- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006


By Paul Kennedy, Random House, $26.95, 361 pages

David McCullough, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas are among the authors who have shown us in recent years that history books can be as compelling examples of fine storytelling as any work of fiction. Too bad Paul Kennedy never got that message.

In “The Parliament Of Man,” Mr. Kennedy tackles an important subject —the role of the United Nations in making the world a more peaceful place — but does so in a style that makes it unlikely that many general readers will make the effort to wade through the text.

His views are those of a conventional liberal internationalist who contends that despite its shortcomings, the United Nations represents the best hope for improving the state of the world.

“When all its aspects are considered, the U.N. has brought great benefits to our generation and, with civic resolution and generosity by all of us who can contribute further to its work, will bring benefits to our children’s and grandchildren’s generations as well,” Mr. Kennedy concludes. “But the boulder is only halfway up the mountain, and much effort is needed if it is to be moved further.”

Much of the book focuses on the United Nations’ role in sending peace-keeping troops to troubled regions such as Bosnia and the Middle East. Mr. Kennedy notes that this was not originally part of the organization’s mission and offers a mixed verdict on these operations. He cites a series of “horrific calamities and awful misjudgments,” yet these activities show “how to make the international organization work to head off conflict”

Mr. Kennedy, a history professor at Yale University, has tackled a range of international relations subjects. In the past, he has written critically acclaimed and popular works that have sounded alarm bells about the dangers of reckless imperialism (“The Rise and Fall of Great Powers”) and doused cold water on those who thought the post-Cold War era would be easier to deal with (“Preparing for the 21st Century”).

In his latest work, he seems to have lost some of his Midas touch.

This book, which started out as a report for a committee celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U.N. Charter, has much blander prose and lacks the powerful punch of Mr. Kennedy’s earlier writings.

His latest effort is not, however, without several things to commend it. He is most effective when outlining the history of international political and peace-keeping organizations. The shortcomings of the League of Nations and other entities — including the 19th-century international concerts that failed to prevent considerable bloodshed over the years — are dealt with effectively and in great detail. We also learn about some of the behind-the-scenes machinations during the founding of the United Nations.

Some of the organization’s efforts to prevent military showdowns are summarized nicely and placed in proper context. History students will find Mr. Kennedy’s work to be a valuable guide.

Unfortunately, the book falls short when the author discusses some of the organization’s institutional flaws. The oil for food scandal, which implicated several close allies of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, receives only a passing reference. Further, the U.N. practices and policies that have so angered American conservatives — an important constituency given who controls the White House and Congress these days — are not addressed as extensively as they should be.

Former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, one of the most articulate critics of the organization, gets just one mention as does former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms. Friendly critics of the organization, such as former ambassadors Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke, are not mentioned at all.

The result is that “The Parliament of Man” is a well-intentioned effort that is great when dealing with the past but not as helpful when addressing the present and future.

Given the United Nations’ rich history and wide-ranging impact on international politics, there are many ingredients for a great narrative. Maybe readers will be treated to one at some point. In the meantime, Mr. Kennedy’s work will have to suffice.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.

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