A League Under the Surface
No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and
the Ideological Origins of the United Nations
Princeton University Press, 2009
The creation of the United Nations in 1945 was a moment of great optimism in the wake of global devastation. The delegates to the San Francisco Conference spoke of a founding moment with few historical parallels. For US senator Arthur Vandenberg, previously a staunch isolationist, the UN Charter was “a new emancipation proclamation”. Wellington Koo, a member of the Chinese delegation, compared the charter to the Magna Carta and the US Constitution.
No one was prepared to draw comparisons between the UN and the failed League of Nations, established at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Yet, as Mark Mazower argues, the UN was in many ways a continuation of the earlier body. In No Enchanted Palace, he seeks to identify the common ideological origins of the League and the UN with British imperialist thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He offers only “the sketch of an argument”: a lightly linked series of capsule studies of thinkers and statesmen who played a part in the development of the League or the UN, or both. This mode of presentation makes for a stylish and lively tour of what can often be an arid subject matter; but it also means that the book lacks the nuance and persuasiveness of a more methodical delineation of the UN’s ideological foundations and of its relationship to the League. What it does offer, however, is a provocative counterpoint to studies of the UN that stress the purity of its origins. Mazower’s is a darker tale.
Mazower’s central claim is that both the League and the UN were conceived as instruments for the preservation of the moral leadership of the great powers. The League had been an attempt to sustain and expand the waning British Empire in the new international order that arose after World War I. It was the South African statesman and imperialist Jan Smuts, known as the father of the League’s mandates system, who saw in the League the possibility of uniting the moral leadership of Britain and the United States. These advanced nations were best placed to export the values of civilisation to the defeated powers’ colonies, and to undertake what the historian and politician Sir Geoffrey Butler described as “constabulary work” in the most “backward” corners of the globe.
Smuts’s belief in the civilising mission was echoed by an influential salon known as the Round Table, a group of thinkers dedicated to the preservation of the unity of the British Empire. One of its members was the classicist Alfred Zimmern, later to become the inaugural Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford, who conceived of the British Empire as a commonwealth of nations, bound together for the common good under the benign guidance of Britain, the Athens of its age. Since the British Commonwealth was “a world experiment” its reach and ethical purpose could be extended through the League.
By the time of World War II, it was clear that the British had failed in their efforts to forge a common cause with the United States and to advance the mission of empire through the League. For Zimmern and Smuts, the creation of the UN offered another opportunity for the great powers to remake the international order in their own image.
However, it was soon apparent that there was no shared image of what the new order should look like: the concept of an international society under the leadership of a select group of states held little appeal in a UN system founded on equality and universal membership. Through the UN Charter’s commitment to self-determination, the UN experienced a drastic expansion in its membership, and it was soon apparent that the great powers could no longer craft the direction of the organisation. Rival centres of power soon emerged within the UN system: the admission of newly independent former colonies meant that the General Assembly became a forum for the anti-colonialist cause, under the powerful leadership of the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The centre of power shifted from the great powers to their former colonial subjects, for whom the comforts and protections of sovereignty were more attractive than the pursuit of a common moral purpose; and this shift, Mazower suggests, created an impasse in the UN that persists today and leaves its future direction uncertain.
This is a powerful and provocative thesis. But Mazower’s focus on individual characters in the UN’s creation comes at a cost to accuracy. While there were undoubtedly similarities between the League and the UN, these should not be overdrawn at the expense of registering the significant differences between the two bodies. For instance, the UN’s approach to collective security—crucial to understanding the emphasis on the great powers in the UN Charter—is passed over. And in showing that there are similarities between the UN’s trusteeship system and the League’s mandates system, Mazower fails to consider the possibility that the trusteeship system represented an advancement upon, not merely a repetition of, the mandates system, and ignores the possibility that the UN Charter’s declaration on non-self-governing territories served as a catalyst for the subsequent wave of decolonisation.
At other moments, the differences between the League and the UN are overdrawn. The UN’s abandonment of the League’s system of minority rights protection is presented as an acknowledgement that international law had lost much of its strength in the aftermath of World War II, and is interpreted as evidence that the UN was less rule-bound than the League. This sweeping view not only understates the role of international law within the UN; it also fails to consider whether the UN’s emphasis on human rights was in fact an attempt to improve on the wholly inadequate system of minority protection under the League. In charting the differences, as well as the similarities, between the two bodies, Mazower at times seems reluctant to credit the UN’s advancements on the League.
For all of its omissions, though, Mazower’s thesis serves to illuminate enduring questions and recent debates concerning the role of the UN. Does the UN exist for the advancement of common values or for the protection of sovereign states? How should the UN Charter’s concessions to great power status be reconciled with its guarantees of sovereign equality? The concept of the “responsibility to protect” is an attempt to reorient states toward the responsibilities, rather than the privileges, of sovereignty. But the concept has been criticised as a new form of colonialism: the projection of imperial internationalism by other means. A similar criticism is advanced with regard to the international administration of territory, where the provision of “good governance” to “failed states” sits at odds with the demise of the view that a certain standard of civilisation is required for participation in international society.
Perhaps most importantly, Mazower provides a sound case for dismissing those voices within contemporary accounts that call for the UN to return to its lofty origins. For all the discussion of the prospects of UN reform, it would appear that the UN’s uneasy accommodation of the primacy of the great powers and the principle of sovereign equality will continue, probably as a friction to be managed rather than a conflict that can be resolved. But this should not be a cause for despair; as Mazower emphasises, a remarkable feature of the UN, which distinguishes it from the League, has been its durability and its many successes despite its uncertain foundations.
James Upcher is reading for a DPhil in Law at Merton College, Oxford.