This fall, the United Nations will celebrate its 75th anniversary. This is a notable occasion. Most global security bodies have had short shelf lives. But the UN has shown an extraordinary durability — a tribute to how this body was conceived and fashioned during World War II by one of America’s great presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, and his special group of diplomats and advisers. With this remarkable anniversary approaching, however, the Trump administration has, outside a few press releases and some artwork by teenagers, shown scant interest in either honoring the event or contributing any money toward supporting the ceremonies that culminate on Sept. 21 on the opening day of the General Assembly — should it proceed as planned.
This is shameful news. For the United States involvement with the UN has always stemmed from a singular passion to ensure peace in the world. It began with President Woodrow Wilson’s proposal at Versailles to establish a League of Nations after the end of World War I. Wilson’s advocacy for this body, driven as much out of his concern for US national security as genuine idealism, came from his belief that the only way to prevent the outbreak of another global conflict was to establish a world organization that could provide a venue for settling disputes, forestalling the possibility of further human carnage. However, Wilson’s Republican foes in the US Senate distrusted the concept, claiming that the League infringed too much on the sovereignty of the US. They defeated it.
But Roosevelt, who had himself served in the Wilson administration, never abandoned the idea of an international institution. When he won the presidency in his own right in 1932, he sought at various points to bring back the League. But the strong isolationist sentiment in the country blocked him from doing so. With the advent of World War II, Roosevelt found the moment to reintroduce the idea of a League — this one with far more expansive powers and authority than the old one — namely, the United Nations. As the strongest country on the planet at war’s end in 1945, the US hardly needed to do this and could have focused all of its international activities on voluntary missions or pursuing unilateralist policies. But Roosevelt understood that after two catastrophic world wars, the US — indeed, no nation — could survive in the world any longer without a collective security safety net.
Since its establishment, the UN has served the world well for almost eight decades. Given its unique Charter of suppleness and practicality, the organization has managed to stay relevant and reinvent itself for almost every new season. Even during the worst of the Cold War, when distrust between the US and the Soviet Union paralyzed the Security Council, the UN took on all sorts of responsibilities never even mentioned in the original document, including: peacekeeping, peace enforcement, election monitoring, constitution writing, nation building, arms inspections, war-crimes tribunals and so on. Through the years, too, it has ended strife in countries like Cambodia, Mozambique, Guatemala, Angola, El Salvador, Serbia, Kosovo, Kuwait, South Africa, Slovenia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Liberia, Cyprus, Bosnia, Macedonia, Croatia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast.
And innovative UN agencies have sprung up, such as the UN Development Program, Unesco, Unicef, UN Environment Program, Habitat, Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Bank. Today the UN is, in many ways, a service organization — a large percentage of its resources are devoted to service. The UN has, in addition, negotiated more than 300 global treaties that provide the rules and regulations for the planet’s commerce, its health and safety, human rights and democratic governance. And the UN continues to offer a diplomatic arena to resolve crises, a meeting venue for global leaders, and a 24-hour call center to handle sudden emergencies.
Even Donald Trump, who has cut back considerably on US funding to the UN and sometimes displays contempt toward the body, has, on occasion, found it a useful forum. He has, for example, used the Security Council to pursue tougher sanctions on North Korea and Syria. He punishes his enemies — most recently via Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — derailing a Security Council resolution on the coronavirus and thereby implicitly criticizing China by insisting on calling it the “Wuhan virus.” He has regularly used the Council, too, to protect his close friend, Benjamin Netanyahu, vetoing resolutions condemning Israel. Even now, Trump is also considering asking the Council to enshrine his peace treaty with the Taliban in Afghanistan. And, annually, he uses the General Assembly platform to promote his transparently retrograde “America First” agenda.
But, in fact, Trump’s fundamental mistrust of internationalism unfortunately prevails. He and his followers still believe the UN intrudes too much on US interests and is rife with nepotism and wasteful spending. Even other more measured observers have to concede that the UN has failed in Yemen, Syria, Libya and Myanmar and, most calamitously, in countries like Rwanda. Still, with all of its faults, every nation around the globe has remained a member of it, whatever their complaint. Countries still send their most skillful diplomats and ambassadors to represent them in the Assembly. In many ways, our planet would have immense difficulty in establishing any sort of peace among 193 nations without an institution like the UN. Even if Trump won’t support a celebration of the US role in this organization, the UN will be applauded by most of our global citizenry as one of America’s greatest gifts to the world.
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.