Idealism versus reality at the UN

The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations
By Paul Kennedy
Random House
New York

Paul Kennedy’s new book on the United Nations takes its title from a famous poem written in 1837 by Lord Alfred Tennyson that offers a vision of a peaceful future when, thanks to the “Parliament of man,” “the war-drum throbb’d no longer.”

With that as a preface, Dr. Kennedy presents an “intellectual history” of the UN, examining the ideas and politics behind its creation, tracing its subsequent evolution, and asking whether the organization has lived up to Tennyson’s dream — as well as to the ideals of its founders, which were “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

Given the continuing doubt in many circles today over the effectiveness and even necessity of the UN, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations is extremely timely and important.

Dr. Kennedy, a former fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and other books, provides an intelligent, insightful, and highly readable overview of the history of the UN in its first 60 years — and some clear-eyed conclusions about its utility.

At the core of his account is a penetrating exposition on the fundamental tension “between sovereignty and internationalism” that is “inherent, persistent, and unavoidable” in virtually every aspect of the work of the UN.

In this vein, Dr. Kennedy frequently contrasts the UN’s record against the classic “realist” interpretation of international relations, suggesting that while its failures can often be attributed to the realpolitik of competition between nation states, many of its greatest successes have occurred when the “idealist” vision of diplomacy shines through.

As such, Dr. Kennedy explains, the UN has in surprising ways overcome the structural limitations that were imposed on it at its creation, as well as the political restrictions imposed by events like the Cold War.

Take, for example, the relative position of the Security Council versus other UN branches. The General Assembly looks at first glance “as if Tennyson’s Parliament of man” was to be realized. A closer inspection of its functions, powers, and procedures shows the Assembly to be far from the “political center of gravity.”

Instead, the Charter clearly establishes the much smaller and less representative Security Council as the organization’s controlling entity. Its five permanent members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, each have the power through the so-called “veto” to block virtually any decision at the United Nations.

“Perhaps the greatest measure of the power ‘gap’ between the two organs was that Assembly resolutions, while always carrying an important symbolic weight, were not binding,” writes Dr. Kennedy.

In response to various global challenges, nevertheless, the Assembly, along with other branches of the United Nations, such as the Secretariat, have in fact carved out significant and important roles. He describes this as “the evolution of the many UN’s.”

Peacekeeping,  for instance, is authorized by the Security Council but is generally operated by the Secretariat — and often initiated through the “good offices” of the Secretary-General.

“Of all the images and ideas we have about the United Nations, one surely is the most familiar: blue-helmeted soldiers patrolling a cease-fire zone, distributing food to displaced villagers, and guarding election centers,” Dr. Kennedy writes. “When it works well, and there are many examples of that, it is perhaps one of the highest expressions of our common humanity and a testimony to human progress.”

Yet, Dr. Kennedy observes, “the most astonishing thing is that the UN Charter contains absolutely no mention of the word peacekeeping and offers no guidance as to this form of collective action. Here is a prime example of flexibility and evolution in the story of how various governments and individuals interpreted — and reinvented — the original rules in the light of unforeseen and pressing events.”

“The most astonishing thing is that the UN Charter contains absolutely no mention of the word peacekeeping and offers no guidance as to this form of collective action. Here is a prime example of flexibility and evolution in the story of how various governments and individuals interpreted — and reinvented — the original rules in the light of unforeseen and pressing events.” 

—Paul Kennedy

In another example, Dr. Kennedy notes that the General Assembly played a key role in articulating new international norms and standards. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he writes, led to “a bigger advance in the idea and practice of national and international human rights in the past sixty years than in any comparable period of all of history.”

However, Dr. Kennedy says, “there was a view among many governments at the time that since this text originated from the General Assembly, and not the Security Council, it was in no way binding upon states; that it was, literally, a ‘declaration’ of principles of which one might take as much or as little as was desired.”

And then there is the impact of agencies like UNICEF, which, Dr. Kennedy notes, has a staff less than that of the Chicago Police Department, and was created in 1953 merely as an “emergency administering body” to handle the humanitarian crisis faced by children in the aftermath of World War II.

Today, Dr. Kennedy writes, UNICEF is “a world body of an unequaled vigor and commitment,” now supported by governments, private foundations, local efforts, and even airlines who are “keen to show their support for this best of good causes.”

On balance, then, Dr. Kennedy concludes that while the United Nations may not have quite lived up to Tennyson’s idealized Parliament, it has nevertheless “brought great benefits to our generation” and is likely to bring benefits to future generations.

“Reforms will, or should, come piecemeal,” he writes. “Doing nothing at all is impossible, given humankind’s needs for better cooperation and governance; and trying to batter through Charter amendments that totally transform existing power relationships would have no chance of succeeding. So we need a middle way, one that produces some changes now, with the possibility of more to come.”

The evolutionary process Dr. Kennedy describes mirrors the Bahá’í concept of history’s progress — and humanity’s prospects for the future.

More than a hundred years ago, Bahá’u’lláh clearly outlined the need for new international institutions capable of establishing the universal peace that has been long promised by poets and prophets. In particular, Bahá’u’lláh spoke of a “new World Order,” which would include institutions such as a “vast” and “all-embracing assemblage of men” that would “lay the foundations of the world’s Great Peace.”

More specifically, the Bahá’í writings, anticipate “the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded.

“This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth.”

The worldwide Bahá’í community, then, has confidence that such a true “Parliament of man” will ultimately be established, and the “war drum” will in the end be permanently silenced. This conviction stems from a belief that human reality is at its core spiritual in nature, and that the forces of history are driven by a higher destiny.

Dr. Kennedy’s hard-headed assessment of the United Nations as a work in progress, then, is an illuminating one, and it offers a couplet to this theme. Although governed by an anarchic system of sovereign nation-states, and hampered by structural limitations, the UN, Dr. Kennedy makes clear, nevertheless has an impressive record of successes, many of which more than live up to the idealist vision of its founders.