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Revisiting the 1942-1945 United Nations


E.R. Stettinus, chairman of the United States delegation, and Nelson Rockefeller, US assistant secretary of state, at the San Francisco conference, held in 1945. UN PHOTO
Edward Stettinius, right, United States secretary of state and chairman of the US delegation, with Nelson Rockefeller, US assistant secretary of state, at the San Francisco Conference, held in 1945, creating the UN Charter. UN PHOTO

The 70th anniversary of the signing and entry into force of the United Nations Charter should draw attention to the 1942-45 United Nations Alliance that gave rise to the world body and the underpinnings of contemporary global governance. While anniversaries are in some ways an artificial “hook,” they are nonetheless a way not to forget. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of the outbreak of World War II, and this year the 200th anniversary of the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

These armed conflicts led to experiments in international organization after rampant nationalism and going-it-alone were exposed as vacuous for planning subsequent peace and prosperity. The irony, of course, is that today’s growing list of intractable problems, ranging from climate change and migration to pandemics and terrorism, goes well beyond the power of states acting alone. And yet, in Europe the supranational experiment with the European Union seems under attack from many sides; and except for these hallowed halls here on First Avenue in New York, the UN is an afterthought if a thought at all.

What remains unchanged after seven decades is that the policy authority and resources necessary for tackling such problems remain vested in individual states rather than collectively in intergovernmental organizations. The fundamental disconnect between a growing number of global challenges and the current inadequate structures for international problem-solving and decision-making helps explain occasional, tactical and short-term local views and responses instead of sustained, strategic and longer-run global perspectives and actions.

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So why go back to the period of 1942 to 1945? Because, to put it quite simply, the rediscovery of the wartime UN contradicts the conventional wisdom that liberalism was abandoned to confront the Nazis and Imperial Japan; it asserts that Kantian ideals were essential to the Hobbesian objective of state survival. The attendant historiographical question is why the wartime UN has disappeared from academic and policy consciousness.

When governments decide to use intergovernmental organizations, they work. The wartime actions of the UN’s founders suggest that contemporary global governance is a second-best surrogate for more robust multilateralism. If global problems require global solutions, they also require strengthened intergovernmental organizations, especially those of the UN system.

This proposition belies an infatuation with problem-solving by anything other than such institutions. A decade ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in “A New World Order,” viewed networks of various types rather than actual organizations as the key variable in problem-solving. More recently, Dan Drezner in a Foreign Policy blog and Stewart Patrick in Foreign Affairs have proposed living with the sum of alternative arrangements and dismissed the universal-membership UN as hopeless and hapless. Apparently, we can only aspire to a variegated institutional sprawl — or what both Drezner and Patrick dubbed “good-enough global governance.”

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Alas, that is not and will not be adequate without a revitalized UN as an integral component of international society. Skepticism about UN capacity is justified, of course, but we are kidding ourselves about the potential of what the UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report hopes somehow will amount to “coherent pluralism.”

Political leaders and civil society actors struggling amid World War II thought otherwise. The Declaration by the United Nations in January 1942 and the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 committed the Allies to multilateralism not only to fight fascism in the short term but also over the longer term to maintain international peace and security and to foster postwar economic and social stability.

Despite the failed League of Nations, neither governments nor analysts considered a return to the world of 1913 a viable option. If that had been the case, Allied governments might have insisted on Spartan educational methods to prepare their populations for the next war; or reciprocal mass atrocities perpetrated against the Germans; or bombing Moscow as an encore to Nagasaki. Something fundamental had changed.

That no such retribution occurred should be puzzling; to win and yet not to seek revenge and to plant the seeds for the next war was not an approach much in evidence in history, save in limited form after 1815. The post-World War II peace was not supposed to reflect a Metternich-like management of nationalisms, however, but cooperation among friends and rivals.

Identifying the conditions under which multilateralism’s appeal from 1942 to 1945 overcame the recalcitrance of states to collaborate results in two queries: Must the next generation of multilateral organizations arise as a result of unnecessary and unspeakable tragedies­ — as the UN did from the ashes of World War II or the Congress of Vienna from the Napoleonic Wars? Or could stronger institutions result from learning lessons about how best to address felt needs that clearly do not respect borders?

The 1940s should give us the courage to formulate more ambitious visions about improving future world orders. In the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, addressing transboundary and collective-action problems requires refurbishing or creating more muscular intergovernmental organizations with wider scope, more resources and additional democratic authority.

Too much current scholarly and diplomatic energy is devoted to elucidating the global sprawl of networks and informal institutions, and too little is given to the requirements for strengthened intergovernmental organizations, most especially the UN. The contrast is stark between good-enough global governance and the approach and operations of the wartime UN — namely a misplaced enthusiasm for ad hoc pluralism rather than for systematic multilateralism. There are many potential and valuable partners in today’s variable architecture of global governance, but their limitations should be obvious as well.

Without more robust multilateralism, especially in the form of universal organizations like those launched during and after World War II, states and their citizens will not reap the benefits of trade and globalization, discover nonviolent ways to meet security challenges or alleviate poverty and environmental degradation.

This essay contains excerpts from an address given on June 8, 2015, to the UN Summer Academy at UN headquarters and draws on a new book edited by Dan Plesch and Thomas G. Weiss, titled “Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations” (London: Routledge, 2015).

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).


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