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The United Nations; History and Core Ideas by Laurence Peters

Writing.ie | Non Fiction

By P H Patrick

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Supporters of, and people casually interested in, the United Nations will find this book informative and rewarding to read. The book, however, should be required reading for detractors of the United Nations and those mired in its daily operations and internal politics and egos; hopefully, this book will provide them with a longer term vision to put the deficiencies of the United Nations in the proper perspective. Whilst reading the book I was continually reminded of Winston Churchill’s statement about democracy: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” To my mind, after reading this book, that statement applies equally to the United Nations.

The author indicates that the idea for the book came when teaching a graduate course, and he had to recommend an introductory text that took the UN story further back than the doomed League of Nations, and he could not find one. As discussed below, I believe that the author has successfully met his goal, and produced a book that should also be read by non-students. My only significant criticism of the book is that I think that the author should have provided a separate bibliography of his source materials. Source material is clearly identified in “Notes” within each chapter, but a separate bibliography would avoid needing to search the notes when a source is referred to, after the first noted occurrence in a chapter.

For the book the author has identified seven themes (Collective Security, Inclusive Global Forum to Settle International Disputes, Rule of International Law, Sovereignty: Understanding the Westphalian Movement, Collective Security Doctrine, The Peaceful Settlement of Disputes, and The Development of Human Rights Laws). The book’s eight chapters loosely follow the sequence of these themes. The concepts associated with these themes are anchored by: (i) references to historical events beginning from the ancient Egyptian dynasties (in the case of arbitration), through the Greek, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, and into the 19th and 20th centuries (with extended references to the aftermath of each of the two world wars); and (ii) the writings and efforts of individuals such as Emeric Cruce (1590 – 1648), Hugo Grotius (1583 – 1645), William Penn (1644 – 1718), and Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) through to the twentieth century efforts of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Eleanor Roosevelt. These two sets of anchors help to provide factual cohesion to the concepts of the seven themes.

Because of the expanse of time and concepts covered, the author expresses a concern that his treatment might be considered oversimplified. For the intended audience of students, I think not. The author’s treatment is simplified in the same way that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, written specifically for students, can be thought of as a simplification of more extensive books for editorial practitioners such as the The Chicago Manual of Style. Scholars of the applicable disciplines may take issue with the way the author has had to paint, with a broad brush, his interpretation of historical events and periods, and complicated intellectual traditions. But these broad brush strokes are a means to an end. They are intended to show, through the millennia, the progression and relationship of ongoing human efforts (both intellectual and organizational) in the search for peace and avoidance of war between nation-states. The author’s writing style is clear and crisp. He does not belabor an issue, but makes his point and moves on.

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