September 16, 2003


Flags of convenience: a review of Act of Creation, The Founding of the United Nations: A Story of Super Powers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies & Enemies and Their Quest for a Peaceful World. By Stephen Schlesinger (The Economist, Sep 11th 2003)

The UN was above all an American creation. Following the League of Nations fiasco after the first world war, no other country had much enthusiasm for a second attempt at a world body. Both Stalin and Churchill were openly sceptical. But for America's president, Franklin Roosevelt, establishing the United Nations was a top priority. Even while America continued to fight a world war on two fronts, Roosevelt devoted large amounts of time, and political capital, to his pet project.

After years of planning in Washington, Roosevelt, seriously ill, travelled to Yalta in early 1945 to win Stalin's agreement on post-war arrangements. The centrepiece of these would be the UN. Many of the people close to Roosevelt believed that the trip hastened his death, which came two months later, only 13 days before the UN's founding conference in San Francisco was scheduled to begin. Stepping into his shoes, an inexperienced and somewhat shaken Harry Truman promptly announced that the UN conference would go ahead, and committed himself to its success. The American delegation arrived in San Francisco armed with detailed blueprints and negotiating strategies, and then spent two intense months hammering out a final agreement with 46 other countries. In the United States, the result was hailed as a triumph of American diplomacy. [...]

At the peak of America's powers, in other words, its leaders were determined to create a multilateral institution involving as many nations as possible as a primary mechanism for ensuring American, as well as global, security. In his speech before the San Francisco conference, Truman was explicit about the price of doing so. “We all have to recognise—no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the licence to do always as we please.” For America itself, Truman argued, this was a price well worth paying. The contrast with the attitude of most subsequent American governments, and especially the current one, could not be more stark. Many Bush administration officials seem to view the UN either as an irrelevance or as a dangerous constraint.

Mr Schlesinger's account, based on new information from American government archives and the diaries of key participants, also puts to rest the idea that the UN was a misconceived Utopian project, founded in a burst of post-war idealism. Roosevelt was one of the savviest and most hard-headed politicians ever to occupy the White House. He had no intention of repeating the mistakes of Woodrow Wilson, whose League of Nations was repudiated by the American Senate and then became an impotent talking shop as the world slid towards another world war. Roosevelt's new organisation was to include as many nations, large and small, as possible, but it was to be dominated by the great powers and, when they were able to agree, it was meant to have real muscle.

This is silly, of course. FDR was always pretty muddle-headed in the realm of international affairs, as witness his absurd belief that he could coax Joe Stalin into behaving himself. You don't get to hand over Eastern Europe to the USSR at Yalta and still be called savvy and hard-headed.

What folks have forgotten by now though is that even Robert Taft, the quintessential isolationalist, favored the U.N. project, so long as it was an institution with real teeth, that could enforce international uniformly and rigorously. It was only after FDR and company turned it into a farce--with the USSR on the Security Council and every two-bit dictatorship eligible to be a member in good standing--that Taft's support weakened:

Taft was far from hostile to the idea of an international organization to maintain the peace after the war. Indeed, he became a strong supporter of such a plan after Pearl Harbor, an event which did a great deal to convince the senator that U.S. security required world peace and stability. Yet after the framing of the United Nations Charter in 1944, Taft began to question whether the proposed organization might not be more likely to provoke war than to ensure peace. His main concern was that his cherished idea of international law was conspicuously absent from the charter. In May 1945 he wrote: "We are not abolishing the causes of war. We are not abolishing militarism. We are enthroning it on a higher seat. We are not abolishing imperialism..., for we are recognizing the domination of Russia over Finland, Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and to a large extent over Poland and the Balkans. We are recognizing the dominion of England over India and of the Dutch over the East Indies, without any agreement on their part that they will work toward self-government.... Any structure which departs so far from the freedom of peoples that desire freedom and the right of peoples to run their own affairs is handicapped from the start."

Taft’s fundamental problem with the United Nations was the underlying presumption that international law and justice would develop during a period of enforced world peace. The Ohio Senator believed that this amounted to putting the cart before the horse; law and justice, he claimed, were not consequences of but rather prerequisites for lasting world peace. The veto power granted to permanent members of the U.N. Security Council was for him ample proof that there was no will among the great powers to establish a code of law. How could such a code exist, he asked, "if five of the largest nations can automatically exempt themselves from its application?" Thus finding fault with the charter, he then suggested renewed isolation from world affairs, this time on the grounds of international justice, not national interest. "The extending of justice throughout the beyond our powers," he concluded, "but certainly we need not join in the process by which force and national policy is permitted to dominate the world."

Yet Taft in the end grudgingly gave his support to the charter, calling it "an essential feature of any peace hope or peace policy." But his commitment was never more than lukewarm.

It was not the idea of an international body capable of enforcing international law that was Utopian; it was FDR and Truman's specific belief that you could constitute such a body out of nations that were themselves violating international law. Similarly, criminal courts are a good idea, but you wouldn't make Jack the Ripper a judge and put Al Capone on the jury.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 16, 2003 9:11 AM

"You will never find a more wretched hive
of scum and villainy in the Galaxy" - Ben Kenobi

Letting in the scum and villains of the world
was a disastrous experiment with moral and
cultural relativism.

There's probably only 30 countries that would even
get into the body if any reasonable economic
and governmental standards were imposed.

Posted by: J.H. at September 16, 2003 9:44 AM

Yes, but if those thirty were willing to hold others accountable for their actions...

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 9:58 AM

Well then you've basically just codified the
status quo of global power relations...

a) countries that have money
b) countries with stable free sytems of government
c) countries with viable militaries

I might be able to agree with that type of a system.


Posted by: J.H. at September 16, 2003 10:39 AM

The United Nations is impossible without the veto and impotent with it.

The history of NATO has convinced me that no international institution can survive and be effective over the course of decades.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 16, 2003 10:44 AM

FDR gave away Eastern Europe at Yalta? Funny, I thought it was the thousands of tanks and millions of troops of the Red Army that arrived during the war. FDR didn't "give" anything that the Soviets didn't already have or did get on their own by the end of the war. The things agreed at Yalta - such as supervising free elections in the east - were BROKEN by Stalin.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at September 16, 2003 11:41 AM


So, you'd have truusted Stalin too?

How's this:

FDR: "We're developing nuclear weapons--as you well know--and if you don't return to your pre-war borders we'll use them on you."

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 11:53 AM

Stalin already knew about the a-bombs. One a-bomb was sufficient to do moderate damage to a part of a small city. Russia had just had four of its five largest cities obliterated by ordinary munitions.

Stalin was not a big joker, but he would have found such a threat extremely funny.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 16, 2003 2:27 PM


That's silly. What Stalin, like Lincoln, kew was that he couldn't lose a war where he got to engage the enemy, because he could afford to lose more people. The losses of those cities and the millions of dead were insignificant compared to the losses imposed on the Germans. No one can win a war where the kill ratio is 60,000 to 0.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 2:38 PM

Stalin did move his army out of Iran after Truman made that exact threat - get them out or we will incinerate them.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 16, 2003 2:57 PM

It would not have been zero on the US side.

You're talking about a country that went into fits when a few hundred men were killed on the Rapido.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 16, 2003 6:31 PM

David has it pretty much right. We talk a lot about Islamic fanatics, etc., but the fanaticism of those that worship the UN and multilateralism is terrifying, especially as it comes with such open-minded smiles and geniality. They don't scream in the streets or make bombs, but they will betray any principle whatsoever in a desperate effort to keep the UN front and center. Much of Western Europe has signed on to this thinking, including Britain, most of the Canadian elite has sold its soul to it and so has a worrisomely large segment of liberal America.

It was not Iraq that proved the depth of the corruption, it was Durban, although any Israeli could tell you it hardly started there. The desperate attempts to placate and mediate with the devil were appalling, but can anyone name one pro-UN person from any country who has renounced his allegiance publically and tried openly to bell the cat? Kofi Anan as Teflon-man?

I had hoped Washington would use its post-war advantage and rage to push the UN into permamnent irrelevancy, but that seems to have fallen off the radar screen. It is old, tired, corrupt and a menace to civilization. Ecrasez L'infamme!

Posted by: Peter B at September 16, 2003 7:34 PM

JH: Great Quote.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 17, 2003 11:42 AM

My favorite oddity about the founding of the UN: Stalin somehow convinced everyone that the Ukraine was a separate nation, and they got their own seat and vote, which Moscow totally controlled until the USSR fell apart.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 17, 2003 6:48 PM