In this intriguing little book, Mazower argues that the United Nations, like the League of Nations before it, did not emerge from a pristine liberal vision of universal rights. Instead, it was a manifestation of Victorian-era "imperial internationalism," an organizational and ideological extension of the British Empire. This provocative thesis is pursued through brief sketches of several League of Nations figures who reappeared during the drafting of the UN Charter, most notably Jan Smuts, a South African believer in white racial superiority, and Sir Alfred Zimmern, the leading British voice of liberal internationalism. They both belonged to a wider group of elites who were attempting to "shore up a liberal world order that would be compatible with empire and Anglo-American hegemony." As Mazower sees it, Smuts believed that the league would ensure "white leadership of the world," act as an instrument for a "global civilizing mission," and undergird British imperial leadership. That Smut appears again in the 1940s offering a draft preamble for what was to become the UN is evidence for Mazower that the body was shaped by the same imperial mindset. But contrary to Mazower's depiction, most scholars of the UN, starting with Inis Claude, have not glorified its birth and have in fact traced its lineage back to the league. And it is not clear that focusing on Smuts and Zimmern, as opposed to other participants, illuminates the ideas and convictions that fed the UN's founding. The UN Charter did, in the end, affirm racial equality, and similar aspirations were articulated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dwelling on old figures from the era of the League of Nations also means missing the UN's evolution as the colonial rebellions of the 1950s and 1960s transformed the General Assembly into the voice of "the global South." Whether the UN functions well enough today is a question that hinges less on the old ideas of bygone British imperialists than on whether the great powers can work together.
In This Review
In This Review
Most Read Articles
The Sources of Chinese Conduct
Are Washington and Beijing Fighting a New Cold War?
The Population Bust
Demographic Decline and the End of Capitalism as We Know It
How a Nazi Massacre Came to Be Remembered as Its Opposite
The Dictators’ Last Stand
Why the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look
The Vigilante President
How Duterte’s Brutal Populism Conquered the Philippines