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In America's Image


Paris -- The United Nations has survived 50 years. The League of Nations lasted only 20 years, before world war broke out a second time, and was all but moribund politically after Japan's and Germany's withdrawal in 1933, and Italy's successful defiance of the League's economic sanctions in 1935 (imposed because of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia).

Both the League and the U.N. were founded on the illusions that an assembly of governments could be better than its parts, and that an organization largely composed of non-democracies could by some alchemy become (as Tennyson put it) "Parliament of man, the Federation of the world."

The real successes of both organizations lay, and lie, in their ancillary work in practical matters: refugees, health, children's well-being, labor protection, trade organization, and in the work of their affiliated organizations: the Hague Court, the International Postal Union, the telecommunications, meteorological and maritime cooperation agencies.

Their failures, predictably, were and are in the political realm. Nations mainly have gone on doing what they wanted, as in the Italian case in the 1930s, doing so even when the "international community" -- today identified with the U.N. Security Council -- sent an army to try to get in the way of the fighting in the former Yugoslavia and look after the victims.

One must look back to where the U.N. came from. It was invented by the United States (as was the League, which the U.S. then failed to join). Franklin Roosevelt had the State Department at work planning the U.N. by January 1942 -- a month after Pearl Harbor. Had Senator Dole, Congressman Gingrich, or President Clinton been in San Francisco 50 years ago, when the Charter was adopted, they undoubtedly would have been among the Americans who cheered.

The U.N. and League expressed America's ambition to establish on a world scale the legal and institutional values of the United States. This was in some real if unacknowledged sense a program to Americanize the world.

I include Senator Dole -- in 1945 a badly wounded veteran of the Italian campaign -- among my hypothetical enthusiasts for the U.N. because he is inheritor of the Republican isolationist tradition of the 1940s, exemplified by Ohio's Senator Robert Taft.

Mr. Taft, in 1945, nonetheless believed that "nations like individuals are bound by law . . . and any nation which violates the law [should] be promptly subjected to the joint action of nations guided by a determination to enforce the laws of peace. It is quite true that the United Nations Charter as drafted does not yet reach the ideals of international peace and justice which I have described, but it goes a long way in that direction. . . ."

Today Senator Dole is one of a great many Americans hostile to the U.N. Some -- including many who are influential members of today's Republican Party -- consider it the agent of an obscure, two-century-old international conspiracy of "Illuminati" and international bankers determined to subjugate the United States.

Such ignorant extravagances aside, the faults of the U.N. are plain. The reasons for them lie in its Cold War experience, patronage and corruption in the institution itself, but primarily in the peculiarly American vision of nations and history upon which the U.N. was founded. Nations, in this view, are dispensable and interchangeable units of social organization, destined to be discarded as international society advances out of its primitive forms toward a more perfect condition.

Existing nations, and nationalism, are believed to be obstacles to the cooperation of peoples, who everywhere are assumed to be of fundamental good will, misled by superstitions, ignorance and their still-backward institutions and commitments. If only "power politics" were abolished, Woodrow Wilson believed, "peoples, not governments, would run things."

The "peoples" would then march toward universal cooperation and peace. This profoundly American optimism says that organizational, material, and educational progress will eventually produce a moral improvement in humanity itself. The old human rivalries, disagreements, and quarrels will be cast aside. Bloodthirst, revenge, political perversity and The faults of the U.N. lie primarily in the peculiarly American vision of nations and history as dispensable units of social organization, to be discarded as international society advances toward a more perfect condition.

war will be outgrown. Humans will be better.

This is not the place to go into so controversial an issue as to whether humanity, in any collective way, can become better over history. I know of no serious evidence that this is so. It strikes me that the Greeks and Chinese of antiquity -- two ancient peoples of whom we actually know something -- were exactly the same mixture of good and evil as we are today. Institutions have changed, progressed, in some respects retrogressed (is China today a happier place than Han or T'ang China?). People, in my opinion, have not changed.

The United Nations is a human institution embedded in contemporary political history. It is useful in some respects, a problem in others. It has failed in Bosnia because its members were unwilling to agree to make it succeed. It did good in Cambodia because they mostly agreed, and conditions were favorable.

Its perceived larger failure reflects the false premises and unrealistic expectations that went into the U.N.'s creation. These in turn came from America's primordial commitment to an optimistic and progressive view of history. The U.N. is what it is because of all this. Americans, above all, should take it as it is, since we made it.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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