A Short History of the United Nations

There have been many visions for a world which would live in peace. The ancient Greek city-states pondered an Eternal Peace (koine eirene) in the decades after the Peloponnesian War, but failed to implement it. Kant dreamed of a world of republics which would not wage war against each other during the turmoil of the French Revolutionary Wars. Yet the wars that inspired these thoughts were limited in comparison to the total wars of the early 20th century. After two world wars, peace seemed a more urgent need than ever. And so a global organization was formed – the United Nations. Its chief goal was the establishing and keeping of peace. Yet the UN busy themselves with many more issues today. And they have their roles in a few board games as well.

From the Ruins: The Birth of the United Nations

From 1939 to 1945, the Allies thought about how to win the war against the fascist powers Germany, Japan, and Italy. As their victory seemed ever more assured, they turned their minds as well to the winning of the peace. US president Franklin D. Roosevelt took up the idea of a world organization – like the League of Nations after World War I. The League, of course, had failed to guard the peace. What the American planners regarded as lessons learned from that were mainly two things:
First, the great powers were to have a more influential role in the United Nations than in the League of Nations. After all, peace would rest on their willingness to cooperate. This had not been the case with the League. Germany had left it, the Soviet Union had regarded it with suspicion, and the United States had never even joined it.
Second, as the consensus held that the Great Depression had played a crucial role in the rise of Nazism in Germany, the United Nations were to complement institutions for security with ones for prosperity. In addition, cultural exchange and understanding would also be fostered.
The United States convinced their chief allies, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union – the latter wary of foreign entanglements and intervention – to join this new organization. With the Big Three represented, convincing other nations to join was easy. This American policy success is featured in Churchill (Mark Herman, GMT Games) – if the United States win their global issue against the Soviets, the United Nations will be founded after the war.

War and Peace: The Security Council, Mediation, and Peacekeeping

The highest and greatest organ of the United Nations is the General Assembly. All member states are equally represented, and the annual meetings in September are the closest thing to a global parliament that ever existed. Yet the General Assembly is only influential in forming global opinion. The decisions of war and peace in the UN are made elsewhere.
That brings us to the Security Council of the UN. Fifteen countries are members in this body, five of them (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia (as the successor to the Soviet Union), China, and France) permanently. The other ten are elected for two-year stints. The Security Council can make binding decisions, including sending military forces of the member states to deal with aggression anywhere in the world. The two biggest missions of that kind were the UN response to the North Korean invasion of South Korea (1950—1953) and that to Iraq’s annexation of Kuweit (1990/91).


The event card UN Intervention from Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)allows the player to cancel an event – say, the possible Communist takeover of South Korea via the Korean War. Image ©GMT Games.

The permanent members, however, took measures to prevent that this power would ever be used against them. Thus, either of the five can veto any decision of the Security Council. This is a central mechanism of Article 27: The UN Security Council Game (Dan Baden, Stronghold Games): Any player can veto any proposal. It will, however, cost them victory points (just like a policy of sheer obstruction will not do much to further a country’s interests in the UN). Therefore, the players attempt to cut deals which will make unattractive proposals more palatable for them.

Article 27

Security Council proceedings: Threatening, arguing, bribing. Box cover of Article 27, image ©Stronghold Games.

Should the great powers fail to come to an understanding, the United Nations are not at the ends of their wits. The Secretary-General as the highest official of the UN has often offered their services of mediation between two or more conflicting parties. No Secretary-General has done so at higher stakes than U Thant during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He acted as a neutral, disinterested mediator between the United States and the Soviet Union, relayed messages back and forth, and even went to Cuba to mollify a furious Fidel Castro. In honor of this (often overlooked) contribution to the peaceful solution of the crisis, the neutral (so, neither pro-US nor pro-Soviet) event cards in 13 Days (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games) are named UN cards, and U Thant has a card event of his own as well.

U Thant

U Thant allows the player to step back and deescalate the crisis in 13 Days. Image ©Jolly Roger Games.

Another work of mediation did not end so well: UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld went to the Congo, freshly independent and embroiled in a civil war, in 1961. There he died in a plane crash. Secretary-General of the UN is by no means a safe and easy office job.
The Congo is also a prime example for what the UN can do beyond dealing with aggression: Small forces have often been sent to prevent hostilities or keep a fraught peace. The mission in the Congo from 1960 on was one of the most ambitious. Initially it was a disaster: As the UN-led soldiers did not have a clear mandate, they were unable to discourage the fighting. Only when their mission was clarified and broadened to put down the secession of the province Katanga, they proved an effective force. More recent missions have often suffered from the same lack of mission clarity, contributing to the triple failure of the UN missions in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda in the early 1990s. Other missions – like the ones in Mozambique or Macedonia – have avoided this pitfall, and have led to a lasting peace.
These peacekeeping forces – often called the „Blue Helmets“ for their characteristic headgear are tasked with implementing peace agreements, not with aggressive operations. They can only be deployed with the consent of the respective country’s government. They come from the UN member states, but are usually placed under UN command. Typically, these forces come from the smaller member states or from those that are not members of a military bloc like NATO (or, in the past, the Warsaw Pact), and, more and more, from countries from the same region as the site of deployment. Currently, the largest contributions are made by Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Bangladesh.


Economy and Culture: Institutions and their Games

The founders of the UN realized that security depends on prosperity, and set up institutions for economic growth and development – the Economic and Social Council for the coordination of these matters, the World Bank to assist developing countries with loans for individual projects, and the International Monetary Fund for broader, more general economic and financial measures. These institutions are unpopular on either sides of the political spectrum – conservatives and libertarians are wary of public intervention in the economy, leftists dislike the conditions attached to the loans (usually cutting of government spending and a closer integration into the global capitalist economy).
Additionally, there are many other UN agencies, funds, and programs dealing with specialized economic issues – from the United Nations World Tourism Organization to the World Food Programme. The latter (together with other UN agencies) is the beneficiary of all the profits from a board game: Aftershock (Rex Brynen/Thomas Fisher, The Games Crafter) deals with the response to an earthquake in the fictional country of Carana. The United Nations are one of the players (together with the Caranan government, an international military force, and non-governmental organizations) trying to supply the population with urgent necessities and rebuild the country from destruction. The UN might not pack the logistical punch of the government nor the ability to keep up security like the international military force, but their ability to provide relief and development over a sustained period make them a crucial actor in the rebuilding of Carana.

Aftershock UN Briefing

United Nations emergency briefing in Aftershock, ©Rex Brynen/Thomas Fisher.

Beyond the economy, the United Nations have adopted many other issues over the years – from human rights over cultural preservation to environmental issues. Several UN agencies in these fields have taken to making their own board games to teach children about their issues:

These tend to be simple roll-and-move games with event cards. The designers presumably do not have much experience with game design, and higher demands make the games unsuitable for a target audience of children with often low literacy and numeracy.
Another agency, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has adopted another approach and solicited board game designs from young people: The results include games on cybercrime, human trafficking, and crime forensics investigations.

Whither the UN, whither their games?

All in all, there are not a lot of hobby games about the United Nations, especially when it comes to the non-security tasks of the UN. Yet there would surely be potential for, say, a cooperative game about advancing human rights in the service of the UN, or a heavy economic game about securing World Bank and IMF loans to the best of conditions (drier games have been made). This patchy record is a bit in keeping with the United Nations themselves: Their promise is grand, but there is much they have set out to achieve and failed. There is hope that both the UN and the games about them realize their potential.

Games Referenced

Churchill (Mark Herman, GMT Games)
Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
Article 27: The UN Security Council Game (Dan Baden, Stronghold Games)
13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games)
Aftershock: A Humanitarian Crisis Game (Rex Brynen/Thomas Fisher, The Games Crafter)

Further Reading

For an introduction to the past, present, and a bit of the future of the United Nations, see Kennedy, Paul: The Parliament of Man. The United States and the Quest for World Government, Allen Lane, London 2006.
The Charter of the United Nations is online here.
On U Thant’s mediation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, see Dorn, A. Walter/Pauk, Robert: Unsung Mediator. U Thant and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in: Diplomatic History 33, 2, 2009, pp. 261—292, online here.
On the UN mission in the Congo, see Zippel, Katrin: “It’s like trying to give aid to a wounded rattlesnake. Die Vereinten Nationen im Kongo, in: Zeitgeschichte Online, May 2011 (in German).


8 thoughts on “A Short History of the United Nations

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