Courtesy Reuters
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: From the Archives: International Institutions
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The U.N. Idea Revisited


The United Nations was born 50 years ago amid such euphoria that a fall from grace was inevitable. Its founding conference at San Francisco in April 1945 resounded with slogans of redemption and hope. Many who attended the sessions may have felt that expectations were being set exaggeratedly high, but few would have predicted that after five decades the peace organization would resemble the chorus in a Greek drama, expressing consternation at events it has no power to control.

Disappointment would be less sharp if the U.N. founders had been content to claim that they were contributing an additional technique to the repertoire of diplomacy. But they were not in a mood to accept such a modest role. They were inspired by a utopian vision. "Inexorable tides of history," one delegate proclaimed, "are carrying us toward a golden age of freedom, justice, peace, and social well-being." Another 1945 orator soared to biblical heights: "The U.N. Charter has grown from the prayers and prophecies of Isaiah and Micah."

Even statesmen renowned for their pragmatic temperament were caught up in the intoxicating rhetoric. The U.S. secretary of state until 1944, Cordell Hull, a Tennessean of austere mien, had never been known to express an enthusiastic emotion. But he saw the establishment of the United Nations as a messianic transformation: "There will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, balances of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests."

This must surely rank as one of the more ill-considered statements in diplomatic history. International organization, which after all is a mechanism, not a policy or principle, was portrayed as a magic spell that would render all previous politics and diplomacy obsolete.

These salvational hopes were based on the illusion that the American-Soviet-British alliance that had won the victory would command the future--a notion any serious historian could have

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