In 1516 Thomas More published in England a political romance in Latin that critiqued the economic and social ills of his day by imagining the island of Utopia (literally, “no place”), where poverty, crime, injustice and corruption did not exist. More’s invented place-name gave birth to the adjective utopian, applied to any unbelievably positive conception, especially the abolition of war.

However, when governments adopted the United Nations Charter in 1945 and declared in its Preamble their aim to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” no one thought it utopian. For it was a statement of serious, even desperate intent. Twice in three decades the world had been plunged into wars of unprecedented savagery; the first killed some ten million people; the death toll of the second was so large that no exact count was possible, only a range of estimates: anywhere from 60 to 100 million lives.

The World Wars of the 20th Century devastated the most advanced countries of Europe, decimated two generations of their youth, and broke their imperial hold on other regions. Each war led to the creation of an international agency to prevent war: the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945. Both were American initiatives, the Covenant of the League drafted by President Woodrow Wilson, and the Charter of the UN emerging from a series of consultations culminating in the San Francisco Conference of June 1945.

Although widely seen as a response to World War, the League and the United Nations have deeper roots; they represent the second and third generations of international organizations. Their predecessors were small agencies for technical cooperation in the second half of the 19th Century. Both those efforts at cooperation and the huge escalation of international violence that followed in the 20th Century were caused by new technologies, so it is logical to begin our search for understanding by looking more closely at technology itself.

 The concept of “technology” is historically recent: as long as tools were in the hands of artisans, they were not considered as having an independent existence. It was only after the skill of the artisan came to roost in energetic machines that the Greek techne returned to use (reportedly first at Harvard in the early 19th Century), to describe a field deserving independent study.

By that time, the first phase of the industrial revolution had begun to have wide impact. The flying shuttle and the spinning jenny had revolutionized the production of textiles, the steam engine was hauling coal up from mines, pulling railway carriages and powering steamships. The rest of the century saw an escalating pace of technological change, in response to which there was a surge in international cooperation.

  • In 1836, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, the use of which required a common international code and standardized equipment.
  • In 1840, Samuel Cunard began running steam ships across the Atlantic, requiring increased coopertion in sharing information on the weather.
  • By the end of the century, several inventors had demonstrated the use of the radio, a technology that required international standards for effective use.
  • Before mariners could locate themselves in a world mapped out in latitudes and longitudes, there had to be international agreement on a standard measure of Time.
  • Railway lines had to be of common gauge to permit rolling stock to cross international borders.

To meet the new need for international cooperation governments created a number of new institutions.​ The International Telegraphic Union (ITU), founded in 1865, coordinated use of the telegraph. The International Meteorological Organization (IMO), founded in 1873 by nations with significant maritime interests, used the telegraph to share information on weather. The Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 supervised a new multilateral payments system that became necessary because the booming volume of mail carried by the railways and steamships swamped the old system of weighing and paying for mailbags at each international border. The ITU, IMO (succeeded in 1950 by the World Meterological Organization) and the UPU are now the oldest specialized agencies of the United Nations System.

Other International treaties met the needs for (1) standardized weights and measures by establishing the metric system (1875), and (2) a common global measure of time by establishing the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time (1884). ​For the first time in its history, the human race in the age of science and technology created a web of cooperation that spanned everyone on the planet.

As technology escaped from the artisan’s hand and into heavy machinery, its cost increased. Steam engines, steam ships, railways, cotton mills, factory production of cars, all required complex organizational capacity. Those capable of making the capital and organizational investments formed a new entrepreneurial class in European society. People who actually ran the machines became another new soaial class, the industrial proletariat.

Both entrepreneurs and industrial workers were outside the feudal framework of social relationships and thus constituted revolutionary forces in European societies. Entrepreneurs had no sense of enduring interdependence that feudal landowners had with farm labor, and they treated factory workers-- and Nature itself-- as expendable. As exploited workers formed unions and political parties to protect themselves, European politics developed a strongly ideological "Left." The entrepreneurial class also moved to a new ideology of corporate capitalism that overrode the free market concepts of Adam Smith, who had, in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776), been vehemently against corporations because of their habitually wasteful and fraudulent use of "other people's money." The increasingly shrill and violent confrontation of Left and Right ideologies became international after the 1917 socialist revolution in Russia.

Another major source of international conflict was the ravening industrial demand for colonial raw materials and markets.  It gave a fierce new cast to Europe's ancient tribal conflicts, and in 1914, they engulfed Europe and its colonies in the “First World War.” [The phrase is in quotes because the real First World War was the extended and often genocidal conflict that established and sustained European dominance over other regions.]


The Treaty of Versailles (1919-1920) that ended the “First World War” marked the end of the age of aristocracy in Europe, for it was no longer possible to pursue peace by allying ruling families through marriage or other elite arrangements. The treaty established the League of Nations, the first organization in history to dedicated to avoiding war through structured consultation, negotiation and preventive action. In the wake of the 1917 Revolution in Russia, the victorious allies gave belated recognition to the need to improve the condition of workers by incorporating in the League an International Labour Office (ILO). In the aftermath of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed more people in a few months than the 10 million toll of the five-year war, they also created within the League a Health Organization.

The League resolved several intra-European political disputes in its first decade but then became largely a debating society. It convened a number of conferences on economic affairs and disarmament but did little as the world slipped into the Great Depression and the major Powers initiated huge rearmament programs. Other initiatives on health, trafficking of women and children, the opium trade, and intellectual cooperation also had few positive results. Hopes of resurrecting the League continued almost to the end: in 1936, the Assembly appointed a committee of 28 to study the “Application of the Principles of the Covenant.” The International Labour Office and the Nansen International Office for Refugees continued useful work; the latter even received a Nobel Prize in 1938, less than a year before the outbreak of another world war.

It is often said that the League failed because the United States was not a member. The implication that the United States was uninvolved is not true. It was deeply involved. Despite the failure of the US Senate to ratify the Covenant Washington followed proceedings in Geneva closely, contributed to the League’s expenses and participated in its work. The United States had an influential role in the decisions that governments made, and Americans held senior staff positions. The League failed because its dominant members were deeply oppressive regimes interested not in world peace but in preserving their power. Whenever their so-called “national interests” required, member States ignored the League’s principles and strictures. Poland took the city of Vilnius, which the League had decided belonged to Lithuania. France occupied the coal-rich Ruhr region of Germany. Italy invaded and occupied Ethiopia in the face of virulent opposition by the League. Japan did the same in Manchuria, withdrew from the League in 1933, and expanded its aggression against China in 1937. Germany also withdrew in 1933, and five years later, “reunited” with Austria. The Soviet Union occupied Finland in 1939 as it girded for war. The League could do nothing in any of these cases.

Those failures in themselves would not have killed the League were it not for a combination of other factors. One was internal to the organization. Joseph Avenol, an official of the French Treasury Department seconded to be Deputy to its first Secretary-General, Eric Drummond of Britain, had succeeded to the top job despite lack of diplomatic skill or political acumen. He believed that the future lay with the fascist Powers and did everything to sabotage his own organization. Avenol reduced its staff from 700 under Drummond to 100, and tried to get rid of those too by failing to present a budget for member States to adopt. Britain and France did nothing to check him: in the face of the virulent spread of militant Communism Europe’s Big Powers had begun to see the League as a hindrance to their interests. The German military class and the country’s leading industrialists had helped Hitler rise to power in the expectation, amply fulfilled, that the Nazis would demolish the Communist movement; they saw Hitler’s anti-Jewish and anti-Gypsy agenda as a bonus. Britain and France did not object to that scenario or to Hitler’s massive rearmament program, for their expectation was that Germany would turn first on the Soviet Union. But the Franco-British script went horribly wrong. A No-War Pact between Hitler and Stalin, followed by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 precipitated the Second World War. The League survived the war because of its base in neutral Switzerland; it officially went into oblivion with the founding of the United Nations.  


Planning for the United Nations began as soon as the defeat of Germany and Japan became certain, and its Charter was adopted in June 1945, two months before the war ended. It marked a fundamental shift in the aims of international organization. Where the League of Nations had been conceived essentially as an organization that would help preserve the balance among major powers, the UN was based on the concept of collective security — the joint use of force in the general interest. That meant a very significant reduction of the traditional “right” of sovereign States to conduct war. Where the Covenant of the League had obligated members “to respect and preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members,” the UN Charter incorporated in its Article I a much broader directive, “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” Article 2 required that “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.” In the economic and social fields there were an even more significant cession of sovereignty. The UN Charter provided for a Commission on Human Rights that brought onto the international agenda matters that had been declared purely within domestic jurisdiction by the1648 Treaty of Westphalia. (That treaty ended Europe’s long-running Catholic-Protestant wars by disallowing international recognition of their primary cause, the abuse of religious minorities.) The Articles of Agreement of the International Monetary Fund, a UN Specialized Agency, took away entirely the power of national governments to manipulate the value of their currencies. The IMF required governments, for the first time in history, to peg the values of their currency to an internationally agreed standard. All these innovations were aimed negating the most troublesome attributes of sovereignty as traditionally conceived in Europe. The history of the United Nations has reflected continuing tension between that effort and the realities of power in a world of unequal sovereignties.

Crippled at Birth: The United Nations was born crippled. The nuclear attacks that pushed Japan to surrender two months after the adoption of the UN Charter fundamentally changed global strategic realities. The American monopoly of atomic weapons nullified the Soviet Union’s enormous advantage in ground forces in Europe and created the conditions that allowed Britain to precipitate the Cold War (see here. The East-West enmity poisoned all attempts at international cooperation and made the UN unworkable. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali noted the impact of that in a little noticed 1996 report titled An Agenda for Democratization: https://iuristebi.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/an-agenda-for-democratization.pdf  “On one side of the global ideological confrontation were States which claimed to have peace and democracy at home, and which supported peoples’ calls for self-determination and democratization abroad. Yet these States often misappropriated the name of democracy and acted in drastically undemocratic ways. On the other side were States which endeavoured to maintain peace and democracy at home and to promote those objectives within other States. Yet these States often supported authoritarian regimes, on the grounds that those regimes opposed communism and defended market freedoms, or used non-democratic means to achieve their foreign policy goals. The actions of both sides seemed to suggest a belief that peace and democracy within States could be achieved by war and non-democracy among States. The 'Cold War' thus interrupted the project of democratic international organization begun by the founders. Throughout the decades of this confrontation, many of the major decisions of international peace and security were taken outside the United Nations and managed within the context of a non-democratic system, the bipolar system. The principle of self-determination was usurped and manipulated. International law became a casualty. The bright prospects for democracy within and among States soon faded to a faint glow.”


Those who planned the United Nations had taken note that technical agencies for international cooperation – the UPU, ITU and WMO – had survived two world conflicts, and that the League’s ILO retained its vitality as its parent sank into disuse. Guided by that experience, they created the United Nations not as a unitary organization but as a system of autonomous agencies. At the political center was the United Nations, and linked to it were the surviving technical agencies noted above and several new ones to deal with food (FAO), education, science and culture (UNESCO), health (WHO), international monetary affairs (IMF), and post-war recovery and development (the World Bank). The decision to create a loose System of agencies proved to be sound, for although the UN turned out to be politically ineffective, its record on a range of other international issues has been good.

Perhaps the most effective part of the central organization has been its General Assembly. In addition to establishing programs like UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Food Program that have done yeoman service in situations of dire need, the Assembly has served to focus international attention on the development needs of poor countries and mobilize aid in the face of humanitarian emergencies. It has brought new and emerging crises like those affecting the natural environment to the attention of governments and initiated coordinated action. Perhaps most importantly, it has established norms and expanded the body of international law. In six decades it has codified and created more international law than in all of history, extending it to the oceans and outer space, and into that touchiest of areas, human rights. After adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 the General Assembly incorporated its provisions in two major Covenants with oversight and reporting arrangements. A Human Rights Council it established now reviews the record of every nation and adopts recommendations. World conferences convened by the Assembly on arms control and disarmament kept those issues on the international agenda through the most bitter period of the Cold War. On science and technology, trade and development, industrialization, demographic change, the status of women, the rights of children, and other critical issues, Assembly initiatives led governments to coordinated action.

Despite its record of success, there is general recognition of the need to revitalize the work of the General Assembly. The main reason for discontent is the sense that much of its work is pro forma. Its agenda has too many repeat items of questionable relevance to current affairs. Debates are seldom interactive or useful in carrying forward the deliberative process. Most of the several hundred resolutions adopted every year lead to no follow-up action other than a Secretariat document of doubtful value. Assembly procedures are a major contributor to its ineffectiveness. When an issue is placed before the Assembly (usually at the initiative of non-governmental activists working through one or more governments), its active consideration involves only a handful of States; the rest of the membership participates mainly by accepting regional and/or inter-regional group positions. The first year an item is introduced on its agenda the Assembly usually requests a report from the Secretariat, which proceeds, after the session is over, to formally solicit the views of all members. In most cases, responses from States to Secretariat questionnaires are limited, and they trickle in over many months. Once that report makes its way through the group-deliberations of the General Assembly another resolution calls for action. In most cases, implementation of such resolutions is slow, nonexistent or fictional. When the Assembly has to deal with politically controversial or complex issues, group positions tend to be rigid and unchanging over many years. On those matters Assembly recommendations are mind-numbingly repetitive.

Behind this unsatisfactory state of affairs is a complex dynamic rooted in the economic and political vulnerability of developing countries, their well-grounded fear of exploitation by stronger countries, and their consequent tendency to stick to group positions that offer some insulation from the pressures brought to bear by more powerful countries. The basic North-South polarity in General Assembly proceedings, layered over with trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, and intra-regional tensions, is an unavoidable legacy of history that has not been honestly acknowledged, much less studied and discussed within the UN framework. No matter how much they support the organization, governments do not want the United Nations interfering in national processes, so there is little real effort to improve its effectiveness.


The much talked about “failure of the United Nations” applies especially to the Security Council with its 10 elected and five veto-wielding “permanent members” (Britain, China, France, Russian Federation and the United States). Wary of limiting their own freedom of action the permanent five have given the Organization little leeway. Matters involving their interests simply did not get onto the agenda of the Council, and if they did, had no hope of effective action. During the Cold War the UN was a spare wheel, used when the Big Powers wanted to roll in solutions to proxy wars that had outlived their usefulness or rarely, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to avert a major blowout themselves. UN “peacekeeping” in that period usually froze conflict situations, not to help the victimized country and its people but to serve the strategic interests of the Big Powers. Cyprus, the Middle East and Congo/Zaire are examples. The proxy wars of the Cold War damaged the UN fundamentally. Member States, including the P-5, came to distrust the Security Council and tried to avoid engaging with it when their interests were at stake. Despite several attempts to adjust the UN to presumed new realities, the end of the Cold War did not improve the effectiveness of the Council because the Permanent Members continued wanted to preserve their unilateral prerogatives.

In January 1992, before the successful glow of Operation Desert Storm had receded into history, the Security Council met at the Summit level (with Bush I in attendance), and asked Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to recommend how to improve the UN’s capacity for “preventive diplomacy, peace-making and peacekeeping.” He responded with An Agenda for Peace that ignored all the fundamental problems that disabled the Organization and focused on a set of tactical recommendations. They included arrangements for early warning, increased use of fact-finding missions, and “preventive deployment” of peacekeeping forces. The report was duly considered by the Security Council and, rather distrustfully, by the General Assembly because the governments of poor countries were all too aware that any power given to the UN would be misused to serve the interests of a handful of rich countries. Numerous statements and resolutions emerged, but there was little real change. As if to underline the emptiness of the exercise, the Security Council chose to issue on 3 May 1994, at a time when it sat idle as some 800,000 people in Rwanda were in the process of being butchered, a Presidential statement on “Improving the capacity of the United Nations for Peacekeeping.”

In an excess of diplomatic tact no one pointed out in the talk that followed that the UN force in Rwanda had done nothing to prevent the massacres although its Canadian commander had cabled a warning to New York and offered to take preventive action. Not only was he told to stand down, the UN pulled out most of its troops. The pullout went ahead despite the terrified tears and entreaties of tens of thousands of Rwandans who had gathered near the UN camps for safety; most of them were killed shortly after the blue helmets left. Also in that period, 250,000 Bosnians were killed in the full glare of world attention, many thousands of them in “protected zones” designated by the Security Council. The death counts were even steeper in several African countries where, behind a curtain of minimal coverage by international media, savage “commercial wars” continued in the presence of ineffective UN missions. The blame for these “UN failures” rests entirely on powerful elite groups in a handful of countries that block action because it would get in the way of their illicit neo-colonial interests.


To push its core concept of collective security, the UN Charter required a truly independent Secretariat. Article 100 is a historically unprecedented injunction, in two parts. The first says: “In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible to the Organization.” The second part of the Article reads: “Each member of the United Nations undertakes to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.” The Preparatory Commission that worked to establish the United Nations after the adoption of the Charter noted the importance of the Secretariat. “While the responsibility for the framing and adoption of agreed international policies rests with the organs representative of the Members” it said, “the essential tasks of preparing the ground for those decisions and of executing them in cooperation with the Members will devolve largely upon the Secretariat. The manner in which the Secretariat performs these tasks will largely determine the degree in which the objectives of the Charter will be realized.”

The Commission stressed the importance of the person who would head the Secretariat: “The United Nations cannot prosper, nor can its aims be realized without the active and steadfast support of the peoples of the world. The aims and activities of the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council É will, no doubt, be represented before the public primarily by the Chairmen of these organs. But the Secretary-General, more than anyone else, will stand for the United Nations as a whole. In the eyes of the world, no less than in the eyes of his own staff, he must embody the principles and ideals of the Charter to which the Organization seeks to give effect.” Such a conception of the top official of an international secretariat was a historically significant innovation. The two generations of international organizations that preceded the United Nations — the early technical bodies that dealt with such things as postal, telegraphic and meteorological services, and the later League of Nations — had never envisaged such a role for its top official. Faceless functionaries ran the technical bodies; the League had a highly regarded official in the person of its first Secretary-General, Eric Drummond of Britain, but his successor, Joseph Avenol of France, quickly dropped into disregard by toadying to the rising Fascist powers.


At the San Francisco conference that negotiated the United Nations Charter, small and medium States tried unsuccessfully to give the General Assembly the power to pick the Secretary-General. They failed because the five Permanent members of the Security Council, arguing that no Secretary-General could be effective without their willing cooperation and support, insisted on having veto power over the selection. In effect, this constrained the unprecedented scope given by the United Nations Charter to the Secretary-General to pursue and promote the common interest of all member States. The process by which the Permanent members agree on who should be Secretary-General has been deliberately shrouded. At the recommendation of the UN Preparatory Commission, the Security Council has always consulted and decided on the nomination of the Secretary-General at “private” meetings that have no public record except for brief, opaque communiques from its President. (The Secretariat keeps a single copy of the record of proceedings, but it is open to consultation only by representatives of States that participated in the meetings.) The Council can authorize wider access to private records and even decide to make them public, but it has never done so.

The United Nations Charter does not spell out the role of the Secretary-General. Article 97 says he is the “chief administrative officer” of the Organization (not merely of the Secretariat). Article 98 broadens that role by allowing the Secretary-General to take on “other functions” delegated by the main intergovernmental bodies. Article 99 further authorizes the Secretary-General to bring to the attention of the Security Council “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” The UN Preparatory Commission noted the importance of that provision: it gave the incumbent “a quite special right which goes beyond any power previously accorded to the head of an international organization.” The “responsibility it confers “will require the exercise of the highest qualities of political judgment, tact and integrity.”

The report of the UN Preparatory Commission observed that the Secretariat envisaged in Article 100 “cannot be composed, even in part, of national representatives responsible to governments. For the duration of their appointments, the Secretary-General and the staff will not be the servants of the state of which they are nationals, but the servants only of the United Nations.” It went on to state a corollary requirement: “It is essential that officials should be inspired by a sense of loyalty to the United Nations and devotion to the ideal for which it stands, and that they should develop an esprit de corps and a habit of daily cooperation with persons of other countries and cultures. Loyalty to the Organization is in no way incompatible with an official’s attachment to his own country, whose higher interest he is serving in serving the United Nations. It clearly involves, however, a broad international outlook and a detachment from narrow prejudices and narrow national interests.”

Those concepts did not come to life. The imperial Powers of Europe looked on the United Nations as an instrument of neocolonial manipulation, and their nationals in senior positions behaved accordingly. The Soviet Union and its client States rejected outright the idea of an impartial international civil service; they insisted on seconding staff for fixed terms to the Secretariat and, to guard against loss of bureaucratic influence, claimed the right to “inherit” key posts. In fact, all five Permanent members of the Security Council reached a “gentleman’s agreement” in 1946 that each should have a top cabinet-level job in the Secretariat.

Also striking at the root of the concept of the Secretariat as a pure meritocracy was a General Assembly decision to establish a loose quota system linking each country’s share of the UN budget to the number of its nationals employed by the Organization. Lobbying for staff appointments and placements became a standard ambassadorial duty at the UN. The scuffle for Secretariat jobs reflected a larger struggle for national advantage that has continued unabated for over seven decades despite the high rhetoric of the UN Charter. Unfortunately, that has been intense in the selection of the Secretary-General himself. The story of the men who have held the office is not edifying, especially in the last two decades:

Trygve Lie 
Dag Hammarskjold

U Thant 
Kurt Waldheim 
Javier Perez de Cuellar 
Boutros Boutros-Ghali 
Kofi Annan 
Ban Ki-Moon 
Antonio Guterres


Over the past 150 years, governments have developed an increasingly sophisticated apparatus for the cooperative pursuit of peace. There has been a proliferation of supportive civil institutions. Although the effort to end war has failed, the UN has created an international legal order and a global consensus on the values and conditions necessary for peace. The Millennium Summit of the General Assembly in 2000 distilled the essential preconditions for that advance:

  • Freedom. Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights.
  • “Equality. No individual and no nation must be denied the opportunity to benefit from development. The equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured.
  • “Solidarity. Global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes the costs and burdens fairly in accordance with basic principles of equity and social justice. Those who suffer or who benefit least deserve help from those who benefit most.
  • “Tolerance. Human beings must respect one other, in all their diversity of belief, culture and language. Differences within and between societies should be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of humanity. A culture of peace and dialogue among all civilizations should be actively promoted.
  • “Respect for nature. Prudence must be shown in the management of all living species and natural resources, in accordance with the precepts of sustainable development. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.
  • “Shared responsibility. Responsibility for managing worldwide economic and social development, as well as threats to international peace and security, must be shared among the nations of the world and should be exercised multilaterally. As the most universal and most representative organization in the world, the United Nations must play the central role.

Clearly, the United Nations as it now exists is incapable of playing that central role; and that brings us to the issue of the


the quest for peace