The Parliament of Man by Paul Kennedy

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The Independent Culture

The title of Paul Kennedy's panoramic survey of the United Nations borrows from Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" - a great poem notable for the way in which it combines melancholy introspection with inspiring global vision: "Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furl'd/ In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World". President Truman kept in his wallet a clipping with these lines, and referred to it at the 1945 San Francisco Conference that drew up the UN Charter. The question this book raises is whether it makes sense to think of the UN in the high rhetorical terms of "the Parliament of Man" or, in the words of the subtitle, "the quest for world government". Does such poetic and Utopian phrasing lead to more expectation than the actual UN can ever meet?

Paul Kennedy is a distinguished British historian who has a wonderful gift of clear exposition. Since he moved to Yale he has shown a talent for addressing big issues. The author of the classic 1987 work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he has a grasp of both economic and strategic ways of thinking - a none-too-common combination.

Kennedy offers a highly readable and sophisticated account of the whole United Nations system. He surveys not just the New York hub - mainly the Secretariat, General Assembly and Security Council - but also the many spokes and satellites. Mercifully, he avoids the alphabet soup that is usually a grim part of such accounts by the sensible device of keeping his eye on themes. If you want a tour d'horizon of what the UN has contributed to international peace, human rights, development, and environmental protection, this book is an excellent place to start.

In many ways Kennedy is the appropriate chronicler for the UN of the 21st century. He reports without either rancour or defensiveness some of the sins of the UN, including the corruption and inefficiency of UNESCO in the 1970s. Being a rigorous and honest historian, he avoids the UN-groupies' error of giving the organisation more credit than it deserves for international progress. For example, he recognises that what makes countries rise to prosperity is not the amount of international aid they receive, but their internal policies and encouragement of enterprise.

He accepts that much progress in human rights would have happened without the help of UN instruments. He questions the optimistic assumption of the pro-UN Human Security Report of 2005 that decline in armed conflicts in the past decade has been due primarily to the beneficent effects of UN actions aimed at conflict-prevention and peace-building.

If Kennedy recognises the faults, what does he have to say about the reform of the UN? This subject is a graveyard: literally hundreds of commissions, enquiries and reports have resulted in remarkably little structural change, for reasons he notes with merciless clarity. Since any alteration of the UN Charter, including any increase in the number of veto-wielding powers in the Security Council, has to be approved by each of the present Permanent Members (US, China, Russia, France and UK), any serious proposal for change needs to cut the rhetoric and work with the grain of the interests of these five powers as well as others.

He wisely inclines towards proposals for incremental improvement of the UN's peace-keeping roles. This is roughly what is being attempted today through such initiatives as the establishment in December 2005 of the Peacebuilding Commission, tasked with strengthening UN capacity to assist the reconstruction of collapsed or nascent states. What about bigger and more imaginative reform proposals? Kennedy's Tennysonian title is The Parliament of Man, but as it stands the UN has a very peculiar parliament. The General Assembly consists of the representatives of 190-plus member states, not peoples - and it accords equal representation to India and China and San Marino. So what can be done?

Kennedy is notably cautious about the idea that there should be a new elected assembly, and chooses not to end his chapter on global representativeness and democracy with a proposal for a world parliament. Instead, he discusses the dynamic interaction between international civil society and the UN through churches, NGOs, the Red Cross, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and so on. This is no parliament, but it does involve, at least in prototype form, a vital link between people around the world and the principles, procedures and activities of the UN.

The criticism to which Kennedy's analysis is vulnerable is not that he exaggerates the present or future roles of the UN, but that he does not spell out full-bloodedly the criticisms of the UN in many states. He is very conscious of the American conservatives' often hysterical and badly-aimed attacks, but has much less feel for other criticisms, often dressed in other political and religious colours. There are many parts of the world in which, on the basis of the record, the UN is viewed with suspicion.

On the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example, while accepting that the UN's role was deeply flawed, Kennedy's verdict is the bland one that "peacekeeping is impossible if there exist powerful angry forces who prefer fighting to compromise". That is not the way many in Bosnia would look at it. They did not "prefer fighting", but had to fight to survive. To save Sarajevo they had to secretly build a tunnel under the UN-controlled airport, so they could get food and weapons into their besieged capital. The UN was seen as an obstacle as well as a source of help.

Similarly, Kennedy gives the reader no sense of the depth of Iranian suspicion. The UN Security Council did nothing about Iraq's attack on Iran in 1980, leading to a hideous eight-year war that may have cost a million lives. Indeed, Kennedy partakes of Western amnesia by accepting the common, and horribly ethnocentric, label of the comparatively minor US-led action against Iraq in 1991 as the "first Gulf War". Such limitations raise the question: is it right to frame an analysis of the UN as part of "the quest for world government", and to see the Security Council as "at the heart of our global security system"? Might this analysis have been even more persuasive if he had done more to rescue the UN from rhetorical hyperbole?

Adam Roberts is professor of international relations at Oxford University