The United Nations Organization was officially established in 1945, but its conception arose much earlier. In the early Twentieth Century there was a growing worldwide movement calling for an international organization to work out military and arms limitations agreements among the “civilized” nations of the world – namely, European nations.
In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations was finally established with the lofty goal of preserving world peace. In reality, its purpose was to bring together the “democratic” (i.e., “civilized” or “historically advanced”) nations to work together regarding territorial disputes and colonial possessions through negotiation rather than resorting to war. However, the United States Senate rejected membership in the League of Nations on the grounds that it would strip our nation of some degree of its domestic sovereignty and its independence in choosing foreign policy actions. The League limped ineffectively through the 1920s and met with several failures in the 1930s, including failure to prevent the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian war in Ethiopia. The League of Nations closed down with the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and officially disbanded in 1946.
Franklin Roosevelt, however, revived the idea of an organization of United Nations for the purpose of waging the war against the Axis Powers. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill drafted the text of the Declaration by United Nations in 1941, and the following year it was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R, the Republic of China, and twenty-two other nations. The official UN Charter was approved by 51 member states in San Francisco in April 1945, just after Roosevelt’s death.
As with the League of Nations, the object of the United Nations was to allow countries to settle international disputes through discussion rather than war. Near the end of World War II, Roosevelt seemed to believe that such a forum would be useful and necessary to continue peaceful cooperation between the United States and the U.S.S.R. This was reaffirmed under President Harry Truman after World War II as tensions began to develop between the two countries and eventually developed into the Cold War. The Soviet Union, however, used the United Nations for political posturing against Western “capitalist” and “colonial” nations. Still, some Americans believed that the United Nations was a vital tool for allowing dialogue between the Western nations and the Soviet Union as a means to avoid nuclear conflict.
Many Americans were inclined to withdraw from foreign affairs after World War II, but the developing atomic threat from the Soviet Union and specter of sprawling communism inclined the United States back toward active engagement in world affairs through the United Nations. The United States joined the UNO because, unlike under the League of Nations, participation is UN policies is, for all intents and purposes, optional; this means that no nation permanently gives up its domestic sovereignty or its independence in choosing foreign policy actions. On the other hand, this means that the United Nations has no real “teeth” in terms of coercive power; member states comply or not from a kind of international “peer pressure” in order to save face. For example, the UN’s International Court of Justice issues judgments in international disputes in accordance with its understanding of international law, but its decisions are binding only on those nations that recognize its authority and jurisdiction. This is one cause of the general ineffectiveness of the United Nations in preventing conflict in its nearly eighty years of existence. Its lackluster record is also a result of the structure of the UN’s Security Council, which consists of fifteen member states – five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten non-permanent members. Each of the five permanent member states has an absolute veto power and can immediately block any proposed policy (see Essay #20 on the defects of the United Provinces of the Netherlands).
The American Founders would have some words of caution about involving the United States in international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations, which we will discuss in the next essay.
Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.