BOOK

Creation Myths

by Claudia Rosett
No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations
By Mark Mazower
(Princeton University Press, 236 pages, $24.95)
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No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations by Mark MazowerIndispensable, if imperfect” is how President Barack Obama has described the United Nations, praising it as “vital to America’s efforts to create a better, safer world.” Yet, when it comes to nailing down just what those imperfections are, views vary widely. Critics of the UN have faulted it over the years for everything from being irrelevant to intrusive, timid to overreaching, inept to pernicious.

Columbia’s Mark Mazower, professor of history and of world order studies, adds his voice to the critics. In a slim volume based on recent lectures he delivered at Princeton and Columbia, he sets out to debunk an array of easy assumptions about the integrity of the UN’s founding aims and consistency of its core ideas. Taking his title from remarks by Britain’s Lord Halifax at the UN’s 1945 founding conference in San Francisco — that “ours is no enchanted palace” — Mazower delves into the history of contradictions on which the UN was built and the convoluted course of its evolution since.

These themes offer rich pickings, he argues, because some of the basic premises of the UN are simply irreconcilable. The institution seesaws between its charter rules of respect for the sovereignty of its member states and overarching ambitions of global governance, too often delivering dismal results on both fronts. Recent history offers such prime examples as the relative impunity with which UN peacekeepers sent to places such as the Congo have sexually exploited children they were meant to protect. Another example is the UN’s 1996–2003 Oil-for-Food program in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which burgeoned into a multibillion-dollar scam as the UN tried simultaneously to impose sanctions on Saddam and collaborate with him in delivering relief.

The institution seesaws between its charter rules of respect for the sovereignty of its member states and overarching ambitions of global governance, too often delivering dismal results on both fronts.

Mazower does not delve into such recent cases, however. His concern is with the more distant past, and the making of “the tensions and ambiguities” he describes as “hardwired into the UN from the start.” To focus his argument, he summarizes the ideas and ventures of a handful of influential figures over the past century, among them South African statesman Jan Smuts, Russian-born Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky, and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Filtering his commentary through their stories, Mazower revisits the founding and failure of the League of Nations, followed by the creation and morphing mission of the United Nations. In both cases, Mazower argues, the original aim was to protect and serve the needs of empire: respectively, the British Commonwealth and then the victors of World War II, principally the United States. In both cases, the founding aim fizzled. At the UN, with the Security Council largely paralyzed by the Cold War standoff between the Soviet Union and the U.S., the chief action defaulted for decades to the General Assembly, which became a receptive forum for an anticolonial movement spearheaded by the likes of Nehru. Once that movement took hold, the General Assembly expanded at speed, from its original 51 member states to 192 today, turning the Great Powers into voting minorities.

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