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The UN, a lieu de mémoire?

By Glenda Sluga - posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013

On May 31, 2013 the UN visitors' lobby will close for eighteen months while long overdue extensive renovations are undertaken. This may have been your last chance to see an institution captured in time: the 1950s to be exact, when Le Corbusier placed his imposing architectural stamp on the building erected on Manhattan's mid-town east side foreshore, land donated to the cause of mid-twentieth century internationalism by the Rockefellers.

From its hallways lined with the photographs of a succession of male Secretary-Generals, to its basement-based Women's Guild counter, and its personalized stamp attractions, until now, the UN NY tourist experience offered a journey back in time, rather than towards any brighter future. But was it always this way?

For those of us with longer memories, the history of twentieth century internationalism is not so hard to conjure. In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War had ushered in a decade of high profile debate regarding not only the role of the UN and the prospects for its conceptual renovation, but also the revival of a long-standing discussion about the limits of national sovereignty, and the urgency of international community and the valence of multilateral, UN-coordinated international intervention (we need only recall Kuwait, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia).


A century earlier, contemporaries living in the rapidly expanding urbanizing centres of the world, observed the changes that technology-steam, electricity, trade-were wreaking on modern life, rendering it more and more 'international' by the day. Whether it was the far-travelling postage stamp and international money order, or the miraculous communications offered by the telegraph, in the early twentieth century, if someone had asked Europeans or Americans to predict where the world was headed, chances were they would have pointed toward internationalism of a new twentieth-century kind.

John Hobson, the British economist, ventured in 1906, that it had become impossible "to trace down those issues which are presented to us as great social issues, political or economic, and to find any solution which is satisfactory that does not present the elements of internationality."

For the future United States secretary of state Robert Lansing, the nineteenth century belonged to nationality; the driving force of the twentieth century was internationality.

By the First World War, this theme of internationality was being taken up and discussed by psychologists, social scientists, and economists, in relation to prospects for international governance, a discussion that coincided with more determined political efforts to create a new international organization.

We still know very little about what happened after. We know there was a League of Nations, and when it failed it was replaced, after prolonged debate through the early 1940s, by the institution we know as the United Nations.

But when it comes to understanding the kinds of aspirations and ambitions that through the twentieth century led women and men from around the world to the idea that the world's greatest challenge –human survival-required the creation of new imaginative forms of international governance, what we know is miminal, in comparison with the effort that has gone into studying nations, or other twentieth century 'isms'.


In the early twenty first century we are faced with that same challenge of human survival in daunting new ways, but there is little debate about the significance of international institutions, or more fundamentally, international forms of governance, in the search for solutions – whether we think of economic or environmental disasters.

This is partly because the UN has, in diverse ways, been such a failure. Sympathisers might argue that those failures are due to the compromises that were made when it was established, rendering it subject to the whims of states, denying its potential as the effective representative of individuals, and human rights. But it is also true that, in the twenty-first century, it is impossible to conjure up the kinds of belief in progress, and in the evolution of mankind from smaller to larger forms of political community that made concepts such as internationality and the international so critical to public debate in the century that has passed.

In the post-9/11 world, the grand expectations of an epochal shift sound more like extant voices from a foreign country, a place where they do things quite differently.

Which still leaves us with the question, what role is left for the UN?

Will the material transformation of its public spaces, and its public functions invite new discussions of its contemporary relevance?

These are not only questions for the UN to answer, they should also be a staple of national public discussion. Remembering the complexity and diversity of the international past, and Australia's place in it, is a good place to begin.

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This article draws heavily on a public lecture The Apogee of Internationalism that Professor Sluga will deliver at Melbourne University on Wednesday May 23, 2013. Bookings may be made by clicking here.

Glenda's latest book Internationalism in the Age of  Nationalism can be purchased from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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About the Author

Glenda Sluga is Professor of International History at the University of Sydney. Her most recent book Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism can be purchased from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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