My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I also blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
The United Nations (founded 1945) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (founded 1949) were two critical organizations throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The UN played a seminal role in famine relief, educational assistance, medical care, humans rights advances, and global peacekeeping. NATO helped to ensure the security of western Europe until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
However, the future (or at least efficacy) of both organizations is increasingly uncertain. And the consequences of their demise are serious.
The sixteenth century began with chronic war, Protestant sectarianism, and New World rivalries, and those tensions continued into subsequent centuries. Increasingly, theories of peace were less based on some type of universal unity (Christendom) and, in line with notions expressed by Hugo Grotius, increasingly on relationships between individual states and the view that nations belonged to an organic unity of family of nations.
The eighteenth century saw a variety of publications on the topic of peace, such as Abbe de Saint Pierre, Project for Settling Perpetual Peace in Europe (1713), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Judgment on a Plan for Perpetual Peace (1761), Jeremy Bentham, The Fragment of an Essay on International Law (1786-89), and Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace (1795).
And in the nineteenth century there were a number of peace movements revolving around issues related to arbitration, international authority, codification of international law, sanctions, and disarmament. Towards the end of the century movements were afoot, often centered in Geneva, to develop a system of international arbitration and law.
In the years following the Second World War, the United Nations became a focal point for building a world of peace. In the hyperbolic words of US President Truman, “These [UN buildings] are the most important buildings in the world, for they are the center of man’s hope for peace and a better life…There are no international problems which men of good will cannot solve or adjust.” His aspirations were noble (although perhaps a bit too naïve), and similar support for the UN was reflected in the commentary of many church leaders.
Modern developments in international organizations and law, especially with the birth of the League of Nations, followed by the United Nations, have led to a supra-national organization with the ability to sanction war through Security Council resolutions. Since nation-states can still opt-in or opt-out of such resolutions, UN power does not necessarily undermine the authority of national governments to make decisions on the use of the sword. In fact, Article #51 of the UN chapter recognizes the right of nations to self-defence, something that rests well with traditional views of legitimate state authority and just use of military force.
The UN has always struggled getting universal support for major initiatives, and the veto of the Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) more often than not paralyzes collective action. The choices of the UN have not helped its reputation – such as having totalitarian representatives on the UN Human Rights Council – and the unilateral actions of the United States acting on its own as the world’s police have often made the UN seem superfluous.
NATO has been searching for a raison d’être ever since its nemesis collapsed in the 1990s. It did find a purpose in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, and responses to terrorism. But its breaking of promises not to advance into eastern Europe after the withdrawal of Russian troops in the 1990s has poisoned the well with Russia, and its need for an enemy – Russia – to justify its existence undermines the potential for peace with Putin.
Despite the problems and failures of the UN and NATO, however, Christians should be concerned for their demise:
Both the UN and NATO are seeking to re-imagine and re-invent themselves in the face of enormous difficulties. If they do not succeed in doing so, the efforts of generations working for some type of peaceful international order will be lost, and the weak nations and vulnerable people of the world will suffer yet even more. And that is a possible future that should concern Christians.
(This is blog post #11 in the series entitled “Christians, War, and Violence: Reflections on Possible Futures.”)
 Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace (1625).
 Harry S Truman, Address at the Laying of the Cornerstone of the United Nations Building, New York City, 24 October 1949.
 A number of Christians then, and now, see the UN as some type of insidious “one world government” prophesied in scripture. However, that approach to political engagement is irresponsible, unhelpful, an example of poor exegesis of the Bible, and is simply bad theology.
 Some governments will not act unless the UN Security endorses the use of force. For instance, Canada refused to endorse the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 unless it was first sanctioned by the UN Security Council. It is doubtful if any nation would wait to defence itself against invasion until a Security Council resolution – but counting on a resolution may be a diplomatic and convenient way to avoid a conflict that has little domestic support.
 “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right or self-defence shall be immediately reported to the security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Charter of the United Nations, Article 51.
 Ironically, Turkey and Greece are both NATO members, but Greece may need NATO’s support against Turkey’s recent hostile ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean.