Professor Thomas G. Weiss, Influential U.N. Scholar, Is Retiring

April 24, 2023

He reflects on his 25 years at the Graduate Center and the prospects for multilateralism at a time of rising nationalism.

Professor Thomas Wiess
Presidential Professor Thomas G. Weiss, widely known for his scholarship on the U.N., will retire this summer, after 25 years at the Graduate Center.

Few people have studied the United Nations more intensively than Presidential Professor Thomas G. Weiss (Political Science, Liberal Studies ). He worked at the U.N. for a decade before moving into academia and has written, co-written, and edited scores of books and hundreds of articles about the history, role, and functioning of the U.N. While forthright about the weaknesses of the massive and sometimes fumbling bureaucracy, he has maintained a career-long belief that the U.N. and the international cooperation that it facilitates make the world a more peaceful, humane, and prosperous place.

“Multilateral cooperation is a way not only to attenuate American and big-power arrogance but also to solve many, albeit not all, thorny problems that defy national boundaries,” he wrote in his 2018 book, Would the World Be Better Without the UN? (Spoiler alert: His answer on page 190 is “no.”)

He wrote in that same book that “The most congenial and productive of my professional homes has, since 1998, been The City University of New York Graduate Center.” He cites the support of the administration and the “wonderful intellects and helping hands among my advanced graduate students.”

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This year, after a quarter century at the Graduate Center, which included 13 years as director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, he is retiring. He leaves a large legacy, which will be celebrated in an afternoon of talks and tributes on April 28. In advance of that event, we invited Weiss to answer some questions about the prospects for multinationalism, his impact, and the lessons that he learned and hopes to have imparted.

The Graduate Center: You have argued that the recent nationalistic, populist movements in electoral politics worldwide make multilateralism more, not less, important. Why?

Weiss: How can we confront pandemics, climate change, terrorism, or migration by building walls and pontificating about my country first? Not all problems are global, but those that are require global solutions. The history of confronting life-threatening challenges — think eliminating smallpox, or fostering the scientific consensus about climate change or the normative advances on human rights — points toward strengthened intergovernmental organizations, especially those of the U.N. system. An urgent priority thus is to reinforce the crumbling foundations of the existing system brought about by polarization and turning inward worldwide. That rebuilding is essential because we must do more than hope for serendipity from the fleeting public spiritedness of political leaders or the best efforts from norm entrepreneurs, activists crossing borders, profit-seeking corporations, and transnational social networks. A global tea party certainly will not do the trick; enhanced international cooperation could.

GC: What reforms are needed to strengthen the U.N. and multilateralism amid the rise of great power politics?

Weiss: The creation of the “United Nations” was not in San Francisco in June 1945 but in Washington, D.C., on January 1, 1942, when 26 (and later 44) Allies signed the Declaration by United Nations. The label for the military alliance to crush fascism also entailed a parallel commitment to multilateralism as the alliance’s standard operating procedure and, dare I say it, a “vision” about post-war peace and prosperity in an institution that would bear the same name. Looking back to the history of the wartime United Nations contradicts the conventional wisdom that liberalism was abandoned to confront the Nazis and imperial Japan; the ideals of Kant were essential to the Hobbesian objective of state survival. The United Nations from 1942 to 1945 provides a relevant message for the future: When governments decide to use intergovernmental organizations, they work. The wartime actions of the U.N.’s founders suggest that our current shriveled imaginations result in thinking about contemporary global governance that often is a second-best surrogate for more robust multilateralism.

CUNY Graduate Center · Professor Thomas G. Weiss on the U.N. and a Career Studying It

GC: You’ve written about and been involved in protecting cultural heritage. Yet we see today in the Ukraine War that cultural heritage is again being destroyed. How do you assess the role of the U.N. or multilateralism in addressing these latest atrocities?  

Weiss: My latest edited book published last year by the J. Paul Getty Trust and my ongoing work with the Smithsonian seek to analyze how best to prevent damage to priceless cultural heritage — think the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Mostar Bridge, the libraries in Timbuktu — while simultaneously preventing mass atrocities, or halting the murder of history and its subjects. The deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and the most severe humanitarian and refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has also witnessed the willful and systematic destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage as well as what many experts say is the largest collective theft of artifacts since the Nazi plunder in World War II. That destruction reflects the same reasons behind numerous other contemporary and historical examples, namely the cumulative and conscious destruction of a whole cultural life accompanying the capture of territory and war. This case reflects Putin’s ahistorical claim and invokes long-standing Russian tropes that Ukraine has no separate cultural identity, that Ukrainian nationhood is fiction captured by the label “Little Russia.” As a member of the academy, one trusts that better understanding and analysis are important steps toward better problem-solving by those on the barricades.


Stacked books by Professor Thomas Weiss
Weiss is the author and editor of scores of books about the U.N. and international relations. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

GC: Your career has revolved around trying to strengthen the U.N. and advance human rights. What impacts have your ideas and actions had?  

Weiss: I have emphasized the practical application of better analysis — not better abstraction but better practice. Drawing causal links is, of course, impossible. But I hope that at least some institutions have rethought and altered the way that they do business because of my fieldwork and interviews about what works and what does not. My hope is that the academy has benefited as well. To take the example of cultural heritage and mass atrocities, scholars across disciplines have begun to move away from viewing destruction of heritage as only a cultural tragedy to understanding its vital security and humanitarian dimensions as well. The link between saving stones and saving people was as obvious in 1938 during Kristallnacht as it was for the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Mostar Bridge, and Palmyra. There has been a shift from the desire to protect cultural property for its own sake to seeing its protection as an integral part of the strategies and tactics for safeguarding human beings as well as international peace and security.

About 15 years ago, Routledge asked me to assemble a collection of what I considered to be the most original of some 150 articles and book chapters that I had written until that point. I knew what I would put on the book’s cover — an engraving of Sisyphus that captured my continual frustration with the slow pace of change in the slope of the international moral arc that Martin Luther King claimed bends toward justice. The essays were not as inchoate or embarrassing as I’d dreaded. In fact, the three arenas in which I believe I’ve made a difference to scholarship and practice were republished and have stood up well over time: the contribution of individuals and ideas to U.N. operations and norms; the role of non-state actors in global governance; and the vicissitudes of humanitarian action (assisting and protecting vulnerable populations).

GC: What were your priorities and what do you consider your most important contributions as director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies from 2001 to 2014?

Weiss: My hope was to build a research unit that would be a credit to the name of the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The institute became a trusted gathering spot for scholars and practitioners from international organizations. It also became the home for several applied research projects, including the UN Intellectual History Project; the Research Directorate for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (which spawned the Responsibility to Protect norm); Wartime History and the Future United Nations; and the Future UN Development System. These projects attracted a wide variety of analysts and funding, which enhanced the Graduate Center’s visibility and expanded the networks for Ph.D. students.


Thomas Wiess and Kofi Annan
Weiss with the late U.N. Secretary General Kofi A. Annan in 2002, following Annan’s oral history interview for the United Nations Intellectual History Project. (Photo courtesy of Weiss)

For staff and the small gang of graduate students, I’d like to think that I helped create a healthy and productive esprit de corps, one that mixed a genuine work ethic and high expectations with camaraderie and laughter. My door was always open to provide guidance and advice — sometimes solicited, sometimes not —as well as to wipe away an occasional tear. Student involvement in research projects, as well as in the journal Global Governance, two academic book series, and my presidency of the 6,000-member International Studies Association, provided not only fellowships and other forms of financial support but also relevant on-the-job training that was helpful for career development. I’m especially grateful that many of the staff and students became not only trusted collaborators and colleagues but friends as well.

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GC: How did your experiences working at the U.N. shape your scholarly research interests?

Weiss: Every job, even ones that are substantively far afield from one’s academic orientation, provide valuable learning experiences. For instance, my work in factories, as a security guard, and a teacher at Riker’s Island helped me develop management, interpersonal, and research skills. My 10 years as an international civil servant based in Geneva provided first-hand exposure (two or three months each year) to what we now call the “Global South” as well as to the nuts and bolts, or problems and prospects, of what my first book called “international bureaucracy.”

GC: Looking back to your own student days, what advice would you give to your Ph.D. self?

Weiss: I’ll repeat wise counsel from two of my own supervisors, which in fact I’ve often repeated on the fifth floor. One, find a topic that is consequential for the world and for you, a passion that at least occasionally will keep you awake at night. Two, discover your own voice as soon as possible and know when to stop research and put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, because you can’t read and write at the same time.

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