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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With the end of the Cold War, hopes for a new birth of UN ideals quickly soured. Snared in its own contradictions, the UN ultimately failed, for example, to prevent such horrors as the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. Today, writes Mazower, the UN continues its search “so far in vain — for a political raison d’être more suited to the needs of the present.”

This book digs into such ironies as the legacy of one of the UN’s founding fathers, South Africa’s Smuts, a white supremacist who played a major role in crafting the League of Nations and who later wrote the preamble to the UN Charter. Smuts saw the British Empire as a vital guardian of his home turf and a moral force for spreading Western civilization around the globe. In his scheme, there was no contradiction between white supremacy and the reaffirmation, in the preamble to the UN Charter, of faith in “the dignity and worth of the human person” and “the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” Reality proved otherwise.

Yet, for all the author’s erudition and insights, this book spins off the rails with Mazower’s central discussion of Israel and the Palestinians, subjects on which he apparently shares many of the inclinations evident in today’s UN itself. This is a treatise much concerned with UN thinking and policy on minorities, self-determination, and anticolonialism. These are worthy topics, but at the UN they have long been used as code phrases for prejudices and policies that entail winking at some members’ exploitation of the UN’s prolific flaws, and manipulating those same failings to condemn and isolate Israel. If that is what Mazower’s readers are expecting, he does not disappoint.

Mazower’s chief beef with the UN is its role in the establishment in 1948 of the nation of Israel. He details the process with indignation, glancing over the industrial-scale murder of 6 million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, and dismissing the aspect of partition that offered not only the Jews but the Palestinians a state of their own — which the Palestinians refused. Focusing chiefly on Jewish thinkers of the day, Mazower draws parallels between the “Hitlerite” pursuit of ethnic purity in Europe and the Jewish quest for a secure homeland. This is delicately done. Mazower does not bluntly equate the two, but he scatters select historical crumbs to point his readers down exactly that trail. He adds, it seems cynically, “If I have not cited a single Arab voice here, it is because their voices — which were certainly being raised in protest — were almost entirely ignored.”

Mazower is accurate in his summing up of the UN’s philosophy as adrift in “dreams of a past that had never existed and a poor guide to what might lie ahead.” But this book is a poor guide to what lies behind.

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