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The United States was responsible for creating the United Nations as a global forum for solving world problems without war but it has deteriorated into becoming the destroyer of the same organ. It, the United Nations, was a good Franklin Delano Roosevelt idea for big powers to look after their interests when it came to world affairs even as they tried to agree on how to control the rest. He had hoped to avoid Woodrow Wilson’s weaknesses and failures in the League of Nations.

Wilson was apparently an intellectual disciple of Emmanuel Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ suggestion of creating a talking forum for big powers to engage each other before plunging into war. Kant and Wilson were self-respecting racists and their search for perpetual peace formula did not have black people in mind. Circumstances during World War I, however, forced Wilson to question empires and to include German colonies and Ottoman imperial territories in the League of Nations Mandate System. Palestine was among those Ottoman ruled territories that were placed under the Mandate System. When the United Nations replaced the League of Nations Palestine became a UN trusteeship with Britain as the designated ‘trustee’.

The Mandate/Trusteeship concept in Palestine did not work partly because it was inherently flawed for it was not clear as for who Palestine was mandate or trustee, Zionists or resident Arabs. In 1917 during the Great War, Britain had promised to create a ‘home’ for Jews in Palestine as a war strategy. One of the immediate challenges confronting and testing the United Nations was what to do with the displaced European Jews whom the Zionists forced into Palestine to create a Jewish ‘state’. With its inability to stop Zionist pressures, Britain developed sense of helplessness and surrendered ‘trusteeship’ to the United Nations which, with the United States and the Soviet Union supporting, tried to be ‘Solomonic’ by dividing Palestine into Arab and Jewish zones.

Instead of settling the inherent racial religious dispute over ownership of Palestine, the division generated a series of Arab-Israeli wars that disrupted and affected world political economies and the future of the United Nations. In the first major Arab-Israeli War in 1948, the Arabs incurred multiple losses including military humiliation despite their supposed big numbers. This humiliation led to restructuring desires especially in Egypt where Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to spearhead Arab reforms. More than the humiliation, the Arabs lost land that the United Nations had allocated to them in 1947. The loss became an accepted part of the reality of the new Israeli, except for the little Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean Sea which Egypt kept. The war humiliation and loss of land also meant a conceptual switching of places as formerly displaced European Jews became Israeli ‘citizens’ while the newly dispossessed Arabs lost their homes and became the homeless Palestinian ‘refugees’. Not knowing what to do with the ‘refugees’, the helpless United Nations seemingly established the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, to cater for Palestinians.

In addition to concerns over the fate of the Palestinians, the helplessness of the defeated Arabs, and the collective UN incapacity to act, geopolitical dynamics made the Middle East volatile. In Egypt, Nasser tried to boost economic growth by mounting giant projects which appeared to threaten Anglo-French interests whose global empires were in decline in Asia and Africa. The United States, acting as a likely saviour or substitute for collapsing European empires, first tried to pressure Egypt to recognise Israel as condition for loans only to insult Cairo with claims that it lacked ability to pay. This insult probably made Britain, France, and Israel believe they had license to contain Nasser’s Egyptian empowerment ambitions. They invaded the Suez in 1956 only for the Americans and the Soviets to force them into imperial retreat. France, humiliated in Indo-China, was unable to subdue the Algerians. The Mau Mau War shattered Britain’s dreams of ‘White Man’s Country’ in Kenya. And the European imperial retreat boosted Nasser’s global anti-colonial stature.   

With his new stature, mainly as inspiration and leader of the Arab world, Nasser mistakenly thought he could rectify the failures of 1948. He instead compounded the fate of the Palestinians by suffering another military humiliation in 1967 after which Israel grabbed more Arab land, which acquired a sense of permanence, in Gaza, West Bank, and Golan Heights. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Anwar Sadat continued with Nasser’s effort to avenge previous humiliations by launching the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Despite Egypt once again losing, global power dynamics enabled Arab oil producers to turn oil into a geopolitical weapon and devastated the world economy. The subsequent US-Saudi Arabia deal to make the ‘dollar’ the currency for oil payment, the ‘petrol-dollar’, empowered the IMF and the World Bank to dictate policies in different countries. This was the unintended consequence of the choice of Sadat’s effort to avenge previous defeats. Having forcefully acquired more land, Israel stayed put despite UN reservations about the legality of its occupation of captured Arab land. The intention, it appeared, was to incorporate those lands into a territorially expanded Israeli state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he wants territorial expansion which makes those in Gaza collateral damage. With US support, Israel made the UN a helpless organ when it came to matters of its concern; subsequently, UN resolutions end up as nullities.

The impression that the UN and other ‘international’ organs are agents of American and Israeli interests intensified in 2022-2023 period. Although Russia has veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, The Hague based ICC implied it was superior to the UNSC by purporting to indict Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war in Ukraine. By conveniently ignoring Western and Israeli committed war offences and related atrocities while being noisy about Russia and Africa, the ICC undermined its credibility and purported to be above the UNSC. In the face of Israeli determination to pulverize Gaza and possibly make it, as well as the West Bank, part of an expanded territorial Israel, the UN appears helpless. When UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez dared to express concern over un-peaceful Israeli acts in Gaza, he received condemnation and could do nothing. This was partly because Israel, as prompted by the Americans with Britons often tagging along, was special and is immune to international expectations. The UN is thus just as helpless as it was when Morocco invaded Western Sahara or the US invasion of Iraq.

Israeli exceptionalism is seemingly built on American and Western sense of guilt for having victimized the Jews as a people for centuries. That sense of guilt, compounded by anti-Arab racism and religious Islamophobia, has three subsequent geopolitical ramifications. First, it seemingly makes the West captive/hostage to Israel’s every wish in fear of being reminded of complicity in Adolf Hitler’s anti-Jewish evil deeds. Second, Israel also becomes a convenient instrument for advancing Western geopolitical interest, especially against Russia, as a supposed bastion of Judeo-Christian mission to dominate the world. Although the United Nations, with US prodding, helped to birth Israel, its inability to act on Gaza displays helplessness and increases demands for reforms and restructuring of that body organ. Third, the United States had helped to create the United Nations but currently is largely responsible for UN indocility and possible self-destruction that ‘Gaza’ might lead to.

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Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU

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