Of all postwar institutions in the public eye, the United Nations has probably yielded the poorest literature. With the exception of two lucid studies of its foundation, Robert Hildebrand's Dumbarton Oaks (1990) and Stephen Schlesinger's Act of Creation (2003), each the work of a serious diplomatic historian, little or nothing of analytic interest exists about the organisation, which has proved an intellectual sink-hole, down which swirl the drearily self-serving memoirs of its one-time functionaries and mind-numbing pieties from assorted well-wishers in the universities. There is a reason for the peculiar deadness of this output. The UN is a political entity without any independent will. If we set aside its specialised agencies, most of which perform useful practical services of one sort or another, the core of the institution - the General Assembly and the Security Council - is a legitimating, not a policy-making, apparatus. Decisions reached by the organisation are in essence embellishments of the relationships of power operative at any given time. Virtually by definition, where legitimation alone is at stake, the quotient of euphemism and mystification on all sides will be very high. So, predictably enough, it has been with the United Nations.
LRB 10 May 2007 | PDF Download