Since the end of the Cold War, two positions have seemed to harden on the United Nations, whose fiftieth anniversary falls this year. On the one hand, warmongers in the United States and Britain regard the organisation with contempt, seeing it as a conspiracy of Euro-weenies and Third-World dictators to prevent the onward march of democracy and American power. On the other hand, peaceniks support the UN on the basis of a similar analysis: imbued with memories of forty-five years of imperial roll-back, during which the UN was a platform for various fashionable Third World causes and for the principle of decolonisation generally, they think of it as mankind’s only protection against the vagaries of a unipolar world.
Being two sides of the same coin, these views are both wrong. As James Traub points out in The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power (Bloomsbury 464pp £20), ‘Institutions of global order are an American