June 27, 2006 | Wall Street Journal

Pictures From an Institution

From Oil-for-Food to peacekeeper rape to bribery in the procurement department, from nepotism to fraud to theft, the modern United Nations has become a carnival of scandal — all the while unable to stop genocide in Sudan, unwilling to confront nuclear bomb makers in North Korea and Iran, and unhelped by a secretary-general who won't answer questions about the Mercedes his grown son shipped to Africa under false use of his father's name.

Now into this circus wanders Paul Kennedy, a Yale historian with high-level U.N. connections, a penchant for grand themes and a new book: “The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations.” In his preface, Mr. Kennedy explains that he takes this title phrase from Tennyson's long, impassioned poem “Locksley Hall” (1837), which includes a vision of a tranquil world “lapt in universal law.” Mr. Kennedy notes that President Truman carried a clipping of the relevant lines in his wallet and read them aloud at the 1945 founding conference of the U.N.

From there, Mr. Kennedy, who in the mid-1990s advised former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on U.N. reform, sets out to weave a “holistic” tale. He starts with a survey of the institution's intellectual origins and the founding and collapse of its predecessor, the League of Nations. He then proceeds along various thematic axes through the past six decades — peacekeeping, economic aid and so forth — chronicling the U.N.'s enormous expansion, the forces at work in the Security Council and General Assembly, the landmark conferences, the periodic reform efforts. Concluding that some parts of the U.N. “have failed miserably” while “others have performed wonderfully,” he arrives at a closing vision in which he suggests that today's U.N. is like a boulder rolled halfway up a mountain — and our job is to keep rolling it higher.

There are some useful sections, such as Mr. Kennedy's item-by-item tour of the U.N. charter, explaining how it has shaped the institution. But the lively opening sketch of Truman quoting Tennyson soon gives way to a narrative so ponderous that it could easily have been crafted by the U.N. itself. Like low swells on a wide sea, Mr. Kennedy's orotund phrases roll on and on. “Yet as the tide could wane,” he writes of the rights of “womankind,” “so also it could wax.”

“The Parliament of Man” is less a history of the U.N., however, than an apologia for it. Mr. Kennedy's pattern is to chronicle the mistakes, failures or irrelevance of a particular U.N. initiative and then conclude that, whatever the damage or cost, it was still worthwhile. Noting that many of the faults of the World Bank, set up in 1945, were replicated by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), set up in 1965, he tells us: “Regrettably, many of the UNDP-supported projects were to exhibit the same weaknesses regarding accountability, quality control, and focus that plagued some of the Bank's investments, but” — and this is the sort of “but” he repeats throughout the book — “its very existence was a significant step forward, not just symbolically or as another source of funds, but as a challenge to the more traditional view about economic growth and development.”

As for programs that Mr. Kennedy deems less problematic, he relies heavily on the U.N.'s praise of its own doings. In a section on U.N. development aid, for instance, he cites two “small success stories” in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, noting that “they certainly deserve as much of a hearing as the tales of mismanagement and waste.” One must flip to the end notes to discover that Mr. Kennedy's sole source on the success of these projects was the U.N. itself.

In this manner Mr. Kennedy tries to make the case that it is not so much the U.N. that has failed “humankind” as we who have failed the U.N. Looking ahead, he urges that we go “softly, softly” with reforms and buttress the U.N.'s corrupt system with its own 100,000-troop standing army, its own intelligence agency and a mandate to impose global taxes on the U.N.'s behalf. Repeatedly he denigrates the concerns of “conservative critics,” however well-documented the U.N.'s duplicities and debacles may be. Warning that “suspicious neo-cons may whine at the idea of the world body having its own CIA,” Mr. Kennedy urges that “all such yelps should be dismissed as self-serving and obstructionist.”

As a rule, the more flagrant the scandal, the less Mr. Kennedy appears to notice it. He makes only one mention of the multibillion-dollar Oil-for-Food swindle, referring to it — in a fumbling reversal of the U.N.'s own terminology — as “food for oil.” His lament is not that this U.N. relief program helped strengthen Saddam Hussein and enrich a global network of corrupt politicians, arms dealers and crooks but that the exposure of this corruption served to “haunt, and weaken” the U.N. According to a number of high-level investigations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan was derelict in his oversight of the program, and an assortment of Mr. Annan's hand-picked top aides variously took payoffs from Saddam, shredded potentially germane documents and blocked damning audit reports from reaching the Security Council. Mr. Kennedy's sole allusion to this snake pit is to say that, “because of unfriendly and disdainful feelings toward the world organization in some quarters, the Secretariat needs to have a record that is spotless and unchallengeable.”

In many ways, “The Parliament of Man” is reminiscent of the tales of political pilgrims who set out to experience first-hand the country that is supposed to embody their ideals and fondest hopes for mankind. Having trekked past the grim realities, they return to stress the utopian promise they have glimpsed during state dinners and cultural tours. From a scholar as eminent as Mr. Kennedy, one might have hoped for better.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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