Home :: News & Events :: News :: “The UN Association – USA: A Little Known History of Advocacy and Action” by James Wurst (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016) Reviewed by Robert J. Berg
07 February 2017
“The UN Association – USA: A Little Known History of Advocacy and Action” by James Wurst (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016) Reviewed by Robert J. Berg
Robert J. Berg is the Chairman of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and former senior adviser, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UN Economic Commission for Africa and World Federation of United Nations Associations.

"I recommend the history of UNA-USA by James Wurst, but maybe for different reasons than other reviewers.

First, the good points..and they are many. The history of UNA-USA and its predecessor, the American Association for the United Nations, is one that is amazing. We are all well versed with how leading Americans in the mid and late 1940s backed the UN...Eleanor Roosevelt, et. al. In addition, I learned, there were a Who's Who of corporate, labor, media and national political figures who worked for and supported the AAUN and UNA-USA. And I learned that Eleanor Roosevelt didn't just support the AAUN, she started in late 1952 as a very active volunteer in it and later chaired its board for many terms.

The insiders who ran AAUN/UNA were not mere rooting sections: they helped shape numerous UN policies and were closely consulted by, e.g., FDR and several secretaries of state. I dare say that few civil society organizations of its modest size (never much over 30,000 members) had such influence on the global stage.

Well before the concept of "Track II Diplomacy" was named, the early leaders of AAUN/UNA were acting directly to help shape international relations. "Parallel" studies focused on hard issues like Russia, China and Iran. Numerous policy recommendations helped shape the UN system.

Naturally, there was an historic UNA focus on U.S. financial support of the UN that was an important counter to recurrent attacks starting with McCarthyism in the early 1950s and continuing to current times. And here the leadership of major corporate leaders involved in AAUN and UNA (an example is John Whitehead, former head of Goldman Sachs) has had an outsized influence for the good. And there were a whole set of less well known outstanding citizens who were able to help in UNA's work. I am sorry that Andy Rice was not given due recognition in the book, but am glad so many were.

Rarely was there clear sailing. Always there was the need to deal with the consequences of poor performance in a few parts of the UN (e.g., the desire to control news, a policy adopted in UNESCO; and more famously the General Assembly equation of Zionism with racism) and the furor of Congressional UN-bashers of various stripes. This called for great political creativity and persistence by the US defenders of the UN. It is inspiring to read about all this.

At the same time, the book is perhaps too quick to say that the decline in U.S. Government support of the UN meant that UNA was almost fated to decline in the last couple of decades. In fact, U.S. financial support of the UN increased over these years. And the UN has and is accomplishing amazing things. An example is the impact of all the actions pursuant to the 1990 World Summit for Children. (Full disclosure: I was senior adviser to the Summit.) As a consequence of the agreements at the Summit and heroic work particularly by UNICEF and WHO with numerous national governments, infant and young child mortality has dropped so much that the UN could (if its public affairs leaders were bolder) claim that the UN has saved more lives in this one campaign alone than were lost is all of WW II. Similarly, overall, the Millennium Development Goals were an historic success. For example, if current trends continue the world is on course to eliminate for the first time in all of human history the worst forms of poverty, by 2030. And in the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) there is now a goal to institutionalize conflict resolution expertise in all countries. The SDGs and the UN-brokered climate treaty provide a course that will mean a better chance for billions of people.

All this progress is being challenged, of course, by an as yet unproven but already scary Trump Administration which leads, perhaps as never before, to the need for a powerful UNA.

The book does, in fair part, explain why the UNA is not today up to the task to lead to the scale of major positive impacts it had in the past. It is a sad litany. Basically, the board of UNA failed in its duty to secure solid leadership and finances for UNA. It certainly had a fine example of leadership in the presidency of Ed Luck (1984-94) who went on after his service in UNA to be Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General and to invent a major advance in human rights with the policy of the Responsibility to Protect. Ed came into UNA's presidency and had to rescue finances while he built up solid programs...so he proved this is possible. After a not too graceful change of presidents in 1994, UNA had a string of inadequate presidents. And when the person who presided during 1999-2009 came in, he ended UNA's excellent public policy work, a move that I told the then UNA chair was akin to a self-inflicted lobotomy. Among other things, not having stellar public policy work lessened the marketability of the Association with key funders.

Whether or not it was inevitable to save the organization by merging into the UN Foundation is another issue. One can say, however, that the Foundation has the kind of major leaders in its ken that UNA used to have. The question for the future is whether the citizen activists remaining in the UNA network will be able to have the sense of influence on policy and connection with major leaders that the book so nicely recalls for us today. That is a challenge the Foundation needs to meet.

I want to thank Ed Elmendorf, former UNA-USA president, and many others who worked with him, for making the book possible.

I recommend that a 20 page summary of the book be provided to each member of the UNA."