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on 27 June 2006
Analyzing almost sixty years of United Nations history is, to say the least, an ambitious undertaking. Kennedy has tackled the challenge admirably producing a substantive and very readable account of the "evolution of the many UNs since 1945". His previous participation in the review and reform process of the UN system adds to his qualifications. This study is an excellent entry for anybody interested in learning more about this unique institution, its origins, growth and progress into one of the most complex international organizations.

Kennedy anchors his analysis firmly in the Charter of the United Nations, negotiated toward the end of World War II by the "Big Three" (US, Britain and USSR). He often refers back to these early days to remind the reader of the historical context of the UN and the challenges that ensued from these beginnings. The reader is reminded that only 50 states signed the Charter back in 1945, while the UN today has 191 members. Following chapter 1, which provides an overview of the origins of the UN, Kennedy groups the historical analysis by the major themes, reflecting the core responsibilities of the UN bodies, such as security, peace and war; the social and economic spheres; international human rights and finally global governance, democratization and civil society. It is in this context that Kennedy refers to the "many UNs. In the final part the author summarizes current trends in the reform debates of the UN and includes recommendations for future development.

Taking the theme approach engages the reader more easily in the historical perspective on the UN. Kennedy provides many examples of successes and failures in the areas of peacekeeping (or making) and in the social, economic and human rights spheres. He does not shy away from criticism. In particular, he deems the (end-of-war) structure of the Security Council with its veto system too rigid and explains why. During the long years of the Cold War, it often prevented urgent actions to be taken in response to crises. With the Security Council continuing as the primary decision making body of the UN, Kennedy sides with those proposing change that promote an expansion of the Council and restrictive rules in the use of veto. As concerns the Social and Economic Council (ECOSOC) he laments the lack of clarity in its mandate and the resulting weaknesses. The problems here have been compounded, he argues, by the parallel independent development of the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank and IMF). It is somewhat surprising hat he accords them a rather prominent place in this context. By necessity of scope, generalizations are made about these institutions' impact on developing countries that could be challenged, for example as regards "structural adjustment programs".

An obvious disadvantage of the thematic approach is a certain level of duplication in some cases or omissions in others. The confusing array of committees, commissions etc. dealing with gender and women's issues is raised without questioning the reasons. In the section on international human rights where gender should be treated as an integral part, the linkages are not made. Kennedy treats the increasing involvement of civil society at the UN as a positive development, yet his analysis is less satisfactory. He highlights the contributions of a few international NGOs rather than on the ever-stronger civil society networks, in particular those emerging in the South. Furthermore, while referring to this aspect of UN work as "messy", Kennedy omits a major initiative in the UN to streamline the work with civil society organizations through the establishment of networks and "major groups" representation.

Kennedy clearly places himself on the side of those reformers who want to strengthen the UN system with an emphasis on progressing step by step in the different areas of its complex structure. Enhancing the operations of the major UN bodies in the social, economic and human rights fields, expanding the Security Council, establishing closer coordination with the Bretton Woods institutions and the UN and related intergovernmental agencies, etc. will have a positive impact on the whole organization and lead to a future that can benefit the peoples of the world. He is realist enough to appreciate the challenges ahead in this direction given the current global power structures. [friederike Knabe]
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on 2 January 2008
This book is about the UN and is really a fairly detailed assessment of its successes and failings over the course of the last 60 years. The successes etc are illustrated by reverence to examples and so the book is not a history of the UN but focuses on specific incidents.

Overall it is quite interesting but I do think it assumes a certain amount of background knowledge regarding the incidents refers to as there is often only a brief description of those incidents. I liked the author's use of different chapters to explain different themes. i.e there was a chapter on human rights, another on the North/South economic divide and how the UN approaches problems stemming from that etc.

The book is good but I think Mr Kennedy's other books are better .....the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers for example.
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on 1 August 2010
Kennedy's book gives a systematic insight into the history, purpose and future of the United Nations. He explains both the bold ideas behind the "world parliament" but also does not hold back when explaining its shortcomings, bumpy history, failed attempts at conflict intervention and current apparently insurmountable issues.

The book is a good introduction to anyone interested in the idea of a world government and our first attempts to create the same.
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on 6 December 2012
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