With friends like this, U.N. in deep trouble

March 12, 2003|By Michael Barnett

THE UNITED Nations always braces for the worst whenever an American president proclaims that he is acting in the best interest of the institution.

In his Sept. 12, 2002, address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush stated that he was a fan of the United Nations, was sickened by Saddam Hussein's contemptuous violations of the Security Council's resolutions and was going to make the United Nations relevant again by ensuring that Mr. Hussein finally disarmed.

The General Assembly erupted in applause, though not because those in attendance believed that Mr. Bush was a convert to the United Nations. After all, during its first year in office, the Bush administration showed more disdain than appreciation for the United Nations and opposed one international treaty after another on issues as varied as nuclear weapons, environmental protection and human rights.

After 9/11, the Bush team warmed to multilateralism when combating terrorism around the world but remained decidedly cool on most other issues. It began to talk of war against Iraq in mid-2002, insisting that the real issue was not disarmament but "regime change" and preparing for battle without engaging in serious consultations with its allies and insisting that there was no need to work through the United Nations.

For these reasons, the United Nations warmly welcomed Mr. Bush's tone and message in his speech to the General Assembly in September 2002 as he stressed disarmament, the need to steel the United Nations' reputation and a willingness to work through the Security Council.

Most hoped to use the Security Council to slow the U.S. rush to war and minimize the consequences of war to the United Nations and a multilateral system that had been in place since World War II. With these factors in mind, the Security Council voted unanimously in favor of Resolution 1441 in November.

Since that resolution, three issues have become very clear.

First, the U.S. goal is nothing short of regime change, and the United States is ready, willing and able to go to war on its own.

Second, much of the world now views the United States -- and not Iraq -- as the real rogue country that represents the greater menace to international society. Although everyone agrees that Iraq and the Middle East would be a better place without Saddam Hussein, they believe that he can be contained in the future as he has been for the last 12 years.

The world's remaining superpower refuses to play by international rules, broadcasts that it has adopted a policy of "pre-emption" -- a willingness to wage war against countries that it believes might do it harm in the future -- and dreams aloud of remaking countries and regions in its own image.

Third, this is a no-win situation for the United Nations.

If the Security Council authorizes a U.S. war against Iraq, then the United Nations will appear to be nothing more than a fig leaf for U.S. military action. While some might harbor hopes that war might have legal legitimacy because it gained council approval, for many this legal process will have been usurped for illegitimate ends.

There is always a chance that if the Security Council gives the United States what it wants, then Washington will feel a new sense of gratitude and commitment to the organization. But it is far more likely that the real lesson the Bush administration will have learned from its recent experience is not to listen to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell the next time he insists on going through the United Nations.

If the Security Council does not authorize a war against Iraq, then it's likely the United Nations will be able to maintain its principles, but at a very steep price. The Bush administration is almost certain to inject its previous indifference with a dose of recrimination, further damaging the organization and the council's ability to deal with other threats to international security.

Since World War II, the United Nations has been like an early warning system for the state of the world. It was one of the first casualties of the Cold War, and its coma-like status only deepened as the superpower confrontation darkened.

The world body was one of the first beneficiaries of the end of the Cold War and the growing belief that multilateral arrangements could and should play an important role in solving international crises and conflicts. Although the United Nations faltered in important respects during the 1990s, few openly questioned the proposition that it was better to build international institutions than weapons to help maintain international stability.

The Bush administration, though, came to office openly questioning the utility and desirability of multilateral arrangements and the United Nations. Sept. 11 did little to change those beliefs, even though the administration insists it wants to make the United Nations effective.

The Bush administration, it appears, is prepared to destroy the United Nations in order to save it.

Michael Barnett, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, wrote Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda (Cornell University Press 2002).

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