Ideally, right now, from April 25 through June 26, millions should be re-enacting the United Nations’ founding seventy years ago, day by day, like pilgrims reenacting Jesus’s steps toward Calvary. Indeed, most Americans greeted the world body’s establishment with a messianic faith that it would prove redemptive, delivering peace on earth. The minimal fanfare surrounding this 70th anniversary shows just how much the United Nations has disappointed the American nation.
On April 25, 1945—five days before Adolf Hitler killed himself—850 delegates met in San Francisco to establish the United Nations Organization. They came from 50 nations representing close to 80 percent of the world’s population. This organization hoped to be one of World War II’s few happy outcomes. In 1942, the phrase “United Nations” referred to the 26 nations combating the Axis powers. Now, the United Nations Organization would build peace—and, hopefully, restore some faith in humanity.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had worked hard to make the United Nations more muscular than the failed League of Nations and more palatable to Americans. FDR’s death on April 12, 1945 had infused the UN with the aura of presidential martyrdom, Roosevelt having seemingly worked himself to death for the cause. In an unfinished address, he envisioned “peace; more than an end of this war—an end to the beginning of all wars.” Now, his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, would carry the torch.
Over the next two months, delegates drafted a charter and defined new institutions: the Security Council, the General Assembly, the International Court of Justice. By 1946, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Bank for Reconstruction and Development would emerge as engines of postwar prosperity and global liberalism.
Still, the process was rocky. Smaller nations opposed the “Big Five’s” veto power in the Security Council. American intelligence agencies kept intercepting diplomatic cables telegraphing resentment. Typically, one Turkish update in March 1945 warned, “the small states are inevitably going to be reduced to the status of satellites of the great.” Nevertheless, the convening powers—the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, Great Britain, and France—insisted. Eventually, these countries would have veto rights in the Security Council, while 10 other countries would serve temporarily on a rotating basis. By contrast, the weaker General Assembly gave every country one equal vote. Clearly, this organization would require compromise.
The preamble to the UN charter, signed on June 26 at San Francisco’s Opera House echoed America’s Constitution, while rhapsodizing about the future. “We the peoples of the United Nations,” the nations proclaimed, were determined “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war… to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights… to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom….”
It was a remarkable achievement. Out of the ashes of the world’s cruelest war, with embers still smoldering, wounds still healing, and graves still fresh, the victors constructed an international mechanism with peace as its aim and human rights for all at its heart. The charter injected the liberal democratic idealism generated by the American Revolution into the international bloodstream. Even if the growing entanglement violated George Washington’s demand for isolationism, the enlightened romanticism fulfilled his Farewell Address’s companion call for America to serve as the world’s beacon. By 1947, 91 percent of Americans surveyed considered it “very important” or “fairly important” to “try to make the United Nations a success.”
Alas, history has been harsh on this international organization. In the 1950s and 1960s, the UN served as the backdrop for Cold War confrontations, bringing Mad’s Spy v. Spy to life daily on the East River. By 1975, the UN emerged as the Third World Dictators’ Debating Society, frequently anti-American, obsessively anti-Israel, as totalitarian regimes that denied their citizens basic rights used democratic techniques to impose their will on the General Assembly.
To most Americans, the UN’s reputation never recovered. True, we have seen flashes of the kind of international cooperation the founders envisioned, especially, during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991 and after September 11, 2001. But with, for example, a “Human Rights Council” populated by human rights abusers such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, the UN often remains more punch line than savior.
The UN’s failure represents the broader failure of mid-twentieth-century Enlightened Liberalism. If Communism was the God that failed, this is the Western God that failed. The UN fell victim to what we could call Che Guevara Rules, wherein those deemed oppressed asserted a near absolute right to use violence or any other tactic they deemed fit. Identity politics edged out enlightened rationality and individual liberties. Thus, the world’s indulgence of Palestinian terrorism, Islamist sexism, Third World fascism, and other immoral, irrational assaults on individual freedoms. Post-colonial aggressiveness and Western apologetics have blurred once clearer moral and political lines, in a process that has distorted—but not yet fully derailed—American domestic politics too. The UN, rather than being the Kumbaya symbol of liberalism at its best, became a breeding ground and chief legitimizer for radical leftism at its worst.
Still, on this platinum anniversary, we should celebrate the great non-events—there has been no Third World War or nuclear Armageddon, as was broadly feared seven decades ago. More important, the UN is more than the General Assembly. It has blossomed as the world’s greatest international social service agency, pushing economic reform, championing education, protecting the environment, fighting disease, pressing for universal immunization, ultimately halving child mortality rates.
When Adlai Stevenson represented the Kennedy administration in the UN during the early 1960s, he countered UN critics by describing Adam’s marriage proposal to Eve. She hesitated. Adam asked, “Is there somebody else?” Stevenson concluded: “There was no one else then. There is no one else now.” Then, as now, Stevenson was right: much good has been done. Much damage too—but there’s nothing else.