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World War II -- 60 Years After: Global System Rose From Ashes, But What Now?

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> As we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, RFE/RL is looking again at some of the factors that determined the course of the struggle and shaped the new world that emerged from it. A new system of international relations arose from the ashes of World War II. The United Nations, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund -- as well as the unofficial preeminence of the U.S. dollar -- were all established to help guide global politics and economics and prevent another world war. But in recent years, cracks have surfaced in the postwar system, with some speculating that it may be time to build a new order. On the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender, we look at the postwar international system -- and where it might go from here.

Prague, 4 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. diplomat John Bolton summed up the founding goals of the United Nations and the postwar international system in an address last month to the U.S. Senate.

"Now more than ever, the UN must play a critical role as it strives to fulfill the dreams and hopes and aspirations of its original promise," Bolton said, and went on to quote from the UN Charter: "'To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,' 'to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights' and 'to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.'"

This effort, he concluded, "demands decisive American leadership."

Bolton, Bush's candidate to be America's ambassador to the UN, is controversial, as is Paul Wolfowitz, the Iraq war architect recently appointed to lead the World Bank. Both are seen as embodying "unilateral" U.S. policies that critics say threaten the multinational system the men are supposed to represent.
Supporters say the IMF and World Bank helped guide the global economy through six decades of unprecedented expansion, stability, and prosperity.

That system, which arose from the ashes of the war, is now under intense pressure.

The UN -- faced with internal sexual abuse and financial scandals and external political and security failures -- is set for an overhaul. And the global financial institutions, pilloried for their work with poor countries and performance during the Asian crisis of the mid-1990s, have begun to redefine their roles as well.

Meanwhile, both Bolton and Wolfowitz are seen as agents of change who could trample multilateral procedures at the UN and World Bank. Bolton, currently undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, in the past has harshly criticized the United Nations.

Yet the postwar system itself -- which was set up to help rebuild Europe, ensure global political and economic security, and avoid any major wars -- was a decidedly American-led creation.

In the summer of 1944, delegates from the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and Britain met in Washington to draft proposals for creating the United Nations. The U.S. imprint on the world body was reinforced when its headquarters were established in New York City after the war.

Likewise, the institutions to guide the global postwar economy were set up in the summer of 1944 -- in America. Delegates from 45 states meeting in the small town of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire agreed to establish the organizations that later became the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Both organizations set up headquarters after the war in Washington.

Given America's role in creating the postwar institutions, Bush administration critics see irony in what they see as today's "unilateral" attitudes in Washington.

British author George Monbiot believes those institutions are primarily vehicles for U.S. power, yet offer just enough to others to make them willing participants in the system. He says the old order was a brilliant compromise forged by postwar U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

But Monbiot, a columnist for "The Guardian," says today's U.S. leadership angers many around the world by appearing to hold the multilateral nature of the postwar system in contempt.

"What the neo-cons are proposing is to turn this into an overtly unilateralist system, which would effectively force the other countries to resist it," Monbiot said. "So they don't realize what a delicate and clever compromise men like Roosevelt and Truman came up with, and how they are in fact damaging their own interests by turning this back into a straightforward expression of unilateral power."

To be sure, many American conservatives have long been critical of the UN, seeing the world body as populated by many undemocratic states and acting as an inconvenient hindrance to American action.

But calls to reform the UN have grown louder around the world amid accusations that the world body is rife with corruption and politically weak.

The failure to do anything to stop recent atrocities in Yugoslavia and Rwanda was a major blow to the UN's credibility, as Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged in a historic speech in Stockholm last year.

"The events of the 1990s, in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, are especially shameful," Annan said. "The international community clearly had the capacity to prevent these events, but lacked the will. Those memories are especially painful for the United Nations."

Annan has called for an overhaul of the UN by September, including restructuring the Security Council to possibly broaden its membership to achieve wider global consensus.

The debate at its New York headquarters has been intense. And just this week, Italy made the latest reform proposal -- to add 10 regional seats to the Security Council.

Meanwhile, calls to reform the World Bank and IMF have also grown, even as the violent protests that marked their annual meetings during the 1990s have waned.

Supporters say the IMF and World Bank helped guide the global economy through six decades of unprecedented expansion, stability, and prosperity.

Wolfowitz himself stated last month that his mission at the World Bank would be to reduce global poverty, saying: "People who don't know me may not appreciate why I am eager to take on this challenge, so let me explain. I believe deeply in the mission of the World Bank. Helping people to lift themselves out of poverty is a noble mission."

But critics accuse the financial institutions of imposing harsh and ineffective policies on poor nations, often to the benefit of rich ones.

Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist, has been one its biggest critics. He argues that the recipe often dictated to poor countries by the IMF and World Bank -- raise taxes and interest rates, trim state spending -- has actually hindered development in many parts of the world.

Stiglitz and other development economists have bemoaned Wolfowitz's appointment at the World Bank, just as some European diplomats must dread the possibility of Bolton becoming America's next envoy to the world body.

But both their appointments come as the financial institutions and UN are seen as needing to reform to keep pace with the times.

In that light, the British weekly "The Economist" recently speculated that the two men might just have the strength of vision to be forces for positive change.

That's how Bolton has cast himself, last month telling senators -- who are due to vote on his nomination on 12 May -- that he can help "restore confidence in the United Nations."