The orthodox story of the creation of the United Nations in the aftermath of the Second World War centres on the reconciliation of idealism and pragmatism. The desire to avoid another war was obviously of paramount importance, but the aims of its founders went further. They wanted an organisation that was also capable of protecting human rights, of promoting freedom and of upholding international law. Yet they knew only too well that this had to be balanced with the need to ensure that the Great Powers were committed to the enterprise.
The lessons of the League of Nations, the interwar forerunner of the UN that had failed so spectacularly to prevent Hitler's expansionism and the second European war in a generation, weighed heavily upon them. The absence from the League of the US was identified as the primary problem. Its full involvement was a prerequisite for a successful UN, and indeed the US played a key role in designing the new world body. The organisation that eventually emerged was riddled with contradictions - in one breath recognising the "sovereign equality" of its members, in the next institutionalising the idea that some states are more equal than others - but it has nevertheless been generally understood as an organisation with a moral core. It may have failed to live up to those ideals, but they are there nonetheless as a yardstick against which the behaviour of the UN's members (and indeed of the UN itself) can be judged.
In No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Mark Mazower presents us with a radically different and hugely thought-provoking story of the UN's creation and early development. Dissatisfied with what he sees as the idealism of much of the historical analysis of its foundation, Mazower argues that the lofty pronouncements and moralising rhetoric of the UN Charter served to mask the reality that the body was from the outset designed to protect imperial interests. Many backers saw it not as a new beginning but rather as the latest attempt to crystallise the old order, and in particular to ensure that the colonies stayed under imperial rule.
Mazower's starting point is a particularly striking example of the hypocrisy that so often characterises rhetoric at the UN: how can we explain the fact that the charter's preamble - a text chock-full of idealistic statements about peace, rights, justice, progress and tolerance - was drafted in part by Jan Smuts, the South African Prime Minister, a staunch defender of white racial superiority and white rule in Africa? His answer to this puzzle leads us on an intellectual journey through late 19th- and early 20th-century thinking about international co-operation, empire, commonwealth and the protection of minorities. These are not where scholars have generally turned to look for the ideas underpinning the UN, but for Mazower they are its "ideological prehistory".
One of his core arguments is that there was much more continuity between the League and the UN than is usually recognised, although it was politically expedient to downplay the continuities at the time. The UN was in essence a "warmed-up League", and given that the League had (at least for the key British thinkers and policymakers who had been primarily responsible for devising it) the dual aims of preserving the empire and cementing the relationship with the US, it comes as no surprise to Mazower that many of these ideas were carried over to the UN. Indeed, it was not only the ideas that carried over but in some cases the dramatis personae too: Smuts influenced the text of the UN Charter, but he had also been a key influence on Woodrow Wilson's plans for the League.
The irony was, of course, that far from serving as an instrument of empire, during the rapid process of decolonisation the UN did precisely the opposite. There were only 51 member states when the UN was founded in 1945. By 1969 it had swollen to 126. The majority of those newcomers were the newly independent states of Africa and Asia. The UN served as an important forum for many anti-colonial struggles. The effect of this changing membership profile was radical: suddenly the Great Powers found themselves outnumbered in the General Assembly (although not in the Security Council, where their status was protected). How to explain this rapid change from protecting the interests of the imperial powers to becoming the engine of decolonisation?
Mazower's answer to this rests upon a battle of ideas about the protection of minorities, debates that were reflected in a "struggle for the soul" of the UN. This was first manifested in the thorny question of how to ensure the postwar protection of minorities, particularly European Jews. Would guaranteeing their rights under international law suffice, or was the resettlement of minority populations and the partitioning of racially divided states the answer? The creation of the state of Israel was a logical outcome of the latter approach, opening the floodgates to other demands for national self-determination.
Tensions within the Commonwealth were increasing at the same time, with India's protests at the South African treatment of its Indian population serving as a lightning rod. London was unable or unwilling to resolve the dispute and the argument spilled on to the floor of the General Assembly, where Jawaharlal Nehru and others found a receptive audience despite the UN's formal prohibition on intervening in internal matters. Here was another irony: the lofty language of the charter - Smuts' language! - was seized on by anti-colonialists to justify claims for independence.
The UN has always been undergoing change, forever trying to find its place in world politics. Yet the historical argument put forward here has a good deal of contemporary political significance. If Mazower is right, much of the current debate around the value of the UN (a skirmish that is far more bitterly fought in the US than on this side of the Atlantic) is based on a misreading of the UN's origins and a rose-tinted view of what it stands for. The UN is regularly castigated for failing to live up to the lofty ideals of its founders. But if those ideas were not as morally superior as is often supposed, if they were indeed so unpalatable to modern sensibilities, then perhaps our expectations need to be lowered. Mazower tells us to ignore the rhetoric: there is no "moral community" or "common civilisation" at the UN. It is just a club of sovereign states. Nothing more, nothing less.
This is a challenging, thoughtful and (I presume) deliberately controversial account of the UN's early years. It centres on the pivotal role of individuals, but these are not the usual suspects. There is little mention of Roosevelt, Stalin or Churchill, and none at all of some of the other personalities such as Cordell Hull or Leo Pasvolsky who are often given starring roles. Rather this is a story of the thinkers of the period; men like Alfred Zimmern, Raphael Lemkin and Joseph Schechtman, and thinker-statesmen such as Smuts and Nehru. It is a story of ideas, not just of power. The tale of the UN's creation has been told in various ways: as dry diplomatic history, as a riveting spy story, and much in between. But it has never been told like this before. This is certainly a version with which all future historians of the UN will want to engage.
Mark Mazower, professor of history at Columbia University, read classics and philosophy at the University of Oxford and studied international affairs at Johns Hopkins University's Bologna Center, before returning to Oxford to gain a doctorate in modern history.
Among Mazower's academic interests are comparative dimensions of the post-Ottoman experience in the Balkans and the Middle East, war and population movements, and the history of international norms and institutions.
Mazower is passionate about the Mediterranean and would like to settle in Greece when he retires.
"Anywhere with a good beach will do. And a good view," he says.
No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations
By Mark Mazower
Princeton University Press
Published 11 November 2009