Hope Against History

No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations by Mark Mazower, Princeton University Press, 236 pages, $24.95

Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World by David L. Bosco, Oxford University Press, 310 pages, $24.95

In April, as earnest diplomats puzzled over Polisario's latest moves in the Western Sahara and the most recent developments in Darfur, a visibly shaken news anchor reported that a Ugandan had seized control of the United Nations, threatening to reduce agricultural funding to any country opposing his rule. The self-appointed secretary-general refused to step down -- unless he was offered a more powerful position as a little league coach or small-town mayor. So ran a newscast by the Onion News Network, an offshoot of the satirical newspaper The Onion, deriding the U.N. more effectively than a position paper from the Heritage Foundation.

Hard though it may be to remember today, the U.N. was once seen as a great step forward for humanity. In the heady postwar years, as David L. Bosco recounts in his engaging history of the U.N. Security Council, the new parliament of nations was initially an object of great respect and curiosity, and its televised sessions became an international spectacle, culminating in U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson's dramatic J'Accuse speech to the General Assembly during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But as Soviet vetoes piled up during the Cold War and the U.N. failed to fulfill its mission of maintaining the peace, its credibility waned.

Today, after eight years of a U.S. administration that was openly disdainful of the U.N., fans of multilateralism and international law are hoping for a renaissance on the East River. But as Columbia University historian Mark Mazower warns in his elegantly written intellectual history of the organization, the U.N. is not -- and has never been -- quite what it seems. In their rush to portray liberal internationalism as the height of human achievement, too many historians have forgotten what Mazower regards as the real ideological impulse behind the U.N.'s creation: preservation of the British Empire and white rule over Europe's colonial possessions.

No one was more central to this effort than the South African statesman Jan Smuts. After his defeat in the Boer War, Smuts made peace with London and soon became a major figure in the British Commonwealth. He helped design the failed League of Nations and led South Africa into war alongside the allies in World War II. At the founding of the U.N. in San Francisco in 1945, he was responsible for drafting the preamble to the U.N. Charter, with its stirring appeal to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and uphold the "equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small."

But Smuts was also a committed imperialist and white supremacist who viewed racial mixing as "dishonourable" and referred to the world's great unwashed as "dependent peoples, still unable to look after themselves." In San Francisco, only the African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois took Smuts to task, declaring, "We have conquered Germany ... but not their ideas. We still believe in white supremacy, keeping Negroes in their place and lying about democracy when we mean imperial control of 750 millions of human beings in colonies." Although Du Bois and his anti-imperialist colleagues were largely ignored at the time, they would eventually get their way. As Mazower chronicles, the U.N. "turned astonishingly quickly into a key forum for anticolonialism" as India attacked South Africa's pre-apartheid segregation policies, old colonies gained independence, and an Afro-Asian bloc emerged.

The early U.N. also suffered from a fundamental disagreement over minority rights, and in this debate two European Jewish refugees, Raphael Lemkin and Joseph Schechtman, represented opposite poles. Lemkin coined the term "genocide" and almost single-handedly brought about the U.N. Genocide Convention, whereas Schechtman saw the wholesale transfer of minority populations as a solution to interethnic conflict -- a remedy that was proposed for Palestine at the time and still has support on the Israeli right. At its core, the question was, as Mazower puts it succinctly, "Would the postwar order support the hopes of the believers in international law, or the proponents of ethnical homogeneity?" The Genocide Convention did come into force in 1951, but Lemkin's law failed to prevent the numerous slaughters of subsequent decades.

Bosco's book is a play-by-play account of the Security Council's many failures and few triumphs. After decades of Cold War bickering, Bosco argues, the Security Council's handling of the Iran-Iraq War in 1987?1988 came as a breakthrough that restored some of the U.N.'s credibility, though the circumstances were unusual. None of the Permanent Five, he writes, "desired a clear victory by either Iran or Iraq, and all feared the further disruption of shipping in the Gulf." But it was this success that made "a host of conflicts that were untouchable during the Cold War ... eligible for resolution" -- from Namibia to Nicaragua to Cambodia. The consensus of the Permanent Five during the Gulf War of 1990?1991 was perhaps the council's greatest display of cooperation ever.

Soon afterward, then Secretary--General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed creating a U.N. rapid-response force that could serve at the council's behest. The idea remains popular in certain Western diplomatic circles, but it's a nonstarter as long as two members of the Permanent Five, China and Russia, vehemently defend state sovereignty and are friendly with the very regimes Western governments want to punish, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. The ideological paralysis of the Cold War years has today been replaced by a Security Council stalemate on the question of whether a state's sovereignty may ever be violated. In such an environment, the doctrine of the "responsibility to protect" -- the idea that the U.N. should protect civilians from abuse by their own governments -- faces major hurdles.

Modern-day Lemkins find themselves fending off the charge that they are the ideological heirs of Smuts, colonialists cloaked in the liberal-sounding rhetoric of human rights. These days Western activists and some wealthy Western governments routinely denounce human-rights violations in Third World countries. "Forgetful of their colonial past, Western states see in their liberalism only the benign face of a universal aspiration. Yet the states they target are generally those that have emerged recently from out of the rubble of those empires," Mazower writes. Left-wing critics of the Save Darfur movement, such as Mazower's Columbia colleague Mahmood Mamdani, have decried this sort of behavior as a form of modern-day imperialism, drawing the ire of liberal interventionist critics who reject absolutist conceptions of state sovereignty and believe in the responsibility to protect. The liberal interventionists retort that the Mamdanis of the world are at best extremists obsessed with the ghosts of empire and at worst apologists for genocide.

But whether or not the liberal interventionists get their way, there is little evidence that the U.N. would have the muscle to do much serious protecting. As Bosco himself damningly concludes after assessing the Security Council's failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, the U.N.'s approach was flawed conceptually and ethically, crippled by its failure to "distinguish between the perpetrators of violence and the victims." Moreover, the compulsion for the Permanent Five to appear united created a perverse incentive to do nothing as hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were murdered in April 1994 and Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire's U.N. peacekeepers were ordered to stand aside. "Those on the council who might have publicly shamed its powerful members," Bosco argues, "were cowed into silence or convinced that public disharmony was worse than unified inaction."

Critics on the left and the right who decry the U.N.'s loss of moral purpose or expect the U.N. to play the leading role in resolving the world's problems, Mazower argues, have fundamentally misunderstood the organization's history and evolution, and he is skeptical that Security Council reform, a rapid-response force, or other proposed panaceas will fundamentally alter the status quo. Any efforts by the U.N. "to engineer a revolution in international law, in human-rights enforcement, or in democratic values are probably doomed to fail," he concludes.

Ironically, despite Bosco's broader arguments about the Security Council's indispensability, his scathing and honest analysis of the Permanent Five's failures in Bosnia and Rwanda supports a conclusion similar to Mazower's. Indeed, the evidence he cites to prove that the Security Council "is very much alive" ("nearly 100,000 peacekeepers around the world respond to its orders" and "powerful countries send their most accomplished diplomats to represent them in the body") sounds like faint praise after his accounts of Srebrenica and Rwanda.

Bosco is absolutely right that "the benefits of routine and institutionalized consultation among the great powers outweigh the costs." But what good are 100,000 peacekeepers when Gen. Dallaire and others like him are barred from using them to forestall a genocide in progress? The U.N. has yet to prove its capacity to act when state sovereignty stands in the way of justice and human rights.