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Dan Plesch and Thomas G. Weiss, Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 227.

Reviewed by: Georgios Kostakos (PhD, is currently LIFE Climate Action Sector Coordinator, NEEMO EEIG, based in Brussels, Belgium)

Introduction – context and objectives of this volume

In the “fin de siècle” ambience that is gradually but surely taking hold of our conscience in late 2016 / early 2017, as this review is being written, the book, Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations, comes to connect us to an arguably similar time more than seventy years ago. It was, unfortunately, the time of a great war, World War II (WWII). Hostilities were in full swing between the Axis powers and the Allied forces confronting them. Since the 1st of January 1942, the Allied forces had started to refer to themselves as “The United Nations” – united against the common enemy.

The Allied forces exerted major effort to wage the war and shifted a large part of economic and industrial activity towards that end. This effort did not exclude Allied investment in other tasks, which were more diverse and hopeful for the future. Under the leadership of the US and secondarily the UK, in consultation with the Soviet Union and bringing onboard other Allies as necessary, the “United Nations” were planning the post-WWII peace. They did so on the basis of lessons learnt from WWII and previous wars. The allies were also building on the failed, but at the time still unique, experiment of the League of Nations.

The San Francisco Conference, 25 April – 26 June 1945. photo credit: UN Photo.

Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations was published on the 70th anniversary of the April 1945 San Francisco Conference that adopted the Charter of the United Nations. The editors of the book have put together a “collection of essays for studying and teaching international relations” as they were clearly “persuaded that a more thorough consideration of wartime history could help inform the study and practice of the future United Nations and of international relations more generally” (Plesch and Weiss, pp. 11-12). Their ambitious aim is to expose the readers to “[b]oth the practical vision of the 1940s and the general ignorance of its value” so as to “shock us from the twin complacencies that we are doing the best that we can and that our best today is better than yesterday—an assumption of steady progress…” (Ibid., p.2).

What do we really have here? Some interesting findings and insights

There have been several books published on the origins of the post-WWII universal organization and multilateral system, from Inis Claude, Jr.’s Swords into Plowshares: The Problems and Progress of International Organization (Random House, 1964), and Stephen Schlesinger’s Art of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations (Perseus Books Group, 2004), to Mark Mazower’s Governing the World: The History of an Idea (Penguin Press, 2012).  Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations is partly a refresher course on those old or not-so-old classics and an attempt to bring up elements not fully known or highlighted up until now.

Some of the chapters, including the introductory and concluding ones that were written by the editors, provide a bigger picture about the planning and establishing of the post-WWII global cooperation architecture and connect it to the state of global governance today. Majority of the chapters, though, constitute case studies of thinking, planning and operationalizing arrangements in specific areas of international activity, including education and the eventual establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), financial issues and the Bretton Woods institutions, agricultural markets and the establishment of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). A couple of chapters deal with institutional precedents of collective action that saw the light of day during the wartime period and continued briefly afterwards, but were eventually disbanded, namely the UN War Crimes Commission (UNWCC, 1943-1948) and the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA, 1943-1947).

The chapters provide numerous insights into the backgrounds, interests, intentions, contrasting views, and politics of wartime planers, as they played out both within and between countries. Of course, the driving force was the US, initially under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then Harry Truman. As always, the country was torn between do-good idealism and self-interested realism, as well as between openness to the world and isolationism. A major effort went into securing the US participation in the eventual universal organization this time around, unlike the ill-fated case of President Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. Next in importance and influence came the UK, under Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Despite a lot of ideas and institutional capacity from running an empire, the UK was clearly in a decline, both in terms of available resources and legitimacy.

Yalta Conference 1945; Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. photo credit: Government of the United Kingdom.

The book consciously makes the point that it was not only these two dominant Western powers. On the big political decisions, their war-time Soviet allies helped to shape the post-war global order. Developing countries, like China and India, as well as Latin American and small European states, took initiatives on specific issues. There is a chapter dedicated to the role of then colonial India vis-à-vis UNRRA and post-war international cooperation (Chapter 6). This chapter points to the emerging strategy of the Indian elite, which took the idealistic rhetoric of the wartime years at face value and used it to their advantage, thus calling the bluff, so to speak, of the leading imperialist powers (Manu Bhagavan, pp. 121-135). In this chapter, one can see the beginning of Nehru’s and India’s key role at the United Nations and global affairs, as well as the role of other elites from developing countries in giving the United Nations its development focus and pro-poor flavour as decolonization advanced.

The book’s chapters include many memorable findings, lessons, and observations. For example, did you know that there was a UN Information Organization (UNIO) during the WWII years, with offices in New York and London, and that it preceded all of the other UN system agencies in having “UN” in its name? I did not. The UNIO was later ‘absorbed into’ the UN Department of Public Information (DPI). (Giles Scott-Smith, pp. 38-39 and 43-46). UNESCO’s origins are traced back to the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC) of the League of Nations (1926-1939) and the war-time Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME, 1942-1945), convened by the British and eventually sealed with the strong imprimatur of the US (Miriam Intrator, pp. 56-60).

UNRRA is a rare case of an international agency with a sunset provision that was implemented – it was shut down in 1947 (Eli Karetny and Thomas G. Weiss, pp. 110-111). The decentralized arrangements associated with the UN War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) would be an example worth considering by today’s International Criminal Court (ICC), which is experiencing a strong pushback for its prosecution of primarily African leaders from its Headquarters in The Hague (Dan Plesch, p. 84).

Well, some shortcomings too

U.N.R.R.A. observer at Commission IV, San Francisco, 1945. photo credit: UN Photo/Rosenberg.

Going through the book, one cannot fail to notice, together with the vivid historical accounts and insights, some shortcomings or imbalances. Different styles and varied approaches may be inevitable characteristics of an edited volume that brings together a number of largely independent essays/ small research projects by different authors. The chapters are united by a shared love for history that in places verges on near-adoration of an organization or a personality, or both, as in the case of Robert Jackson and UNRRA.

Does that prove the editors’ original claim in favour of the heady wartime days? Not really. “It is sobering to observe that the problems that confound would-be reformers [of the UN system] today have their roots in decisions taken seven decades ago but now are immensely more daunting,” notes UN legend Margaret Anstee in the Foreword to the book (p. xv). Indeed, those decisions were taken within mind and interest frames that are persistent today. There was initial traction because of the urgency of war, but eventually things degenerated into their current state. The book would have benefited from acknowledging some key innovations of recent decades, thanks to which things have been moving, like the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), formerly the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), which partly compensates for the lack of strong coordination arrangements in the UN system.

The book offers plenty of examples to prove that any longing for an ideal past during the UN formative years is misplaced. For example, the authors discuss efforts to extend Roosevelt’s New Deal to the whole world, with social justice, poverty alleviation and interventionist economic policy. These efforts, however, were reversed by the Truman Doctrine that sought to extract direct, narrower benefits for the US itself. Another example: international tribunals are shown to work for a while, when they focus on meting out justice on the defeated by the victors. The latter, though, invariably shield their own military and political people from justice for any potential wrongdoing.

What next?

President Truman’s arrival in San Francisco. photo credit: UN Photo/McCreary.

For Ms. Anstee the main obstacle to reforming the UN, the multilateral system, and finding mutually beneficial solutions to today’s global challenges “is the continuing dominance of national interests over international cooperation [which is] likely to benefit the world as a whole….” (Ibid., p. xv) In the era of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte and other such leaders, who are driven by a narrow conception of national interest, the way out – not offered in the book, to avoid any misunderstanding – may still be to pray for the Martians to appear, as a common enemy against which humanity might unite without going through another major war within itself…