Skip to main content

Review by John H. Brown, Ph.D.

Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4008-3166-1, 236 pp, $24.95

Hate it or love it, the United Nations is widely associated with idealism in international relations, not state-centered Hobbesian realpolitik. For the UN’s critics, who see the world as a nasty and corrupt place, this idealism seems naïve and hypocritical; for the UN’s supporters, who as a rule hold a more optimistic view of mankind, its idealism is a beacon of hope.

In the book under review, based on a series of lectures at major US universities, Mark Mazower, the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History and World Order at Columbia University (and author of the magisterial Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe), provides his scholarly insights about the founding principles of the United Nations. He argues, provocatively, that the UN was a “warmed up” League of Nations, created, “at least at the outset,” by “the idea of imperial internationalism,” rather than its being, as commonly believed, an “American affair, the product of public debate and private discussion in which other countries played little part.”

As revealed by the book’s first chapter, the segregationist South African politician Jan Smuts, a firm believer in the British Empire, played a crucial role in the ideological origins of the UN. Mazower underscores the irony that Smuts — “a man whose segregationist policies back home paved the way for the apartheid state” — was a moving force behind the world organization’s “commitment to universal rights.” (In a politically incorrect way, I couldn’t help but think of parallels between Smuts and Senator J. William Fulbright, the Rhodes scholar and segregationist Arkansas senator, who almost single-handedly was the creator of the “internationalist” educational program one year after the UN was established).

The UN would protect the status quo, or so some of its advocates thought but, in a departure from the policies of the League of Nations after WWI, “this time around, the commitment of national self-determination and the turn away from law were more extensive.” (The origins of such a complex development are explored in detail in Chapter 2, “Alfred Zimmern and the Empire of Freedom” and Chapter 3, “Nations, Refugees, and Territory: The Jews and the Lessons of the Lessons of the Nazi New Order”).

Mazower’s main point to be drawn from these two detailed chapters, if I understood them correctly, is that, in his words, “[o]utside as well as inside of Europe, partition not minority rights was the new path to international peace, or so it was thought.”

However important “imperial internationalism” was in the founding of the UN, it was only one of three phases of its evolution, according to Mazower. The two others were the rise of an anti-imperial UN brought about by Jawaharlal Nehru’s condemnation of South Africa (discussed in detail in Chapter 4, “Nehru and the Emergence of a Global United Nations”) and a third, between 1955 and 1965, when the UN’s “General Assembly turned from critic of the old colonial status quo to defender of a new global order or nation-states.”

So Mazower’s book leaves us with another irony: an organization, originally created as an international umbrella in the interests of colonialism, eventually played a key role in legitimizing the independent countries forged out of disintegrating European empires. As Mazower puts it in the afterword of his volume:

In effect, both the legalist and the moralist versions of international organization conceived as the alternatives facing the word on the eve of the First World War have, a century later, been defeated by the global triumph of the sovereign state.

Given this conclusion, no wonder Professor Mazower cites, in the title of his book, from following remarks by Lord Halifax, acting chairman of the UK delegation at San Francisco conference (1945) that led to the creation of the UN:

We cannot indeed claim that our work is perfect or that we have created an unbreakable guarantee of peace. For ours is no enchanted palace to “spring into sight at once,” by magic touch or hidden power.End.

Dr. John Brown
Dr. John Brown

John H. Brown, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University, “Propaganda and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview.” He compiles the online Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review: publicdiplomacypressandblogreview.


Comments are closed.