United nations: rooted in industrial technology and shaped by war 

Three times in the 20th Century elite groups propelled by imperial ambition plunged the world into disastrous wars. Amidst growing signs that we are going down that same path again it has become imperative to broaden understanding of why the world is in such a mess and what can be done to deal with it. In particular, it is necessary to know how the United Nations must change if it is to succeed in its Charter aim of establishing a world without war. To those ends this two-part article provides a new narrative of modern international cooperation, telling of its rationale, experience and prospects. It looks both at the systemic and structural underpinnings of international cooperation and conflict as well as the superstructures of power relationships and policy that steer history.

The Roots of Cooperation        Historians are prone to note the congregation of Europe’s crowned heads at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) as the precursor of modern multilateral organizations; but there is little real link between them. The roots of the United Nations lie instead in the scientific and industrial revolutions that required cross-border cooperation to set common measures and use standardized technologies, in particular the telegraph, the railroad and the steamship. In 1865 the International Telegraph Union was established in Paris. Today it is the oldest Specialized Agency of the United Nations System; renamed International Telecommunications Union in 1932, it now helps steer global cooperation as the latest wave of transforming technology pushes us ever deeper into the Information Age. 

The second oldest UN Agency, the Universal Postal Union (UPU), was created in 1874 because the steamship and railroad created such a boom in the volume of international mail that it swamped the old system of bilateral postal agreements. The International Meteorological Organization, precursor of the World Meteorological Organization, was founded a year before the UPU but it was officially replaced by the WMO in 1951. The push to found the IMO came from naval and shipping interests seeking to use the new telegraphic capability to share information on changing weather conditions.  

The Roots of War       At the same time as industrial technologies promoted cooperation they also spawned conflict. That happened because industrialization created two revolutionary new classes in European societies, one composed of business entrepreneurs who built factories and the other of factory workers. International competition among the former over foreign raw materials and markets gave a new edge to colonial wars. The latter, victimized first by factory owners and then by leaders promising violent escape from exploitation, was infected globally with ideas of class conflict and the dream of dominion.

The First World War       The European “scramble” for African colonies in the last quarter of the 19th Century segued into intensifying competition between Britain and Germany that led into the First World War (1914-1918). It was expected to last a few months and be much the same as traditional conflicts; it stretched into years of brutal trench warfare with machine guns and poison gas. At the time it was history’s most murderous conflict, killing over 10 million young people, the flower of a generation in Europe’s largest nations. During the war a revolution in Russia established the Soviet Union as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and set off seven decades of ideologically driven oppression and conflict around the world.

The League of Nations        The “war to end all wars” concluded with American intervention under President Woodrow Wilson who made the Covenant of the League of Nations part of the peace treaty. But the US Senate would not ratify the Covenant so the League was dominated by the same imperial Powers responsible for the war. Based in Geneva, the League had hundreds of employees (711 at its peak), an International Labor Office (ILO) and an International Health Office (IHO). The League was a response to war, the ILO to Communism and the IHO to the deadly influenza pandemic that in one year (1918-1919), killed more people than the war, anywhere between 20 and 40 million. 

The League began well but the aggressive instincts of its most powerful members could not be contained. They manifested first in international trade. In the belief that “strong nations” maximized exports and minimized imports, they took to blatant manipulation of currency exchange rates and tariffs but succeeded only in so destabilizing international markets as to drive an increasing number of private traders out of business. The result was rapidly shrinking trade: American imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932, while US exports to Europe fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. World trade as a whole fell by some 66 per cent between 1929 and 1934. 

The Second World War      As trade shrank it caused a vicious spiral of closed factories, increased unemployment and falling consumption, a process that came to be described as “the Great Depression” of the 1930s. Amidst its mass misery fascist demagogues rose to power in Europe and when Hitler began rearming Germany all countries followed suit. That began an inexorable slide into a war more horrible than anyone had imagined: its “battlefields” expanded to cover the whole productive infrastructure of nations, including their populous cities, factories, mines, trains, food and water supply systems. The carpet-bombing of civilian targets during the war and the use of nuclear bombs to end it left much of Europe and Japan in rubble and made clear another general conflict would end civilization.

The United Nations in Concept    Well before the war ended President Franklin Roosevelt initiated planning on a new peace organization. The planners drew a lesson from the fact that the war had killed the League but not the earlier technical agencies; they conceived of the United Nations as a primarily political organization coordinating a number of autonomous economic and socially oriented Specialized Agencies. Among the new agencies were the League’s offices for worker’s welfare and disease control spun off as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) were entirely new. So were the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, conceived to work in tandem to revive the world economy: countries could get reconstruction loans from the Bank only if they agreed to join the system of fixed currency exchange rates supervised by the IMF.

A comprehensive World Trade Organization was proposed to work closely with the World Bank-IMF partnership but it was abandoned in favor of a more limited General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that did no more than negotiate a reduction of the thickets of restrictions thrown up in the previous decades. (In 1995 it was replaced with a comprehensive World Trade Organization.)

The UN itself was planned with several Organs. A General Assembly of 51 founding members (now 193) exercised overweening deliberative, legislative financial and directive responsibilities. A small Security Council of 11 (15 now), with five militarily powerful “permanent members” – Britain, China, France, Soviet Union (now Russian Federation) and the United States – had primary charge of maintaining international peace and security. An Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of 18 members (54 now), was meant to coordinate the Specialized Agencies. In the expectation that the imperial Powers would put all non-self-governing territories under UN care the Charter provided for a Trusteeship Council made up of the Permanent Members of the Security Council. To support the work of all these organs the UN Charter called for a Secretary-General and staff (Secretariat) loyal only to the Organization and pledged not to take instructions from any State.

Things Fall Apart        In important ways the UN System never had a chance to work as it was conceived. Less than two months after the adoption of the UN Charter the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed the strategic concept on which the Security Council was based. As the Soviet Union lost the advantage of its massive conventional forces in Europe, Winston Churchill’s March 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech unleashed the Cold War, paralyzing the Security Council and engulfing the Secretariat in pressures that made independence impossible and integrity difficult.  ECOSOC was unable to coordinate the Specialized Agencies effectively because each had its own governing body and agenda. Only 11 non-self-governing territories were put under the Trusteeship Council, 10 of them left over "mandated territories" from the League of Nations; decolonization of the large European Empires took a different route (see below). 

In the case of the IMF and World Bank the original concept worked well for a while and then was overcome by events. The IMF’s fixed rate currency exchange system served as a firm floor for the recovery of Europe and Japan but the imbalances created by the huge flow of dollars out of the United States led in 1972 to the collapse of the system of fixed currency exchange rates. As that was happening, the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised the price of oil four-fold. Hit with dramatic drops in the value of their currencies and the sudden rise in the cost of energy, poor oil importing countries were buried under unsustainable loads of debt. Globally, there was “stagflation” – a combination of economic stagnation and high inflation.   

How the Cold War Began        The Cold War was the most important of the negative factors that impacted the United Nations at birth. To understand how it came about we have to look back to the November 1943 Tehran Conference at which the leaders of Britain, Soviet Union and the United States agreed on strategy for the final phase of the war.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill sought reassurance from President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain would get a special dispensation as the United States pushed to end European empires. He did not get it. Instead, the president joined with Stalin in ridiculing Churchill, infuriating the older man. See Britain's Secret War.

Subsequently, at dinner with Churchill and Stalin, Roosevelt suffered a sudden collapse that was immediately suspected to be poison but was later ascribed to “stomach flu.” His health never recovered; after two more similar attacks over the next year he died suddenly in April 1945 while having a bowl of broth. The cause of death was said to be a “brain hemorrhage” but neither that nor any of his other reported ailments could be verified because his medical file disappeared from a locked safe at Washington’s Bethesda Naval Hospital. During the last decade several efforts to present Roosevelt’s premature death as “natural” have appeared on the Internet and in scholarly works such as Jay Winik’s 1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History; but the alternative has to be given serious consideration in view of what transpired immediately afterwards.   

Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman had no experience in world affairs. Less than a year after he took over, Churchill was in Washington, presenting his rejected proposal for a special US-UK special relationship – not to the President but to Admiral William Leahy the coordinator of American military chiefs. On the basis of their discussion Churchill drafted what came to be known as the “Iron Curtain” speech, making the case for “growing friendship and mutual understanding” between the United States and the British Empire to confront the Soviet Union. 

In the face of the strong and uniformly critical media response to the speech – everyone from the Wall Street Journal on the Right to The Nation on the Left viewed it as a disastrous mistake – Truman said he had not known what Churchill was going to say. According to Truman biographer David McCullough, the president had not read a copy of the speech given to him on the train to Fulton, Missouri (where Churchill spoke). McCullough did not note how odd it was that Truman received so late, a speech on a critically important issue prepared by his primary military aide in consultation with a foreign leader. No matter how the matter is finessed, it cannot be denied that Churchill had, in fact, engineered a military coup against Truman and reversed Roosevelt’s firm rejection of a “special relationship” between America and Britain. He had also engaged a new and unconstitutional nexus of power in Washington that President Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman, termed the “military-industrial complex.”  

What happened during the Cold War        The history of the Cold War has been heavily propagandized, especially its origins. One of the perceptions shaped by propaganda is that the Cold War was mainly a US-Soviet power struggle. While there was certainly a global strategic face-off and endless tactical gambits by both sides, the most malign international processes of the period, the ones that affected most countries and people, did not emanate from Moscow or Washington but from Europe’s imperial Powers seeking to protect their "interests" in the so-called “Third World” (see points 1 to 4 below). The two Super Powers, in contrast, were involved early in efforts to wind down their confrontation.

Disarmament  Both Moscow and Washington were very aware of the dangers of rampant militarization and in 1961 presidential Special envoys John I. McCloy of the United States (Assistant Secretary for War under Roosevelt), and Valerian A. Zorin of the USSR  agreed on the principles and sequencing of steps leading to general and complete disarmament.  They envisaged the following steps

  • (a) Disband armed forces, dismantle military establishments including bases, cease the production of armaments, liquidate or convert facilities to peaceful uses.
  • (b) Eliminate all stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and other weapons of mass destruction and cease the production of such weapons.
  • (c) Eliminate all means of delivery of weapons of mass destruction.
  • (d) Abolish the organization of, and institutions designed to organize, the military effort of States, cease military training, and close all military training institutions.
  • (e) Discontinue military expenditures.

The General Assembly unanimously endorsed the accord on 20 December 1961 by resolution 1722 (XVI). Less than two years later President Kennedy was assassinated and the McCloy-Zorin initiative died with him. It remains, however, as a blueprint that can be activated when political circumstances permit.

Four Cold War Processes
1.   A New Colonialism: The declaration of a global ideological war allowed Europe’s imperial Powers to shape-shift into the leaders of the “Free World” and go about rearranging “decolonization” in their own best interests. In India, the first to get the treatment, a state-fomented tide of religious strife split the country, killing 3 million in a few weeks and creating 14 million refugees in their own land. The new country thus created was held together only by militant “Islam” and the military, with command of both vested in an intelligence service established by a serving officer of the colonial army. The first “India-Pakistan war over Kashmir” was arranged when the armies of both countries were still under colonial commanders and “Mountbatten, the Last Viceroy” had become India’s “First Governor General.” Similar bloody processes overtook decolonization in every resource-rich or strategically important country. In Burma/Myanmar the entire anti-colonial leadership was assassinated in parliament prior to the transfer of power. In Viet Nam, an anti-colonial struggle mutated into a prolonged proxy war that killed anywhere from 1.3 million to 3.5 million people. Other countries in South East Asia suffered similar situations and proportionate losses. 

In Africa the list of blood-lettings was long. A million were killed in Algeria’s struggle for independence. The independence of the Congo, among the most richly endowed countries in Africa, was immediately sabotaged, Dag Hammarskjold killed as he attempted to rectify that, and the country thrown into a semi-permanent state of war that continues six decades later. Angola and Mozambique, also naturally rich, were plunged into prolonged, supposedly ideological civil wars. Sierra Leone suffered a savage insurgency that plundered its rich diamond mines. There were sponsored genocides in Rwanda and Burundi. The fabled mineral wealth of South Africa fell under racist apartheid which extended its tyranny to Namibia. A tribal movement in Kenya to recover expropriated land was met with the torture and indiscriminate murder of some 100,000 “terrorists.” Uganda saw its multicultural society disintegrate in violence. Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan had successive bloody military coups and insurrections. In Latin America, savage, long-running guerrilla wars and waves of repression spread terror. 

All this was blamed on the institutional weaknesses of local societies, the cupidity of their leaders and the surreal “resource curse” dreamed up by apologists of the new colonialism. The cartels and shell companies that arranged the mayhem and drained wealth out of the victimized countries got minimal attention. Overall, the proxy conflicts of the ostensibly “Cold” War killed an estimated 100 million people.

2.   Drug Trafficking: Opium was the most valuable item in colonial trade and its 1912 ban under American insistence only enhanced its value. Under cover of the Cold War drug trafficking became global: in the 1970s a Colombian gangster with connections built an airstrip in the Crown territory of the Bahamas and began exporting cocaine on an industrial scale to North America and Europe. The banks founded by opium traders in the 19th Century, especially London-based HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), remained dominant in laundering drug money in both hemispheres. Working with armies of shell corporations and some 70 off-shore “tax havens” (most of them set up in the decades after World War II), they managed a multi-trillion dollar black market economy servicing organized crime around the world. The much ballyhooed “war on drugs” had little effect because a vast flow of dirty money overcame all resistance in political systems, intelligence agencies and police forces. In effect, the drug trade integrated the different “Empires” of the colonial era into a single global criminal jurisdiction profiting all the same elite groups. (“Transparency International” lives up to its name by consistently looking through all this to see corruption as a national cultural variable. Its annual corruption index takes no notice at all of the giant transnational banks that feed from and foster organized crime.) 

3.   The Rise of “Extremist Islam:” The root causes of “extremist Islam” lie in 19th Century colonial manipulations in India after its 1857 war of independence, and later, in Arabia and Egypt. To punish Indian Muslims for their participation in the 1857 war the great liberal Madrassahs of Delhi were closed and the social/intellectual elite they had produced was dispersed and impoverished. That rendered a part of the Muslim community in North India vulnerable to colonial "divide and rule" policies that evolved some decades later into a campaign of violent hate and fear that pushed it into supporting the creation of Pakistan. In the Middle East there was a similar decapitation of liberal Muslim leadership. It was done there by the colonial creation of two historically unprecedented entities, Saudi Arabia with its extremely intolerant Wahhabi creed and the fascist Muslim Brotherhood founded with financial help from the Suez Canal Company in the zone of Egypt it controlled. Before and during the Cold War, Wahhabism and the Brotherhood killed off or weakened all progressive leadership in the Middle East, ensuring the sterility of Muslim responses to all political challenges, especially those thrown up as a desperate and traumatized Zionism encountered a rising but equally wounded Arab nationalism.

During the Cold War Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated to field the Mujaheddin fighting force in Afghanistan. To maintain “plausible deniability,” the war was financed by trafficking opium and heroin out of Afghanistan, which became in a decade the source of 90 per cent of the world’s illicit supply of those drugs. After the end of the Cold War in 1989 the Mujaheddin split into the international al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and the domestic Afghan Taliban which kept control of opium production. The ISI continued to be in charge of the logistics of processing and export. In short order “jihadi” terrorist groups spread along the export routes passing through Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

A more organic source of extremism is rooted in the ancient bitterness between Sunni and Shia Muslims that was revived with Ayatollah Khomeini’s venomous ascent to power in Iran, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that followed, and the terrorist attacks on Shia minorities throughout the Middle East and Pakistan. The revenge exacted by Iraq’s majority Shia government in the wake of the second Gulf War opened the door for Islamic State. To summarize: “extremist Islam” is a colonial creation manipulated into its current forms during the Cold War; it has become the mask of terrorist organized crime groups profiting the same elites that fought the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.

4.   The Business of War:  The business interests of the “military-industrial complex” blossomed as the Cold War manufactured international confrontations and crises, driving up military expenditures by all States. (The Cold War peak was over $1 trillion a year.)  Constant improvements in the technologies of death contributed to the instability and to the profits. The most obvious aspect of this was the proliferation of nuclear weapons. India went nuclear by its own efforts; Israel (according to the American Federation of Scientists), did so with French help; the Soviet Union helped China into the nuclear club, which then passed on the expertise sequentially to Pakistan and North Korea. 

Deadly chemical and biological weapons also proliferated; there is no agreed factual narrative of how that happened. An army of conspiracy theorists believe the AIDS virus was developed in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s and spread initially in Africa through smallpox inoculations. A team of scientists has refuted that scenario and advanced the theory that the virus “jumped” naturally to human hosts from the monkey population of West Africa. The narratives of other deadly viruses are not without some evidence of malign intent. The last laboratory samples of the smallpox virus were supposed to have been destroyed in 1999 after the disease was definitively eradicated in nature; instead, they seem to have been kept for obscure experimentation. There was an active search to find samples of the 1919 flu virus. It was extracted from Arctic permafrost, brought in for laboratory explorations, and its genetic information published on the Internet, easily accessible to terrorists (establishing "plausible deniability" in case of future use). 

Not much is known about the origins of new viruses like Ebola, Marburg, SARS and Bird Flu and there is a cloud over the ostensible discovery of a “superbug” in Delhi. (The Lancet published a paper announcing the discovery but refused to carry a protest from one of its Indian authors alleging that the published version was a distortion.) The latest additions to the roster are the Zika virus and a new “superbug” that CNN reported on 28 May had killed 23,000 people in the United States. Other weapons disguised as natural occurrences reportedly involve environmental modification technologies able to create earthquakes and tidal waves. The news media, brought to heel everywhere by corporate takeovers and the pressures of the Cold War, have reported all this in small print and sotto voce, leaving the reality of Daddy Warbucks and Dr. Strangelove entirely in the theatrical realm.

The Secretary-General as Political Football        The crippling effect of the Cold War on the United Nations is nowhere clearer than in its Secretariat. The Soviet Union did not accept the basic concept of an independent civil service and kept a tight grip on the appointments and promotions of its nationals. The United States, in the grip of McCarthy era paranoia, instituted mandatory security checks for its nationals and opened an FBI office at UN headquarters. With the exception of China (which for almost three decades was represented at the UN by Taiwan), the Permanent Members of the Security Council laid claim to top-level jobs. The disrespect of the Secretariat has been most obvious in the selection and treatment meted out to the eight men who have held the post of Secretary-General; each has been in greater or lesser degree, a political football

Trygvie Lie (pronounced Lee), a Labor politician from Norway, never knew what hit him after the Cold War began. His firm support of the Korean War won instant Soviet disapproval. After the United States side-stepped a Soviet veto in the Security Council and extended Lie’s term in office through the General Assembly, no Eastern Bloc diplomat would even shake the Secretary-General’s hand or speak to him at social functions. 

Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden entered the “License to Kill” area of the imperial Powers when he went to bat for the newly won independence of what had been Belgian Congo. While on a peace mission to the region his aircraft crashed, killing all on board. There was immediate talk of a conspiracy but no conclusive evidence; new findings indicating the craft was shot down led the UN to reopen the investigation in 2015. 

U Thant of Burma got the UN top job with American support after waiting out a Soviet bid to have an ideological “Troika” head the UN. However, when the Secretary-General began speaking out on the escalating Viet Nam War, the Johnson administration came down on him like a ton of bricks. The Secretary-General declined a second term and accepted it only after a written assurance from the United States that he could speak his mind; his capacity to do so was, however, limited by mouth cancer. 

Kurt Waldheim of Austria had been an ex-Nazi SS officer accused of war crimes during World War II, a fact he kept secret by lying about his past. There is no way the P-5 could not have known about that so he was obviously picked to be Secretary-General because they could control him. Under Waldheim spies and informers proliferated throughout the Secretariat and its quality deteriorated markedly. 

Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru had the personal integrity and diplomatic skill to take advantage of the winding down of the Cold War to end long-running proxy conflicts in Namibia, Cambodia and Central America. Despite his success the organization came close to bankruptcy as the Reagan administration withheld ever larger chunks of its mandatory contributions to the UN budget. 

Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt had a one-term stint as Secretary-General marked by disastrous UN involvements in Rwanda, Iraq and the Balkans. 

Kofi Annan of Ghana succeeded in getting the United States to return to full funding of the UN budget but relations with Washington became irreparable after he told the BBC in 2004 that the American-led war in Iraq was “illegal.” 

Ban ki-moon of South Korea got the job because the P-5 reportedly regarded him as “safe.” He has not disappointed on that count.

Antonio Guterres of Portugal beat out several well-qualified women to get the job with support from Britain, which he has served assiduously since becoming Secretary-General in January 2017.

The Cold War in Perspective

Beyond its paralyzing dichotomies and corruptions the Cold War had a number of paradoxical effects on the UN:

The Group of 77        African and Asian member States were distrustful of the imperial Powers pretending to be leaders of the “Free World” and chose to avoid the East-West divide. In 1964, Latin American countries joined them to create a caucus of all 77 developing countries in the UN (now 134). The Group of 77 developed a strategic unity and orientation that has been maintained for over 50 years. Although overtly focused only on economic and social issues, G-77 habits of consultation and consensus-formation came to pervade the consideration of all issues on the UN agenda. Thus, during negotiations on the Convention on the Law of the Sea developing countries maintained overall coordination as they dealt fluidly with a host of sub-groups and special interests. It is difficult to imagine how developing countries could have developed such a consultative habit outside the framework of the Cold War.

Development as Priority       Pressure from a united G-77 has pushed all UN institutions to assign high priority to the economic and social development needs of developing countries. At a time when the influential Club of Rome was sounding alarms about “Limits to Growth” the UN’s new Environment and Habitat programs were placed firmly in the context of economic and social development. When the work of ECOSOC’s Statistical Commission brought to sight a number of new challenges ranging from demographic and environmental changes to the crime wave let loose by the global spread of drug trafficking, the development priority of the G-77 infused all UN responses.

South-South Cooperation       After its failure in the 1970s to negotiate a New International Economic Order the G-77 moved its unity out of conference rooms and into technical “South-South Cooperation” (SSC). That evolution promoted the attitudes, skill-sets and institutions that allowed developing countries to emerge as the primary drivers of world economic growth after the financial crisis of 2008.

North-South Partnership        The Charter makes no mention of technical assistance for economic and social development but it is now the largest sector of UN activity. That happened because of the Cold War competition for “Third World” hearts and minds. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, multilateral technical assistance through the UN System engages developed and developing countries in a wide-ranging partnership that is now beginning to incorporate South-South Cooperation in a pattern termed “Triangular Cooperation.”

International Security        The Security Council’s inability to implement the primary charge of disarmament given it in the Charter (Article 26) led it to expand the concept of threats to international peace and security. It became seized of the situation in apartheid South Africa by declaring the racist system such a threat. A decade after the end of the Cold War, it saw another genre of threat in the AIDS pandemic. Those two ground-breaking initiatives set precedents: any massive violation of human rights and any pandemic are now matters of automatic concern to the Council. That is a fundamental and essential redefinition of international security.

Military Cooperation        UN peacekeeping operations originated as part of the toolkit of neocolonial manipulation of conflicts in developing countries but it facilitated the growth of regional cooperation on security issues and accustomed the militaries of troop contributing countries to the framework and habits of multinational operations. That has long-term positive implications for a future of peace.

To Sum Up       The 43 years of the Cold War were grim with blood and oppression but they promoted valuable patterns and habits of cooperation. The UN General Assembly became a global sounding board and pulpit, the civil center for deliberation and normative action amidst a maelstrom of noisy strife and conflict. In the last seven decades it has created and codified more international law than in all history and spread its mantle from the ocean floors to Outer Space. It declared universal human rights and incorporated them in binding Covenants. Virtually unnoticed by the world at large the United Nations has laid the essential foundations for a peaceful future.

The Clash of Civilizations       After the end of the Cold War a study group at Harvard came up with the thesis that international affairs would be an inescapable “Clash of Civilizations.” It was an all too obvious effort to provide continuing cover for aggressive imperial manipulations but the concept had too little force and clarity to replace the Cold War paradigm. Too many Islamic leaders were creations and allies of the West to be convincing as faces of a new Evil Empire. Even Saddam Hussein, who became a popular bogeyman after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, had been a poster-boy Western client in his 8-year war that exhausted the zeal of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shia revolution in Iran. 

Saudi Arabia after the 9/11 attacks was an even less convincing enemy. Although 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis the regime in Riyadh was a firm American ally, its Ambassador in Washington so close to the White House that he was known as “Bandar Bush.” In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration broke its own countrywide ban on flights to round up and fly scores of Saudi nationals out of the United States with little or no screening.  The 9/11 Commission’s decision not to include in its final report 28 pages dealing with evidence implicating Saudi officials in supporting the attackers points not to a Clash of Civilizations but to collusion. So does the videotaped allegations by CIA personnel that they had intelligence about the 9/11 attackers well before the event but were ordered not to communicate it to the FBI. Significantly, that video (in Episode 1 of The New Yorker Presents streaming on Amazon), ends with President George W Bush pinning the Medal of Freedom on CIA Director George Tenet. 

If we consider that George W Bush won the White House by a foul, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the “military-industrial complex” which precipitated the Cold War had tried to replace it with another enduring excuse to profit at the expense of humanity. Churchill’s 1946 role fell to the billionaire Gammel family: father James was one of the largest investors in George Bush’s oil company and young George W Bush spent summers at his farm in Scotland, getting to know scion Bill whose college buddy was the future Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Lessons for the 70th Year        The most urgent lesson from this narrative of UN history is that we must understand the living legacy of the colonial era if we are to escape its murderous grip. That will not be easy for lies, half-truths and a complete refusal to admit to colossal crimes have for 70 years cloaked the reality of the global elites created by the Age of Empire. Their rule has been the bloodiest period of human history, the most corrupt, the most shameless and destructive in the torment of the weak and the plunder of the earth; but it has been presented as an advance towards Europe’s Belle Epoque and turned into the stuff of romance and adventure in fiction, theater and film. 

After World War II, as formal imperial structures were dismantled, those who had benefited from them were shape-shifting into the new money laundering elite.  These old/new elites will not relinquish their power meekly at the behest of UN resolutions and declarations. The three world wars (I, II and Cold) show the extent to which they will go to retain power, and it would be wise to expect horrors equal in magnitude as we seek to escape from their monstrous dominance. In our nuclear tinderbox world with a Pandora’s Box of invented plagues it requires little imagination to think of what might happen.  

Major Disruptions

Even without pandemics and war there are other scenarios that could cause major disruptions in national and international affairs. Consider the following:

China is trying to change its investment and exports-led economic model to one driven by domestic consumption. It usually takes decades to make that transition but Beijing is trying to do it quickly by fiat, after years of enormous economic stimulus have created massive real estate and debt bubbles. There is also an out of control “shadow banking” sector representing official corruption.  The collapse of any one of the three would cause a sudden financial crisis and an economic crash. The impact will certainly be global. Also, the Communist Party of China, after seven tyrannical decades in power, is now in charge of a country peopled with a growing majority that has grown up with the Internet and the Worldwide Web. Something will have to give, and it is likely to be the CPC. The US-China trade war is not helping the regime stay in control.


East Asia as a whole is experiencing tensions reminiscent of the Cold War years. North Korea threats of nuclear war have receded, but for how long remains to be seen. Beijing’s claims and activities in the South China Sea could easily flare into something really ugly. 

The European Union is facing existential choices as Brtain heads for the exit. The refugee inflows from Africa and the Middle East have eased but the political Right is strengthening across Europe, stirring fears that pre-World War II history could repeat itself.

In the Middle East, the chaos of Syria and Iraq is framed by the troubled triangular relationship of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and engages four of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. Perhaps all of them are involved in the proxy struggle of various factions of “extremist Islam.”

The United States has put an “America First” proponent in the White House, making every global crisis more difficult to resolve.

Developing countries fortunate enough to be not directly involved in any of the situations above face challenges ranging from desperate poverty and middle income stagnation to the creeping onset of climate change.

In dealing with any or all of the above the United Nations has little traction, largely because its internal narratives are corrupted by senior officials without integrity. In part, the UN is also disabled by its 19th Century processes and approach to issues.

The Positive Prospect        The situation described above would be hopelessly beyond remedy if it were not for the connectivity revolution that has transformed the world in the last few years. The figures are spectacular. Mobile phone subscriptions are estimated to have risen from 2.2 billion in 2005 to 7.1 billion in 2015, just 350 million short of total world population. Of that total, 3.2 billion people were online at the end of 2015, two thirds of them in developing countries where only a little over 34 per cent of households had home access to the Internet (compared to over 81 per cent in developed countries). 

Meanwhile, mobile broadband access has expanded at continuous double-digit rates annually to reach 47 per cent of the world population in 2015, 12 times more than in 2007. In 2014, ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda set a minimum target of 50 per cent access to home Internet access in developing countries (15 per cent for Least Developed Countries). We are within hailing distance of the time when every individual will be connected to networks that expand seamlessly from the local to the global, a prospect unimagined even a decade ago. Other Mega-Trends are also promising. It is now also possible to envisage a radical reform of the United Nations. 

The Next United Nations

​​The United Nations is now in the same situation as the League of Nations in the period before World War II. Read our proposal a UN_GLOBENET:

The League of Nations Assembly