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Hoping against hope

16 August 2006

3:26 PM

16 August 2006

3:26 PM

The Parliament of Man: The United Nations and the Quest for World Government Paul Kennedy

Allen Lane, pp.361, 25

Professor Kennedy is a decent liberal who hopes for the victory of the brotherhood of man. He begins this study of the UN, its history, successes, failings and prospects for reform by quoting Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’:

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the
battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of
the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a
fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in
universal law.

In his Afterword, he does remind us that Tennyson revised his optimism 60 years later:

Chaos, Cosmos! Cosmos, Chaos! Who can
tell how all will end?…

When was age so crammed with menace?
madness? written, spoken lies?

The young Mr Milliband of 2006 sounds as if he feels much as the ageing poet laureate did in 1886. However, Professor Kennedy consoles himself with Gladstone’s reply to Tennyson. One old Liberal usually manages to console another to their mutual satisfaction. Gladstone destroyed his own party, the 1906-16 swan-song notwithstanding. Kennedy, rearranging the chairs on the Titanic with his proposals for modest reform, hopes against all the evidence that the corporatist solutions and the millennialist spirit that animated the San Francisco conference of 1945 are not as out of date as Gladstone.

He is, it is true, realistic enough to acknowledge the weaknesses of the UN system and to draw attention to its failings. Indeed, he seems almost tempted from time to time to abandon his liberal optimism for a dose of High Tory pessimism.

For instance, he quotes Gladwyn Jebb, who feared that the fathers of the UN had ‘aimed too high for this wicked world’. He also acknowledges that the central administration of the UN is incompetent, bureaucratically sclerotic and tinged with corruption and that its agencies are often even worse. He concedes that most of the economic success stories of the last 50 years (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea) have occurred without the intervention of UN agencies, while, on the vexed questions of security and disaster relief, he acknowledges that the UN has at best a mixed record. Nevertheless, he sees no alternative to making healthy progress towards a modestly reformed institution with the power and authority to regulate the world.

Yet the sceptical reader notices the airy way in which the author dismisses other views. Their holders are derided as ‘Reactionaries’ or ‘Conservatives’. Occas- ionally, he even reinforces his Olympian disdain by twisting facts to suit his argument, par for the course for de haut en bas New York Times journalists, but, one had hoped, not for Yale professors. What evidence does he have, for instance, that, as he implies on p. 168, Lady Thatcher is against contraception?

The sceptical reader also misses any consideration of a number of other questions. Kennedy says virtually nothing about the effectiveness or otherwise of UN aid programmes and their impact and that of UN employees on those they are supposed to help. The US Navy helped the victims of the tsunami faster and more effectively than the UN. Equally, he castigates rich countries for not giving enough in aid and for insisting that poor countries lower their tariff barriers. It would be interesting to know whether he believes that rich countries would do a lot more good to the poorest nations by abolishing their own tariff barriers than all the national and international aid programmes put together. If he does, he misses a good chance to give rich countries a better deserved kicking, particularly in view of the way the EU sabotaged the Doha round. He also gives little space to the impact of corrupt and incompetent government on poor nations, although he does acknowledge it exists. Africa gets most of the obloquy for bad government, but perhaps even more remarkable is that, for all its oil wealth, its rich members and their solidarity with its poorer fellows, the Arab League represents the second most indigent region on earth.

As far as peace-keeping is concerned, Kennedy observes how detached China is from what he terms ‘International Civil Society’. China may or may not soon be the second biggest economy. However, it is too strong for the West to dare wax indignant over its slave labour camps or its oppression of religious groups and minorities or to draw attention to Peking’s increasing influence in sub-Saharan Africa. China is also happy to supply weapons to the forces of reactionary Islam, another category of enemies of the West who do not subscribe to ‘International Civil Society’. Is it not possible that, in our increasingly manichean world, the institutions we in the West invented to provide stability and to propagate our own liberal values are no longer, to coin a phrase, fit for purpose? Their capacity has declined in proportion to the decline of the power of the West.

Perhaps, as a result, we should become less ambitious. We do need a forum to discuss international questions. We do need to encourage free trade and the rule of law. International institutions are only as effective as the power and commitment of their membership allow them to be. Kennedy several times acknowledges this, although he wishes it was not so. Unlike him, this reviewer believes powerful nation states, imbued with Western standards of governance, responsible to their electorates and confident in their cultural values, are our and international civil society’s only hope. To rely instead on the bureaucracy and declining resources of UN institutions underestimates the scale of the difficulties we face.

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