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David Nightingale: United Nations

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It’s sometimes said that the United Nations absorbs a lot of money, which it often wastes, is ineffective, and fails to prevent wars.  Let’s look at this.

Mankind’s urge to eliminate war can be traced very far back.

For example, in the 1300s Dante wrote: “Behold how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” [ref.3] and Immanuel Kant had considered ‘world citizenship to be a necessary start for world peace’ [ref4]. There is a long list – e.g., Ulysses S. Grant, H. G. Wells, Linus Pauling, Sakharov, Einstein, Harry Truman – of people who have written about the need for global unity.

After the horrific killings of WW1 the League of Nations had been formed, but by the 1930s was failing, mostly because the US hadn’t joined, communist Russia had refused, and Germany had been excluded.

The UN was set up immediately after WW2, and now consists of 193 member states, plus 2 non-voting observer states – the Holy See and Palestine. Its Security Council, which makes final decisions, are now the “powerful 5” of the US, USSR, France, Britain and China, holding veto power  – together with 10 rotating nations that each serve for 2 years. Many believe that this veto power needs revision.

In 1837 the poet Tennyson, still in his twenties, wrote [ref.1]:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be; Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle flags were furled In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the World.

Interestingly, Harry Truman, who succeeded FDR as President in 1946, carried his own copy of Tennyson’s poem in a pocket. However, by the time Tennyson was an old man his vision of a world at peace had not materialized. He had not, of course, understood that [p.281,ibid] new technologies and terrible world wars might also drive people, not to peace, but to mistrust and arms races. Nor had he realized that many people have instincts against any kind of global parliament, preferring their own national policies – despite the fact that this leads to bloodshed and chaos.

At the end of the first meeting of the UN General Assembly, Truman said “Let us not fail to grasp the supreme chance to establish a world-wide rule of reason...” [p.46, ref.1], and he also appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to represent the US.

Now, 75 years later, many would say the UN has been a failure. But one would have to consider the following [ibid, p286]:  There now exists an actual central place where all nations, large and small, can meet in assembly, rather than resort to war; we have established international bodies to respond to the needs of women and children worldwide (for example UNICEF). Despite opposition we are steadily setting up international monitoring to protect our local and global environment. There is now an international world court, that has for example brought Croatian and Serbian leaders to justice for murder, rape and genocide; the UN and UNESCO have long supported saving endangered cultural sites – for example the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, targeted by Israeli snipers in 2002. Historical sites all over the world – in India, Syria, Africa and so on, endangered by warfare, continually need assistance from the UN.

So the Tennysonian idea that nations must act together is more than ever needed, and the UN, sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back, is our only tool. If it didn’t exist, as some leaders have suggested, chaos and mayhem would resume, and it would then have to be replaced by something that, basically, attempted to do the same.


1.  “The Parliament of Man; the Past, Present and Future of the United Nations” by Paul Kennedy; Random House, NY, (2006)

2.  “A Future in Ruins” by Lynn Meskell; Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016. (2018).

3. From Dante’s ‘De Monarchia’ (16:1).

4.  Immanuel Kant, in “Perpetual Peace”, 1795.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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