[October 24th will mark the 70th anniversary of the official establishment of the United Nations. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories connect to the UN, leading up to a weekend post on the worst and best of the US’s relationship to the organization.]
What three representative UN leaders tell us about the organization and its histories.
1) Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961): Sweden’s Hammarskjöld was not the first elected UN Secretary General (that honor went to Norway’s Trygve Lie), but I would argue he was the first to illustrate the new organization’s international influence. That was particularly illustrated by the controversial 1960-1961 Congo Crisis, in which the precise nature of the UN’s involvement and influence remains under debate by historians. While the UN had not been able to prevent the Korean War (a situation that contributed greatly to Lie’s 1952 resignation), in the Congo the organization wielded its power and authority far more successfully, in the process shaping that nation’s and its continent’s future for many years to come. While we might debate President John F. Kennedy’s statement (after the Secretary General’s tragic death in a 1961 plane crash) that Hammarskjöld was “the greatest statesman of our century,” he unquestionably made the UN into far more of a global player than it had previously been.
2) Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982-1991): Each of the subsequent Secretary Generals have extended that legacy, dealing with their own global crises and wielding the organization’s authority and influence in their own ways. Peru’s de Cuéllar was the first Secretary General from the Western Hemisphere, and on that level alone reflects the organization and the world’s evolution into and beyond the 1980s. Moreover, a number of the crises through which de Cuéllar led the UN connected closely to postcolonial settings and issues as well: from mediating Britain and Argentina’s disputes in the aftermath of the 1982 Falklands War and promoting the 1983-4 work of the Contadora Group (a transnational Central American organization working for regional peace) to negotiating Namibia’s 1990 bid for independence from South Africa, among other moments. Such issues had been part of the world for centuries, of course, but they gained much greater visibility in the 1980s, and de Cuéllar’s UN reflected and amplified that presence.
3) Kofi Annan (1997-2006): Like de Cuéllar, Ghana’s Annan was significant in part because of geography: he was the first UN Secretary General from sub-Saharan Africa. But in many of his most prominent actions and initiatives, Annan also helped usher the UN into the new millennium, working to reform and strengthen its management, secretariat and Security Council, and Human Rights Council, among other efforts. It was in part for these necessary and meaningful reforms, and in part for such pioneering initiatives as the UN Global Compact and The Global Fund (for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria) that Annan and the UN were co-recipients of the 2001 (centennial) Nobel Peace Prize. While the UN is far from perfect, as I’ll work to analyze in the next two posts, Annan ensured that it would move into the 21st century in evolving and vibrant ways, extending and deepening the legacy of these prior Secretary Generals and of the organization’s global role and impacts.
Last UN history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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