EDMONTON, Alberta– The hawks in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush finally got what they wanted — in New York, as well as in the Middle East. The U.N. Security Council is deeply divided, the U.N. system itself seems paralyzed and a preemptive war is about to win “regime change” in Iraq. Evidence in hand, Washington’s isolationists proclaim that they were right all along: The United Nations is an ineffective, inefficient and irrelevant organization destined for the dustbin of history — just like the League of Nations.
Luckily, not all Americans feel that way. Even within the current Bush administration, a dwindling group of officials still embraces the promise of multilateralism. This is founded on good sense, not sentimentality. For if the U.N. did not exist, the international community would have to construct some other institution just like it.
We still need the U.N. We will always need the U.N., because the problems faced by a complex and interdependent world are transnational in scope; they simply cannot be solved by individual states. Environmental degradation does not respect national borders. Neither do human security and state threats stemming from the spread of HIV/AIDS, new diseases, overpopulation, global warming, drug trafficking, transnational crime, the spillover of ethnic civil conflicts, refugee problems and, as the United States found out on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism.
Even the world’s sole superpower could not prevent al-Qaeda from carrying out attacks in the innermost precincts of its power. Clear thinkers within the Bush administration convinced the president that he should work within the U.N. system to address the terrorist threat. This Bush did, much to his credit.
The Security Council and the General Assembly unanimously passed resolutions condemning terrorism, and the U.S. wore a cloak of legitimacy as it proceeded to run the Taliban out of town. Multilateralism worked, and the coalition against terrorism broadened.
But the same multilateralists had trouble gaining the ear of the president on the issue of Iraq. Over the past four months they lost ground to the isolationists — Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz — all of whom seem intent on using American military power to reshape the global political infrastructure.
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s desperate efforts to hold together the coalition that was supporting the U.S. in its fight against terrorism came up short, while others within the Bush administration found ways to create major rifts not only at the U.N., but also in NATO and the European Union.
It’s no secret that the Bush hawks have never been enamored of the U.N. They act as though America’s military and economic prowess exempts it from the need to consult other states or multilateral bodies to assist it in accomplishing its global policies. This rests upon an ethnocentric, and historically naive, view of the world: The hawks see the present moment as a special juncture in world history, a propitious opportunity to shape the globe in the American image.
There are many reasons, both cultural and historical, why this is a profoundly simplistic perspective. But let’s consider the political and legal consequences of America’s unsanctioned war — a war the U.N. could not approve, because it flies in the face of international law.
Yes, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and has abused his own people. But for the U.N. to approve the use of military force to remove Hussein from office, even though he posed no credible threat at this time to another nation-state or to international peace and security, would have done much to undermine international norms on sovereignty, nonintervention and the appropriate use of force.
The U.N. Charter, an important force in international understanding, outlaws the use of force except under specific circumstances. Article 51 states that member governments have “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
And the right of self-defense is not something that can be claimed casually. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.N. had little difficulty in supporting a U.S.-led initiative to beat back that obvious aggression with collective military force. Iraq had clearly violated international law and international norms; thus the coercive action taken against it was legal.
In 2003, Iraq has not attacked the U.S. or any other country. It may have weapons of mass destruction, but the mere possession of such weapons does not justify a military attack on the country. If that were so, then Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan, France, Britain, Russia and, yes, even the U.S., should be subjected to the same treatment.
This is why the U.S. could not muster the votes necessary to pass a Security Council resolution calling for war against Iraq. Most members of the Council know that the justification put forward for this war cannot be squared with the international legal principles embedded in the U.N. Charter. Most Council members know that the U.N.’s provision of a cloak of legitimacy to cover up the naked aggression of the U.S. would only set a dangerous precedent.
Which country would be next? Would it be Iran or North Korea — the other spokes in Bush’s “axis of evil”? Or would it be any country that fell out of favor with the U.S.? Let us not forget what many modern historians have reminded us: Hussein was America’s darling during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The world needs an organization that can keep a malign hegemon in check.
Sadly, the consequences of speaking truth to power are not always pleasant. The U.N. was unable to stop the U.S. from carrying out an illegal $90 billion war against Iraq. But to its credit, it did not succumb to the pressure to simply supply this hyperpower with the legitimacy to do whatever it wants.
It is too early to write off this organization. If things go badly in Iraq, the U.N. might just be called upon again to clean up the mess. Even if the Americans “succeed,” the U.N. will be needed to provide humanitarian assistance, relieve refugees and displaced persons, feed starving children and provide clean water and, possibly, even rebuild the war-torn country.
As the French ambassador to the U.N. has been saying throughout this excruciating ordeal, “One country may win a war, but it will take several to win the peace.” The U.N. is still the only universal organization within which 192 countries can devise means of building sustainable peace. Its obituary has been written prematurely.
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