Looking for the Sheriff

Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report

by the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.
Carnegie Corporation of New York, 257 pp.

In 1942, only a few months after the United States had entered World War II, as Hitler plunged deeper into Russia and Japan was advancing victoriously throughout the Pacific, President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and his deputy, Sumner Welles, along with many politicians, journalists, and academics, were already involved in a debate on postwar arrangements. Many of the proposals were far-reaching, even revolutionary. In no other country did the shock of war create such a response at a time when the Nazis and the Japanese were still clearly winning. Such activities contrast strikingly with the negativism and lack of verve that now, in our peaceful time, characterize the discussion, when there is any, of international organization for the future.

At the end of the war, apart from the usual xenophobes and isolationists, relatively few voices questioned the need for the new international system. On the contrary, there was a tendency to oversell it and to create unrealistic hopes for its effectiveness. Thus when the cold war—along with the usual tendency of sovereign states to quarrel and resort to violence—shattered the dream of a more rational world, public disillusion and hostility to the UN grew all the fiercer. In fact, the UN has never quite recovered from its failure to live up to its advance notices.

Already in 1942 there were warning voices. Professor Nicholas Spykman of Yale wrote that “plans for far-reaching changes in the character of international society are an intellectual by-product of all great wars,” but they have never altered “the fundamental power patterns.” Spykman predicted that the new postwar order would remain “a world of power politics in which the interest of the United States will continue to demand the preservation of a balance of power in Europe and Asia.”

How right he was. “Fundamental power patterns” and “power politics” have dominated the international scene and, virtually since its inception, have greatly limited the anticipated role of the UN in maintaining international peace and security. The work and the thinking of Franklin Roosevelt and his administration in setting up the UN have therefore attracted relatively little attention. In FDR and the Creation of the UN Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley give a fascinating account of those efforts, one that is of particular interest today when the role of the United States, the “single surviving superpower,” in international affairs and at the UN is a matter of paramount importance.

Since the birth of the League of Nations in 1919, a residual isolationism in the United States has periodically inhibited the struggle to build even a minimally effective world organization. Franklin Roosevelt knew well that he needed political support to confront isolationist opinion. In 1941, for example, with Winston Churchill on the cruiser Augusta in Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, for the signing of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt deleted the phrase “effective international organization” from the text in deference to the still dominant isolationist mood in the Congress, even though the substance of the Charter broke …

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