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 Conference Report

Other Powers, Other Perspectives: New Histories of the United Nations and Global Governance

By: Preston Arens (University of Waterloo) and Daniel Manulak (University of Western Ontario)

The history of the United Nations and other international organizations in twentieth-century international relations has traditionally been dominated by analysis of the “great” powers with permanent seats on the UN Security Council. While such interpretations of international history are useful, they treat only a single strand of the complex webs and multitude of actors involved in international relations.

The workshop “Beyond the P5: The Historical Role of Non-Permanent Security Council Members in Global Governance” responded to this historiographical problem by bringing together scholars exploring alternative aspects of twentieth-century international history. The presentations took place at Harvard University on October 27 and 28th 2016 and posed questions about traditional international and diplomatic history by exploring themes beyond the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The workshop focused on the role of non-permanent Security Council members including Canada, Brazil, Australia, Norway, Peru, and India to understand the agency of these other powers. How did they manoeuvre and influence international policy? How did certain contexts enable them to shape international relations? Finally, what was the importance of both formal and informal non-national networks in international relations?

Many of the presenters stressed the interplay between individual, national, and international factors, and the use of international organizations as a window to exploring these interactions. The presenters also stressed the need to counterpose rhetoric and reality, as well as perspectives from the top-down and bottom-up, or from without and within international organizations. The workshop highlighted the value of new perspectives to international history and global governance. These new approaches demonstrate how international organizations can provide space for smaller states to manoeuvre, appropriating the very mechanisms created by and for the great powers to sustain their influence in world affairs. When we shift our gaze away from a prism that privileges the great powers to one that is attentive to other actors, it reveals alternative ways of conceptualizing international history. Consequently, as the presenters emphasized, these new vantage points need to be placed in dialogue with more traditional historical interpretations.  

Following words of welcome by Emma Rothschild and Sunil Amrith, Heidi Tworek opened the workshop by unveiling the newly revised United Nations History Project website (www.unhistoryproject.org). The website engages with many of the aforementioned themes, and is designed as both an active platform to disseminate research and source materials, and as a springboard for continuing and expanding the conversations developed during the workshop.

After Dr. Tworek’s presentation, the first panel on “International Economics and Development” discussed how ostensibly marginal powers influence international policy related to economic and development issues. Both papers looked at how these powers build networks of support among their peers, all the while embedding their own national interests in wider campaigns to better ensure success.

Francine McKenzie’s talk, “Middle Powers, Multilateralism, and the Global Trade Order: Canada, Australia, and Brazil in the GATT,” focused on how these powers pursue their national interests within the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. She found that nations that are not large enough to operate unilaterally rarely work alone, and often seek a larger constituency to achieve their objectives. These nations championed broad causes with national self-interest embedded in internationalist rhetoric. Thus, while they could not force policy issues, they could operate in the space between large power rivalries, and lead other middling and small powers to create a degree of policy consensus. For example, when agricultural exporting countries were confronted with agricultural protectionism in the European Economic Community and the United States, Australia led a number of these countries to form the Cairns Group as a united front to lobby for agricultural trade liberalization. McKenzie concluded that while there is value in studying great-power politics, smaller states played a notable, if understated, role in establishing and sustaining the postwar international order. The activity of middling powers, in areas such as the GATT, casts doubt on the universalist claims of both great-power rhetoric and historiography.

Gregory Ferguson-Cradler’s paper, “Norway, Peru, and Fishing Rights,” explored the respective influences of these two states on the International Law of the Sea (ILS), stemming from those countries’ historical engagement with national fisheries up to the 1970s. Norway’s long histories of subsistence fishing and fisheries science influenced not only Norwegian fisheries policy, but also allowed Norway to set an example to the international community using science and research as a tool to leverage international policy towards more sustainable management of fisheries. Peru’s largely postwar history of industrial fishing to generate national capital engendered specific views on resource ownership and economic self-determination. Peru used arguments of economic sovereignty and self-determination as a means to influence international policy, particularly concerning the extent of marine borders.  In both cases, Norway and Peru developed tools to leverage international policy based on their historical experience with fisheries. Ferguson-Cradler concluded by noting that these alternative ways to influence international law such as the ILS, necessitate looking beyond great-power politics if we are to develop more nuanced and complete histories of international relations.

The workshop moved from a discussion of state roles in economics and the environment to Glenda Sluga’s keynote address “Climate and Capital: Barbara Ward and Margaret Mead at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment.” The keynote explored the many formal and informal non-governmental networks operating behind the scenes of the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment. By looking at the connections and correspondence of Barbara Ward and Margaret Mead, Sluga retraced the complex intersections between personal, organizational, and activist networks in the lead-up to the Conference. These connections outside the official state-centric channels of the UN were greatly facilitated by Ward and Mead, who helped bring together politicians, intellectuals, activists, and businessmen in groups like the Ekistics Society and the Club of Rome. The publications and lobbying of such non-governmental organizations influenced the agenda of the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment, yet historians have largely focused on outcomes rather than the networks behind the conference. Sluga emphasized that the lenses of business, gender, and NGO histories are key to exploring the history of the international public sphere. These new perspectives highlight people and groups little explored in international history up to now.  

On October 28th, the “Beyond the P5” workshop continued with its third panel: “Peacekeeping and Security.” The panel examined security issues from the perspective of non-P5 countries, highlighting why the UN Security Council was not necessarily the most salient avenue to exert international influence.  To take one example from Daniel Gorman’s talk, as the Korean War erupted in July 1950, Canada and India coordinated their diplomatic efforts within the UN to prevent the crisis from becoming a more global conflagration. As Canada worked to ensure that Washington acted under UN auspices, and India maintained dialogue with China, these states attempted to use the machinery of international institutions to constrain the great powers. To be sure, there are limits to how far the great powers are willing to be pressured but, as the panelists demonstrated, small states have used international fora to “punch above their weight” in world affairs.

Adam Chapnick opened the panel with his paper “Non-Permanent Members of the UN Security Council: Reflections on the Canadian Experience.” Using Canada as a case study, he presented a range of motives both for and against participation in the Security Council. He noted for example, how the pressures of domestic elections could render a bid for a Security Council seat a distraction or a political tool showing strong foreign policy. In a similar sense, a failed bid for a Council seat could damage the prestige of aspiring Council members, thus hindering their effectiveness in the international sphere. In both cases, intervening factors complicate non-permanent members’ relationship to the Security Council. Chapnick went on to outline a typology of how non-permanent members engage with the Security Council, including roles as mediators, innovators, disruptors, or followers. By exploring both the motives and means through which non-permanent, or elected members of the Security Council operate, we can challenge top-down narratives of power politics and explore new dynamics of the Security Council as well as generate new questions on its composition and historical function.

Kevin Spooner’s presentation, “Peacekeeping: Canada’s Contribution to International Peace and Security,” offered a close assessment of the paradox of Canadian engagement with the initiative. Peacekeeping remains a key part of Canadian self-identity, yet it has declined precipitously over the past 25 years. Ultimately, Spooner argued that the dramatic reduction in Canadian peacekeepers was a drawn-out process involving challenges from a variety of quarters including: domestic politics, such as changes of government and the realignment of budgets; devastating experiences in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Somalia; a priority shift from UN to NATO orientated military exercises; and diminishing returns for gaining military experience with peacekeeping operations. This lengthy decline in contrast with the resilience of the Canadian peacekeeper myth calls for greater attention to the disparities between rhetoric and reality of international engagement.

Next, Daniel Gorman delivered his talk, “India and the UN Security Council in the 1940s and 1950s.” His presentation explored why or why not India might wish to attain a permanent seat on the Security Council. He found that international status, a symbol for unity in domestic politics, and leverage in non-UN networks of international governance all played a role in these calculations. In 1955, the pursuit of Afro-Asian solidarity and One-World ideals even led Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to reject American overtures toward granting India a permanent seat on the Security Council, as India maintained that the People’s Republic of China should be included before India. These dynamics demonstrate that the Security Council is not necessarily a top-down wellspring of power, and that there are reasons why a power such as India may refuse a place on the Council. Further, India’s attempted balance between overlapping networks, such as the UN, the Commonwealth, and the newly emerging Third World political project, challenged the centrality of the Security Council and the UN more broadly, again inviting us to explore alternative power dynamics and channels in twentieth-century international history.

The last panel on “Soft Power” explored different perspectives on participation in the UN, and highlighted the breadth of the UN beyond the Security Council. These papers highlighted UNESCO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in particular as alternative channels for international relations that are perceived as peripheral areas of the UN, but are not isolated from global politics, economics, and society.

Maria Gatti’s paper, “Books for Global and National Identities: A Brazilian Perspective on UNESCO’s Literary Projects (1946-59),” emphasized the various tensions bound up in the UN literary and translation efforts. She noted the seemingly contradictory criteria for literary works displaying both national genius and universal character. These contradictions were not only structural, but also resulted from continuities between Western wartime propaganda bureaus and personnel, and the United Nations. These actors went from waging a war of words to attempting to use literature to create universal understanding. Yet the wartime mentality of literature as a weapon was also perpetuated through the broader Cold War concern of communist ideologies infiltrating the UN. These anxieties resulted in the surveillance of many Brazilian authors engaged in the UNESCO literary projects, particularly with an unstable government in Brazil leading up to the 1964 coup d’état. Through the inherent tensions of UNESCO’s efforts, Gatti argued for the importance of tracing cultural production and flows in international politics and how these cannot be divorced from the history of both national and international politics.

The final talk, “Canada’s Middle Power Project Takes Flight: ICAO and the World of Mass Tourism,” explored the history of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) headquarters, and the politics of headquarter hosting and bidding more generally. Heidi Tworek recounted the history of Canada’s successful bid for the ICAO headquarters as the organization formed in the mid- to late 1940s. The bid was instigated amid expectations for greater Canadian international engagement following its wartime contributions, and division among countries opposing the headquarters being located in Canada. Following the somewhat lackluster bidding process, Tworek recounted some of the initial problems faced by ICAO personnel, as well as the provincial, federal and international dynamics at play in establishing Montreal as a viable headquarter location. She also elaborated the pull factor of international headquarters which attract associated agencies, business, and prestige. Following this careful analysis of the history of the ICAO headquarters, she concluded by reflecting on the gulf between the rhetoric of Montreal as a good host for the ICAO and the reality of a contested and unsure history of that role. Ultimately, Tworek posited that perhaps the lesser known organizations of the UN with relatively muted histories have been more successful because of their obscurity in, and from international politics.

The workshop concluded with a discussion which brought together reflections on the panels with thoughts for further work and conversations on histories “beyond the P5.” In particular, the participants reflected on the overlapping histories and interpretive lenses of international history such as the UN and the Cold War. The discussion also engaged with the idea of injecting business history into international history, as economics are a central facet of international relations while modern economies are primarily run by non-state actors that often go unnoticed in diplomatic records. Spatial interpretations of international history such as the location and layout of headquarter buildings, and the physical infrastructure behind otherwise ethereal organizations was also raised as a new access point for international history. The discussion also emphasized the great potential of using international organizations and networks as a way to bridge individual, national, international levels of analysis. This schema has much promise for generating new questions and rewriting international history from a bottom-up perspective. In this manner, traditional top-down international history can be reconceptualised. To illustrate, the discussants contrasted the category of “non-permanent” versus “elected members” of the Security Council. While a rhetorical distinction in relation to the same powers, it alters our perception of those members and concedes that they have more agency than functionalist interpretations may allow. The discussion also returned to the theme of rhetoric versus reality both on national and organizational levels. By investigating the reality behind self-presentations, scholars might find alternative perspectives on international history where countries like Canada or Norway take on leading roles rather than bit parts.  

The various presentations of the workshop demonstrated the need to move beyond more traditional histories of the UN and global governance more generally. The agency, motivation, and multifarious means by which non-“great” powers operate questions top-down, Eurocentric, conventional interpretations of international and diplomatic history. The presentations at this workshop demonstrated the contingency and non-linear nature of international policy, as well as the importance of non-governmental networks and organizations ranging in scale from individual to national to international in influencing global governance. With the inauguration of the new UN History Project website at the beginning, discussion on new directions in international history at the conclusion, and many fruitful conversations in between, the workshop maintained a focus not only on generating new ideas and approaches, but also on operationalizing those ideas to write and engage with new historical perspectives. The workshop was successful in starting a conversation between a key group of international historians and has sown the seeds of further engagement moving forward.