Competing Visions for the U.N.’s Future
February 01, 2005
The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed the fifth-draft of a U.S.-sponsored resolution dealing with Iraq on October 16.� Faced with weekly attacks on its forces in Iraq and rising global opposition to its continuing occupation of that country, the U.S. appears to have realized it could not afford to go it alone.� Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon notes that the U.S. decision to go to war was a major error.� By not listening to world opinion, the U.S. created a situation where the postwar effort is requiring far more troops and money than it had planned for.� O'Hanlon observes that the image of the U.S. "as a fair-minded country that leads in security policy without ignoring the wishes of its friends, allies, and neutral countries has suffered greatly."
It remains to be seen whether the resolution will be successful in generating additional funds for Iraq's reconstruction or attracting troops from other countries.� France, Germany and Russia are unlikely to provide financial contributions or troops.� French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that France supported the resolution because it was concerned at the "spiral of violence and terrorism that is increasing in Iraq.� It is important to send a message to the Iraqi people ... that we all want the best conditions for the reconstruction of the country."� But, in an unprecedented statement that was jointly issued with Germany and Russia, France declared that since the resolution failed to give the U.N. a bigger role in Iraq's political transition or speed up the transfer of authority to Iraqis, it did not "envisage any military commitment and no further financial contributions beyond our present engagement."
In a similar vein, despite strong U.S. pressure, Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram, said that Pakistan was unlikely to provide troops to the multinational force under the terms of the current resolution since they would be indistinguishable from occupation forces.
Caught in the midst of all this turbulence is the credibility and relevance of the U.N., the passage of the current resolution notwithstanding.� If the most powerful member state can defy the U.N. Charter with impunity, then why should the smaller states bother to comply?� Two global futures suggest themselves.� In one, there is complete anarchy and chaos among nations as the U.N. process falls apart.� In the other, the U.S. imposes its will on all nations, essentially rendering the U.N. superfluous.� Neither scenario is attractive.���
Seeking to allay such unattractive visions, the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan addressed the General Assembly in September by urging the member nations "to seek agreement on ways of improving it, but above all, of using it as its founders intended: to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to re-establish the basic conditions for justice and the rule of law, and to promote social progress and better standards of life and larger freedom."
At the same session, French President Jacques Chirac said the American-led invasion of Iraq had shaken the multilateral system because it was launched without the sanction of the U.N. Security Council.� Chirac said, "In an open world, no one can live in isolation, no one can act alone in the name of all, and no one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules."
Unfortunately, many in Washington have reached the opposite conclusion.� They view the U.N. as an impediment to the implementation of U.S. foreign policy.� One of their leading lights is Richard Perle.� While serving as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board prior to the Iraq war, Perle stated, "What will die in Iraq is the fantasy of the United Nations as the foundation of a new world order.� We are left with coalitions of the willing.� Far from disparaging them as a threat to a new world order, we should recognize that they are, by default, the best hope for that order, and the true alternative to the anarchy of the abject failure of the United Nations."
The neoconservatives regard the U.N. as a debating society characterized by endless hand wringing and puerile discussion, dominated by illiberal and dictatorial regimes.� However, such a viewpoint ignores the global proliferation of democracy.� According to Stanford University's Larry Diamond, a "third wave" of democratization began in 1974 and gathered momentum after 1989.� About two-thirds of the world's states, or 120 nations, are now democracies.� The neoconservatives cannot espouse the ideas of democracy at home while ignoring it in the U.N.� The Iraq war was opposed equally by democratic and dictatorial regimes.� In fact, the most vocal opposition came from two of Europe's oldest democracies in France and Germany.
The neoconservatives view with alarm the increasing isolation of the U.S. in the world and are unable to see the U.N. as a productive channel for the exercise of U.S. power.� In the U.N. General Assembly the U.S. faces 190 other member states of the U.N., each of which has one vote.� In the Security Council, it holds a veto but exercising it often erodes its moral claim to global leadership.� When the U.S. vetoed a resolution sponsored by Pakistan and other countries that would have censured Israel for planning to "remove" Yasser Arafat, it was the one that lost face.� A few days later, a similar resolution that including a condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombings but deplored Israel's policy of carrying out "extra-judicial killings" passed in the General Assembly with an overwhelming margin: 133 votes in favor, 15 abstentions, and four opposed (the U.S., Israel, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands).
There are many in the U.S. who want to bring the U.N. in line with U.S. national interests.� The Hoover Institution's Michael McFaul says that the U.S. officials must provide leadership to make the U.N. agenda more closely reflect U.S. interests.� He argues that if the U.N. and the U.S. do part ways, both lose but the U.N. most of all.
This perspective arises from the simple fact that the U.S. is a colossus astride the globe, like imperial Rome under the Caesars.� Even though it is home to less than five percent of the world's population, the U.S. spends more than 40 percent of the world's military expenditure.� Its military reach spans the globe and its economy produces a quarter of the world's output and has generated half of the world's stock market capitalization.� In a myopic view, the only possible benefit to the U.S. of going to the U.N. would be to legitimize its unilateral position and reduce the cost of implementation.��
This is ironic since the U.S. helped create the League of Nations at the end of the First World War and the U.N. at the end of the Second World War.� It now seems eager to marginalize the U.N. unless it rubber stamps decisions made in Washington.� The Bush administration has no desire to feel encumbered by international law but would happily accept the moral authority and diplomatic support that comes from resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.�
A review of the U.N.'s fifty-three year history indicates that while it was founded for noble ends, it never had the authority to pursue policies to implement these ends.� The bold words of the preamble to the U.N. charter are inscribed on the grounds of the U.N. Plaza in downtown San Francisco where the U.N. was founded in 1945: "To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war ... and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained...and for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples."
There are many reasons why these glorious words have not come to fruition.� The U.N. has often been considered a form of world government, especially by small countries looking for a fair resolution of their disputes with big countries.� However, the U.N. cannot levy taxes or raise armies, which are among the hallmarks of sovereignty.� In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Communications Shashi Tharoor writes that Security Council resolutions passed under Chapter VII of the charter are legally binding on all member states.� However, the Hoover Institution's McFaul counters that they only become legally binding when they have the support of a powerful state such as the U.S.
The U.N. operates by consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council and this reduces it to LCD (least common denominator) decision-making.� It is no surprise that the Security Council has time and again failed to resolve the major conflicts of the post Second World War era including the Vietnam war, the Soviet-Afghanistan war, the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and the Kashmir conflict in South Asia.� It has also failed to prevent civil wars in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
A unique challenge facing the U.N. is the fact that it is funded by member states.� This is why the Security Council failed to act against the U.S. for unilaterally moving against Iraq.� It is inconceivable that any other state would have been allowed to take unilateral military action against another member state without facing a Security Council resolution condemning its acts, the possible imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions, and being given a deadline to desist from its action or face a U.N. force that would stop its military action.� Indeed, the Security Council undertook such action in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait.�
Former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali notes that the real problem is that the U.N. cannot fault the U.S. in any dispute because the U.S. is its unstated boss.� If it were to use diplomatic weapons against the U.S., the latter would retaliate by stopping paying its dues and thus marginalizing the whole U.N. machinery. "Unable to defend itself, the U.N. then becomes the scapegoat."� If there is even the perception that a dispute will be solved easily, you will find it settled outside of the U.N.� He bemoans the fact that� if no one is interested in solving the dispute because of the cost or other priorities, then they entrust the dispute to the U.N.�
It is difficult not to be pessimistic about the U.N.'s future.� Citing the failure of its numerous peacekeeping missions during the past two decades, many suggest that the U.N. has never had sufficient muscle for effective peacekeeping or nation building.� Others believe that the U.N. is still an invaluable global resource that should be nurtured in the interest of global peace and harmony.� It helped restore decent governments in Kampuchea (Cambodia), East Timor, and Bosnia.� On a thousand unnoticed fronts, it daily comes to the aid of refugees, the sick, and the malnourished. And some believe, with proper reforms, it might still be a force for improving collective world security.
Among those who have an optimistic vision of the U.N.'s future was the late foreign minister of Sweden, Anna Lindh.� Shortly before her death, she said, "Having bypassed the U.N. in the decision to commence this military action, it is important to not bypass the U.N. as a source of legitimacy for future initiatives.� The U.N. today has a stronger role than it has had earlier [and] its relevance and activities have hardly been greater.� On issue after issue, the U.N. has been central and active and, consequently, has also received much more criticism from those who do not like some particular course of action."
Acknowledging that the U.N. is in a very serious crisis, Mokthar Lamani, the permanent representative of the Organization of Islamic Countries to the U.N., notes that the "U.N.'s credibility is damaged but not destroyed."� Sir John Weston, who served as the U.K.'s permanent representative to the U.N., says that people want to go back to the U.N. because of a simple reason.� The U.N. charter "is the origin of the moral legitimacy of the world organization."�
When she addressed the General Assembly, Philippines President Arroyo noted that the�� predicted decline of the U.N. "is greatly exaggerated."� Without the U.N, she said "the rich would become richer, the poor poorer.� Conflicts and disharmony would erupt along political, ethnic and religious fissures.� We face the paradox of a world contracting through advancing technology that is at the same time drifting apart in the seams of inequality."� She called for implementing reforms in the U.N., so it can play a catalytic role in helping member states meet future challenges associated with collective security and international law.� Her vision of the U.N. is that of a modern, nimble and determined agent for change that benefits mankind.�
Richard Falk, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, says that even the interests of the U.S. would be best served by adhering to the U.N. Charter System.� From his perspective recourse to war against Iraq should not have been undertaken without a prior mandate from the Security Council, and rather than "a failure" of the United Nations, it represented a responsible exercise of constitutional restraint.� The facts did not support the case for preemption, as there was neither imminence nor necessity. As a result, the Iraq War seemed, at best, to qualify as an instance of preventive war, but there are strong legal, moral, and political reasons to deny both legality and legitimacy to such a use of force.
Boutros-Ghali's vision for the U.N.'s future is quite radical.� He forecasts that the U.N. will have to give way to a third generation of international organizations, just as the second generation U.N. succeeded the first-generation League of Nations.� He says, "The third generation will not come about by changing the composition of the Security Council, or revolutionizing the operation of the General Assembly, or reinforcing the Economic and Social Council. The third generation must be the result of a drastic change in the overall concept.� Its quite possible that non-governmental organizations, cities and other non-state actors will need to be integrated into the third generation organization."
Richard Falk asserts that the U.N. will almost certainly be marginalized in the future with respect to the resolution of major geopolitical issues, given the power dominance of the U.S.�� He argues that the U.N. may chose to enhance its contributions by providing an enlarged space for discussions related to human rights, environmental protection, and global justice issues.���
But recent events indicate that there is room for optimism even on the geopolitical front.� When President Bush spoke at the U.N. on September 23, 2003, he was anxious to enlist the support of the U.N. in restoring law and order in Iraq.� He reminded the audience that the U.S. was an original signer of the U.N. charter and was committed to supporting the U.N.� Bush said that the founding documents of both the U.N. and the U.S. stood in the same tradition and called on the U.N. to assist in "developing a constitution, training civil servants, and conducting free and fair elections."�
This was a far cry from his speech in the same body a year ago, when he had thrown the gauntlet by asking: "Will the U.N. serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"� It is clear that U.S. went to the Security Council out of necessity.� Even though it is the world's undisputed superpower, it still has to reckon with the force of world public opinion.� With a more conciliatory approach now evident in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. seems to have come to a belated recognition that it needs the U.N. every bit as much as the U.N. needs it.� That bodes well for both.