The U.N.: Four Crises

March 25, 1992

Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Haiti -- these four rogue regimes are playing a major role, contrary to their intentions, in making the United Nations a more powerful and intrusive organization. The definition of a more interdependent world is expanding and, as a result, traditional concepts of national sovereignty are contracting.

This is a process that is far from universally popular. Third World nations, in particular, often feel excluded from the decisions of the Security Council, where the five acknowledged nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- not only have a veto but are working in harmony to a degree unimaginable during the Cold War era.

This change has wrought a profound recasting of U.S. attitudes and policy toward the United Nations. For a quarter of a century, from about 1960 to 1985, the United States was alienated from the world organization as the big Communist powers often turned the General Assembly's Third World bloc against Washington while keeping the Security Council stymied. Now all is changed. So long as this country can count on Russian support and Chinese abstention, it has found the U.N. a valuable tool in trying to control the "new world order."

Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait provided the most dramatic opening. Invoking Article 7 of the U.N. Charter that allows collective international use of force to repel aggression, President Bush put together the multi-national coalition that threw Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait and imposed harsh postwar sanctions on Iraq. These can be continued as long as the United States is prepared to use its veto power.

The results are unprecedented. While Baghdad twists and bluffs and dissembles to thwart U.N. inspectors seeking to destroy its nuclear and offensive war-making capability, the process continues inexorably. Iraq's sovereignty is diminished. Whether President Bush would need new authority to launch an air strike remains moot so long as he is content to stay with existing economic pressures. But make no mistake: It is one thing to attack Iraqi forces in Kuwait; it is another to hit them at home when they are no longer an occupying army.

The issue then becomes whether nuclear capability on the part of a country not now a member of the Nuclear Club can be a casus belli for the United Nations. Iraq already is squirming in this net as a result of the Kuwait-invasion sanctions. North Korea, which may be only months away from a nuclear bomb, is in a different category. If it would ever be the target of a preemptive strike authorized by the United Nations, that would be a further precedent for international action going even beyond the anti-Iraq measures. So far, all parties have been willing to avoid this issue by holding North Korea to its anti-proliferation pledges.

Libya presents a third situation -- one involving terrorism rather // than nuclear capability. Long before the modern era, nations sought concerted action against slavery and piracy. The issue now is whether tough U.N. economic sanctions can be applied against a Libyan regime implicated in the bombing of international air flights. Muammar el-Kadafi takes the threat seriously enough to offer two Libyan suspects to the Arab League (not the U.N.) for trial. Like Saddam, he is trying to go around the U.N. to get Third World sympathy.

Which brings us to Haiti. To bypass the Security Council, both the General Assembly and the Organization of American States have approved economic sanctions against the ruling military junta. But efforts to assemble an OAS international force have failed, thus reaffirming the Security Council as the only organization with power credibility outside Europe, where NATO and the European Community figure in the equation. In Cambodia and Somalia, the world organization is promoting ambitious peace-keeping operations.

Ten years ago, the United Nations was a bystander in world crises, and Washington was content to see it so. Now, it is difficult to conceive of a major international issue in which the U.N. does not play a leading role. The world organization is living up to the dreams of its founders and, for better more than worse, is going beyond them.

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