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The Parliament of Man:

The Past, Present, and Future

of the United Nations

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By Paul Kennedy

HarperCollins, 361 pages, $36.95

The "Parliament of Man" is a phrase lifted from the poem Locksley Hall, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Paul Kennedy embraces it with fondness, a message from a long-lost friend, transmitted from another age. The young Victorian poet was imagining a world that had solved the problem of war, where the "kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law." Such a dream has animated people for centuries. Its current incarnation is the United Nations.

Kennedy is a distinguished Yale historian, and one of the masters of the grand narrative. Among his many books, one stands out: his masterful analysis of the international system, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It's a staple for students of the history of international relations, weaving together grand strategy, domestic politics, economic forces, colonial advances and retreats, and the hammer blows of great-power war.

Kennedy's new history of the United Nations has been of long gestation. He took part in a Ford Foundation study of the UN hosted by Yale University, which issued a report a decade ago. The Parliament of Man is a return to the subject, linking the origins of the UN, its perturbations since 1945 and its future prospects.

Kennedy is insistent on the need to read the history of the UN aright. It was built on the bones of the failed League of Nations project. It was also built on the bodies of the dead of the Second World War. At its inception, the United Nations was a grand project to return the world to normalcy, take steps toward the creation of a genuine international governance and avoid the prospect of a return to a devastating, atomic-age, great-power war.

The most significant difference between the League of Nations and the United Nations was that the UN was able to win the adherence, if sometimes lukewarm, of all the great powers of the day. That had never been the case for the League, especially once the dying Woodrow Wilson lost his battle with isolationist sentiment in the United States, and the Bolshevik revolution cast the Soviet Union into the outer darkness of international politics, eventually to be followed by Nazi Germany and a militant Japan. In 1945, the Soviet Union was in, the United States was in, and there was a Security Council structure that provided them with an effective leadership function and, of course, the power to steer and, if need be, veto, any actions of the UN. Great-power prerogatives were preserved, as was an essential understanding of the primacy of state sovereignty.

The UN was, in other words, an international superstructure, positioned uneasily on a long-established system of state power. The high expectations placed on the UN derived from its function as the sole legitimate source of international governance. The frustrations with its performance have derived from the fact that the world continues to be run by states not always amenable to international guidance or intrusion, and beset by problems so complex as to defy international consensus on solutions.

In six synoptic chapters, Kennedy surveys the working of the Security Council and the efforts of the United Nations in such diverse fields as peacekeeping, economic development, social and cultural policies, human rights and the interface between the UN and its international activist twin, the NGO community. It's the best short history of the UN available. The argument is judicious and calm, mercifully free of right-wing rant or the doleful countenance of romantic optimism.

Kennedy takes an incrementalist view of the UN. He finds plenty of evidence of progress in all aspects of its work. He's particularly heartened by the evolution of a human rights regime and the adaptability of peacekeeping/peacemaking operations. Anyone seeking a primer on how blue-helmet peacekeeping has evolved into heavily armed peacemaking, consult Kennedy's chapter 3. Canadian MPs please take note.

But Kennedy is also aware of, and at pains to show, the many failures of the United Nations. The worst of these, in recent memory, concerned the bungled efforts to solve brutal conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda. Kennedy makes no excuses for the UN, but argues that in the critical era between 1992 and 1995, when these failed-state problems emerged, the UN was simply overstretched and overrun. Canadian readers who might be stung by the lack of any mention of Lester Pearson's fundamental role in creating the UN peacekeeping effort in the Sinai in 1956 (for which he won the Nobel Prize) should at least be mollified by the garlands Kennedy bestows on General Roméo Dallaire's heroic efforts to hold the fort in Rwanda.

Many readers of this book will gravitate toward its penultimate chapter, on the future of the UN. Here, Kennedy's incrementalist stance is very clear. He is doubtful about the prospect for imminent change to the structure of the Security Council, even if membership on the Council is increasingly anachronistic as global power shifts away from a trans-Atlantic base. But if he eschews root-and-branch changes as both unrealistic and potentially harmful, he does have plenty of good ideas on how to improve the machine. These range from the creation of an early warning system on global hot spots and rethinking of a UN rapid-reaction force to the need to engage the UN much more fully on post-conflict reconstruction.

Along the way, there are some bromides, such as Kennedy's generalized remarks about the UN's role in countering global terrorism. Here, the UN record is mostly disappointing, culminating in a recent failure to craft an acceptable UN definition of what constitutes terrorism for international law purposes. Kennedy also has surprisingly little to say about the UN role in non-proliferation, which was at the crux of the second Iraq war and may soon emerge as a principal UN challenge with regard to Iran's nuclear program. UN performance with regard to both terrorism and proliferation raises significant questions about the world body's adaptability to the security environment of the 21st century.

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Perhaps the biggest disappointment of The Parliament of Man involves the failure to ask questions about the UN's intellectual roots and their continued relevance. The UN is a scheme for global governance based on Western, Enlightenment notions of good government and civil society. The universality of such notions has long been taken for granted, and was enshrined in the UN charter, signed at the San Francisco conference in 1945. Will future generations of young Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Nigerians, Brazilians, take to heart the message of Rousseau, Kant and Woodrow Wilson? It would have been good to have a little more of Rousseau, Kant and Wilson in this book, and a little more probing of the universality of the UN concept to assuage our doubts.

One of the back-room drafters of the UN Charter, a British diplomat named Gladwyn Jebb, wondered at the time whether they had aimed "too high for a wicked world." The answer provided by Kennedy is that they had, but that it was necessary to do so. What Kennedy does not tell us is whether the concept of one world (we'll take wicked for granted) imagined by the UN drafters still holds.

Wesley Wark is a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto.

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