Was the U.N. really founded on a lofty democratic ideal?

In a new book, historian Mark Mazower takes a whack at the prevailing perception of the U.N.’s founding fathers as a band of far-sighted idealists seeking to mold a truly universal institution out of the ruins of World War II. In No Enchanted Palace, published by Princeton University Press, Mazower argues that the principle architects ...

By
574118_100125_mazower2002.jpg
574118_100125_mazower2002.jpg

In a new book, historian Mark Mazower takes a whack at the prevailing perception of the U.N.'s founding fathers as a band of far-sighted idealists seeking to mold a truly universal institution out of the ruins of World War II.

In No Enchanted Palace, published by Princeton University Press, Mazower argues that the principle architects of the U.N. Charter were bent on using the new international institution to preserve the last vestiges of the British imperial order, which had been shattered by WWII.

The British historian and diplomatic adviser Charles Webster epitomizes the cynicism of a waning colonial power straining to preserve its empire, Mazower writes. In one diary entry, Webster describes the U.N. as "an Alliance of the Great Powers embedded in a universal organization." He dismisses a provision of the U.N. Charter that would allow colonial powers to unload their former colonies, then called mandates.

In a new book, historian Mark Mazower takes a whack at the prevailing perception of the U.N.’s founding fathers as a band of far-sighted idealists seeking to mold a truly universal institution out of the ruins of World War II.

In No Enchanted Palace, published by Princeton University Press, Mazower argues that the principle architects of the U.N. Charter were bent on using the new international institution to preserve the last vestiges of the British imperial order, which had been shattered by WWII.

The British historian and diplomatic adviser Charles Webster epitomizes the cynicism of a waning colonial power straining to preserve its empire, Mazower writes. In one diary entry, Webster describes the U.N. as “an Alliance of the Great Powers embedded in a universal organization.” He dismisses a provision of the U.N. Charter that would allow colonial powers to unload their former colonies, then called mandates.

“We have allowed our mandates to go under the new control but for rest the matter remains exactly as before except that there is a sort of machinery if states desire to put their colonial territories under it,” Webster wrote. “We have no such intention and I’m sure no other power has.”

After decades of scholarly neglect of the United Nations, which had been marginalized by the Cold War, a new generation of academics have turned their attention to the organization since George H.W. Bush declared a “new world order,” Mazower writes. But he says a “shocked intellectual reaction” to his son’s foreign policy has prompted scholars to embellish the democratic ideals that formed the U.N. in order to defend the strain of American internationalism in the 1940s.

Mazower’s book provides a good counterpoint to Stephen C. Schlesinger‘s 2003 The Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, published by Westview, which highlights the idealism of American leaders, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, that placed the U.N. at the center of the post-war order. One of the heroes in Schlesinger’s book is Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, a one-time isolationist who helped ensure bipartisan congressional support for the international organization.

Mazower examines the darker side of the U.N.’s creation, highlighting a handful of influential figures who participated in drafting the U.N. Charter, principally Jan Smuts, the late South African prime minister, who wrote the key section of the lofty preamble to the charter, which promotes equal rights for individuals and states and commits U.N. members to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

Smuts, who had played a role in the ill-fated League of Nations, saw the United Nations as a means of cementing Britain’s relationship between the United States, and preserving the British-led Commonwealth. His ultimate goal was to ensure white rule in South Africa and beyond. In June, 1945, immediately after the U.N. was created at a conference in San Francisco, Smuts returned to South Africa to push for the annexation of the former Germany colony, South-West Africa, now known as Namibia.

“He was convinced of white racial superiority and believed international organizations should ensure that white leadership of the world continued,” Mazower writes. “South Africa,” he adds later in the book, “had expansionism hardwired into its constitution.”

“The whole area of East Africa,” Smuts wrote in the 1920s, could “be made into a great European state or system of states during the next three or four generations.” In 1929 he called for “one great African dominion stretching unbroken throughout Africa.” What was needed was ” a resolute white policy” so that there would emerge “a white state in time more important than Australia … a chain of white states which will in the end become one from the [South African] Union to Kenya.”

Mazower argues that the U.N. was even less progressive than its predecessor, the League of Nations, placing national sovereignty above the rights of individuals, particularly minority groups. The big power veto, which was introduced at the insistence of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, continues to be a source of intense irritation to the rest of the world.

Ultimately, Mazower turns out to be a fan of the United Nations. He concludes that the U.N. charter was a progressive document that ended up thwarting the aims of some of its key founders, and helped pave the way to the era of decolonization.

The turning point came in 1946, when Smuts tried and failed to secure support in the U.N. General Assembly for its plans to annex South-West Africa. Later that year, Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of an Indian transitional government that had not yet gained independence, went to the 54-member U.N. General Assembly to complain that a new South Africa law restricting voting and residence rights for Indian laborers was incompatible with the U.N. Charter. Despite resistance from the U.S., Britain, and South Africa, the measure passed.

It was, Mazower writes, “a reminder to the British that they were no longer the sole arbiters even of India’s destiny, let alone that of the empire as a whole.”

Correction: It’s Smuts, not Smutts. Turtle Bay regrets the error.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.