History of the UN

The League of Nations

■ Founded in 1920 as the first attempt at global political governance.

■ Its membership was unstable, as major powers left when they felt their national interests could not be protected.

■ It failed in its founding objective after the First World War to prevent another global conflict, and was replaced by the UN after the Second World War.

The United Nations

■ Founded in 1945 to replace the League of Nations.

■ Its membership and functions have grown consistently since its founding.

■ It remains the world’s most comprehensive IGO and the pinnacle of global governance efforts.

■ The use of the UNSC veto protects the national interests of major powers (the fve permanent members — China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA).

The League of Nations and the United Nations were both set up in the aftermath of world wars. The key goals of both organizations were the promotion of international security and the peaceful settlement of disputes. In the case of the UN, this occurred in a context of an estimated civilian and military death toll of around 67 million and the radical dislocation of global and national economies in WWII, to say nothing of the Great Depression which had contributed to a significant sharpening of international tensions during the 1930s. The early origins of the UN, indeed, emerged during the war itself, taking the form of an alliance of 26 states which pledged themselves to defeat the Axis powers through the Declaration of United Nations on 1 January 1942. As with the League, the USA took a leading role in the process, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushing for the creation of the UN during the final years of the war. The basic blueprint for the new international organization was drawn up in August 1944 at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, by delegates from the USA, the Soviet Union, China and the UK. The UN Charter was signed in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, with the UN officially coming into existence on 24 October (since known as UN Day).

The UN was not the first attempt to create an international organization constructed to guarantee world peace. The League of Nations, had been founded at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 with very similar goals, namely to enable collective security, to arbitrate over international disputes and to bring about disarmament. The League of Nations was inspired by US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, established as the basis for long-term peace in post-WWI Europe.

The League failed to prevent the rise of fascism and world war 2. The UN tried to learn from its defects. In particular, the League never genuinely lived up its name; it was never properly a ‘league of nations’. Some major states did not join, most notably the USA, through the refusal of the isolationist Congress to ratify US membership, while others left. Germany joined in 1926, only to leave after the Nazis came to power in 1933. Japan abandoned the League in 1933 after criticism of its occupation of Manchuria, while Italy walked out in 1936 after criticism of its invasion of Abyssinia. The Soviet Union, which entered the League in 1933, was expelled in 1939 following its attack on Finland. The League lacked effective power. It could only make recommendations, not binding resolutions; its recommendations had to be unanimous; and anyway, no mechanism existed for taking military or economic action against miscreant states. As a result, the League of Nations was largely powerless, as Germany, Italy and Japan embarked on aggressive wars during the 1930s.

The United Nations (UN) came into being after the horrors of the Second World War and the earlier failure of the League of Nations. From an initial 51 states, membership has now grown to 193. Each member state agrees to uphold the terms of the 1945 UN Charter. The preamble talks of the UN’s determination to rid the world of the scourge of war, reaffirm human rights and equality, establish the respect of the rule of law and international treaties and promote social progress and better living standards. The UN hopes to achieve this through states practising tolerance and behaving in a neighbourly way, working together to maintain international peace and security, avoiding the use of armed forces except in the common interest and to use international means for economic and social advancement.