On top of the world

<strong>The Parliament of Man: the United Nations and the quest for world government</strong>


Fox News can rarely have been happier. On the evening of 19 August this year, the station's evening news programme Special Report with Brit Hume showed a small group of uniformed soldiers precariously balanced in a tiny dinghy, edging towards a Lebanese beach. Studio guests were asked to reflect: precisely how inadequate would this United Nations force turn out to be?

American critics think Lebanon revealed the worst of the UN. "It is very important that Europe now steps forward," said the UN deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown, as Kofi Annan tried to cobble together a force to implement Resolution 1701. Europe stepped forward, and promptly tripped over its military laces. The French backslid on troops. Everyone quarrelled about the rules of engagement. And Fox News was cock-a-hoop at the shambles of it all.

Yet who could blame the French for their caution? Not those with a grasp of history. Take this passage in Paul Kennedy's masterful new history of the United Nations, The Parliament of Man. "The UN 'interim force' in Lebanon was honestly meant but could do little," he writes. "Lebanese ethnic-religious factions were tearing one another apart [while the] hapless international troops were insulted, disregarded, kidnapped and shot at by all sides." This description of the fate of a previous UN force in the region would give any potential participant pause.

Kennedy gives little credence to the simplistic American image of the UN as a high-minded planetary shambles, and his cautious approach offers a number of lessons. First, the UN has always been unfit for the challenges facing it. Paradoxically, its task in Lebanon was among those at which it has become most competent. There is no mention of blue helmets in the UN Charter, but when they were first sported by UN peacekeepers (separating antagonists during the Suez crisis), the organisation finally found a useful role. Beyond that, the list of its successes is slim. This is largely because the body was set up to cope with the very specific circumstance of incursions into one state by another. The few times this occurred - Korea, the Falklands, the first Iraq war - the UN proved effective. Its great undoing has been the stubborn refusal of international crises to follow the simple model predicted by its founders.

The thawing of the cold war in particular set off a series of conflicts to which the UN seemed to have no answers. Kennedy notes that the Security Council ordered more UN peacekeeping operations in the five years following the Soviet Union's collapse than in the rest of its history combined. The organisation might have won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, but the next decade's catastrophic failures in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia fully justified the description of an institution in crisis.

The second lesson is that these missteps are often a design feature. The Great Powers that wrote the UN Charter did so, in the aftermath of the Second World War, with an eye on immediate strategic considerations and a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the League of Nations. Thus, although no veto is mentioned in the charter, the UN's first organising principle was the maintenance of unity among its five major powers. The idea that it would be able to act in Lebanon (or Zimbabwe, or Darfur, or Haiti) against the will of a great power would have been anathema to its founders. The wonder is not how far the UN has strayed from the in tentions of its founders; it is how closely it adheres to them.

But it is the third lesson of Kennedy's book that is the most worrying. Because if the UN struggled to succeed over the past 50 years, it is in even greater danger of flunking the next half-century. The recent past has been mired in accusations of corruption and financial mismanagement. Major governance reforms are essential, not least a shake-up of Security Council membership. And there are intractable planetary problems to be fixed: reversing climate change; combating terrorism; managing economic globalisation; preventing global health pandemics.

Is the UN up to these tasks? Kennedy seems to think it might be. He takes his title from a Tennyson poem that talks of a world government so effective that "the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law". Something of this sort might happen, one day. But you don't have to be a Fox News Republican to think a competent Parliament of Man unlikely any time soon.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Planet saved?: Why the green movement is taking to the streets