In the first two weeks of this course, we looked at how events in Paris began a process that shaped international politics as we know them today.
This week we return to London. And we return to the work of a new generation of peacemakers.
7,168 days after the League of Nations Council had held its opening session in Paris, German troops invaded Poland. On the first of September, 1939, the world was plunged into another global war. This war was, by all accounts, more disastrous than the great war of 1914 to 18. It was one into which the world had not sleep walked, but which had been aggressively planned. It was another war of attrition, but also unlike in 1914, a campaign of extermination and of genocide.
In 1945, when World War II was over, large parts of the world lay in ruins. And once more, leaders met to discuss plans for a new world order.
They were not as hopeful– perhaps not as naive as their ancestors of 1919– but they were more experienced.
And they were determined to bring together, to unite, their nations in a new world organisation.
This organisation, the United Nations, is the topic of week three of our course. The new world order set up in 1945 had many beginnings. In a way, it began in mid-1941, off the coast of Canada, on the HMS Prince of Wales, where Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, a document that set out the principles for a post-war order. In another sense, it began in Dumbarton Oaks, just outside Washington, DC, where the document that was to embody those principles, the UN charter, was prepared. And in yet another sense, it began in San Francisco, in 1945, where the UN Charter was negotiated.
But in some ways, this is where it really began, in a Methodist church hall in London, in Westminster. Here, just opposite Westminster Abbey, in early 1946, delegates of all member states came together for the first meeting of the UN General Assembly.
And here, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee welcomed delegates. “We realise, as perhaps never before, a choice is offered to mankind,” said Attlee. And then he continued. After the first World War, there was a tendency to regard the League of Nations as something outside the ordinary range of foreign policy. “Governments continued on the old lines, pursuing individual aims, following the path of power politics, not understanding that the world had passed into a new epoch.” I have said that the solution of the problem of establishing peace and preventing war is urgent and vital, as never before.
Now, Attlee’s delivery in 1946 was measured, as is perhaps fitting for a Methodist hall. And it’s very quiet here today.
But as someone who’s used to watching debates from the UN General Assembly today, which are much more loud, much noisier, I cannot help but feel quite touched by the humble beginnings of the world organisation here in Westminster, in a church hall, in 1946. When the UN agreed to use this room, part of the deal was that it would re-paint the walls. And when doing that, they chose a light blue, the UN colour, the reason we speak of the blue helmets today when referring to UN soldiers. Since then, the UN has moved on to become a truly global organisation. Its General Assembly sessions are now held at headquarters in New York, which also houses the Secretariat and the Security Council.
UN summits on major topics bring world leaders to cities like Rio, in Brazil, or Durban, in South Africa. The UN’s environmental programme has its seat in Nairobi. Nuclear proliferation is discussed in Vienna. The UN’s humanitarian work is coordinated from Geneva, seat of the League of Nations, and thousands of UN peacekeepers serve in crisis regions all over the world. But all journeys begin with small steps.
In this week, the last week of our course, I hope you get a sense of the UN’s spirit, the spirit that brought delegates here, to Westminster. And from that new beginning, we will move on. We will discuss how the UN has evolved since then and how today it tries to meet the two tasks formulated ever since 1919– to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security. “The League is dead. Long live the United Nations.” With these words, Lord Robert Cecil, the British veteran of the League, concluded the last ever meeting of that organisation. And that reflected the spirit of the time. The UN was to mark a new beginning, a fresh start.
And yet, in so many ways, it continued the project of the League of Nations, the project defined in Paris, in 1919. It is for us, today, bearing in mind that great have been made, to prove ourselves no less courageous in approaching our great task– no less patient, no less self sacrificing. We must– we will– succeed. [APPLAUSE]