Posted: March 3, 2010
A review of UN Ideas That Changed the World, Richard Jolly, Louis Emmerij, and Thomas G. Weiss
his is a dreary volume. It claims to be about "ideas," but that turns out to mean only that the authors disdain mere facts. Instead of serious analysis or evaluation, the book catalogs findings from "the U.N. Intellectual History Project." When completed, this larger project is supposed to provide 16 separate volumes on the "intellectual history" of different international programs. So it is almost an international institution in its own right. It is repeatedly mentioned here by its suitable acronym, UNIHP.
Think of this book, then, as the sort of commissioned official history that even a subsidized academic press will only publish with an additional hefty subvention. In other words, it's the counterpart to Rear Mirror Views of a Changing Social Landscape: The Research Trajectory of the Michigan Society for Sociological Studies, 1955-2005. But our authors have expanded that sort of "study" until it encompasses the entire United Nations network of organs, agencies, advisors, committed participants, and specialized researchers, topped with a special introduction by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Then they throw in the necessary acknowledgements to the MacArthur and Rockefeller Foundations, all the governments of Scandinavia, and various specialized conference centers around the world.
If you don't find this depressing, you should tell your friends what medication it is that helps you stay so cheery. Or leave a large tip for your bartender.
The authors, Richard Jolly of the University of Sussex and Louis Emmerij and Thomas Weiss of the CUNY Graduate Center, seem highly sedated themselves, no doubt from hours spent editing all those previous volumes in the UNIHP series. Still, scientists who study bird calls or bee buzzings often make interesting findings about animal behavior, without claiming the birds and bees are actually thinking when they engage in their various mating calls. Even a book of this sort has clinical or ethnographic interest, indicating how a certain type of person—say, the type that would actually try to read the other UNIHP volumes—can develop warm feelings for specialized agencies of the United Nations.
The first thing that strikes one in this volume is how remarkably abstract it is. To call it journalistic would be an insult to journalism, even the sort of low, vulgar journalism practiced by reporters for preening broadsheets like the New York Times. Journalists like conflict, journalists like villains and victims, journalists like "narratives." What this book offers is inventory.
Just to get started, the book requires four pages of specialized U.N. acronyms, ranging from CDP ("Year of the Child Committee on Development Planning") to UNRISD("U.N. Research Institute for Social Development") and so on and so on, down to the WFP ("World Food Programme").
We never read about who does what to whom, exactly. We read about conferences and processes and problems. We read about "R2P" proposals—U.N. bureaucratize for "responsibility to protect." We do not read about the millions slaughtered in central Africa over the past two decades under the eyes of U.N. peacekeepers, or the tens of thousands of children raped and sexually abused by those same peacekeepers. It doesn't seem to matter who needs protection from whom or by whom. It's as if listing or talking, however vaguely, were its own contribution to world peace. This is, above all, a book about "agendas."
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The next thing that might strike an innocent reader is the constant disparagement of commerce and markets. While mass murder is scarcely mentioned, we hear a lot about corporate globalization's unchecked power. It's as if buying and selling were inherently suspicious without enough prior talk.
If private activities are threatening, then some sort of public control must be the solution. Another notable characteristic of this book is that it offers the United Nations as problem solver in a whole range of areas: development, human rights, gender relations, saving the environment. When talking about emancipation of women in traditional societies, should international forums really leap to explosive agendas like abortion or rights for homosexuals? Don't ask-the authors don't.
Meanwhile, the United States is repeatedly criticized for holding itself aloof from U.N. projects like the International Criminal Court. It does not cross the authors' minds—or if it does, they keep such discordant thoughts to themselves—that the United States, with troops actually fighting around the world, has different interests from most of the ICC's European sponsors who do not have troops capable of fighting, even in their own countries. Nor do they ask why India and Pakistan, China and Russia, Israel and almost all Arab countries have also taken a pass on theICC. They seem so fixated on international institutions as the answer, they can't remember what the questions were.
On one point, however, this book is startlingly clear. According to the authors, the U.N. may be seen as simply a gathering of its member states (the "First U.N.") or it may be seen as an organization with its own officers and staff and corporate missions (the "Second U.N."). U.N. Ideas emphasizes that there is also a
Third U.N....comprising NGOs, academics, consultants, experts, independent commissions, and other groups of individuals who routinely engage with the First and the Second U.N. and thereby influence U.N. thinking, policies, priorities and actions. The key characteristic of this third sphere is its independence from governments and U.N. secretariats.
So lobbyists and critics and hangers-on aren't just trying to influence the U.N., the way thousands of such advocates try to influence Congress in Washington. They are, from the authors' viewpoint, as much a part of the U.N. as federal courts are part of our federal government at home. But lawyers and judges expend great efforts to define the proper limits of judicial power;lobbyists have wide freedom because, unlike judges, they are not responsible for deciding.
Perhaps it makes sense that the Third U.N. is not accountable to governments or anyone else and still claims to be a pillar of the United Nations. It's the most talky component of a system that is so much about talk, the most visionary component of a system that is so devoted to fantasy, the most irresponsible component of a system that is never really held responsible for achieving anything in the real world.
And who else but the Third U.N. would compile 16 volumes of UNIHP?