The Parliament of Man
The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations
Random House, $26.95, 384 pp.
The Best Intentions
Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 464 pp.
Few today remember the exhilaration with which people across the globe, including Americans, greeted the signing of the San Francisco Charter and the founding of the United Nations in 1945. There had been two massive military convulsions in just a quarter-century; many millions were dead; a whole continent was in ruins. And so there was a pervasive sense that, after the failure of the League of Nations, a new world order was required to prevent another catastrophic conflict. The UN Charter, which was designed not only to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” but also to reaffirm fundamental human rights, added to the heady sense that after all the horrors, a new and better world was finally in view.
Sixty-some years on, most of that exhilaration is gone: multilateralism is disdained in this age of American hegemony, and the UN is held in low esteem by many in the United States. Even so, the UN has survived and flourished, expanding its functions far beyond what its founders envisioned. However imperfect, the UN is the only place where governments of all nations can gather to deliberate, raise common budgets, and organize international initiatives. The Security Council can be summoned day or night, and it’s as effective as its key members permit it to be. The Secretariat, for all its problems, is available to coordinate security and peacekeeping operations and to deal with the needs of member...