To London, with Love: The UN Today

Ivan Lett

It is now 65 years to the day that the United Nations held its first General Assembly in London. In the aftermath of World War II, the Allies met repeatedly to establish the goals of the organization, notably its commitment to international peace and cooperation. Fifty-one nations were represented at the first Assembly; all member nations vote on General Assembly Resolutions, unlike the Security Council that held its first meeting a week later on January 17, 1946.

Now that the UN has moved to its permanent home in Manhattan, with 192 member states, its place in world affairs has seen several changes and growth since its founding purpose to avoid a Third World War. In fact, the bustle of activity is quite difficult to keep track of. Fortunately, we have published Linda Fasulo’s Insider’s Guide to the UN, now in its Second Edition, that serves as An Insider's Guide to the UN: Linda Fasulo an accessible and invaluable guide to the inner workings of the UN. There is even an appendix dedicated to Model UN simulations. (Frankly, I could have used this once upon a time when trying unsuccessfully to pass a new resolution as a delegate from South Africa for a modified version of Amnesty International.) Fasulo, who has corresponded extensively on the UN for NPR and NBC, writes on the many agencies and programs directed by the UN that address so many global issues such as international terrorism, human rights, and nuclear proliferation. She says:

In the face of rapid and wrenching change, we have to wonder how an international organization created nearly sixty-five years ago, in a very different world, can maintain its relevance and effectiveness today, let alone in the future.

On the other hand, the 65th anniversary lends itself all too easily to the idea of retirement. In response to her own consideration, Fasulo claims the relevancy of the organization today lies with its “people [who] really do matter at the UN, and they act in a context full of illusion, opinion, perception, and emotion.” Surely, an organization does not retire like a person, but it does give reason for hindsight, and a closer look into how we have arrived at its present configuration and philosophy.

On the history of the UN, Mark Mazower shows how the UN has grown from its postwar origins to sustain its purpose in No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, published by Princeton University Press. In a recent issue of Harper’s, John Gray highlighted Mazower’s attention to the UN’s “ideological prehistory,” interestingly arguing that the American and Wilsonian ideas were not alone in the formation of the UN, but that a lingering “imperial internationalism” from the languishing British Empire gave significant shape to the ideologies at play. For an organization that totes itself as an international peacekeeper, it’s important for us to know both what is going on now and how we got there.


Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.

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