Staying Inside the Tent: In the Run-Up to the Invasion of Iraq Members of the US Administration Made Various Disparaging Remarks about the United Nations, Some Went as Far as to Predict the Organisation's Demise. but as Ian Williams, Author of the UN for Beginners Observes, the Relationship between the Two Has Frequently Been a Rocky One
Williams, Ian, The Middle East
Across the political spectrum in the United States, the United Nations excites strong feelings, but these are usually based on preconceptions and misconceptions rather than on an objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation. No rational person who has observed the UN at work could ever suspect that it had either the ambition or the ability to dominate the US, let alone rule the world. But that does not stop American conservatives from insisting that it is trying to do the former. Nor does it stop liberals from complaining that it is not successfully doing the latter.
Some on the left denounced the Americans and British for attacking Iraq without a UN mandate, but many of those same people would have been as quick to denounce the organisation as a cover for US imperialism if it had actually voted to support the attack (as it did and they did during the 1992 Gulf War). It is perhaps typical that when representatives of the Iraqi Governing Council addressed the UN Security Council on 21 July, members of "Iraq Occupation Watch" disrupted proceedings from the public gallery, accusing the UN of "collusion" with the US.
At the other extreme, when the White House decided to give up on gaining Security Council support for an Iraqi invasion, the usual suspects hit the opinion and editorial pages heralding the end of the organisation. Certainly the epitaph from Richard Perle was somewhat premature. He announced in March that when Saddam Hussein went, he would "take the UN down with him."
It is a typically solipsistic American world view that measures the UN's value by its usefulness to US foreign policy. UN resolutions are something the US preaches about and enforces upon others (because they are often useful), but is not bound by itself (whenever they are not useful). There is one use both political parties have agreed on: The organisation is a useful scapegoat for American policy setbacks.
Still, most people on the centre and left consider the UN and the growing body of international law to be, overall, a good thing. We think that war should only be a last resort, and that the international community acting in concert is vastly preferable to lawless military action. Indeed, some go further and regard even the last resort as unjustifiable: The UN is a peacekeeping organisation. But that is a falsely, idealistic conception of the U N. It is indeed, as some pacifists say, dedicated to peace, but it was set up to fight for peace if necessary. Similarly, some see the organisation's main purpose as resisting the US. This may be an occasional role thrust upon it by member states; it is no more the organisation's purpose than enforcing American wishes.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has struggled, in tandem with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, to keep links open between the White House and the rest of the world, the UN and international institutions. It often looks like pandering, and in some measure it is. But placating a restless giant is a more sensible strategy than grandstanding. And, at least sometimes, the UN can be an impediment to unmitigated American supremacy. That is not to say that the US does not use the organisation for its own ends: It has done so repeatedly and successfully. However its use, and even its abuse, comes with conditions, which are not always welcome. Most member states agree with the American neo-conservatives that one of the functions of the UN is to give the Lilliputians strings to restrain the global Gulliver. They think it is essential to keep the US involved and entangled in the organisation, even if it does occasionally birch up and break the strings.
The State Department, and others in the Bush administration, certainly feel the need for external validation, as proven by their extraordinary efforts to mount a "coalition" for the Iraq War: The effect was intended to counter the lack of a UN mandate.
Most governments would agree it is preferable to have the UN with you, rather than against you. In the Western Sahara, Morocco's occupation is still not recognised (some international oil exploration companies have pulled our as a consequence). And of course the world does not recognise Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza, despite all the facts created on the ground. No matter how much Israeli governments try to exclude the UN and its inconvenient resolutions from the negotiations, they know that, in the end, any settlement will need UN endorsement if it is to have legal authority. In tandem with this normative role, however, the UN also mirrors the real world in which the US is by far the most powerful stare. If it did not reflect reality, it would be out of touch and hence unable to influence it. That also means, however, that it has little independent initiative in the face of American, or even a lesser power, resistance. It is an instrument through which genuine coalitions of willing countries can be assembled, their legal doubts resolved; it can even ease them along to do "the right thing." It cannot order a member state to send in the marines, when the marines are necessary, but in most of the world, the fact that the UN asks can itself be a potent force in domestic politics.
The UN provides a forum, a mechanism where the weak can (sometimes) influence outcomes. To invoke the UN's normative role, Washington has to persuade a majority of other states. Although it is true that threats and cheque book diplomacy have often played a role in securing majorities, in the end compromises are possible and indeed likely. The Lilliputians collectively can negotiate with Gulliver when bilaterally they would be stomped.
Despite the frequent dismissive remarks of many Bush administration members, in the end the UN's normative role forced the White House to come back to the Security Council for a resolution about the Iraqi occupation. Bush simply had no option, at least so long as he is attempting his bold economic experiment of simultaneously running a war, cutting taxes and dealing or, better, not dealing with a massive balance of payments and budget deficit. Across the world, no one would buy Iraqi oil until the UN had authorised its sale and thus given clear title.
Even American oil companies operate in a global environment, where the vast majority of customers' governments are ready to enforce international law, so the Pentagon had to bow to Powell's pragmatism or bear the entire cost of administering Iraq itself. The resulting resolution, number 1483, was a classic case of diplomatic doublespeak: Without quite legitimising the invasion, it regularised the result and opened up the possibility of deeper UN involvement. Then as the occupation began to take its toll, and as the number of war dead surpassed that of the 1992 Gulf War, the White House began to reconsider its earlier views and to expand the UN bridgehead. This was not a philosophical conversion but, again, pragmatic accommodations to a reality in which the UN is more important than Pentagon strategists wish it were.
So the Pentagon has discovered that other governments are nor prepared to send troops to stand guard over a hornet's nest while the US pokes sticks in it.
The different roles of the UN often blur into some form of multilateral indeterminacy that can cause confusion to friend and foe alike. It is a legislative organisation, in that it creates international law and sets standards. It is executive, in that it carries out member states' decisions in the fields of economic development, humanitarian relief and peacekeeping.
In some ways, though, the UN is more important as a catalyst for global developments than as a legislative or executive body. The Conventions on the Law of the Sea, on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, on Climate Change, on Disarmament, on Human Rights and International Tribunals, are all major steps forward that would have been inconceivable outside the framework of the UN Charter. Too many of them, like the Landmine Treaty, the Kyoto Accords and the International Criminal Court, have met with active opposition from the US, but much of the rest of the world has gone ahead anyway.
When the UN takes executive action on its own, however, it is much less successful. Its record in Bosnia or Rwanda, for example, has been close to disastrous; and even its heralded triumphs, such as Cambodia or East Timor were far from unqualified successes.
Every UN office should have on its wall an icon of Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian peacekeeping commander left without supplies, reinforcements or direction in Kigali at the height of the Rwandan killing. A truly honourable man, he suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. All too often, by contrast, those without honour are promoted. From the very beginning, UN senior officials have been patronage appointments by the permanent five. This has not made the organisation a puppet, but it has certainly made it less independent; and it has weakened the hand of the Secretary-General, who is at once office manager for the institution and also the custodian of the UN Charter.
The Secretary-General can bring issues before the members and make recommendations, but in the end, as Bosnia proved, if no one is prepared to act forcefully, to send sufficient troops to defend safe havens, for example, there is little he can do about it. So the Secretary-General has moral authority, but has to be wary about using it, because ineffectiveness has a price. And the president or prime minister whom he condemns one day, he may have to rely on only a few days later. Kofi Annan has proven an adept tightrope walker. He phrases his criticisms finely enough to make points for the record while keeping his diplomatic powder dry.
Annan did much to keep the organisation from falling totally in the mud during the last trying year, although it sometimes came close. And it is almost refreshing to note that the US is not his only critic. While Annan and Powell maintained friendly relations, some of the Arab and non-aligned diplomats played for the gallery back home by attacking Annan for reaction.
REFORM OR REVOLUTION?
Can the UN be "fixed"? Bearing in mind that it took World War II to fix the League of Nations, it is unlikely that any of us really want World War III so as to reform the United Nations. One constant worry is the unrepresentative nature of the Security Council, particularly its permanent veto bearing members. The US, by far the most frequent wielder of the veto for the last three decades, was incensed because other countries dared even to threaten a veto during the Iraq debate. But Washington is not ready to abolish the veto.
The present veto holders are all nuclear powers, which implies that Pakistan, India, Israel and, maybe, even North Korea should now be rewarded with permanent scats, though no-one has suggested this. Indeed, ethically, it would make mote sense to reward South Africa, Brazil and Argentina, countries that could have had nuclear weapons bur chose not to. Bur global politics rarely pays tribute to virtue.
The rest of the world wants proportionality and is pushing for additional permanent members from the South or from each continent--and also more non-permanent representation. This is where the equation Falls apart. For Asia, should the new member be India, Pakistan or Indonesia? For Africa, would Nigeria, South Africa or Egypt take the crown? In Latin America, Brazil or Argentina? If the members could agree on their candidates, that would leave 10 permanent members and 10 rotating. So how many members does it take to make the Council representative? And if we are aiming at representativeness, should we nor insist that any new members he democracies, responsible to their own people (even though it would be difficult to throw off China) and that they lose their seats in event of a coup?
The US, correctly for once, warns that once a body such as the Council starts numbering over two dozen, it is a mass meeting, not an effective committee for action. The Economic and Social Council of the UN provides a nice example: It started off the same size as the Security Council and is now up to more than 50 members--and its work is, mostly deservedly, ignored.
The real problem at the moment is less the proportions of representation than the quality of the representatives. Only the "West European and Other" group actually elects its non-permanent member. The other regions pick their Security Council representatives on complicated Ptolemaic cyclical systems, which often propel weak and bendable countries into the chamber. Size in this case does not necessarily matter. In recent years, for example, Ireland and Jamaica had an honourable record in risking Washington's disapproval on issues of principle. However, when Rwanda's rulers were killing their own people, they had a seat on the Security Council, because it was their "turn" to sit there.
Increasing representation is likely to come at the expense of relevance. Keeping public scrutiny on what the existing delegates are doing would be far more effective than juggling with numbers. We can be sure, in any case, that any reform supported by the US is unlikely to strengthen the UN's independence. But in the end, the question comes down to what we want from the organisation.
By being a global organisation, with a generally high public standing, the UN symbolises the principle that there are indeed "meta-laws" above the brutish sovereignties of nation states and that a global society needs global means of mediation and regulation attuned to those laws. And so the UN needs, and deserves, as the old phrase has it, critical support. It is flawed, like the US Congress. It makes no more sense for Nauru to have the same voting power as China than for Wyoming to weigh equally with California in the ESS Senate. Security Council decisions are sometimes driven by bullying and financial lobbying, just like congressional legislation. But abolition of either the UN or the US Congress would be a drastic step. The issue is how effectively can the UN be used to win desirable ends? And the answer to that is very much in the hands of the American public. From Kyoto to landmines and the ICC, an uninformed and silent public has let a deeply ideological minority hijack its voice in international councils, in contrast to most other democracies where multilateralism has strong political support among politicians and public alike. The UN can indeed be boring, exasperating, foolish, wrongheaded. Bur it is important; and it has been neglected for too long by the American left.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Staying Inside the Tent: In the Run-Up to the Invasion of Iraq Members of the US Administration Made Various Disparaging Remarks about the United Nations, Some Went as Far as to Predict the Organisation's Demise. but as Ian Williams, Author of the UN for Beginners Observes, the Relationship between the Two Has Frequently Been a Rocky One. Contributors: Williams, Ian - Author. Magazine title: The Middle East. Issue: 342 Publication date: February 2004. Page number: 26+. © 2009 IC Publications Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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