Time was when those threatening to go to war had to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. Today we are asked to prove to the powerful, to their satisfaction, why they should not go to war. The U.N. inspectors don’t have to prove that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction; Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has to prove that he doesn’t. The gap between world public opinion that has hardened against a war and the voting equation in the Security Council in New York presents a rare opportunity for diluting the cynicism of Soviet-era dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s remark that, at the U.N., the people of the world are served up to the designs of governments.

There is a sense of helpless anger about hurtling toward a war no one wants. In Canada, Europe and Asia, the depth of alienation from U.S. policy on Iraq is quite striking. In India, people dub it “dadagiri”: bullying by the neighborhood tough in a global neighborhood.

West Europeans use startlingly strong language for the Bush administration’s “monomaniacal focus on Iraq.” Because of U.S. ability to twist governments’ arms in bilateral dealings, the gap between popular opinion and government policy is often very wide, and the resulting anger and bitterness for this too is directed at Washington.

After 9/11, U.S. President George W. Bush famously asked: Why do they hate America? A multinational survey conducted late last year by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center documented a rising tide of hostility to U.S. foreign policy alongside a continuing affirmation of bedrock American values. A poll last month showed that more than one-third of Canadians believe the Bush administration to be the most dangerous for world peace, far more than the number holding such a view of Hussein. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes that on 9/11, “they” meant the Arabs; today it means everybody.

There are many Iraq-centered reasons for the precipitously declining confidence in U.S. leadership.

Few outsiders are convinced of the case for war. Little evidence links Hussein to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Hussein has been successfully contained and does not pose a clear and present danger to regional, world or U.S. security. Washington has scarcely concealed its real agenda of regime change, which is why the U.N. inspection process is seen as an instrument of mass distraction.

There is confusion about the mix of personal, oil, geopolitical and military-technological motives for going to war. Two things are widely believed to follow from the contrasting U.S. policies toward Iraq and North Korea: Iraq does not have usable nuclear weapons, North Korea does not have oil.

Bush’s address to the General Assembly in September was interpreted less as a U.S. concession to U.N. multilateralism than a demand for international capitulation to Washington. Many governments are seen as pursuing a policy of appeasement of the U.S. as today’s dominant power determines to get its way by the threat of war. Imagine if in 1938, in trying to avert war, the League of Nations had added its weight to Franco-British pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland to Hitler and had endorsed the Munich Pact: Would this have made the League “relevant” to the needs and events of its day?

Hussein’s is an odious regime that has grievously wronged its own people, neighbors and the international community. But, as author Joost Hiltermann noted in the New York Times, cynicism about U.S. motives runs deep because of its history of past material and diplomatic support for Hussein during the days when his behavior was at its worst, including the use of chemical weapons against his own people in Halabja and the attack on Iran.

Then there is cynicism over the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the five nuclear powers — demanding immediate nonproliferation from everyone else while permanently deferring their own nuclear disarmament. In recent years, the U.S. has belittled and hollowed out a series of arms control and disarmament agreements and thwarted efforts at ushering in new ones. Nuclear weapons are seemingly advancing up the ladder of escalation from the weapon of last resort, matching the shift from wars of self-defense to wars of choice.

Washington underestimates how its rhetoric and actions worsen the proliferation challenge. The world has signed on to the Nonproliferation Treaty; Washington exempts itself from NPT clauses requiring nuclear disarmament. Small states put their faith in the protection of international law; Washington is disdainfully dismissive: International law will follow not shape the sole superpower’s behavior. Small states pin their hopes for security from predatory powers on a functioning U.N. system; the U.S. declares the U.N. to be irrelevant unless supportive of what Washington desires, even while demanding Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions, and issues threats of unilateral preemptive strikes.

The proclamation of an imperial doctrine of unchallengeable military dominance magnifies the allure of nuclear weapons for poor and weak countries. As Washington throws off its fetters on the unilateral use of force and the universal taboo on nuclear weapons, it simultaneously increases the attraction of nuclear weapons for others — like North Korea — and diminishes the force of global norms and regimes in restraining their nuclear ambitions.

Voices have been raised even in allied countries that a war should not be supported even if authorized by the U.N. In Australia about 20 Labor lawmakers are reportedly opposed to war even if it is U.N.-sanctioned. The New Democratic Party in Canada has pondered a similar line. Australian columnist Philip Adams argues that the Bush regime “has bullied and browbeaten the U.N. into submission.”

In Britain, Seamus Milne wrote that “even if the U.S. is able to bribe and bully its way to a new U.N. resolution in the face of world opinion,” the “endorsement will lack any genuine international legitimacy” as “a multiple violation of the U.N. charter” And Madeleine Bunting writes of “U.N. window-dressing to decorate American belligerence with international legitimacy.” Not so long ago, former South African President Nelson Mandela was hailed by London and Washington as the conscience of Africa. On Jan. 30 he was quoted as criticizing the U.S. stance on Iraq as “arrogant,” aimed at gaining control of Iraqi oil, and likely to cause a “holocaust.” He described Tony Blair as acting more like the “U.S. foreign minister.”

These are deeply worrying portents for the U.N. Fortunately they represent, at least for now, a minority strand of opinion. The clear majority wants the U.N. stamp of legitimacy as a precondition for war. But if it simply confers a blank check then, instead of U.N. legitimacy being stamped on military action against Iraq, the legitimacy of the U.N. itself will be eroded. Already, in a 39-nation Gallup poll conducted in January, a majority (50-60 percent) of Germans, French, Indians and Russians oppose a war on Iraq even with U.N. authorization; in Britain, 41 percent are opposed to war under any circumstance, 39 percent support U.N.-sanctioned action. In most countries, the cover of U.N. sanction is enough to tip the scales for majority support.

There will indeed be occasions and opponents where U.N. diplomacy must be backed by U.S. force. But a “wrong war” will damage the instrument and delegitimize the institution. Washington may be irritated at the delays, but treading the U.N. path has helped to correct the balance between “We the peoples” and “You the governments” of the world. That is the true test of U.N. relevance: both as a brake on an unjustified or unilateral resort to war, and as the forum of choice for legitimizing the military enforcement of international community demands on outlaw regimes.

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