Stamp Of Approval

Diplomacy: Unable to keep the peace, the United Nations shapes, then endorses what powerful members want.

September 29, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

President Bush's appearance before the United Nations this month to seek its approval for action against Iraq might have been an affirmation of the importance of this international institution or a confirmation of its irrelevance - important because Bush bothered to seek its approval; irrelevant because he pretty much said the United States would do what it had to do, with or without the U.N.

What's an international organization to do in a world dominated by a single superpower? The growing crisis over Iraq brings to the fore the latest identity crisis of this institution that meets in midtown Manhattan.

Whatever its role, the United Nations of today seems a far cry from the one founded on the ruins of World War II, designed to substitute reason and debate for guns and bombs, bringing international standards of behavior to bear on rogue actors of the world stage.

"Clearly, the vision and ambition reflected in the U.N. Charter haven't come close to being realized," says Edward Luck, director of Columbia University's Center on International Organization. "The organization has not been able to fulfill the dream of being a true collective security organization that can respond to the threat of aggression against any member state. In a sense, that one-for-all, all-for-one ideal was probably too much to expect."

Ruth Wedgewood of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies is a bit more skeptical. "The U.N. has a very hard time getting taken seriously," she says.

That was not the case a few decades ago when ambassadors to the United Nations were among the superstars of international politics. A world that well remembered the conflagration of World War II and lived with the specter of nuclear destruction was relieved that they came together to discuss the problems that otherwise might lead to war.

"The fact that the talk may be boring or turgid or uninspiring should not cause us to forget the fact that it is preferable to war," Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1950s, once said.

Performances at the U.N. were well-publicized and carefully analyzed - Adlai Stevenson's impeccable work during the Cuban missile crisis; Nikita Khruschev banging his shoe on his desk during a visit to the General Assembly; Abba Eban's eloquence during Israel's 1967 war. Though in hindsight it is considered one of the all-time bad career moves, Arthur Goldberg - at President Lyndon Johnson's urging - left the Supreme Court to become U.N. ambassador. That's how important this post was considered.

But in fact, within a decade of its founding, the United Nations had become something far different than its founders envisioned because it was handcuffed by the Cold War. Its major military action - the Korean War - was approved by the Security Council only because the Soviet Union was boycotting the council to protest the exclusion of what was then called Red China. Once the Soviet Union returned to the Security Council, the U.N. became a stage for the drama of the Cold War.

More credit was given for landing zingers than for actually taking action. Lodge launched this one: "Membership of the United Nations gives every member the right to make a fool of himself, and that is a right of which the Soviet Union in this case has taken full advantage."

"The conundrum is that U.N. standards will be enforced only if member states find it in their interest to do so," says Wedgewood.

In the early 1960s, what seemed to be an altruistic move - sending blue-helmeted troops to oversee a peaceful transition to independence in the former Belgian Congo - turned into a vicious affair as the Cold War powers battled for influence.

A decade later, whichever side one took in the Vietnam War, the inability of the United Nations to stanch that bloodletting seemed to show its impotence. With Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the U.N. seemed to fade into the background as the endgame of the Cold War played itself out.

For some, that reduced role remained appropriate. "I'm not a big fan of the United Nations," says Steven R. David, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins. "It is important to recognize that the U.N. is made up of countries, many of them dictatorships and human rights abusers. For the United States to be held hostage to this collective opinion is, I think, a mistake."

David says the original idea of the United Nations as the world's peacekeeper was "a pipe dream."

"We still live in a world of sovereign states that act in their own interest," he says. "The U.N. has never been able to force any great power to do things it did not want to do. It might have been effective around the margins, here and there, but I challenge anyone to point to any international outcome involving the major powers that was any different because of U.N. involvement."

Jury and sheriff

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