By Anonymous, January 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
In August 2005, George W. Bush elicited international outrage when he appointed John Robert Bolton to be the 25th United States Ambassador to the United Nations. For months, the Democrats had filibustered attempts to get his nomination approved, allegedly on account of his harsh views towards the United Nations, but also due to his apparent affiliation with the neoconservatives.
Although the Democrats won the battle over Bolton’s confirmation in the Senate, Bush ignored their obstructionist tactics and used a recess appointment to send the Yale educated lawyer and presidential advisor to Turtle Bay, despite wide opposition.
No American appointment to the United Nations has ever evoked such disapproval. Condemnation of Bolton came from diverse quarters, not least from self-described “internationalists,” who honed in on comments Bolton made during a speech delivered at the 1994 Global Structures Convocation hosted by the World Federalist Association.
“There is no such thing as the United Nations,” Bolton thundered. “There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.” Equally provocative, Bolton declared: "The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." What are we to make of these contentious words?
A little history is in order. Franklin Roosevelt invented the expression “United Nations” to describe the countries allied against the Axis Powers during the Second World War. It entered the global vernacular on January 1, 1942, when 26 governments initialed the so-called United Nations Declaration, which aligned its signatories “in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.”
The document had many objectives, but most important, it sought to win international legitimacy for American leadership during and after the war. The expression itself connoted the image of a broad global alliance, which accorded with Roosevelt’s desires. As he told his Cabinet on January 2, 1942, he had debated the name for a long time, but ultimately settled on “united.” Though he never revealed what other possibilities he considered, the documentary record makes it abundantly clear that he wanted the idea of unity to overshadow everything else.
Yet the word “united” was and remains misleading. Many nations refused to sign the UN Declaration. Argentina, for example, never elected to join the wartime alliance. But more significant, the UN alliance did not win the Second World War. That honor belongs to a select few. The Soviet Union suffered between eight and eleven million military casualties, more than all of the other United Nations combined. The United States provided nearly $50 billion in aid, a figure matched by no other country. Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries, too, made enormous sacrifices. But beyond this limited group, the other members of the alliance provided only marginal contributions to the war effort.
Still, this fact in no way undermines the genius of the expression “United Nations.” In the simplest fashion, it gave the impression that many nations were participating, while avoiding the suggestion that others refused to take part. Instead, it left room for other countries to join the alliance at a later date. Roosevelt’s diplomats, in conformity with this approach, tried to relegate conflicts with states refusing to partake in the alliance – such as Argentina – to the purview of secret diplomacy. Here they often failed, but they rarely made incendiary statements that undermined the “United Nations” as a public relations tool.
The brilliance of this wartime propaganda strategy comes into sharper focus when compared with the words Bush employed to describe the nations who participated in the Second Gulf War against Iraq. The expression, “Coalition of the Willing,” implied that other nations refused to cooperate with the American led war effort. In so doing, it made their non-participation a matter of propaganda, which in turn, angered those countries and erected a public relations barrier to their entry into the war. Today the “Coalition of the Willing” consists of one country: the United States of America.
By contrast, Roosevelt’s United Nations swelled from 26 to 47 countries by the time of the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Many of these nations joined the war effort out of wanton self-interest. It became clear that the United States would emerge from the conflict as the most powerful nation on the planet, and it made little sense to offend the political class in Washington. In the case of the Second War in Iraq, American power relative to the rest of the world was significantly less than it had been in 1946. This fact made it easier for other countries to openly oppose the war.
Yet in the arena of public relations, Bush had done little to make his life easier. By utilizing an expression that implicitly criticized countries that chose not to join the alliance, and by making polarizing statements such as, “You are either with us or against us,” he angered potential allies and left himself open to humiliation once the war turned sour. Roosevelt’s wartime statements and his conscientious decision to name the WWII alliance the “United Nations” did nothing of this sort: he was a public relations maestro who focused on unity, not division.
In fact, the “United Nations” mantra worked so effectively that American policymakers, primarily Sumner Welles and Adolf Berle, pondered ways and means to extend the public relations benefits of the “United Nations” into the postwar era. Their objective remains abundantly clear in the minutes of top-secret meetings held in the State Department in 1942.
The postwar planners sought legitimacy for a global system that would be run by the United States, not by overt coercion or brute force, but through a series of institutions that would provide other nations an opportunity to participate and express their views. They envisioned a United Nations organization, which would maintain a series of subservient agencies to manage an array of functional problems ranging from finance to public health.
The proposals they put forward emerged not during the debates over the creation of the United Nations organization, as too many scholars assume, but in the context of discussions over a little-known agency that would meet the relief and rehabilitation needs of war-ravaged populations after the liberation of Axis-occupied territories. That organization was appropriately titled, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Initially the planners thought they would create a United Nations organization, and that the relief organization would be the first agency set up under the larger body. But pressure from the British and the need for a wartime propaganda boon – the Allies had encountered repeated setbacks in 1942 – led them to construct UNRRA before the UN organization came into existence. As such, it became the model for the future world organization.
Like the United Nations organization we know today, this agency had a General Assembly, only it was called the Council. It also had an entity similar to the Security Council, but it was entitled the Central Committee. Initially this committee only included China, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States – the Russians refused to admit anyone else. But eventually circumstances forced these four nations to include others countries.
UNRRA also maintained an operational arm, which procured supplies and undertook relief operations all over the world, much in the same way the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) do today. Following the dissolution of UNRRA in 1947, its responsibilities and assets were transferred to these and other agencies. Thus its importance transcends its life, which points to another question.
What place did the United States assign itself in these arrangements? The UNRRA Council, the planners insisted, could be nothing other than a talk-shop that would rubber stamp policies devised by the Central Committee. As Dean Acheson comically put it, its purpose would be to “kick off and blow off steam.”
The United States would seek approval for its plans from the Central Committee, but the planners made it abundantly clear that they could never permit any international committee to control American behavior in international affairs. Therefore, they placed real executive authority in the agency’s operational arm, which, due to U.S. financial and material preeminence, would be run by an American citizen. This individual would have supreme authority and he would be an agent of the U.S. government.
This design, as the planners repeatedly stated, would serve as the model for the entire United Nations system.
UNRRA, however, did not have anything comparable to the United Nations Secretariat, which John Bolton criticized so forcefully. Yet the planners first broached the idea of a Secretariat for the United Nations organization during the 1942 planning sessions. At one of these meetings, the famous geographer and President of Johns Hopkins University, Isaiah Bowman, explained how Woodrow Wilson managed the Latin American delegations at the Versailles Peace Conference.
Wilson had planned a “systematic program of entertainment… for the Latin American delegates… to plant in them a sense of recognition.” He then directed those in charge of the entertainment to speak to “the Latin American representatives in his own name.” The purpose was to give these delegations “some form of activity that would make them feel” that they were really participating.
In Bowman’s view, the United Nations organization needed to institutionalize a similar program. He proposed the United Nations Secretariat. The planners loved the idea. Sumner Welles called it a “sop” for the small states. Its bureaucrats would be “social personnel,” according to Bowman. It would “keep people active who were without responsibility.” But the purpose, however humorous as it may seem, was to obtain the widest degree of legitimacy possible for American leadership.
Now what does this mean as we assess Bolton’s comments towards the United Nations? Succinctly put, he was right about everything he said. But he missed the point: the “United Nations,” both the expression and the organization espousing this name, has always had an element of public relations in it. By making such comments, Bolton undermined the objective the entire edifice was constructed to achieve: legitimacy for American global leadership. In so doing, he not only angered those who really believe in the United Nations, but also those who understand what this organization really is.
As for Bush, his decision to send Bolton to the United Nations may have excited members of the conservative movement who, for good reason, dislike the world organization. But in so doing, he probably did more damage to America’s prestige in the world than the provocative appointment was actually worth. By contrast, Roosevelt usually avoided unnecessary provocation and conflict in the public domain. He focused on unity. For better or worse, the United Nations constitutes this strategy’s most enduring legacy.