Twice in the 20th century, men have sought to create a new world order. The League of Nations, conceived with high hopes as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, failed catastrophically. At the outbreak of the second world war, it was to be found solemnly engaged in the task of standardising European railway gauges. The United Nations, by contrast, was born in a mood of profound disillusionment in 1945. It was not, so it seemed, only the League that had failed, but also the conception of man that had been embodied in it, a conception that had been torn apart so savagely by the Nazis.
Unlike the League, the United Nations has survived, but its position has all too often been that of the man who passed by on the other side. Its failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda, so Mark Mazower argues, ‘prompted critics to fume’ at its impotence. In Kosovo, Britain and the United States were only able to prevent ethnic cleansing through bypassing it. In Iraq, neither the interventionists, led by Bush, nor their opponents, displayed much confidence in the institution, Bush, because it would not act against Saddam Hussein, his opponents because it was unable to prevent the use of force.
Mazower’s aim is to show, by analysing the ideological origins of the United Nations, that the organisation’s deficiencies are rooted in its history. Despite the high-sounding rhetoric of the Charter, the UN was never intended to be an instrument for humanitarian intervention or the protection of minorities. The three great powers — the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union — that gave birth to it would not have accepted a body which could poke its nose into their internal affairs. The United States resisted any inquiry into its treatment of African-Americans, while Britain opposed what her Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, called the ‘misguided and false idea that the possession of colonies is bad in itself’. The Soviet Union was prepared to join only if the great powers were given a veto. Roosevelt hoped for a time that the powers could act as world policemen, but Soviet intransigence was to make that impossible. The UN could be effective, therefore, only on those rare occasions when there was consensus between the powers. Otherwise, the veto paralysed action.
The UN was, in the words of Lord Halifax, Britain’s Ambassador to the United States, ‘no enchanted palace’, but a pragmatic instrument. It yielded what Mazower calls ‘a shared acceptance of diplomatic and legal norms regarding the recognition and mutual interaction of states’. Perhaps its very limitations have ensured its survival.
Mazower is a historian of rare penetration who writes with a verve and sparkle seldom met in members of his profession. No Enchanted Palace is an original contribution to historical understanding which brilliantly charts the ideological origins of the United Nations. The book is a powerful blast against utopianism and unrealistic expectations. Yet Mazower does not answer the fundamental question. How, in a world of sovereign states, is an international order to be created in which human rights can be protected?
The politics of the 20th century has confirmed what 19th-century liberals, such as Mill and Gladstone, well understood: that the way in which a state treats its own people is often a very good guide to the way in which it will behave in the international arena. In the 20th century, Gladstone’s ideological successor, Woodrow Wilson, unleashed a dynamic of self-determination and personal freedom that was worldwide, and sought to create an international order to legitimise them. When he thought of mankind, Wilson once said, he was not thinking of men in dinner-jackets. All people, so he believed, wanted what the Americans already had — freedom to choose their government and respect for their rights. Roosevelt was with one part of his complex mind an advocate of a great power directorate, but he was at bottom nevertheless a Wilsonian in politics. Indeed, he sought, with some naivety, to enlist Stalin’s Soviet Union to the cause of creating a Wilsonian world.
If a state seeks ethnically to cleanse its minorities, as the Serbs did with the Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, and Saddam Hussein with the Kurds, the international community cannot simply parrot the doctrine of non- intervention. On the other hand, it is not for any one power, however hegemonic, to determine when and where to intervene. Therefore, the search for an instrument, perhaps a League of Democracies, through which the Wilsonian vision of international concern for human rights can be given effect, goes on. The 20th century proved the century of the totalitarian nightmare. But perhaps in the 21st century, we will come to live in the world foreseen by Wilson and Roosevelt. If so, then the tale so skillfully told in No Enchanted Palace will become of historical interest only.