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Nations of the World: Unite!

August 21, 1997

IN recent years the United Nations has come under increasing fire from the American government. Criticism has been directed not only at the failed UN peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Somalia, Angola, and Cambodia, but also at the widespread inefficiency, waste, and fraud that plague the organization. Efforts at reform have mostly failed, and as a result the United States has withheld dues and blocked the re-election of secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In a recent effort to appease Washington, Kofi Annan, the UN's new secretary general, released a reform package that he labelled "bold." However, despite proposals to slash a third of the UN's administrative and overhead costs by 2002 and to consolidate much of its bureaucracy, the plan has failed to win over Capitol Hill, where the package was described as "underwhelming" and "modest, almost irrelevant."

Some sixty years ago the international community was debating the creation of a League of Nations, the precursor to the UN. The ideas introduced were revolutionary at the time: global cooperation, acceptance of foreign values, and equality of races. Critics dismissed the League as a utopian dream, but supporters insisted that the League was not only possible but critical to the welfare of humanity.

In "The Idea of a League of Nations" (January, 1919), the League of Free Nations Association, headed by H. G. Wells, discussed the possibility for world unification in an era marked by globalization and the increasing destructiveness of war:

Under the lurid illumination of the world-war, the idea of world-unification has passed rapidly from the sphere of the literary idealist into that of the methodical, practical man, and the task of an examination of its problems and possibilities, upon the scale which the near probability of an actual experiment demands, is thrust upon the world.

In the second installment of the article, "The Idea of a League of Nations II" (February, 1919), the authors responded to critics who feared that the League would interfere with the necessary natural-selection process of war and with the principles of national sovereignty. In response to the first criticism the article argued that although war was once used as a form of natural selection, modern warfare killed the strong rather than the weak and those "unfit for service." The authors attributed the criticism that the League would wield too much power over nations to a fear of "interference with national aggression and competitiveness."

When the League of Nations was finally set up in 1920, the United States did not join. In "The League of Nations as an Instrument of Liberalism " (October, 1920), Raymond B. Fosdick argued that although American liberals had flatly rejected the League because of its relationship with the vengeful Treaty of Versailles, the League could actually be used to further liberal causes. Fosdick wrote that "much of the League's present activity is related to tasks that are distinctly humanitarian."

Fosdick discussed these activities in another article, "The League of Nations is Alive " (June, 1920), which detailed the relative success of the newly formed League and its endeavours in the areas of European economic revival, international health, and disarmament. Fosdick argued,

It is for humanity to choose now which road it wants to take. Will it follow the flag of the old order or the standard of the League of Nations? Under one, the complete breakdown of civilization and the self-extermination of mankind are only a matter of time; the other leads to unexplored fields of human cooperation and creative labor.

"A League of Nations as a League of Governments?" (February, 1923) by L. P. Jacks, on the other hand, questioned the effectiveness of the League. Jacks argued that a League composed of governments, each with its own nationalistic agenda, would naturally pursue selfish interests rather than those of the world at large.

Does the plain Englishman, who has taken a little trouble to acquaint himself with the course of French politics, or of American politics, really desire (member of the League of Nations though he be) to see the fortunes of his country tied up in one bundle with those of other countries controlled by forces such as these?

The League of Nations faded away approximately twenty years later, rendered impotent by America's aloofness and the refusal of member nations to place international concerns over national ones. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the UN is struggling with very similar problems some fifty years later. Can the UN avoid the fate of its predecessor?

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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