NO ENCHANTED PALACE: THE END OF EMPIRE AND THE IDEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF THE UNITED NATIONS
By Mark Mazower
Princeton University Press, $24.95, 236 pages
Reviewed by Martin Rubin
It’s got to the point when that tiresome word empire has been so overused that it’s enough to see it in a title for one’s teeth to be set on edge. For it’s generally so nefariously used, nearly always pejorative despite the fact that history has shown example after example of great empires spreading civilization across continents and sometimes even the globe. You can certainly be sure that when Mark Mazower, who actually holds a chair at Columbia University of “History and World Order Studies,” uses it in the title of his tendentious study of the United Nations, he isn’t paying the concept of empire any compliments.
For it is the ludicrous thesis of “No Enchanted Palace” that the United Nations was actually established in 1945 in order to preserve the large colonial empires possessed by European nations at the end of World War II. To this end, Mr. Mazower points portentously to the key role played by the longtime imperial statesman, Jan Smuts, in the formation of the organization, both behind the scenes and in a leading role at the founding San Francisco Conference. Talk about your conspiracy theories.
But, no kidding, the heart of this book’s argument is that Smuts was an imperialist and a racist - he was indeed, but so was his close friend and ally Winston Churchill - and because front and center and behind the scenes he was a prime mover in forming the United Nations, he did so in order to preserve the British Empire in the guise of its new incarnation, the British Commonwealth. After positing this risible hypothesis, based on a Procrustean selection of Smuts’ utterances and a prejudiced reading of them, the author proceeds to wander off on a couple of tangential chapters involving three less central and lesser-known figures in the 20th century’s history of international organizations - Alfred Zimmern, Raphael Lemkin and Joseph Schechtman - before revealing that lo and behold soon after the U.N.’s founding, another Commonwealth statesman, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was able to hijack Smuts’ master plan and turn the organization into the anti-colonialist force it has been ever since.
Since he has chosen to hang his book’s thesis on Smuts, it is unfortunate that Mr. Mazower has not dug deeper into the enigmatic and exceedingly complex nature of this paradoxical figure. Despite the fact that there is a wealth of secondary sources on Smuts, this author seems to have based his portrait on just one biography, the official one by W.K. Hancock, plus a smattering of fashionably critical academic articles and some dips into Smuts’ voluminous published papers. Hancock’s life is an excellent work, but there are other, more impressionistic and revealing studies. And the portrait in “No Enchanted Palace” is at times almost a caricature.
This wily politician/statesman was a very strange mixture of idealism and pragmatism. Mr. Mazower shows examples of each - the first enshrined in his defense of the League of Nations he had also been instrumental in founding and in the Preamble to the U.N. Charter which he wrote and the latter in his crucial role in persuading Churchill to accept the veto provision for permanent members of the Security Council in order to secure the USSR’s membership - but doesn’t really seem to understand the man.
For Smuts’ tragedy was that he really did believe his high-flown effusions while generally allowing pragmatic political concerns to trump them. Given South Africa’s experience with the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations’ surprisingly robust oversight of its mandate over the former German South West Africa, now Namibia, there was every reason to believe that the U.N.’s Trusteeship Council role, backed up, as this book points out, by greater oversight from thepredictably anti-colonialist General Assembly, would be still more so.
India’s role in the United Nations and in the British Commonwealth was a foregone conclusion at the end of World War II, full independence having been promised it by Britain on the war’s conclusion. As a result of even the limited self-government it had enjoyed since 1935, India was already playing an adversarial role vis a vis South Africa in the corridors of international power (as chronicled even in this book). Given the tough line taken even by the British Viceroy Lord Wavell already acting at the behest of his Indian government and the bad blood going back decades between Smuts and India’s patron saint Mahatma Gandhi from their early clashes in South Africa, only a fool (and on his worst days, Smuts was never that) could have doubted which way the wind was blowing towards South African segregation in a postwar British Commonwealth and the U.N.
There is no way that someone as hard-headed as Smuts could have deluded himself as to what the establishment of the United Nations would mean for him in terms of his domestic politics and yet he was dedicated to it nonetheless. Indeed, Mr. Mazower quotes the interchange between him and India’s U.N. representative, Nehru’s sister, Madame V.L. Pandit, after India had won a General Assembly resolution critical of South African racial policies in December 1946 (months before India’s actual independence):
“She famously made her way over to Smuts and asked his forgiveness if she should have failed to match the high standard of behavior set by Gandhi. ‘You have won a hollow victory,’ Smuts is said to have told her. ‘This vote will put me out of power in our next elections but you will have gained nothing.’ ”
Prophetic words indeed. And half-a-century later when segregation in South Africa did finally end, it was not as a result of resolutions at the United Nations, for all their proliferation over the decades.
In fact, the true story of Smuts and the U.N. is that his better nature - his sincere idealism - led him to fashion an organization that was bound to hurt him politically and would inevitably lead, as it did, to the end of empire rather than its preservation.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.