the mass of confusion
which surrounds the whole notion of the UN.
are often sentimental about setting up and preserving
wider unions to guarantee peace. This has to do with
the way they learn American history. For some, world
federation would work just as well as the American
confederation did after 1789, provided you don't
count that big war between 1861 and 1865 with
the 620,000 military deaths on both sides and the
50,000 or so missing Southern civilians.
analogy breaks down precisely because you must count
that big war.(6) World government
or world empire, if we should ever enjoy such, would
be the material cause of world civil war. It would
be good to avoid it then, unless of course you
like the idea of global civil war. I suppose there
are those who do, but I do not wish to give them a
free ad here.
is one more thing: the notion that the UN is, today,
the source of such international law as there
is. This snare or delusion appeals especially to the
Left. Apparently, if the UN "approved" a
war, that would make it "just" without further
discussion. I think this is about as true as the related
idea that the state is the source of law in
a given territory. If the one isn't true, neither
is the other. I think neither is true, but that discussion
must wait for another time.
the manner of Cletus T. Judd speaking of The Judds,
I suppose I should say "no relation."
N. Stromberg, "Uncertainties and Perplexities
About the League of Nations," Journal of
the History of Ideas, 33:1 (January-March 1972),
As historian William Appleman Williams wrote: "
Americans remain haunted by the Civil War
Underlying that persistent involvement is the realization
that the war undercuts the popular mythology that
America is unique. Only a nation that avoided such
a conflict could make a serious claim to being fundamentally
different. In accordance with the logic and psychology
of myth, therefore, it has become necessary to turn
the war itself into something so different, strange,
and mystic that it could have happened only to the
chosen people" (The Contours of American
History [New York: New Viewpoints, 1973], p.