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Volume 2, No. 12 - May 2003

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UN Relevance and US Unilateralism
Sreeram Chaulia

Three years ago, I heard a brilliant lecture by senior United Nations official Shashi Tharoor on the intricacies of US-UN relations. Tharoor was speaking in the historic Old Library of All Souls College, Oxford, bringing alive the somnolence of glass-painted classical architecture with a dazzling mixture of history and vision, foreboding and hope. The two intertwined hot topics of the time were outstanding dues owed by the US government to the UN (arrears then topping US$1 billion) and the blistering attack against the UN by right-wingers in the US Congress, led by Republican hawk Jesse Helms.

On the former, I recall Tharoor reciting a joke about a genie appearing before Kofi Annan and asking him to make a wish. The UN secretary general thought and asked for world peace and poverty eradication, which the genie felt to be too ambitious. Annan then thought deeply and said, "Genie, get the US government pay all its dues," at which point the kind spirit replied, "Er ... I'll try to grant you the first wish, Kofi." (US Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week that "the United States has paid its arrears to the United Nations".)

On the second topic, Republican anti-UN sentiments are even worse than when Tharoor delved into the psychology of isolationism and conservatism that gave rise to Helms' infamous ranting that the US should withdraw from the UN since the latter was not serving US interests. In the Bill Clinton administration, Helms and his ilk were considered minority extremists. Rarely did the entire legislature or executive display instinctive anti-UN attitudes. Come 2003 and the war on Iraq, the vocabulary of UN-bashing has attained respectability and credibility among US politicians and administration officials of all hues. Verbal barbs such as "backboneless", "irrelevant", "talking shop", "farce", "francophone" and "appeaser" have overtaken the old "bureaucratic", "top-heavy" and "white elephant" adjectives. The archetypical liberal internationalist Democrat who favors UN resolutions before embarking on foreign military campaigns has virtually disappeared from the US political horizon.

This brings me back to a chat I had with Tharoor the day after the lecture in Oxford. I asked him what would happen when the entire US body politic, not just people like Jesse Helms and John Warner, perceive the United Nations as an obstacle or an unwanted irritant. During the Kosovo war in 1999, after all, Democrats such as Madeleine Albright led the charge for unilateral military action without UN sanction and succeeded to disguise the illegality of that action in human-rights mufti. Tharoor gently rapped my sleeve and nodded, "Yes, that is an ever-present danger."

Those with foresight at the UN had been thinking of such a doomsday from the 1960s, when the Cold War was at its dirtiest and US national interests collided head-on with international law and principle. U Thant, the third secretary general, noted with characteristic Buddhist ambiguity, "The vitality of the American people is reflected in the extraordinary pace of their everyday life, the vehemence of their reactions and feeling, and the fantastic growth of their economic enterprises. This vitality, this vigor and this exuberance have been in the past both an asset and a liability." The United States is capable of producing both a Ralph Bunche (a UN diplomat whose negotiation coups earned the sobriquet "Mr UN") and a John Bolton (now US under secretary of state for arms control, notorious as a UN-hater). The US has been ruled both by Franklin Roosevelt (founding father of the UN) and George W Bush.

It is useful to examine the current US polity's UN line in greater detail. Richard Perle, the scandal-tainted former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, had been at the forefront of whipping up anti-UN frenzy in policy circles for the past few years. According to him, new threats to US security require "dispensing with the UN altogether and finding some new set of security arrangements". His slogans of "regime change of the UN Charter" and a "world without the UN" have reverberated not just in the Pentagon but among all strata of state structures. At the root of Perle's tirade is a question mark about the legitimacy of the UN Security Council in deciding matters of international peace and security. "What is to say that a war that might be legitimate, may not be legitimate if it can't get the approval of the United Nations?"

A corollary US view is to equate the UN Security Council with France or consider it a hostage to France. So exasperated were US political analysts at the prewar threats of France to use the veto that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times proposed removing France from the Permanent Five position and replacing it with India. Some senators went to the extent of alleging that the UN is "exercising veto power over our president". Debates on the role the UN should play in post-Saddam Iraq have been similarly centered on why a hard-won US victory should be diluted by "allowing the French and Germans a back-door entry into Iraq through the UN". The UN, in US minds, seems coterminous with "old Europe". Kofi Annan's proposed European tour to raise funds for the $2.2 billion UN emergency appeal for Iraq is further proof to conservative Americans that the UN is a French and EU tool to bog down the United States.

The Tony Blair-George W Bush summit in Northern Ireland has confirmed this belief by declining any political role for the UN in postwar Iraq. The "vital role" that the UN will be allowed in Iraq is limited to some humanitarian assistance and "suggestions" about the make-up of the interim governing mechanism. In other words, Iraq will not be a Cambodia or East Timor where experienced UN civilian staff were sheriffs and de facto rulers heading a transitional authority. Nation-building will be reserved for the Pentagon and its Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) this time. Iraq will be reshaped "the American way".

This decision broaches crucial long-reaching implications. Kofi Annan has argued "above all the UN involvement [in Iraq] brings legitimacy which is necessary, necessary for the country, for the region and for the peoples around the world". The UN has expertise in successful interim administration, establishing rule of law, reconstruction, inter-ethnic reconciliation etc, but "above all", the UN is the voice of what we know as the international community, the will of all nations, the expression of humanity and not just of France. It is the collective and the whole of which France, Iraq and America are individual and equal parts. It is the epicenter of the post-World War II international regime and the overseer of international peace and security. What the Bush administration is basically doing is question each of these fundamental assertions.

When the strongest nation on Earth is thus determined to undermine the organization that the people of the world chartered to "prevent future generations from the scourge of war", it is a danger signal for the entire world. A world without the UN is inconceivable for the multiple millions of refugees, children, hunger-stricken, poor, conflict-devastated and marginalized humans whose needs are being met daily through its many organizations and specialized arms. But the UN is not merely a material aid and service delivery store, as the US government is reducing it into. Its original and most important purpose is to preserve world peace.

Every morning, I walk to an office on 42nd Street in New York and glimpse the northwestern slice of the UN Secretariat, ironically nesting on land gifted by US corporate giants, the Rockefellers. Manhattan skyscrapers block the remaining visage. When this imperfect view becomes too disconcerting, I stroll down a few blocks to see the full UN edifice resting majestically in Turtle Bay. The United States needs likewise to take the effort and walk a few paces to see the full UN, if for no other reason than to conserve the international system that it dominates and which the UN symbolizes.

 

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