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December 28, 2002

The Unresolved Problem of the United Nations


by Joseph Stromberg

Did I just call the United Nations a problem? I suppose I did. Long ago and far away – back in the 1960s actually – the John Birch Society used to put up billboards calling for the US to get out of the UN and the UN out of the US.

I understand the sentiment, but as a libertarian friend of mine said around 1971, the UN may indeed be a mere "debating society," but if nations are debating at least they are not shooting. I understand this second sentiment, too. So as a practical matter, the UN, or certain parties associated with it, may do some real good once in a while.

Meanwhile, other parts of the UN are doing real harm. Still, if the UN can contribute to slowing or stopping the current drive to war, that would be a good thing. It would not, however, show that the UN is a good idea as such, or that the world would be a better place if the UN worked as planned.

On the contrary, the world might be a worse place if the UN worked as planned.



Any discussion of the U.N. must mention its loveable ideological forerunner the League of Nations. Indeed, one hardly need look any farther to see an array of problems inherent in the whole notion of a league for "enforce peace" by making war. The distinguished diplomatic historian Roland N. Stromberg(1) may be called as our chief witness. He notes that the usual reading of the history of the League of Nations is that there were a number of suggestions from 1915 forward, which all amounted to the same idealistic package to which the statesmen of the day were unable fully to commit themselves. This is said to have been tragic.

Roland Stromberg disagrees, saying that there were many plans precisely because the whole idea was so half-baked (my term) and riddled with inner contradictions.

The great ideal of a league to enforce peace had grown up in reformist circles well placed at the top of the British Empire. After all, if a league could actually work, it would help preserve the British and other European Empires more cheaply than resorting to general war as in August 1914. These reformers (among them Robert Cecil of the very, very important Tory Cecils) passed the idea along to the cousins in Washington. Wilson, the greatest Anglophile of them all, was smitten, as were his associates like Colonel House and a number of his partisan Republican enemies. All could agree it was a jolly good idea. Then they all drew up wildly divergent plans to be put into operation as soon as the terrible Germans were beaten. So far this is my summary.


The fundamental question was "whether the League would be in the nature of a world state, or an old-fashioned alliance, or whether there was anything in between."(2) The New Republic opined on March 30, 1915 that "The League of Peace would either be the old imperialistic alliance under a dishonest name, or else it would be a highly conservative federation which would keep its members in a very straight pacifist jacket.... There is no stopping point at a league to prevent war. Such a league would either grow to a world federalism, or it would break up in civil war."(3)

So much for the "Left" position of the day.

On the right end of the pro-league spectrum were those like Nicholas Murray Butler and Elihu Root, who "put their trust in international law and a world court as the slow but sure path toward eventual world government" by the path of "organic growth."(4) Others, less patient, demanded action and plans spelling out the brave, new world in detail. In practice, their plans took shape in a kind of muddled middle ground.

The war was allegedly being fought on the part of the allies for high ideals. After US entry even more was heard of high ideals, since that is an inseparable feature of US wars. But, alas, the war was being waged for the "national self-determination" of captive peoples – specifically, those held captive by the German, Austrian, and Ottoman empires. Not so much was heard of those held captive by the British, the French, the Dutch, and other worthy empires.

Yet self-determination for even this self-serving shortlist of potential new nations would create more national sovereignties in the world; while the league idea necessarily required renunciation of sovereignty to some unknown degree. How to sort that out? Was the war being fought, at the same time, for and against nationalism and self-determination? This was a contradiction the league planners and theorists could never overcome.

Another matter of quaint dispute was whether or not the league should be formed before German defeat so as to wage the war better. This was the model adopted in World War II. In that war, the Big Three took to referring to their side as "the United Nations" in a kind of prelude to the organization they cobbled together in San Francisco.

In the event, the League of Nations had to await the end of World War I. The various Anglo-American drafts of its Charter left the ambiguities in place. Article X spelled out "collective guarantees of the independence and existing boundaries of all states. Yet Wilson himself took back this inelastic guarantee, by saying that it did not rule out boundary changes or constitute a status quo imprisonment."(5)

But the existing boundaries themselves rested on successful warfare and the League looked more and more like an agreement among the victors to hold onto what they had grabbed. The Treaty of Versailles, of which the League formed a part, created enough new grievances for a series of new wars. Given all this, it was a quite mad to think that the League could be a force for "peace" – even a peace to be enforced by "sanctions," or a blockade, as more honest generations put it (and itself an act of war), or full-scale war.


The most the League accomplished was to give the appearance of international cooperation – the cause of all mankind – to some policies adopted by certain powers against other powers in the aftermath of the unfinished disaster we call World War I. Where the League could not be used, it was largely ignored. The United Nations plays a similar role in world affairs.

There are of course enthusiasts for world government who spy in the UN the germ of a new world order. Their time has not come and I hope it never will, for as the New Republic said in 1915, "such a league would either grow to a world federalism, or it would break up in civil war." Actually, we may remove the "or": a league, world federalism, whatever we may call it, would necessarily be oppressive and lead to the result mentioned.

The worst part is that under such an arrangement, enemies who would otherwise be foreign powers with some rights under the laws of war become "rebels" with no rights at all. I doubt it will ever quite come to that. In the meantime, the US has stepped into the breach to provide an imperial substitute for world government. To the extent the present rulers can use the UN as a fig-leaf, they will do so. Their dizzying changes of tune – "We will consult the UN" one week, "We don't need to consult the UN," the next week – only add to the mass of confusion which surrounds the whole notion of the UN.

Americans are often sentimental about setting up and preserving wider unions to guarantee peace. This has to do with the way they learn American history. For some, world federation would work just as well as the American confederation did after 1789, provided you don't count that big war between 1861 and 1865 with the 620,000 military deaths on both sides and the 50,000 or so missing Southern civilians.

The analogy breaks down precisely because you must count that big war.(6) World government or world empire, if we should ever enjoy such, would be the material cause of world civil war. It would be good to avoid it then, unless of course you like the idea of global civil war. I suppose there are those who do, but I do not wish to give them a free ad here.

There is one more thing: the notion that the UN is, today, the source of such international law as there is. This snare or delusion appeals especially to the Left. Apparently, if the UN "approved" a war, that would make it "just" without further discussion. I think this is about as true as the related idea that the state is the source of law in a given territory. If the one isn't true, neither is the other. I think neither is true, but that discussion must wait for another time.


1. In the manner of Cletus T. Judd speaking of The Judds, I suppose I should say "no relation."

2. Roland N. Stromberg, "Uncertainties and Perplexities About the League of Nations," Journal of the History of Ideas, 33:1 (January-March 1972), p. 141.

3. Quoted ibid.

4. Ibid., pp. 141-142.

5. Ibid., p. 142.

6. As historian William Appleman Williams wrote: "… Americans remain haunted by the Civil War…. Underlying that persistent involvement is the realization that the war undercuts the popular mythology that America is unique. Only a nation that avoided such a conflict could make a serious claim to being fundamentally different. In accordance with the logic and psychology of myth, therefore, it has become necessary to turn the war itself into something so different, strange, and mystic that it could have happened only to the chosen people" (The Contours of American History [New York: New Viewpoints, 1973], p. 285).

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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