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New Histories of the United Nations

Sunil Amrith, Glenda Sluga

Journal of World History, Volume 19, Number 3, September 2008,
pp. 251-274 (Article)
Published by University of Hawai'i Press
DOI: 10.1353/jwh.0.0021
For additional information about this article
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Journal of World History, Vol. 19, No. 3
2008 by University of Hawaii Press
New Histories of the United Nations
sunil amrith
Birkbeck, University of London
glenda sluga
University of Sydney
n 1953, the United Nations Educational, Scientic and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) began publishing its Journal of World His-
tory, primarily known as Cahiers dhistoire mondiale, under the editor-
ship of the great French Annales historian Lucien Febvre.
The ambi-
tions of the new journal were as expansive as the school of history
with which Febvre was associated: we, its editor claimed, speak of
all peoples, or, perhaps, of all civilizations. Its ultimate ambition was
grand indeed: to write, by focusing on the development of culture, sci-
ence, and knowledge, a history of peace. . . . Peace, that foretastefor
the believerof a divine order. That triumphfor the unbelieverof
free human reason.

Few practitioners of world history today might hold such high aspi-
rations. Even fewer might credit UNESCO, a specialized agency of the
United Nations (UN), as the hearth for diverse currents of national
and international historiography that anticipated the Journal of World
History in which we write.
However, as the efforts, past and present,
The journal was in circulation until 1972.
Cahiers dhistoire mondiale 1 (1953).
Interestingly, in the most sweeping history of the world since 1918, Eric Hobsbawms
The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 19141991 (London: Abacus, 1995), there is
hardly a mention of the UN. The same is true of more recent efforts to dene the eld of
world history. See, for example, T. Ballantyne, Putting the Nation in Its Place? World
History and C. A. Baylys The Birth of the Modern World, in Connected Worlds: History
in Transnational Perspective, ed. A. Curthoys and M. Lake (Canberra: Australian National
University Press, 2006), pp. 2344.
252 journal of world history, september 2008
of the United Nations have become the focus of popular and political
concerns, it is precisely the UNs role as a catalyst in diverse and far-
reaching aspects of international intellectual, cultural, and social as
well as political life in the latter half of the twentieth century that has
begun to capture the attention of historians.
This issue of the Journal of World History, conceived initially in the
midst of the proliferation of conferences and publications commemo-
rating the UNs sixtieth anniversary in 2005, aims to highlight the new
directions that have emerged in the study of the UNs history and the
ability of the history of the UN to enrich diverse historiographies.
At a time when there is extensive contemporary awareness of the
gathering social, political, and economic forces of globalization, sup-
plemented within the academy by the transnational turn, the UN
and its various international organizations offer a seductive and under-
utilized focus for seeking out and resuscitating forms of experience and
thinking that transcend the assumption that the political borders of
nations determine the nature of experiences, ideas, or politics.
At the
same time, the UN has become the object of new and exciting his-
torical research because of historians (renewed) interest in a number
of themes that have preoccupied the UN from the outset: inter alia,
questions of race and racism, the global implications of anticolonial
nationalism, the problem of development in relations between North
and South, the gendered nature of the postwar international order. It
is at least one of our aims in putting together this issue to anticipate,
as well as reect, the myriad ways in which the history of the UN has a
place in the international, as well as in the transnational, history of the
modern worldthat is to say, as a channel for the relations between
states, as well as between a myriad of nongovernmental and voluntary
organizations, networks, political movements, and individuals.
This survey focuses on four areas in particular in which recent work
on the UN has opened up broader questions about the international
and transnational history of the latter half of the twentieth century,
drawing in particular on the rich collection of research presented in this
special issue. First, we argue that the development of the UN, its values
and commitments, was nourished by the contention and convergence
The connection between this turn and the study of international organizations has
been promoted in particular by Akira Iriye, who has lent a new legitimacy to the study of
culture in the context of international relations. See his Global Community: The Role of
International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2002) and Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1997).
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 253
of competing universalisms and not merely the Western tradition of
thinking about security and rights with which the organization is usu-
ally associated. Second, we suggest that the UN has occupied a par-
ticularly central role as an arena for the discussion of questions of race
and rights, but that the potentially radical implications of those discus-
sions have always been constrained by the interests of state sovereignty.
Third, we argue that the UN has played a central role in dening the
social, notably in its interventions to bring about development, and
in its engagement (or lack of engagement) with questions of gender
and gender equality. Fourth, as alluded to above, we highlight the role
of the UN as a historiographical actor in its own right: we argue that
the history of the UN can illuminate diverse areas of world history, but
that the UN itself is part of the genealogy of world history as a eld
of research.
Origins: Competing Universalisms
The history of the UN has long remained the preserve of political
scientists and diplomatic historians, who have tended to focus on
its institutional development and on its role in the Cold War. Their
accounts commonly describe the creation of the UN as a spontaneous
response to the horrors of World War II and as the expression of world-
wide aspirations for a more internationally conscious and democratic
world order.
They also concentrate on the role of the United States
in shaping the universal idealism of the new world orderspecically
the contribution of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, after his
death, his wife, Eleanor.
Alternatively, historians have focused on the
intellectual genealogy of the UN by highlighting the thoughts of men
who established the organizations ideological identication with cul-
tural diversity and antiracism of a particular kind, such as the English
zoologist Julian Huxley and scientist Joseph Needham, or the French
anthropologist Alfred Mtraux. Historians continue to give the UN a
See Stephen C. Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations
(Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003); Geoff Simons, The United Nations, A Chronology of
Conict (New York: Macmillan, 1994); Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, FDR and
the Creation of the UN (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997); and Evan Luard,
A History of the United Nations, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1982).
See for example R. Russell, A History of the United Nations Charter (Washington,
D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1958) and more recently Hoopes and Brinkley, FDR and the
Creation of the UN.
254 journal of world history, september 2008
primarily Western genealogy, as many of its founding fathers tended
to do. For Ren Cassin, the erstwhile father of the Universal Declara-
tion of Human Rights, the UNs engagement with human rights had
its roots in the French conceptualization of les droits de lhomme. For
Cassin, the benets of universalism and the UN were equivalent to,
and even rested upon, the example set by the French empire, which he
imagined as a cosmopolitan community in which Jews such as himself,
and Muslims, whites, and blacks, shared universal rights and sought
politicocultural convergence as French citizens and patriots.
When historians of the United Nations have sought out a longue
dure perspective, the tone has been at times teleological, even simplis-
tic. Paul Kennedys recent The Parliament of Man, in many ways a con-
ventional history of the UN in this regard, opens with the claim that
[t]he idea of a universal association of humankind goes back hundreds
if not thousands of years.
By comparison, other scholars are beginning to insert the history
of the UN into debates about the general ideological and institutional
legacies of the Enlightenment and of the longer history of interna-
tional organizations.
As Emma Rothschild has argued, the UN has
an intellectual genealogy in ideas about security, as well as peace, that
date back to the eighteenth century, and that includes World War I
internationalists such as Leonard Woolf and E. H. Carr (and to which,
in a Western context, we can add international feminists such as Jane
Addams, Helena Swanwick, and Rosika Schwimmer). After 1945, and
perhaps even before, that intellectual genealogy embraced the expan-
sion of security to include economic and social security and the secu-
rity of individuals as well as statesthemes that UN workers, com-
mittees, and agencies have restored to prominence at the turn of the
twenty-rst century through the concept of human security.
Other new readings of the intellectual history of the UN also ren-
der it a site of currents of thought that universalized the promises of
Enlightenment thought, extending them to the peoples without
See Glenda Sluga, Cosmopolitan Crossings: The United Nations and the History of Inter-
nationalism, Race, and Human Rights at the End of the Second World War (forthcoming).
Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United
Nations (London: Allen Lane, 2006), p. 7.
The emphasis in new histories of the UN on the intellectual, and even ideological,
traditions of which it is regarded as the epitome, has obviously shaped the UN Intellectual
History Project. It also is evident as a theme in Jo-Anne Pembertons Global Metaphors:
Modernity and the Quest for One World (Sydney: Pluto, 2001), which examines the rise of the
UN as part of a broad intellectual history of ideas of world unity.
See also E. Rothschild, What Is Security? Daedalus 124 (1995): 5398.
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 255
history, the colonized societies of Asia and Africa. On some recent
views, the creation of the UN owed much to the work of anticolonial
nationalists who had imbibed the lessons of European social and politi-
cal thought and combined them with a cosmopolitan range of political
ideas, both indigenous and foreign, in a way that obliterated that very
distinction. In a recent work on global anarchism, Benedict Ander-
son makes the provocative suggestion that the UN would have been
unthinkable without the intellectual labor of Asian radical national-
ists, who appropriated elements of European thought but transcended
the racial exclusions inherent within them. Anderson shows that in
the work of the early Filipino ethnographer and folklorist Isabelo de
los Reyes, the living specicity of the Philippines . . . positioned it to
offer something, parallel and equal to that of any other pais, to human-
ity, a viewpoint that challenged the colonial dismissal of the Philip-
pines cultural value. Anderson argues, convincingly, that this is the
logic that would much later make the United Nations both possible
and plausible.
On this view, the UNs intellectual history can be
traced to the contrapuntal history of ideas that Edward Said presents
in the nal section of Culture and Imperialismthe efforts of colonized
intellectuals to work between cultures, and to make truly universal the
strands of European humanist thought.
We should not be surprised
that the intellectual legacy represented by de los Reyes made its reap-
pearance in 1945, in the contribution of Carlos Romulo, the Philip-
pines delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission, to the draft-
ing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Romulo, although
slightly younger, was of a similar generation to Cassin. He had been a
journalist, and educated in the United States as well as the Philippines.
But his language was more forthright:
We want a rational bill of rights that will take into account all the dif-
ferent cultural patterns there are in the world, especially in respect to
popular customs and legal systems. We should nd such a principle to
be valid in all conceivable cases, provided it shall not be used to sanc-
tion the ways of ignorance and superstition or outmoded social con-
ventions, or the irrational taboos of religion, or the manifestly unjust
dispositions of existing law.

Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination
(London: Verso, 2006), p. 15.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1993).
Charles Malik Collection, Library of Congress. Box 76, File 1: First Session, Com-
mission on Human RightsMinutes, 1947. Commission on Human Rights, First Session,
Verbatim Record, 9th meeting, 1 February 1947, 12.
256 journal of world history, september 2008
Romulo, who ended up a defender of the Marcos regime, also evoked
(almost uniquely in this setting) the potential for indulging the vision
of World Government which the implementation of the proposed
international bill of rights will doubtless require in some degree, and of
which, as a matter of fact, it will be the cornerstone.
From a transnational and even postcolonial longue dure view, the
conception of the UN as the sudden and novel reaction to the Holo-
caust, inaugurating a new world era and order, gives way to the Enlight-
enment or humanist tradition of universal idealism and progressa
tradition interpreted outside as well as inside European geopolitical
borders. This shift in perspective does not erase the importance of the
Holocaust or of the postWorld War II period in the shaping of its
ideological mission, but it does remind us of the variety of historical
approaches that illuminate the UNs institutional and intellectual ori-
gins as well as its Cold War history: from the consideration of the role
of key individuals from the so-called new world as well as the old
and the substance of their idealism, to the inuence of specic national
governments and discourses of civilization.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might be seen, then,
as an amalgam of competing, or converging, universalismsimperial
and anticolonial, Eastern and Western, old and new. Yet ideal-
ism is not all, as Mark Mazower has recently shown. In asking why
the UN came to enshrine the principle of human rights, Mazower
argued that a major part of the explanation lies in the potential for a
universal conception of human rights to provide an alternative to the
discredited system of minority protection that the League of Nations
had triedand failedto administer. At the same time, he suggests,
the only reason that human rights managed its strange triumph is
that the Great Powers managed to dilute it sufciently, with a stringent
domestic jurisdiction provision and a lack of enforceability, so as to
be nonthreatening.
Roland Burkes article in this issue on the rst
UN International Conference held in 1968 in Tehran offers a further
alternative contextualization of the longue dure of human rights. By
focusing on the marginalization of that conference in the historical
record, Burke brings to light the hesitation that some historians have
felt about delving into less successful aspects of the UNs contribution
to internationalism and human rights. He also suggests that a cold-
eyed analysis exposes signicant shifts in meaning in the idea of human
Mark Mazower, The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 19331950, Historical
Journal 47 (2004): 379398.
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 257
rights itself in the rst decades of the UNs operation. Burke highlights
the ways in which during the 1960s, in the context of decolonization,
human rights moved from a focus on the individual to economic devel-
opment and national self-determination. Seen from this perspective,
the immediate postwar period represents less the failure of the inter-
national community to commit to minority rights than a preference
for privileging the individual over the state. In the UNs rst years,
and for men such as Cassin and Romulo both, individual human rights
were crucial precisely because of the lessons learned from the interwar
period and the abuse by states of minority rights issues. The 1960s, by
contrast, heralded the reafrmation in UN circles of collective and pri-
marily state-based solutions to the challenges of human rights.
Race, Rights, and Sovereignty
New scholarship on the UNs history has thus challenged simple narra-
tives of the organizations originswhether seeing it as the triumph of
the idealistic few, like Eleanor Roosevelt, or as the victim of Realpoli-
tikin favor of an emphasis on complexity and contradiction. Schol-
ars have shown that the UN was constrained by the Cold War at every
turn, yet at times operated independent of it; that as an organization
the UN was the tool of nation-states, yet capable at times of intellec-
tual and political autonomy.
The UNs involvement with the race question clearly illustrates
the profusion of contradictions that the UN has always had to face, the
limits upon its ability to shape an international intellectual and moral-
political agenda. Thus, the UN was critical to the international status
of the postwar challenge to racism, at the same time as its operations
remained shaped by racial assumptions and racial prejudice. Wide-
spread revulsion at the Nazi racial doctrine came together with the
insights of anthropologists to produce a distinctive attempt to tran-
scend and overcome race, as enshrined in the workings of UNESCO,
the constitution of which begins, famously, that since wars begin in
the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace
must be constructed.
This early postwar move to lend the force of the UN toward the
delegitimization of racism was given a sharper critical edge by the
labors of anticolonial nationalists, who had pointed out the hypocrisy
underlying some of the promises of the Atlantic Charter. It is striking
that it was for the UN, specically UNESCO, that Claude Levi-Strauss
wrote his most sustained examination of race, in Race et Histoire. The
258 journal of world history, september 2008
text is a revealing document of the UNs intellectual history. It shows
both how the UNs intellectual genealogy lies in the colonial encoun-
ter and in colonial disciplines such as anthropology and the extent to
which the UNs ethical imperativesantiracism, for exampleinu-
enced the research and rhetorical strategies of leading scholars. The
original sin of anthropology, Levi-Strauss argued in 1956, consists in
its confusion of the idea of race, in the purely biological sense . . . with
the sociological and psychological products of human civilizations.

The UN was based on the recognition of the equality of those alleged
civilizations, just as it enshrined the sovereign equality of nations in
the General Assembly. Levi-Strausss essay, like others in the UNESCO
collection in which it appeared, gave that aspiration academic legiti-
macy by attempting to redene the signicance of cultural difference.
Race et Histoire was a call for diversity as a value in itself: this has
clear roots in the (French as well as British) colonial fascination with
the alterity of colonized societies, with cataloguing the strange and the
alien. More than most colonial anthropologists, though, Levi-Strauss,
writing in the postwar moment, was critical of the assumption of racial
superiority inherent in the colonial civilizing mission. Yet even here
he stands in a long line of colonial ethnographers and administrators
who wished to keep native culture pure, to save the native from
the harmful effects of modernity and what, in the African case, was
called de-tribalization. The UN, then was one of many intellectual
sites through which the notion of race underwent transformation after
1945; to put it baldly, a transformation from race-as-biology to race-as-
culture. Through UNESCO in particular, the UN mounted a serious
intellectual effort to challenge the scientic and ethical grounds on
which racial thought claimed legitimacy. Whether or not the UN suc-
ceeded in debunking racist mythology is not the pointclearly, it did
not. The fact that it provided a forum for these questions to be raised
was of great importance.
An underlying theme in much recent work on the UN, then, is the
fact that the egalitarian language enshrined in the UN had no way of
acknowledging and dealing with the very real inequalitiespolitical,
economic, racialthat persisted and deepened in the postWorld War
II period.
These contradictions have come to light, for example, in histories
that focus on the UN as a critical international arenaan interna-
tional public sphere in formationin which, in the period after World
Claude Levi-Strauss, Race and History [1956], in Race, Science and Society, ed.
L. C. Dunn et al. (Paris: UNESCO, 1975), pp. 9596.
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 259
War II, the disenfranchised applied for representation.
Carol Ander-
sons award-winning Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the Afri-
can American Struggle for Human Rights, 19441955 is an account of
the Cold War that intersperses analysis of debates within the UN with
an examination of the archives of the NAACP and a variety of UN
member nations, to turn our attention to the connection between ide-
ological struggles between the representatives of the superpowers and
domestic/national struggles over human rights.
Anderson argues that
toward the end of World War II, the Cold War transformed human
rights into an ideological battleeld between the Soviet Union and
the United States and engulfed the struggle for black equality. In this
history, the UN represents an alternative forum for articulating human
rights, as well as a space where that ideological battle took place. In
this special issue, too, Andersons article on the intersecting histories
of the NAACP and the UNs Trusteeship Council, set up as the suc-
cessor to the Leagues mandate system for overseeing the evolution of
colonies into nation-states, reminds us that the UN was created in the
context of ideologies of race and nationalism, as well as in opposition
to them. Its organs and personnel carried forward into the new world of
universal human rights the Victorian conception of backward civiliza-
tions and nations, albeit in new ways.
As Anderson shows in Eyes off the Prize, the pressures of the Cold
War and the entrenched racism of many leading American ofcials
stymied the UNs ability to act as an arena for progressive alliances.
At the root of the failure of the kinds of mobilization that Anderson
describes was the massive stumbling block of state sovereignty. The
UN, in the nal analysis, was a creature of states and the upholder of
the international system of nation-states.
In no area has the contradiction between the UNs ambitions and
its capacities been more glaring than in its primary mission of main-
taining global peace and security. The UNs peacekeeping missions
began modestlywith observers on the India-Pakistan border and in
Palestine. In both these places the UN had also played a signicant
role in determining the political and cultural borders that exacerbated
See, for example, Marika Sherwood, There Is No New Deal for the Blackman in
San Francisco: African Attempts to Inuence the Founding Conference of the United
Nations, AprilJuly 1945, International Journal of African Historical Studies 29, no. 1 (1996):
7194. On the earlier history of racism within international organizations, see the excel-
lent study by Naoko Shimazu, Japan, Race and Equality: The Racial Equality Clause of 1919
(London: Routledge, 1998).
Carol Anderson, Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Strug-
gle for Human Rights, 19441955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
260 journal of world history, september 2008
intracommunity conict; in the context of peacekeeping, by contrast,
UN workers quickly realized they had little capacity to inuence events
in either case. The UN invasion of Korea in 1950 was the rstand for
decades the onlyinstance where the organization intervened militar-
ily to assist a sovereign state faced with aggression. Yet, the invasion
was largely an American enterprise and gained the support of the Secu-
rity Council only through the fortuitous absence of the USSR. Ramesh
Thakur, in his recent book on the UNs role in maintaining global
peace and security, identies the central contradiction: war between
lesser states may be deplorable and unhealthy for their nationals, but
cannot itself endanger world peace, yet the threat that comes from the
involvement in conict of larger powers cannot be contained, since it
is impossible to enforce against major powers.
Inevitably, the UNs
greatest involvement has been in the conicts of the Third World
beginning, in 1960, with its intervention with twenty thousand troops
in the Congo.
Thus the position of the UN as simultaneous arbiter of the univer-
sal and defender of the particularism of the nation-state has reached
its furthest extent, perhaps, in its numerous peacekeeping missions in
Asia and Africa, which have intensied in scope and in number since
the end of the Cold War. In a somewhat overlooked but deeply insight-
ful article, anthropologist and novelist Amitav Ghosh has highlighted
the potential that lies in the ethnographyand, we would add, the
historyof international peacekeeping. Ghosh argues, from his expe-
rience of the vast UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia in 1993
(UNTAC), that the primal mandate of the UN remains that of pro-
tecting and perpetuating the nation-state form. The UN peacekeep-
ers Ghosh observed found themselves in the uncomfortable position
of being arbiters of ethnicity, deciding who was Cambodian and
who was foreign (i.e., Vietnamese) in the course of their prepara-
tions for the Cambodian elections. The UN represents the totality of
the worlds recognized nation-states, he writes, and the fundamental
logic of its functioning is to recreate the image of its members wher-
ever it goes. Crucially, he points out that wherever the demands of
democracy or humanitarianism run contrary to the exigencies of the
nation-state, it is the latter that will always win out.
Ramesh Thakur, The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to
the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 3335.
Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of
Our Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Amitav Ghosh, The Global Reservation: Notes Towards an Ethnography of Inter-
national Peacekeeping [1994], in The Imam and the Indian (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002),
pp. 251267.
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 261
Redefining the Social
In parallel with its involvement with global questions of race and rights,
peace and security, the UN has always made the social question a
priority. Building upon the earlier initiatives of the League of Nations,
and all manner of nongovernmental organizations from the interwar
years, the UN established an elaborate machinery of information and
intervention to ameliorate living conditions around the world: the
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Childrens Fund
(UNICEF), and the World Health Organization (WHO) were estab-
lished in the rst few years of the UNs existence with an expansive
and ambitious mandate to reduce poverty, bring education to children
everywhere, and to eradicate infectious disease.
In 1952, the UN published a Preliminary Report on the World Social
Situation. The title of the report is in itself indicative of the extent to
which the UN was at the heart of a globalization of concern and
responsibility for social questions; the scale of analysis and comparison,
as Alison Bashford points out in this issue, was the world. The report
declared that:
A far-reaching change in outlook upon world social problems has been
taking place. To an extent that seemed inconceivable even 50 years
ago, there has come increasing recognition that 2,400 million people
have somehow to contrive to live together, and share together the
resources of the earth; that the general impoverishment of any area
is a matter of concern to all areas; and that the technical experience
and knowledge acquired in rapidly changing industrialised societies
have somehow to be made available to those communities that are less
advanced and less well equipped.
This socioeconomic view of global interdependence encapsulated the
project of technical assistancelater development assistance
with which the UN sought, literally, to transform the world.
In the middle of October 1948, the United Nations Mission of
Technical Assistance arrived in the Republic of Haiti. It was the UNs
rst mission to extend technical assistance to an under-developed
The missions objective was wide-ranging: To examine the
problems of and the conditions affecting the economic development of
Haiti primarily in the elds of agriculture, industry and related activi-
UN, Preliminary Report on the World Social Situation (New York, 1952), p. 3.
UN, Mission to Haiti: Report of the United Nations Mission of Technical Assistance to the
Republic of Haiti (New York, 1949).
262 journal of world history, september 2008
ties, having regard to the inter-related economic and social problems
bearing, in particular, on the improvement of health and education.

This is a striking encapsulation of the problem of development. Just
how interventions in these inter-related elds should be balanced, all
over the world, would be one of the most difcult questions faced by
the UN in the 1950s.
The Haiti mission was the rst attempt by the UN to dene devel-
opment as a set of practiceswhat problems were to be included as
amenable to technical assistance? How did the various kinds of inter-
vention needed to bring about development t together? The Mis-
sion stayed in Haiti for two months. They travelled extensively, and
undertook eld studies throughout the country. Out of this experi-
enceliving, working, travelling togetherthe mission produced
its recommendations for the reorganization of Haitis economy and
society. The most basic problem was dened thus: The fundamental
economic problem of Haiti derives from relentless pressure of a steadily
growing, insufciently educated population upon limited, vulnerable
andso far as agricultural land is concernedalarmingly shrinking
natural resources.
There followed an elaborate series of recommen-
dations for the reform of agriculture, transportation, government, pub-
lic health, and education.
The 1949 UN report Mission to Haiti is largely written in the bureau-
cratic prose of technical assistance, but at certain points a political and
historical narrative of Haitis under-development is articulated. If
technical assistance was a portent of international relations in a new,
democratic age, the missions view of Haitis own anticolonial strug-
gle was notably equivocal. Haiti won its independence, the mission
noted, in a protracted and erce scorched-earth war of liberation from
France. Few States have begun their national existence in less aus-
picious circumstances than Haiti, which found itself a linguistically
and racially isolated nation of the Western Hemisphere.
independence was won, however, mistakes were made. The internal
management of the state was marked by chronic political instabil-
ity, inefciency in the nancial administration and in the organiza-
tion and equipment of its economy, and the unyielding pressure of a
too-heavy external debt. As a result of this acute internal strife,
Haiti was occupied by U.S. military forces, which remained in the
UN, Mission to Haiti, p. xiii.
Ibid., p. 6.
Ibid., p. 26.
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 263
country until 1934 and instituted a much-needed system of stringent
nancial control. The lesson was stern: Haiti, part of the economic
problem area of the Caribbean, lags in respect of economic devel-
opment even more markedly than other countries and territories . . .
confronted by the dilemma of sustaining a steadily growing popula-
tion on gradually shrinking land resources, its developmental task is
desperately urgent. The whole passage reads as a parable of the pitfalls
of misguided nation building subverting the rational, efcient gover-
nance of development.
An almost physical sense of discomfort occasionally breaks through
the smooth
surface of administrative prose. In the section on pub-
lic health, the Haiti report noted that people in Port-au-Prince live
crowded together in a great number in small rooms. This is an impor-
tant factor in the spread of . . . disease, since in limited spaced abun-
dant crowds live in the most intimate contact in the poorest dwellings
imaginable, erected on ground that in the rainy season becomes a quag-
mire, surrounded by carelessly discarded garbage. The accompanying
image showing a crowd of men, women, and children huddled around
drums of water is clearly designed to convey a sense of this overcrowd-
ing and disease, even as new accretions to these miserable crowds are
continually drifting in from the countryside.
Rural Haitians too, the
report suggested, lacked the very essentials of wholesome housing, the
peasant huts . . . are difcult to keep reasonably sanitary, and seldom
fulls the demands of hygiene. The report deemed that a heavy task
confronts the Haitian health authorities, whose work in the rugged
countryside is further complicated by the very poor state of communi-
cations, causing whole areas to be practically isolated during the major
part of the rainy season.

That Haiti would be the rst country to host a UN technical assis-
tance mission was heavily symbolic in ways that illustrate some of the
tensions at the heart of the new politics of technical assistance. On the
one hand, Haiti was the rst postcolonial nation, the symbol of sover-
eign equality for colonized, colored peoples. When the Haitian govern-
ment approached the UN to send an expert mission, it was an assertion
of their entitlement as a member of the UN to the expertise that the
The term, which describes so well the technical language of development, is sug-
gested by Rudolf Mrazek, writing about the culture of technology in late colonial Indonesia.
Mrazek, Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 2002).
UN, Mission to Haiti, p. 71.
Ibid., p. 60.
264 journal of world history, september 2008
new institution professed to hold on matters of development.
suggested that technical assistance was a democratic, even postcolo-
nial, phenomenon; this was a sense widely shared in newly postcolonial
countries, such as India. On the other hand, Haiti was, from the time
of its revolution, held up on both sides of the North Atlantic as a place
of poverty, underdevelopment, and pathological failure to modernize,
an example of the inability of colonized peoples to rule themselves.

On this view, technical assistance would serve as yet another attempt
to reform the underdeveloped world, an act of generosity on the part
of the generous Western powers. The New York Times commented,
knowingly, that the expert group of the UN drew a dismal picture
of an extremely mountainous semi-tropical country the size of Mary-
land trying to support a rapidly growing population on shrinking land
From either perspective, Haiti was but an opening act for the UN.
The New York Times declared that the Haiti mission was a demonstra-
tion of how it [the UN] was prepared to tackle the problem of techni-
cal aid to under-developed countries. Haiti had its particular ills, to
be sure, but many of the problems Haiti has in common with other
under-developed countries. It concluded with the hope that the UNs
technical assistance might become inextricably associated with Tru-
mans Point IV Program.
Of course, not all UN workers saw technical
assistance from an American perspective. In early 1953, Alva Myrdal,
the head of UNESCOs social sciences division, went on mission to
India to observe and promote her organizations contribution to local
technical assistance programs. From 1949 to 1950, Myrdal had been
the highest-ranking woman in the UN hierarchy, Top Ranking Direc-
tor of the Social Division in New York. One of the architects of the
Swedish welfare state, she was an early enthusiast for the potential of
The Haitian government formally approached the UNs secretary-general with a
request for a mission of experts to advise on economic development in June 1948, follow-
ing Resolution 51 (IV) of the Economic and Social Council, which advised the secretary-
general to provide assistance to Member Governments which seek expert advice . . . who
would study specic problems and recommend appropriate technical solutions. UN, Mis-
sion to Haiti, p. xiii; Economic and Social Council, Resolution 51 (IV), 28 March 1947.
Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1994); and
Peter Hallward, Haitian Inspiration: On the Bicentenary of Haitis Independence, Radical
Philosophy, no. 123 (JanuaryFebruary 2004).
UN Haiti Report Sets Point IV Path, New York Times, 24 September 1949; UN
to Survey Haiti, New York Times, 28 July 1948; and First Economic Mission of Expert
Assistance to a Member Country Will Leave Tomorrow for the Negro Republic of Haiti,
New York Times, 16 October 1948.
UN Haiti Report Sets Point IV Path.
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 265
what had newly come to be referred to as development. She regarded
development as a concept that described a Swedish experience as much
as a program for backward non-European communities. But by 1953,
Myrdal, otherwise a longstanding enthusiast of the benets of rational
scientic planning, was beginning to think that, under the auspices of
the UN, development had become an experimental eld for outsiders
enforcing American-endowed community development schemes that
carried dependence on capital outlay, and that the technical assistance
planned at desks in Paris did not often match the reality on the ground
or anticipate local and indigenous efforts. What she abhorred most
was the emphasis on economics at the expense of the effects on commu-
nity and the one way trafc off cultural inuence epitomized by these
In this sense, Myrdal anticipated later critiques of postwar
technical assistance. As described by the historian Timothy Mitchell,
during the 1950s technical assistance came to represent a new politics
based on technical expertise that would organize post-war interna-
tional relations around a politics of techno-economic development.

Of the many transformations the framework of technical assistance
brought about in the way social and economic problems were dened
and addressed, the impact on public health is particularly revealing.
In the eld of health, from the 1940s on, the agencies of the UN
were a key arena of debate. Here questions of welfare and development
were gradually detached from their colonial context and posited as
the universal aspirations of independent nation-states.
It was within
institutions such as the World Health Organization that the legacies of
imperial public health, for example, were examined and then appropri-
ated or rejected as models for a new, more universal, public health.
a number of critical anthropologists of development have shown, the
UN all too often served as an anti-politics machinein James Fer-
gusons memorable phraseworking to perpetuate bureaucratic state
International organizations were a source of ideas, rhetoric,
UNESCO Archives, Paris. X07.83, Folder: Missions of Myrdal.
Timothy Mitchell, Can the Mosquito Speak? in Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Poli-
tics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 1953, at p. 41.
Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labour Question in French
and British Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Sunil Amrith, Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 193065
(New York: Palgrave, 2006).
James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticisation and Bureau-
cratic Power in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); see also Arturo
Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton,
266 journal of world history, september 2008
and legitimation for both late colonial and postcolonial state building,
and these organizations legitimacy came from their ability to dene
the boundaries of debate on social and economic policy, to adjudicate
on what was universal.
The extent to which the UN has been imprisoned by its function
as a tool for legitimizing the nation-state, and for the intensication of
state power, has been of particular concern for historians of the postco-
lonial world. Some of the most interesting work in this vein has con-
centrated on the role of the UN and its agencies in formulating and
implementing projects of development, perhaps the single most perva-
sive motivation, in the postcolonial era, for state expansion, interven-
tion, categorization, and quantication. Indeed, the UN has provided
a global statistical machinery essential to modern national governance.
It has played a crucial role in counting births, deaths, and diseases, as
the International Labour Organization, back in the 1920s, was the rst
to collect international migration statistics, mapping movement across
national boundaries. Alison Bashfords article in this issue brings to
the fore the role of a number of UN organizationsfrom UNESCO
to UNFPAin establishing the geopolitical signicance of population
questions in simultaneously national and world contexts.
This dictum holds true, also, of the UNs attempts to redress gender
inequalities, not least within the organization itself. Development was
a concept that made women its preserve and has since been the subject
of most historical discussion of the place of women in the history of the
UN. Yet there are other ways in which women intrude on that history
that have only begun to be investigated. As an institution committed
to managing the historical problem of chauvinism and the reconcilia-
tion of unity and diversity as ideals, in its early days the UN, through
its workers and agencies, tended to concentrate on the problem of race
chauvinism. While this can be understood as a natural consequence of
the Holocaust, it does not diminish the question of why other kinds of
chauvinism, particularly those directed against women, were not taken
up as forcefully, as an educational mission of UNESCO for example.
Recent discussions of these issues have been largely silent on the extent
to which the UNs commitment to national sovereignty determined
the place of women in the universalist agenda of that organization. As
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995). For a more nuanced, historical view, see Frederick
Cooper and Randall Packard, eds., International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays in
the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 267
in the earlier interwar League of Nations Covenant, the UN charter
afrmed the equality of men and women, as well as the eligibility of
women and men for positions in the UN, although, surprisingly, this
was more a point of controversy in 1945 than it had been in 1919.
the mid twentieth century, the question of the equal rights of women
and men to employment within the UN organization gave rise to a
raft of claims for exceptions by individual states reafrming the right
of national governments to decide for themselves gender equity issues
in specic workplaces. It was against this background that, even before
the San Francisco meeting in 1945 to establish the UN, national
womens groups began to lobby so that when equality between races is
emphasized there should also be emphasized equality between men and
Yet there is ample, if neglected, evidence in the archives
of the UN for researchers attuned to the history of gender that in the
early years of the UN key individuals in various departments chose to
forego requests that questions of sex equality and chauvinism against
women be investigated, or be made a raison dtre of that organization.
A focus on the intersecting histories of feminism and of political
thought more broadly has led historians to reconsider the intellectual
and political context of the UNs contribution to the conceptualization
of universal human rights.
Laura Parisi has analyzed the UN as a criti-
cal locus for these intersecting histories, connected intellectually not
only to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (or even los Reyes
and Romulo) but also those of Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill,
Harriet Taylor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Katharine Antonyall
intellectuals who considered the specic place of women in the articu-
lation of rights, within an English language tradition of philosophy,
See Glenda Sluga, National Sovereignty and Female Equality. Gender, Peacemak-
ing, and the New World Orders of 1919 and 1945, in Pacists/Pacism: Peace and Conict
Research as Gender Research, ed. Jennifer Davy, Karen Hagemann, and Ute Katzel (Essen:
Klartext, 2005), pp. 169187.
Leila J. Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Womens Movement
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 222. In this journal, Karen Garner
has told the story of the World Young Womens Christian Association and its efforts to
assert an important role for women in postWorld War II reconstruction projects devised by
the victorious national governments that came together to form the United Nations; Karen
Garner, Global Feminism and Postwar Reconstruction: The World YWCA Visitation to
Occupied Japan, 1947, Journal of World History 15 (2004): 191227.
For a comprehensive and insightful account of the history of human rights literature,
see the late Kenneth Cmiel, The Recent History of Human Rights, American Historical
Review 109, no. 1 (2004): 56.
268 journal of world history, september 2008
to be sure.
The specic analyses by Johannes Morsink of the ideo-
logical contexts and general international political circumstances that
informed the drafting of components of the International Bill of Human
Rights, reveal the forceful debate about cultural, sexual, and racial dif-
ference that fueled clauses prohibiting antidiscrimination on the bases
of race, sex, or creed.
Francesca Miller, Marilyn Lake, and Leila Rupp
have all indicated the signicance of the UN for the transnational as
well as international activities of feminists in the twentieth century.

As with postcolonial historians, feminist historians have also shifted
historical attention to the signicance of actors beyond the trans-
Atlantic, to the southern hemisphere, including the Latin American
states, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as to the UNs roots in the
longue dure of international feminist activism and idealism. We would
also argue that a history of human rights that explores the specic con-
tribution of women to that idea in the postwar through the organs of
the UN also challenges the relationship between, on the one hand, dis-
courses of universalism and exceptionalism and, on the other, identity
and place. The relatively ignored records of the UNs Committee for
the Status of Women (CSW) reveal both the divisions among women
delegates in terms of their understanding of the role that women should
play in the global community and the capacity of these women to think
outside those conventions regarding the political signicance of dif-
ference that plagued their peer UN committees. In the CSWs early
debates, it was the Indian representative who wanted a time frame of
Laura Parisi, Feminist Praxis and Womens Human Rights, Journal of Human Rights
1, no. 4 (2002): 571585. In some ways, Parisi represents the other side of the Anderson
argument regarding civil rights, claiming that [t]he Cold War context and the struggle to
dene and protect human rights rendered Western liberal feminist ideals as credible since
they were perceived as anti-Communist (p. 573).
Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and
Intent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). See also Paul Gordon Lauren,
The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).
Francesca Miller, Feminisms and Transnationalism, Gender and History 10, no. 3
(1998): 569580; Marilyn Lake, From Self-Determination (via Protection) to Equality (via
Non-Discrimination): Dening Womens Rights at the League of Nations and the United
Nations, in Womens Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives, ed. Pat
Grimshaw, Karen Holmes, and Marilyn Lake (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001). See also A. S.
Fraser, Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Womens Human Rights,
Human Rights Quarterly 21, no. 4 (1999); D. H. Linder, Equality for Women: The Contri-
bution of Scandinavian Women at the UN, 19461966, Scandinavian Studies, June 2001;
and essays in Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper, eds., Womens Rights, Human Rights: Interna-
tional Feminist Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 1995).
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 269
ten to twenty years for the introduction of universal suffrage in back-
ward, non-self-governing territories. It was the American, British, and
Australian delegates, particularly Dorothy Kenyon and Jessie Street,
who dismissed the idea that any group of people had to be prepared
for democracy and encouraged the view that the introduction of rights
itself brought with it new practices and possibilities.

The UN, National, and World History
We have argued thus far that rethinking the UNs place in history
might have much to add to our perspectives on the histories of human
rights, of race relations, of development, of international feminism,
and of international relations. Our nal point, which contributors to
this issue illuminate at length, is that the UN has also always been a
contributor to history and an author of world history.
Emma Rothschilds article evokes the hopes and expectations
attendant upon the establishment of a UN archive, the idea that it
might serve as a universal archive, fullling a role for international-
ism parallel to the role of every national archive to its corresponding
national history. Laura Wongs article in this collection points to the
centrality of history textbooks in the attempt by UNESCO to consti-
tute East and West as points of contact rather than conict and to
challenge the dominant Cold War ideological agenda, at the same time
as its delegates saw value in reinforcing the salience of civilizational
That is to say, the UN is also an arena in which many of the assump-
tions that continue to shape our own work as world historians and
the work of many who publish in this journal emerged. The UN was
at the forefront of what we might call the globalization of the histori-
cal profession. This is in no way to suggest that it was UN ofcials
who somehow invented historiographical traditions in Asia and
Africa, but rather that they aimed to give Asian and African history a
legitimacy that the colonial experience had denied to them. We have
already noted the early involvement of UNESCO in the eld of his-
toriography, through the Cahiers dhistoire mondiale. World history in
UNESCOs original formulation involved the work of recovery: restor-
Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. Dorothy Kenyon Papers, 18501998, Box
53, MS 85, CSW First session, 6th meeting, 13 February 1947.
270 journal of world history, september 2008
ing to world history those colonized and dispossessed whose histories
had been dismissed as irrelevant to the grand story of human progress.
It was this work of recovery that spurred its grand project on the history
of mankinds scientic and cultural development (1963), focusing on
the distinctive contributions to progress of each individual civiliza-
tion. The desire to write African history from an African perspective
underpinned the UNESCO General History of Africa. In this sense,
UNESCO was in certain of its phases at least as advanced as major
European and American institutions of higher education in taking
African history seriously.

The UN, in all its institutional diversity, played a signicant role
in enshrining the invented traditions of nationalist historiography,
acknowledging, more or less, that the nation-state ought to be the focus
of all historical inquiry, but broadening this from the nation-states of
the European heartlands to include regions and civilizations, as well as
all nation-states, everywhere in the world. This was hardly surprising;
the UN was and is a body composed wholly of nation-states and com-
mitted by its resolutions to the maintenance of the sovereignty of its
constituent national members.
Yet this meant that other currents of thought within the UN, in
the early years, faded from view. No single culture stands alone, Levi-
Strauss had declared, it is always part of a coalition including other
cultures; civilization was a product of cultural exchange and cul-
tural diversity.
This was reective of the cosmopolitan, as opposed
to the nationalist, inheritance that shaped the UN. Thus the Cahiers
dhistoire mondiale, in addition to arguing for the equivalence of dif-
ferent national histories, also narrated world history as the history
of global connections and exchangenot simply an equality of dif-
ferent national histories, but the idea that cultures, or civilizations
were constituted through interaction and exchange. Indeed, several
articles in the early issues of the journal focused on the exchange of
ideas and on the history of science and medicine: all topics which have,
once again, come to occupy historians who are no longer satised with
taking the nation-state as the natural boundary of historical inquiry.
Remember it was as late as the 1960s that Hugh Trevor-Roper infamously dismissed
the whole of African history as the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque
but irrelevant corners of the globe.
Levi-Strauss, Race and History, pp. 126127.
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 271
New Directions?
So what contributions might these different approaches to the UNs
histories make to wider historical debates? They might enrich attempts
to shift the focus of international history away from an exclusive con-
centration on the Cold War, as Akira Iriye and colleagues have begun
to do.
Or they might address the question of how a particular concept
of development rooted itself so deeply in the postcolonial imagination,
something that a number of cultural historians and historians of sci-
ence have begun to explore.
And they will certainly enrich attempts
to write the history of the exchange of economic and political ideas in
the twentieth century. We would argue too that the personal narratives
of individuals whose lives intersected in the corridors and correspon-
dence of the UN can shed light on large historical questions about
governance, sovereignty, identity, and the nature of progress on a world
as well as an international scaleparticularly in light of the resurgence
of interest in the social sciences in cosmopolitanism as a concep-
tual framework and as an idea with its own history. Political scientists
and theorists such as Daniele Archibugi have been at the forefront
of the integration of the UN into the contemporary discussion of the
possibilities of cosmopolitanism.
There are rich pickings here too for
the complex history of subjectivity and identity. A prosopographical
approach to UN history has much potential, as some historians have
begun to show.
Take the life of A. N. Gillet, whose papers are available through
the United Nations Career Records Project, at the Bodleian Library in
Gillet was British, a teacher by training, and he worked for
UNESCO in the Philippines and in Thailand throughout the 1950s.
His life is an illuminating instance of the history of political ideas in
the mid twentieth century, an example of the interweaving of the per-
sonal and the political. He was a democratic socialist, motivated by his
Quaker faith, uncomfortable with the polarities of the Cold War, and
Akira Iriye, Global Community.
See, for example, K. Sivaramakrishnan and Arun Agrawal, Regional Modernities: The
Cultural Politics of Development in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003).
See for example, Daniele Archibugi, ed., Debating Cosmopolitics (London: Verso,
United Nations Career Records Project, Bodleian Library, Oxford. Papers of A. N.
Gillet, Ms. Eng c. 4670, Folder 2.
272 journal of world history, september 2008
sympathetic to Asian nationalism. The overriding idea of the time that
he sought to dene, and then communicate, was the idea of develop-
ment. His career provides an interesting perspective on the workings of
technical assistance, as it was then called, and the gradual dominance
that economic criteria came to hold over its practice. He wrote to his
wife that My natural inclinations to stress the non-material values
in education will have to operate more surreptitiously than usual. I
notice for example that we are asked to report in great detail to head-
quarters any economic successes of our work . . . . Perhaps most inter-
estingly, we get a sense from this personal narrative of the ideas that
nonelite Asians, in this case Filipino schoolchildren, had of the world,
of development, of the United Nations. He describes his encounter in
a classroom with An earnest boy, slender and graceful . . . rose and said
the problem of our country is the low standard of living. Everywhere
I have been I have found an astonishing awareness of problems and
determination to solve them. Repeatedly, he is asked by children as
young as nine what is the United Nations doing about world peace?
Most intriguingly, he describes his experiences in a remote government
school, and even there the children celebrated United Nations Day in
1954, with ags, songs, and dances from around the world. There is the
tantalizing possibility here for the beginnings of a cultural and social
history of the UN, which includes the ideas people had of the UN, far
from the centers of power.
New histories of the UN have begun to prot from considering the
paths that were not followed, from the problematization of the his-
tory of progress, as well as the awareness that to write the history of
the marginal is simultaneously to contribute to the movement of the
marginalized into the center. These histories suggest the importance
of taking seriously the past as it involved internationalists and inter-
national organizations and the people who worked in and with them.
They reveal the multivalent intellectual sources and institutional con-
texts of our own intellectual endeavors.
Long before transnational or world history assumed a prominent role
within the discipline as a framework for analyzing the past, UNESCOs
journal conceived of world history as the history of global connections
and movement, of cultures or civilizations constituted through inter-
action and exchange. In UNESCOs translations, in its school text-
books, in its posters, in its journals such as Cahiers dhistoire mondiale
lies a signicant history of the global circulation, communication, and
translation of ideas: ideas of rights, of development, of the ends and
means of education, as well as of the political signicance of culturally
Amrith and Sluga: New Histories of the United Nations 273
constituted difference. They show too how even in the context of these
examples, the UN, like most academic departments in the postwar era,
bolstered the cause of nationalist histories to the exclusion of other
perspectives. Thus, as Kwame Anthony Appiah has recently written,
UNESCO, like all UN bodies, is the creature of the system of nations;
while it speaks of World Heritage Sites, it is nevertheless bound to
conceive them as ultimately at the disposal of nations, and the same
may be said of the UNs contributions to historiography.
The ten-
sion between nationalism and internationalism (and even cosmopoli-
tanism) is at the very heart of the UNs intellectual history, even if
the former almost always prevailed. This perpetual tension is, in itself,
another reason why the history of the UN has recently come to be so
interesting to a generation of historians disillusioned with the certain-
ties of nationalist historiography.
There are good reasons why historians may no longer be comfort-
able with the level of optimism expressed by Febvre in 1953, or the sug-
gestion of a teleological unfolding of knowledge. But some of the ques-
tions motivating the Cahiers dhistoire mondiale are still with us. Now,
as then, there are those who argue that the only history worth writing
is Western history, that the precolonial histories of Asia and Africa are
stories of barbarism and backwardness.
And now there are historians
who argue to insert Asian and African histories into a universal or a
global narrative is to devalue themthus, ironically, restoring them to
the margins. In other words, there is some life yet in UNESCOs early
debates on what world history means and why we should do it. We
would argue that other areas suggest as much life in histories of the UN
as a forum for the exchange of economic and political ideas.
Even as our ambitions in putting together this special issue of the
Journal of World History are less expansive than those Febvre antici-
pated for the Cahiers dhistoire mondiale, it is our view that the signi-
cance of the UN for historians lies inextricably enmeshed in all the
developments and skeins of scholarly interest that we have outlined
here and the many more that are possible. We would like to declare too
that it is not the aim of this special issue to defend (nor to attack) the
UN, and not even to provide lessons for its future. Rather, we have
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Whose Culture Is It? New York Review of Books, 9 Febru-
ary 2006, pp. 3841.
For example, see Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Lon-
don: Penguin, 2004).
274 journal of world history, september 2008
brought together in this small sample the research of scholars whose
commitment is less to the historicization of the UN and more to the
signicance of the UN as a historical site for reconsidering a wide range
of intersecting historiographies, in elds including postcolonialism,
population, development, welfare, international relations, civil rights,
social movements, diplomacy, and feminism. The possibilities, it seems
to us, are endless, just as the outcomes, we expect, will contribute in
a major way to the shift in current research from the national to the
transnational as the focus and framework of scholarly research.