The Foreign Service Journal, May 2018

76 MAY 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Having established the groundwork, Weiss pro- ceeds to a more intellectu- ally challenging, difficult- to-quantify “what if,” or “counterfactual” approach, speculating on how postwar history might have played out in the absence of the United Nations. As he acknowledges, many historians regard such methodol- ogy with skepticism; but Weiss never- theless makes a convincing case for the U.N.’s overall positive contribution to the world order. He argues that the U.N. and related entities have played crucial, irreplace- able roles in providing a neutral venue for antagonistic governments to resolve crises in arms control (specifically in monitoring weapons of mass destruction and chemi- cal weapons disposal) and in dealing with increasingly global epidemics. Weiss also highlights the consider- able achievements of lesser known branches of the U.N. family, such as the International Civil Aviation Organiza- tion and the Universal Postal Union, whose critical functions are now taken for granted. He sees the United Nations as most influential in enshrining and spread- ing ideas now accepted as international norms, including human rights and humanitarian values, arguing that such ideals would not have taken hold as fast if left merely to the marketplace. In his view, despite the many flaws of its human rights structures and their procedures, the U.N.’s “naming and shaming” of human rights violators via such mecha- nisms as the Universal Periodic Review In Defense of an Embattled U.N. Would the World Be Better Without the UN? Thomas G. Weiss, Polity, 2018, $24.95, paperback/Kindle, 240 pages. UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War Ian Williams, with illustrations by Krishna, Just World Books, 2017, $21.95/ paperback, $19.99/Kindle, 176 pages. Reviewed By W. Gary Gray In the Trump era, with the United Nations, international organizations in general and, arguably, the entire post- war world order under siege at the very time cross-border global challenges are accelerating, Would the World be Better without the UN? could not be more timely. This is the kind of indispensible primer I wish I’d been able to read before embarking on my own United Nations work. Author Thomas Weiss effectively captures the essence of the overriding issues I saw playing out on the ground in various U.N. operations. Weiss first lays out the basic frame- work for understanding the United Nations: there is the “First U.N.” of the member-state governments, which often complicates the work of the “Second U.N.” (the U.N. Secretariat and related organizations), while the “Third U.N.” of NGOs and other nonstate actors exerts increasing influence. In a comprehen- sive but concise and readable fashion, he traces the activity and origins of the often bewilderingly convoluted and overlapping U.N. entities involved in “international peace and security,” “human rights and humanitarian action” and “sustainable development.” BOOKS cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric. After this strong defense of the U.N. and its ideals, Weiss presents an equally powerful indictment of its many failings. He maintains, as was so obvi- ous to us practitioners on the ground, that the organization could do so much better, be so much more creative and robust, espe- cially given that the “Second U.N.” has “more autonomy and room for maneu- ver than is generally believed.” Weiss scathingly zeroes in on what he calls the United Nation’s four major ailments: “unreconstructed, sacrosanct sovereignty,” “lackluster leadership,” “North-South theatrics” and “atomiza- tion.” Based on my own experience, I could not agree more with the author’s contention that excessive deference to sovereignty can be the most costly of these failings, potentially “lethal for the planet.” I think he could have gone further, however, to examine how these ailments reinforce each other. From my observation, “lackluster leadership” is often manifested in resorting to the “sovereignty” pretext as a means of avoiding uncomfortable confrontations with host government leaders on difficult issues, while “atomi- zation” provides convenient excuses for passing the buck within the U.N. Having spent my last assignment with the U.N. in the most hopeless endeavor I’ve ever encountered— futilely attempting to coordinate peacekeeping, development and humanitarian efforts in South Sudan—I After this strong defense of the UN and its ideals, Weiss presents an equally powerful indictment of its many failings.