The UN Follows the League’s Long Trail to Impotence

For the last 60 years, the United Nations has been one continual story of missed opportunities. In that respect, the UN eerily resembles the League of Nations of the 1920s and 1930s. By allowing North Korea to flout international nuclear norms, permitting genocide in Darfur, and watching Iraq crumble into chaos, the UN’s record is as ineffective as the League’s. Given the UN’s record, any other organization would be better than the one we have.

At the end of the World War I, President Wilson proposed the League of Nations as a means to resolve international disputes. The UN was created in 1945 because the League had been unable to stop German and Japanese aggression. Since then, the UN’s potential as a force for world peace has been paralyzed by superpower rivalry. Even with the end of the Cold War, the UN continues to fail in its mission to bring world peace.

The recent nuclear testing by North Korea shows the UN’s inability to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. Allowing North Korea to develop nuclear weapons makes East Asia unstable by encouraging China and Japan to enhance their nuclear options. North Korea’s ability to play off China, Russia and the United States against each other has paralyzed the Security Council.

The UN’s recent authorization of sanctions on North Korea will not dissuade President Kim Jong Il’s regime from developing nuclear weapons. Sanctions threatened by the League didn’t deter Japan from invading Manchuria in 1931. Neither is any action by the Security Council, with China and Russia dithering, likely to get North Korea to stop developing its nuclear weapons.

While North Korea has gotten much attention because of its nuclear program, the UN has placed a low priority on Africa. The Sudanese government has been pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing against the people of the Darfur region, displacing two million people and killing two hundred thousand. Yet the UN refuses to declare these actions to be genocide. This is nothing new for such an organization. In 1935, the League did nothing to protect Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy, nor has the UN taken any action to stop the rapes and expulsions of the people of Darfur.

The UN’s role in Iraq’s disintegration goes back to 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion, a series of ineffectual resolutions passed by the Security Council failed to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Finally, the leadership of the United States created an international coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991. Similarly, the League’s inaction encouraged Hitler to annex Austria and dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938.

A decade of UN sanctions between 1991 and 2003 only served to cripple Iraq’s economy and impoverish its people. The “oil-for-food” program, which was supposed to lighten the effects of the sanctions on the civilian population, was notorious for its corruption as Hussein and officials within the UN funneled money into their own pockets.

Since 1945, the UN has failed to spare succeeding generations from the scourge of war and prevent human suffering. Because it has missed so many opportunities to be a force for international law, the UN, just like the League, has no relevance other than as a debating society. Since the last 60 years have shown that it has fallen woefully short of bringing any kind of peace and stability, now is the time to have the UN shorn of the Wilsonian idealism that has brought so little good.

Dino E. Buenviaje writes for the History News Service and is a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, email:dino.buenviaje@

October, 2006