The United Nations Then and Now

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares … nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  – Isaiah 2.4

World peace through collective security has long been mankind’s fondest hope, formally expressed twice in modern history, first through the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919 and later through the United Nations (U.N.), which was established this week (June 26) in 1945 when the U.N. Charter was signed.

Alas, the League of Nations failed miserably at maintaining collective security, as Adolf Hitler proved by plunging the world into war in the 1940s.  But diplomats hoped the U.N. might be more effective because, unlike the League, the U.N. had the United States as a member

In fact, the U.N. was as much America’s brainchild as anyone’s.  In August of 1941, with America soon to enter World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, which outlined how international collaboration could maintain world peace and security.

And two years later Roosevelt and Churchill met with their ally, Soviet leader Josef Stalin, to issue the Moscow Declaration, which called for an international organization to replace the failed League.  That declaration led to the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, D.C.—China joined the big three at this conference—to outline what the United Nations would look like and do.

What the U.N. would do, it was agreed, was maintain international peace and security, promote social progress and higher standards of living, strengthen international law and expand human rights.

As for its make-up, it would comprise a Secretariat, a General Assembly, a Security Council with five permanent members — the U.S., U.S.S.R., Great Britain, France and China — an International Court of Justice, and other councils and bodies as the need arose.  And the U.N. would be located in New York City.

That’s the history, and while the U.N. has certainly lasted longer than the League, it is hard to argue that it has successfully met many of its stated goals.  It has never been successful at collective security, limiting itself to sending in after-the-fact peacekeepers when truces have been arranged in world trouble spots.  It has had little, if any positive effect on social progress, global standards of living, international law or human rights (Cuba and Saudi Arabia are currently members of the U.N. Human Rights Council!).   Indeed, these days the U.N. generates more stories about corruption, scandal and bureaucratic bloat than peacekeeping or human rights, and many Americans, whose tax dollars foot more than 20 percent of the U.N.’s budget, no longer believe it is effective, or serving any useful purpose.

And by the way, I am one of those Americans.