Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
Too Soon To Count the U.N. in on Iraq
(December 9, 2003)
"The United Nations is not going to jump at the chance to take over the management of Iraq. Too much needs to change not only in Washington but also on the ground in Baghdad."
Sixteen Wise People and the Future of the U.N.
(December 1, 2003)
"This could be a last-chance opportunity to reinvigorate a battered United Nations."
Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time
(November 24, 2003)
"The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers."
Oil for Food: A Great Experiment Ends
(November 17, 2003)
"The oil-for-food program wasn't perfect. It was manipulated by both the Iraqis and the West. None of that, however, should obscure the essential value of the concept."
A New-Look Security Council: What Makes a Winner?
(November 11, 2003)
"The question of which countries might rightly claim new permanent seats is becoming less hypothetical. A group of newly emerging powers is already circling the chamber demanding a permanent presence."
Leveraging Private Money for the United Nations
(November 3, 2003)
"Since the late 1990s, the U.N. Fund for International Partnerships has been playing matchmaker between small, innovative U.N. programs in need of cash and an increasingly wider world of private corporations and foundations willing to give them a boost."
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | December 16, 2003
Book on U.N. Creation a Welcome Reminder of Early Lessons
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—Here's the perfect holiday gift for your favorite member of the U.S. Congress: a new book by Stephen C. Schlesinger that recreates (for those who have blotted out history) the intense political commitment, the skillful diplomatic maneuvering and the sheer exuberance of so many Americans that together propelled the United Nations into existence in 1945.
The book has a long name—Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, A Story of Superpowers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies and Enemies and their Quest for a Peaceful World. The message is shorter. As a country, the United States has lost touch with what it was then.
Schlesinger, a writer on foreign affairs who directs the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York, has worked in both American politics, as an adviser to New York's Governor Mario Cuomo, and international policy, as special adviser to the secretary general of HABITAT II, the second U.N. conference on human settlements. Act of Creation, his latest book, took nearly a decade to research, write and get published. Luckily for the author, the book appears just as officials in Washington try to repair relations with the organization the White House spent months denigrating. That helps get attention.
"I caught a wave that I never expected," Schlesinger says. "I owe it all to the Bush administration."
Now that Washington needs the United Nations in Iraq, he said in an interview, "Obviously Bush must regret his cavalier treatment, at least during the Iraq invasion." But Schlesinger added that this is not the first administration to get off on the wrong foot with the world body.
"I think it's true that most presidents of this country, when they first come into office, have a rather skeptical if not indifferent and sometimes hostile view towards the U.N.," he said. "They gradually realize as the years pass and as foreign policy crises crop up, that the U.N. actually is a very important part of U.S. foreign policy and enables us to achieve objectives we wouldn't achieve otherwise."
Some of the leading characters in Schlesinger's lively book are familiar to most Americans: Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman foremost among them. Many Americans will not, however, be aware of the depth and strength of their commitment to the idea of a new and effective world body—Roosevelt's from the early years of World War II until his death in April 1945, 13 days before the San Francisco conference convened, and that of Truman, who picked up the unfinished task of cajoling, browbeating and at times compromising with Stalin to prevent the Soviet Union from scuttling the project.
Other fascinating characters, most of them less well known, come to life also. There was Leo Pasvolsky, a Russian immigrant long associated with the Brookings Institution in Washington, who became the keeper of the nascent Charter. Of Pasvolsky, known as Friar Tuck for his rotund shape, Schlesinger wrote, "He nurtured the organization's first seeds in Washington and, by 1945, presided over its full flowering in San Francisco." Pasvolsky's dogged perseverance runs through this book, as does that of Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, a man maligned by history whose reputation Schlesinger hopes to correct.
The creation of the United Nations was attended by a nationwide public relations blitz unique for the White House, Schlesinger writes. More than six months before the charter conference convened, artists, photographers, filmmakers, radio broadcasters, event producers and a host of nongovernmental organizations from religious groups to business and professional associations to the American Legion were invited to involve themselves in promoting the United Nations—to the world, to Americans and to Congress, where the earlier League of Nations had crashed in a partisan standoff. By contrast, the U.N. Charter raced to approval in the Senate with lightning speed, supported by Republicans and Democrats.
The "selling" of the United Nations is a remarkable story, told here for the first time in wonderful, engrossing detail. The conference itself was wrapped in extravaganza, a lot of it traceable to the creative genius of Archibald MacLeish, who gave up his position as librarian of Congress to become assistant secretary of state for public and cultural relations. The campaign, so vividly portrayed by Schlesinger, offers some contemporary lessons. While polls show how solid support still is for the United Nations among Americans, it is glaringly obvious how lacking the current political leadership is in a worldview to match the internationalism that marked the generation of 1945.
Political leaders today are not alone in letting the United Nations down. Major American news organizations—which reported, analyzed and opinionated almost daily during the San Francisco conference—have also largely abandoned the organization. In 1945, the Washington Post could, with one editorial, shake the equilibrium of the conference, or lift its spirits. Most newspapers today—including the New York Times, which as the paper of record on the San Francisco conference had numerous writers on the story—now cover the organization in critical moments more as a sideshow to White House or Pentagon policy.
"The memory of the first and second world wars, the slaughters of those wars, faded very quickly after the formation of the U.N.," Schlesinger said in the interview. "I honestly think that was the most profound influence on the delegates in 1945—the one driving force that put intense pressure on them to come up with a consensus on the U.N."
"The only thing people see now is this body which opposes us in Iraq, didn't take a decision on Kosovo, has not always acceded to our wishes—and that seems to be the prominent thing," he said. In the absence of political leaders prepared to support the organization, an ill-informed and often hostile minority can seize the stage on which relations play out.
"The minority in this country which is opposed to the U.N. is far more intense than the majority view that seems to favor the U.N., so that the minority view has more traction," Schlesinger said. As for the hostility, he added, it "really has no ground," since the United States is protected by the veto, which allows Washington to kill any Security Council resolution it does not like. Unwelcome General Assembly resolutions, which are not binding, are just ignored.
"Oh, what a great day this can be in history," President Truman said in his speech closing the San Francisco conference. "You have created a great instrument for peace and security and human progress in the world." Then, thinking of the tens of millions killed in World War II, he urged his international audience to put the United Nations to work.
"If we fail to use it," he said, "we will betray all those who have died in order that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it." It's an exhortation worth repeating.
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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