Checks and balances on a worldwide scale

September 24, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- From the reaction to President Bush's speech at the United Nations, two things are clear.

If the United States unilaterally decides to attack Iraq, depose its government and occupy its territory, the world community will be outraged. But if we do all those after getting permission from the United Nations, everyone will be perfectly content.

This sounds like a game of "Simon Says" run amok. If we ultimately end up with hoisting Saddam Hussein's head on a pike, why should it matter whether we accomplish that mission by ourselves or as the leader of a paper coalition?

But matter it does. Saudi Arabia, which had firmly rejected the idea of letting American forces use its bases for a war with Iraq, rolled out the red carpet. Russia read the riot act to the folks in Baghdad. France said that if Mr. Hussein doesn't cooperate, it will accept the use of force.

At the moment, everyone is back to bickering over Iraq's new offer on weapons inspections. But the latest dispute is more about tactics than strategy. Even those governments that differ with the president on this issue are agreed that Mr. Hussein has to drastically change his ways -- or else get the Toby Keith treatment, courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.

These are the same people who had given the impression that the only thing worse than Saddam Hussein was seeing the Americans do anything about him. The response illustrates a divide between us and much of the rest of the world on the whole principle of collective action.

The Bush administration looks at the supposed threat presented by Mr. Hussein and thinks the most important thing is eliminating it. All that really matters is the end result. Governments abroad evaluate the same dangers and insist that, whatever the goal, the crucial issue is working through the United Nations. How Mr. Hussein is dealt with is more important in the long run than whether he is removed.

This latter attitude may be faulted for elevating form over substance. But it's not so absurd. If the police catch a murderer, they don't lynch him on the spot. Before we execute a criminal, we read him his rights, give him a lawyer, conduct a trial and let him appeal. The outcome may be the same -- he is put to death as punishment for his crime -- but it's not a just outcome unless it results from a just process.

The United Nations serves a similar function. If the United States decides on its own to take down Mr. Hussein, it's seen as lawless vigilante. Acting with the approval of the Security Council, though, it's transformed into the stalwart guardian of international order.

As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his own speech to the General Assembly, "When states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provide by the United Nations. [Member states] are willing to take actions under the authority of the Security Council which they would not be willing to take without it."

The rest of the world attaches far more importance to the United Nations than Americans do. For many countries, it's the only place they can hope to influence world events. For us, it's just the opposite -- an impediment, not a help.

But given our peerless might, that's exactly what the United Nations ought to be. Americans have no trouble grasping the value of checks and balances within our own government -- devices meant to limit and regulate the use of power by those entrusted with it. Multilateral bodies and agreements are an attempt to achieve that same thing in the global arena.

"What example would the U.S. give to Russia in Georgia, or to China in Taiwan, for instance, if it intervened with no blessing from the Security Council of the U.N., except in a situation of dire humanitarian or security emergency?" asks Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales in Paris. "When the U.N.S.C. gives a mandate, it shows that a number of countries with different interests, and situated in different parts of the world, agree on a diagnosis and on a solution."

That process forces us to justify our purposes to the rest of the world, gives other nations a stake in what we do and helps to ensure that we act not just for our own selfish interests but for the good of the world. For a nation whose military power is beyond challenge, collective institutions may be a nuisance. But they're one that usually does us more good than harm.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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